To me, the first job I have when I start a new school year or new semester is to make a comfortable learning environment for my students. There are a variety of approaches for establishing a classroom culture, and all of them start with the teacher on the first few minutes in the classroom. When I started my student teaching orientation, one of my mentor teachers explained they had done studies and students established their opinion of you within seconds. From my mentor teachers’ standpoint, this was your chance to establish you were in control. Control, in this sense, meant having a set of rules which you enforced to manage an orderly classroom.
This is one approach, and I definitely tried it. I was able to be “fair, firm, and then friendly” for the first few weeks of school. But, this just doesn’t match my personality. In order to have a harmonious classroom where I was happy, I found I needed to establish an environment where students felt safe. As you may know, when students feel this safe, they often break the rules you set initially and this undermines those standards you carefully crafted and enforced at the beginning of the semester.
I know this approach isn’t for everyone, but to me, community in the classroom is more important than content. Content is easier to deliver when students respect you and genuinely like you. Students are also more willing to trust you when you try a crazy activity and humor you when you want to do something new.
I’ve used many tactics to create a safe learning environment. Below, I explain three of them. I talk about how I implement it and how it has created opportunities for students to get to know each other.
1) Respect Circle
I had a particularly difficult section of seventh graders my first year teaching. When I started the school year, there was a pre-existing social order. Several students disliked each other over events from elementary school. Their troubled relationships got worse when they bullied each other over social media and then confronted each other in school the next day.
During the first week of school, I tried different activities to help students get to know each other. This was great for me because through these activities I learned a lot about my students. However, these kids were already incredibly familiar with one another. They just didn’t get along. Community building wasn’t going to emerge with games where they had to self disclose. I was talking to my principal about the class, and she said, “You might just have to push those tables back and sit in a circle and talk to each other.” When she said this, my first thought was, “But I have so much material to get through!”
One day while I was teaching, I was exasperated. Students were talking over each other. I could not get anyone to focus. It was probably a Friday. I stopped what I was doing and told them to help me move the desks and to sit in a circle. I grabbed my wooden frog and sat among them. On the fly, I said, “Okay. We’re going to talk about what is going on in class. If you have the frog, you are allowed to talk. You may not talk unless you have the frog. You cannot interrupt each other. Who would like to start?”
Something changed during that conversation. Old issues were brought up. In this circle, we were all equal. They told me things I was doing that they wanted me to change. I changed those things. They confronted each other and settled arguments. Several of them cried. It was cathartic. After this initial conversation, things were much better. Did I still have issues with this class? Absolutely. But now I had a strategy to get them talking constructively.
2) Counting Game
You know those corny team building activities they make you do at retreats? I really hate them at first. I don’t know why, but I hate being told that I have to get to know someone. I’m guessing my students feel the same way. However, the reason you are forced to do human knots over and over is because it builds community. When you have a shared task and are forced to work together, you come away knowing that person. Together, you overcame a challenge.
The counting game is like that. It is a theater game I learned from Dr. Karen Mitchell. You break students into groups of three. Your first instruction to them is to count from one through four. Each student says a number and they keep counting until you stop them. At this point, you explain the number one should be replaced with a sound and a movement. (One of my favorites was a birdcall accompanied by flapping arms). As the number changes from student to student, they will all have an opportunity to do the sound and movement. After giving students time to do this, have them assign a sound and movement to number two. Rinse and repeat until students are no longer counting, but are instead doing a series of sounds and movements.
I then tell students to practice because they will be presenting their sounds/movements to the class. After a few minutes, each group comes to the front of the room. We laugh together. A lot. This combination of laughter and finishing a task is one tool to creating belonging in the classroom.
3) Sculpting Activity
This is another theater game, and it can be adapted for many content areas. For me it is really important to have opportunities to learn through the body. I love this sculpting activity because it is versatile. I use it to teach stereotypes, but it could be changed for any concept or can just be a warm-up to introduce something new. You will need a lot of room. Below are the instructions as I used them from on a lesson plan by Dr. Danielle Dick McGeough.
Have students find a partner. Have them decide who is Partner A and who is Partner B. Clear plenty of space in the classroom. Have the class form two circles, an inside circle and an outside circle. The inside of the circle should be Partner A facing the outer circle composed of Partner B. Partner A is “the clay.” Partner B is the “sculptor or the artist.”
Explain that this is an activity done WITHOUT talking. You will give the class a prompt (i.e. sculpt me an image of happiness) and the sculptor will sculpt the body of the clay into a still image. There are two ways to sculpt. The sculptor can physically move the clays body or can demonstrate to the clay the image s/he wants the clay to hold. I always show the class an example. Do a practice round. (i.e. sculpt an image of how you feel about having to give a speech in front of others).
After students have formed images, have Partner B (the sculptors) tour the art gallery—having students move around the circle counterclockwise. Ask the sculptors to notice similarities/differences between the images. Are the images looking up? Down? What is their posture like? Do they look powerful? Happy? Ask the clay to pay attention to what it feels like to hold the image. Where are there tensions? Was the image easy or difficult to hold? Did it feel powerful? Why or why not?
Let students play both the role of the sculptor and the clay. Some example images to sculpt: jock, cheerleader, thug, homeless person, politician, hipster, nerd, etc.
From this activity, students have said some really astute things about the way they evaluated people based on stereotypes. This is another chance to laugh together.
Will all of these activities work for everyone? No. In classrooms with too many students and not enough room, these may not be viable options. However, these are a few things you can try to help your students feel more at home with you as their teacher.