The Power of We: An Interview with Ron Nash

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Author Ron Nash talks about his new book The Power of We: Creating Positive and Collaborative Classroom Communities and its supplemental guide And What About You? Getting Started with Interactive Pairs and Small Groups.

(This transcription has been edited for clarity)

I’m Ron Nash and in 2007, after 46 years, I decided to write a book (the first one when I was 11 in Mrs. Douville’s class called, The Underground Cave, which is a little redundant, all caves are probably underground). I started teaching in 1972, and I remember in 1967 when I got to college, there were 50 of us sitting in a room, all prospective history teachers dressed in our finery, (which back then was button-down shirts, slacks, dress shoes) waiting with bated breath for a member of the history faculty to come and welcome us to Clarion, and to our future. Well, he walked in, and sat down on the edge of the teacher’s desk up front and the first words out of his mouth were “Become a plumber. There are no jobs in teaching for you.”

What was the driving motivation for writing this book?

I think that the reason I wrote this book was an attempt to help today’s teachers. Many of them are millennials. And today, you can get a job almost anywhere, except in small communities. But, if you are willing to move to a city, you can get a job. The question is, what are they going to do with the kids once they get there? And part of the answer is that they’ve got to get kids in face-to-face conversations, they have to get them in quartets, working together, problem-based learning, project-based learning paired verbal fluency and other strategies that get the kids talking to each other.

Why do I want them to do that? They need to build something that Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan call “social capital” and they build empathy.  And, right now we have a real empathy deficit in this country.

We have kids committing suicide. We have students who will claim to have 500 friends online and yet in a recent study by Cigna, 48% of young people between the ages of 18 and 22 reported that even though they have those friends and “likes,” that they have no one to whom to turn. They don’t have any actual friends and so the suicide rate has gone up, the obesity rate is going up. This is because they are not outside, they are not playing games and so I think we’ve got a crisis.

I think it’s been building, and I think the only way for us to deal with that is to work in the schools to get those kids involved in their own education. The energy for The Power of We, comes from kids working with kids.

Kids working with teachers. Teachers working with kids. Teachers working with Teachers. Administrators working with everybody and building programs from the ground up.

How would you summarize this book?

What makes this book different is there are a lot of stories in this book and one of them is mine. I tell my own story. As a new teacher I was, how shall we put it, clueless. I had no idea what I was doing. Out of a 50-minute period I lectured for 45 minutes. I walked around saying things like, “hunker down now, hunker down.”

So, what really makes this different is its practical nature. There are tons of strategies in this book and there are tons more strategies in the supplement book And What About You?

These are companion volumes they can be bought separately, but they can also be bought together, and they really complement one another — and they’re fun to read.

Why do you think it is important for teachers to implement pairing in the classroom?

Pairs are just easier, and more fun for the kids. And, it’s less threatening. That’s why I encourage them. Whenever an assistant principal asks, “what do I do?” I say, “start with pairs.”

The beauty of pairing is that it’s the least impossible thing for students to do. If you put students in groups of four, five or six and they don’t know how to listen, and they don’t know how to speak properly, and they don’t know how to work together, it is going to fail. And what happens is teachers then fail? They blame the strategy. When the problem is that the students don’t know how to work together. They don’t know how to collaborate. They don’t know how to communicate.

The beauty of pairs is you can’t hide in a pair. You are responsible for your partner. And once you get kids to be able to work in pairs – learning to listen, learning to paraphrase, learning to summarize, learning to use body language correctly and so forth – once they can do that in pairs you can move them into quartets easily.

Start with basic conversations: “What would you do with two weeks’ vacation?”, “What would you like to do?”, “What would you do with a free day?”, “What would you like to be when you grow up?”, “What are you thinking?”, “And, what does it mean to be empathetic?”, “And what makes a good friend?” Those kinds of questions, life questions.

What we are doing with them, when we have them have these conversations, is to learn to cooperate with each other, giving them a life lesson – not worksheets.

How can teachers encourage a growth mindset in the classroom?

Dr. Carol Dweck who wrote the book Mindset, literally wrote the book on the subject.

She talks about two kinds of mindsets – one is a growth mindset, and the other is a fixed mindset.

When Carol Dweck was in the sixth grade, her teacher had them sit by IQ. So, the lowest IQ’s sat furthest away, and the highest IQ sat closest to her. What that does is it gets kids to think that “I’m a failure. I am never going to be any better than this. This is what I am going to have for the rest of my life.”

What that can lead to, what happens if kids begin to not believe in themselves and not think they can move forward, is that they get a fixed mindset. It keeps them from making mistakes.

They don’t want to make mistakes, they don’t want to fail, they are afraid of it.

What Carol says is with growth mindsets are you approaching failure as opportunity. You approach mistakes as mandatory.

Kids ought to make mistakes. They ought to be encouraged to make mistakes. They will be encouraged to fail because any good coach will tell you that the most teachable moment is when somebody makes a mistake.

What advice can you give to school leaders who want to implement change at a school level?

The best principal I ever knew, Kathy Hwang, who is sadly gone.  She started in a new school, many years ago, and one of the first things she did was that she sat her faculty down in August and said, “Look.”

She put the charts up, put them in groups, and said, “I want to know what you do well here” Then she let them work on that in groups. She walked around and listened and so forth, and they charted that.

She puts the charts up. Then said, “I want to know what you feel we need to improve here.” They did that. They charted it and put them on the walls and they had discussions.

But with Kathy, she didn’t try, as many administrators do, to come in that first year and dictate and say, “Look, what you are doing isn’t working and here is what we are going to do.” And you and I and all God’s children who are teachers have seen administrators who will come in and just change everything based on what they think needs to be done without any conversation.

It is not bottom-up, it is top down. I tell teachers, “Look, you are the powers that be.” You and your students and your administrators are the powers that be. Growth has to come from the bottom-up. Continuous improvement has to be a part of your philosophy in terms of The Power of We. It has to be us, not a binder.

(Ron Nash presents on his book The Power of We at the 2018 Building Expertise conference)

Get your teachers involved, get your teachers excited. Harness their energy, harness the energy of the kids.  When teachers learn that it is fun to work together, then that, and this is part of your original question, that translates to students working together in their classroom.

If the teacher is what I call a “silo teacher,” one who simply closes the door and does their own thing, is much less likely to involve students in the power of we. It’s the power me.

It’s the power of what I have always done. It is the status quo. And the status quo is a stern task-master. That’s where teachers run into problems. So, administrators need to help teachers with that. Kathy Hwang always said, “Is this good for students? If it isn’t, we oughtn’t to be doing it.”

Can you talk about some of the positive feedback you’ve received on your book?

In terms of the best feedback that I have ever received from teachers or educators generally, in terms of my help for them, came from Kathy Galford, a sixth-grade teacher in Greenbrier section of Chesapeake, VA, Chesapeake City Schools.

Kathy Galford taught sixth grade Language Arts and Kathy was doing what she always did – the status quo. She lacked energy and she came to one of my workshops in 2007 or 2008. When she left, she emailed me and said, “I am going to turn this around. I am going to use strategies, I am going to do these things.”

And I said, “Great! Can I come in and see you do it?” and she brought me in after a couple of months. So, I went in and I watched this woman teach and it was just incredible. I mean the Power of We, was everywhere in that classroom.

Those kids were in it and at the end, two little girls, sixth graders, came up to me very shyly and they said, “Mr. Nash, we want you to know that we like coming to this classroom and we like what she does.” And I said, “what does she do?” And they said, “she has us do the work.”

Kathy called me in 2012 in the fall, all excited and I knew at that time that she was the Chesapeake City Schools Teacher of the Year.  And I knew that she was the Regional Teacher of the Year.

When she called me she said, “I just want you to know that I have just been chosen as the 2013 Virginia Teacher of the Year.”

I want teachers to understand that that they are creative human beings that can create powerful lesson plans with other teachers in the building without having to be told. Present them together. Present those lesson plans on the same day and then talk about it. Present them on different days and talk about it. Work together on continuous improvement. Once they do this for themselves, they’ll feel much more confident about working with kids and helping them do the same thing.



How can your book be used as a guide to theme the 2018-2019 school year?

I have presented at convocations and I have a good friend who is in a city school district and he told me that at their convocation they actually brought the drum lines from all the high schools in and had them marching through the room and they were throwing t-shirts at people and they were screaming and yelling.

And he said, of course, it was a great day and everybody went out screaming, “This is great! We’re in this together. We’re going to do this!”

And of course then the music fades and the drums stopped and the t-shirts don’t fit and so they face the year without the strategies. They are not sure what to do.

They have this great feeling on that one day. But what happens is, they go back into their classrooms and they close the door.  So we are in this together becomes I am in this alone. That’s a problem.

What my books and workshops show them is that they are the powers that be—they can make great progress with students and work on their own progress as professionals by working together with other teachers and by having their students work together as well.

How does And What About You? help teachers implement the idea of collaborative learning? 

One of the reasons I wrote, And What About You?, which is a supplemental book. It was supposed to be the appendix of the larger book, but it got too big, so we decided to turn it into

another book.  But it’s a stand-alone book with tons of strategies – standing pair shares, squares paired, all of the other strategies that we used in the workshops, about 10 or 11 specific strategies are explained in there. Also, the price.

We wanted to keep it at a price where teachers could afford the book. Many books on the market are so expensive that teachers can’t afford to buy them.

And What About You? comes from working in pairs. I’ll give them 60 seconds. I don’t care who starts but about half-way through I want you to look at you partner and say, “and what about you?”, and use their name.  That’s where that title comes from. That is the basic building block.

In the pair, I am taking responsibility for you. I’m not just responsible for me now, I’m responsible for you and so I bring you in and I stop talking.

Some kids will talk forever. Eddie would talk until the end of time, and not shut up. So, you have to make them responsible. Give them a time limit, and it can’t be too big of time limit. Get them used to talking with each other and helping each other through those conversations.

I guess I am a little frightened and yet I’m encouraged. I’m frightened because this generation of children is spending too much time with screens and not enough time with people. When you spend time with people you build relationships. When you build relationships, you build empathy.  You do not build empathy with screens.

Body language and a face-to-face conversation will solve whatever problems you have with the conversation right then and right there.

But kids will get a text and then the other kid turns off his phone, and that kid who’s looking at that text has no idea what that student meant by it. They worry about it all night and they keep

saying “what did you mean, what did you mean?” And, you know, our suicide rates are climbing among those kids. The obesity rate is climbing. Now I see that sports are changing; the whole idea of sports is changing.

There are now many indoor internet-based sports called “sports.” Now, here is the problem with that.

They are not moving and the obesity rate’s going to climb even more and what some students are deciding is “I’d rather do that than go play soccer”, “I’d rather do that than go play football or track or whatever.”  As that thing catches hold, we’ve got another reason in the schoolhouse to make sure that those kids get plenty of exercise and face-to-face talk.

So, I am encouraged about what I see around the country and at the same time I’m a little frightened. We need to pick up the pace on those things and think hard about what we are doing for kids.