The start of a new term can be unnerving for anyone — including the teacher.
You walk towards the classroom, not knowing who will greet you, and when you open the door, you quickly take account. Maybe you have some smiley stars in the front, pens and notebooks out early. The back chairs likely have residents, too, perhaps gazing into their smartphones. And as the rest file in, you size them up, as they do you and each other.
A ‘we’ is forming: one you’ll collectively co-construct. And as the “social director of the classroom environment,” (says Vygotsky), you’ll help shape that construction. These are the people you’ll be engaging in dialogue this term — in meaty metacognitive thinking and reflection. They need to trust each other. They need to like each other. How do you ensure that?
Breaking the ice
The first step toward building a high-functioning classroom community is to help the students get to know each other. If you follow the TESOL.org blog, you may have seen this post by Shannon Tanghe on “Creating a Classroom Community.” In it, Tanghe shares some great day-one icebreakers, including my personal favorite, which she calls “More Similar than Different” and the professor who taught it to me, Dr. Elizabeth Whalley, called “Three Things”:
“[In groups of 4-5:] Find 10 unique things that everyone in your group has in common. Encourage learners to seek out specific information that other groups may not share. For example, “we all have two feet” while true, may not be that unique, whereas “we are all the oldest child in our families” or “we all have visited Canada” may be unique only to that group. Groups take turns orally sharing their group’s similarities with the whole class.” (Editor’s note: I do this with three things, not 10.)
Tanghe’s tips are targeted at a K-12 context, though I’ve used most with adult ESOL students. The main idea, of course, is to set up some kind of activity that will get students to talk about themselves.
College teacher Cynde Gregory shared another approach: setting up a speed-dating activity to aid first-day bonding in her disparate group of adult students. She moved the desks out of the way, and had student form two standing circles: inner and outer, facing each other. She set it up like this:
“Inner circle: You’ve got one minute to pry out as much interesting information from the person you are facing as you possibly can. Skip the boring stuff parents ask their kids’ dates. Ask what they’re afraid of, if they’ve ever been lost, or what makes them laugh hysterically.”
Gregory wasn’t teaching ESOL students, so for TESOLers, we’d need to provide more framework — maybe sample questions. But you get the idea. She set this up, and magic happened. Here’s her account of the victory:
“Words. Conversations. Eye contact. Here and there, a hand reached out to touch a shoulder, mouths slipped from crescent-moon grins to open laughter.
And thus it went. Round and round the room they probed and questioned and probably overstepped bounds, but nobody complained so I let them be. When everybody had finally met everyone else and it was time to sit down, I saw several students grab their bags and books and slip next to someone from a completely different group. … The best part was when the chef-hat guy and the tattooed skull guy left class together, their charmingly ridiculous heads tipped, chuckling over who-knows-what.”
Why this matters
When you’re a new teacher, it’s easy to look at these activities and worry that they’re lightweight — a fun waste of time. But there’s much more to this than fun.
The community you build in these first few days will carry you through the term. You know that awkward feeling when you don’t know someone’s name and you’ve encountered them too many times to admit you don’t know? Students feel that, too. Your job is to help them learn names early. To break that ice. To build common ground that will develop into trust: into people who don’t laugh when someone makes a mistake. Into people who genuinely want the best for each other.
Your classroom’s collective “we” is a combination of a lot of “I’s”–“I’s” that aren’t fixed, but constantly adapt to different situations. TESOL scholar Bonny Norton (2000) says that identity — “how a person understands his or her relationship to the world” — is constantly “changing over time and space, and possibly coexisting in contradictory ways in a single individual” as it is shaped by social situations (p. 5). The sociological concept of “co-construction” is key to this process: by the way we treat each other, we “construct” each other, and in communities we “construct” who we are as a whole.
The “tatooed skull guy” that Cynde Gregory referenced may have reacted differently to the chef-hat wearer in a different context. But here they constructed each other as friend material, and the group constructed itself as a budding supportive community. All thanks to a fun activity on the first day of class.
Understanding the concept of identity is crucial for teachers, who impact daily the identities of our learners. A great resource for this is Norton’s book “Identity and Language Learning,” generously made available for free here.
And if you’re thinking through your teacher identity, perhaps explore the work of Carl Rogers, the 20th-century psychologist who introduced the concept of “student-centeredness” to education, emphasizing the importance of humanistic teacher qualities like empathy, authenticity and trust.
Discussed in this article
Gregory, C. (2013). “Love the one you’re with: creating a classroom community.” Faculty Focus. Magna Publications. Accessed August 18, 2016 here.
Norton, B. (2000). Identity and Language Learning: Gender, ethnicity and educational change. Pearson Education: England. Accessed August 18, 2016 here.
Smith, M. K. (1997, 2004). ‘Carl Rogers and informal education’, the encyclopaedia of informal education. Accessed August 18, 2016 here.
Tanghe, S. (2016). “Creating a classroom community: five first-day activities for ELL’s.” TESOL.org blog. Accessed August 18, 2016 here.