Teachers do a lot to prepare for a new class. However, despite weeks, even months, of preparation, teachers find that some classes don’t do very well and others come out better than expected. What makes the difference between a class experience that is positive for both students and teachers and a class experience that is disappointing? Often the difference comes in the first few days of a new class. These first days are critical in setting the stage for the rest of the course. Teachers and students can use the early part of a course to make expectations clear, to develop routines and relationships, and to set a tone of positivity and encouragement that can continue through the whole term. In short, an important (some say essential) step in developing a great class is building a strong classroom community.
In this month’s Teacher’s Corner, we examine what teachers can do to create a positive and successful learning environment for all members of the classroom community. In week one, you’ll find a series of strategies and techniques to promote a strong sense of community in your classroom. Week two offers an activity on how to make expectations clear so that everyone in the class is set up for success. In week three, you’ll learn about a simple, regular activity that can encourage student-to-student and student-to-teacher relationships as a way to promote feelings of community and shared responsibility in the classroom. Finally, week four offers a way to get students interacting and talking through writing.
For additional information about creating a positive classroom community, check out the resources listed here and many others available on the American English website:
Some simple changes to how teachers present and structure a class at the beginning can promote a positive classroom community. Starting out strong can have big benefits for both teachers and students, and a strong start can have a lasting impact on how students feel about their classroom experiences. When students feel more positive about their learning experiences and feel a greater sense of belonging, they are more motivated and engaged in class—which leads to more successful learning.
This week’s Teacher’s Corner offers a series of tips for starting out strong by setting the right tone in a class and preparing all learners to feel that they are important members of the classroom community.
Creating a Sense of Belonging
The way you design and use the space in the classroom can be a vital component to building your classroom community. Imagine how different a conversation feels when you speak to someone while looking at them, versus speaking to someone from another room. When you are in different rooms, do you feel as connected to the person or conversation? Most people do not. This goes for our students as well. They often feel more encouraged to participate when people are looking at them and listening to them. To increase the feeling of connectedness in class, use the space of your classroom to encourage discussion and shared experiences. Here are some ways to set up your classroom space to do this. Notice that some techniques are quite simple and easily implemented.
- Have students sit in a circle facing each other. Even if the desks in your class cannot be moved, occasionally have students stand or sit in a circle to discuss a new topic or to hear a new lecture. When students can see everyone else in the class, they are more likely to pay closer attention and be encouraged to participate more fully in the class.
- Get down on their level. Teachers can seem intimidating and unapproachable because they are standing at the front of a room while students are sitting and facing them. Instead, step away from the board or your desk and move among the students. If a student is working and asks a question, kneel or sit down so that you are at eye level with the student. By moving through the class and interacting with students on their level, you can give students a sense of importance and reduce their intimidation toward you. When students can interact with a teacher in a way that makes them feel more comfortable and included, then students are more likely to pay attention and participate.
- Use body language to make all students feel included. For example, when a student is answering a question, instead of looking only at the student answering, look both at the student and also at the other students in the class. By doing so, you are showing that you are listening to the student and also checking that other students are listening as well. Another opportunity for using body language is to scan the room regularly and not just focus on one part of the room. Teachers often find that they regularly look to only one part of the room or only to certain students; however, in doing so, they are neglecting other learners. The students that are ignored quickly recognize this and may start to lose interest or become less likely to participate. Scanning the room regularly by looking at all parts of the classroom and at all groups of students helps you to connect with students and keep their attention.
- Learn students’ names, and encourage students to use the names of their classmates. Think about a time when someone has forgotten your name. How did it make you feel? On the other hand, can you remember a time when someone, surprisingly, remembered your name? How did that make you feel? Students have these same feelings when teachers (and other students) remember or don’t remember their names. Learning each other’s names can be a small but important step in creating a sense of belonging in a classroom community. If you have trouble remembering students’ names, ask them to wear nametags, or use placards with their names written in large letters. Eventually, both you and the other students will learn the names of everyone in the class.
Using Inclusive Language
- Praise and validate learners on a regular basis. When students participate and give correct answers, do two things: thank them for their participation, and praise them for their answer. For example, you could say, “Thank you, Maria, for giving the correct answer. Great work.” Not only will the student feel encouraged to try again, but other students will see that participating in class is a positive experience. If a student answers incorrectly, it is important that you still thank him or her for participation and gently encourage or redirect the student to the correct answer. For example, you could say, “Thank you, Thomas, for answering. Why did you choose this answer?” You could also say, “Thank you, Thomas, for raising your hand. Do you remember when we talked about the past tense? Can you think of any exceptions to adding an –ed to the end of a verb?” Always give students a chance to come to the answer on their own. If they look discouraged, remind them that they are doing great, then give them a question that they can answer. Another alternative, when a student gives an incorrect answer, is to thank the student for participating and then ask all students to turn to their neighbors to discuss the question. After students have discussed the question, ask the original student if he or she has thought of a different answer.
- Use and encourage the language and media of learners. Our students communicate in a variety of ways, and there are a number of ways that you can incorporate the many modes of communication available and familiar to students. Connect students through social media so that they can exchange information in and outside of class. Try setting up a social media account for students to use during class as a way to comment on a discussion or lecture. Use clicker software or phone apps that give students a different way to answer questions. There are clicker software and phone apps that ask students questions through a poll or survey. You then share the number where students can text their answers. You can see the results of the poll or survey (results can be anonymous or linked to students’ names) and use the results to adjust your lesson as needed. Many students are much more comfortable communicating through a phone or computer than in person and, for some activities, encourage this. By using different media, you can ensure that learners will participate fully and comfortably in the class through multiple channels of communication.
- Highlight commonalities within the class. What experiences, attitudes, and aspects connect students in your class? How can you help to define your classroom community in a positive way that unites them as a community? One possibility is to use an assignment to differentiate the students from another class or group of students. For example, “In this class, we will spend a little extra time on X, unlike the other class, so that you will be better prepared to… This might take extra time on your part, but as students in the class, you will finish the course with a greater sense of…” Once students recognize that they are in a project or experience together, they develop a sense of shared responsibility to their community. This sense of responsibility can increase participation and motivation since students may not want to be seen as running counter to their community.
Using one—or all—of these tips can help to create and support a feeling of community in the classroom. Even the simple act of encouraging the use of each other’s names will prove fruitful in uniting your students for the duration of your class.
The success of a class can depend on the transparency of its expectations and outcomes. When expectations and outcomes of a course are unclear, both students and teachers can become frustrated and struggle with the course. Making the expectations and outcomes of the course clear from the first day can help to overcome these challenges. One common way to make course expectations transparent is for the teacher to create a syllabus explaining the requirements and then review the syllabus with students at the beginning of the course. However, although using a syllabus does make expectations and outcomes clear, it doesn’t support the creation of a strong classroom community. A more effective strategy would be to involve students in the process of defining the expectations and requirements of the course. When students are asked to explain their own expectations for the course, the teacher, and their own learning, they are given a responsibility in the course from its beginning. This week’s Teacher’s Corner presents an activity that involves both the teacher and the students in defining the expectations and rules of a course.
- Pencil and paper
- Chalk and chalkboard, or markers and whiteboard
1. Explain that today everyone is going to work together to make the rules of the class. Everyone will first work in small groups to develop rules for both the teacher and students. Once each group shares the rules they’ve come up with, the class will vote on the rules and make a final list of rules that will be used for the duration of the class.
2. Put students into groups of three. If it is the first or second day of class, simply group students according to where they are sitting.
3. Tell students that for 5-7 minutes they will discuss what rules are important for a student to be successful. For example, when should students arrive in this class in order to be successful? What should we do if a student is late to our class? How much time is late—5 minutes, 10 minutes? Encourage students to have a rule and explain the consequences if the rule is broken.
a. Have one person in the group write the rules on a piece of paper to eventually share with the class.
b. Once each group completes their list of rules, send one member of the group to the board to write the rules they developed.
4. Once each group has posted their set of rules on the board, tell all of the groups to look at the rules posted by their classmates and write down any rules that they like that were not on their original list.
5. As the students work in their groups to review the lists of rules on the board, you can work to make a master list of all of the rules—a single list of all the rules without any overlap. For example, several groups might write that students should only speak English in class; therefore, repeated rules can be erased. If there are any variations on the same rule, include each variation.
6. Once the students have reviewed all of the rules, bring the class back together and ask if there is anything they would like to add to the master list of rules. Remind them that this is their chance to help define the classroom rules.
a. As the teacher, you may add some rules you think are necessary or not included on the lists from the students. For example, you might feel it’s important that students ask to go to the bathroom and would want to add that to the list.
7. As a class, go through each rule with the students and ask them to vote on the rules.
a. If there is a rule with a couple of variations, ask the students to vote on the variation to come up with a final rule.
b. For any rules that are voted out, cross them out on the board. Circle the rules that students vote for.
8. Once the voting is finished, explain that you will turn this into a master list to be presented at the next class. Each student will sign a copy, and a copy will be posted in the classroom to remind students of the expectations.
9. Once the rules for students are created, repeat the activity so that students can make a set of rules and expectations for the teacher.
a. Tell students to work in their groups to devise a set of rules and expectations for the teacher. Begin by asking them, what have past teachers done that they find helpful? What have past teachers done that is unhelpful to their learning? For example, how important is it for you to get feedback on assignments? How much time should the teacher have before returning a grade?
b. Go through the same steps as before: students come up with a set of rules that they share with the class; take time to review and adjust the rules as necessary; vote on the final set of rules; share and post this final set.
10. Use the rules throughout the term and make sure to reinforce them so that they retain their value. Students will appreciate having a say in how their class operates and will be more likely to abide by rules that they devised.
Some schools and teachers have rules in place that cannot be altered. For example, some departments have an attendance policy that serves the whole department. Students do not have a say in changing the policy and must abide by the policy. If this is the case, explain what the rules are and that they are not in the power of the class to change. Make sure that these rules are included on the final list of rules and expectations. Still, give students a chance to make rules in areas that are up for debate. Even if students only have a say in a few rules, they will be more likely to participate when the reasons behind rules are transparent or when they have created the rules themselves.
Another variation to consider is a teacher veto (or, rejection of a rule). You may explain at the beginning of the activity that you have the power to veto (or, reject) a rule that you deem unfair or excessive. If there is a rule that you simply cannot enforce, or that you refuse to enforce, then make that clear to students. For example, the students vote that the teacher should bring candy to class every Friday. You might think this is impossible or too expensive. Explain to the students why you will veto the rule.