I’ve written before about Chris Hulleman’s “Build Connections” intervention, and it’s been featured in more prominent places enough to have earned a growing spot in the “common knowledge” of educators around the world. But rolling the intervention out this year, both with my students and with some of the adult participants in my workshops these past months, I’ve found a few slight adjustments that make the early rounds of Build Connections much easier for my students.
First of all, I don’t use the slick worksheet from Character Lab when I first do this with students. (Pictured and linked to below.)
Instead, when my students walk in, they see simple instructions for their warm-up.
Now, very importantly, I don’t just have students create these lists on their own. I have them put their pens in their hands, and then I talk them through different things they can write down. We start with Column A.
“All right, so in the first column, we’re going to write down things that you value without being told to. So let’s start with your interests. When someone gives you free time to look things up on the Internet or you have free time at home, what activities and topics do you naturally go to? What topics do you like learning about on your own? What activities make you feel rested afterward or warm in your heart during?”
They snicker here. Good. They’re listening.
“Now our goal here is to list 5-10 things in Column A. So don’t hold back, just let the brainstorm come, and write things down. Let’s look at goals you have for your life. What careers are you interested in? What are you hoping to do after high school? How about a family: do you want one? What kind of family? What kind of friend do you want to be? Write down any words or phrases that describe this.”
I’m walking around the room as I say this. If a student is stuck, I’ll ask a quick and quiet direct question — “Psst, Morgen. If you could pick any job in the world after high school, what would it be? Right that down, man! That’s a value. That’s great.”
“All right, so now let’s think about the qualities you’d like to be known for, the kind of person you’d like to be. If any of the words I’m saying resonate with you, write them down. How many of you want to be dependable — the kind of person that friends can count on. How many want to be strong — the kind that can weather good times and bad? How many want to be kind? Curious? Interesting? Fun? Hard-working?”
I go on like this for a bit. And it’s this last category — descriptors of the person I’d like to be — that I find very, very helpful with the rest of this activity. So go big on that part. Ideally students will write 3-4 descriptors of the kind of person they’d like to be.
I give 1-2 minutes for students to tap themselves out for Column A. I emphasize that a minimum goal is 5 (or if a lot of them are struggling, I’ll say 4 or 3) and that a stretch goal is 10.
Next, I move on to Column B, narrating this one in a similar way. There are two things I want them to think about in this column: the specific content we’ve learned and the general skills we’ve had to practice in order to do the work of the class.
Then, we go through the rest of the Build Connections process in a rather standard fashion:
- Draw lines between connected items in Columns A and B. Aim for 2-3 connections.
- Explain one connection with your partner.
- Write out one connection. (I like Hulleman’s template, “______[Item from A]______ and _______[item from B]_______ are connected because _________.”)
- Share what you wrote with your partner. Call on several students to share with the class.
- Write out an elaboration of that connection. (Again, I use Hulleman’s template: “________[Item from B]___________ could be important to my life because ________________.”)
The benefit of the tweaks I’m using this year — coaching participants through broad-level values and broad-level course skills — is that more participants succeed in the first round of build connections than I’ve seen succeed in the past. I’ve found that it’s pretty hard to connect world history content with one’s values — not impossible, but hard — but it’s pretty easy to connect the skills my course has students practice (studying, keeping track of assignments, doing homework, asking questions, pop-up debating) to the kinds of people they want to be.
Just like with the first pop-up debate, I think the goal of the first build connections exercise is for students to experience some success. From this humble foundation, an attentive teacher can build all kinds of beautiful things.
I hope this article helps.