Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we get to see our classrooms through our students’ eyes. The statement below, by my former student Ogadi, describes her recollection of English class in 11th grade and the impact of a particular community building activity we did early in the year. Too often, educators forget that we are teaching human beings who need to feel valued and affirmed before they can open up to take the risks that learning new things demands. We start the year by handing out our syllabi and reviewing our rules. We want to assert our authority in the classroom, and make sure our students respect us. One day, many years ago, at the end of the first day of school, I asked one of my students how his day had gone. He told me that he started the day with high expectations for a good year, but by the end of the day, he was convinced that this year was going to be as boring as the years before. He had sat through SEVEN classes and in EACH one, the teachers had done the same thing. From that moment on, I vowed to start my classes differently — to create welcoming activities that would let the students know that my classroom was a place where they were valued, where we would build on each others’ strengths and where we would all become part of a social and intellectual community. At the end of Ogadi’s statement, I will share a description of the activity she refers to in her narrative. As with any good teaching idea, adapt it to make it your own.
English Class Statement
The first day of school, I got my roster and compared it with my friends’ in advisory to see who would be in my class. I did not have any classes with the people within my comfort group except for gym class. When I arrived to my first period English class, I could see why. AP US History changed the entire roster. I was in a room surrounded with people who were considered “smart math students”, people with whom I have never connected during my years at Masterman. I did not like it; I was entirely withdrawn from my classmates. To top it off, my English teacher was a loud, fearless, powerful, intimidating woman. From the start, you let us know the year was structured with classroom dialog: conversations, discussions, debates, and arguments. I was not pleased because I felt so out of place. Immediately I found Rodeeia and Caasi to bond with to maintain comfort.
Early on, you did the most memorable class project. The project was to give and receive positive comments about qualities of our peers that we recognized. In order for this project to properly function, interaction, movement and communication were necessary. The theory of it all excited me, but I was hesitant and afraid of the generic comments I would receive: really good runner, nice voice, fast, good vocals… Initially I stood in one spot, waiting for people to come to me. But I did not feel as if I was benefiting from any of it, rarely anyone approached me! So, I took some deep breaths, a couple of steps and tried to make some moves. The reward was priceless. The cycle of giving then receiving, receiving then giving was, for lack of better words, intense.
Time was provided to read, smile, laugh and absorb the comments. The one that blew me away was Meryl’s comment. She told me I am inspirational. Me, inspirational? I am smiling as I write now because I remember feeling so appreciated and valued. That one comment made my day. It made me feel like I had a chance this year after all. Through small class projects, I slowly strengthened as an individual. You always encouraged me to get involved in and out of the classroom environment.
Mrs. Pincus, in class, you gave me room to grow as an individual. I admire the passion you put behind all of your work. I cannot tell you how appreciative I am towards your dedication. When I compare my writing style now to that of the beginning of junior year, I see better structure, organization, sentence fluidity and balance. I remember repeatedly saying, “Writing essays has always been my weak point,” and you replied, “No it’s not. You have many things to say and need to work on focusing it on paper”. The guidance and lessons you provided enabled me to utilize my weaknesses as potential strengths. In the Beloved unit, we probed deeply into difficult passages and worked at uncovering the message Toni Morrison wanted to express. You allowed me to explore a complicated novel both creatively and logically.
Not only have my abilities as a writer, reader, and critical thinker advanced, I have learned something that I keep with me in my senior year and that I plan to bring to college and beyond. In your class, I learned to use my voice. I learned to reaffirm ways to use writing as self-expression. I know this may sound a little over the top, but you showed the path to womanhood and my identity. I am truly humbled by all of your teachings and stories. Thank you.
Community Building Activity – First Week of School or Later
This activity worked early in the year at my school because all of the students had been together for the past six years. If you are teaching students who do not know each other very well, save this activity for later in the year.
I think I said something like this.
“Everyone needs to stand up and have your notebook and pencil with you. You are going to walk around the room and seek people out to tell them something you admire about them, value about them or have learned from them. As people tell you these attributes about yourself, write them down. When someone says something to you, say thank you and you may choose to say something about them in return. Keep seeking people out and tell them their positive attributes. If you feel awkward or shy, or you’re afraid of being left out, the way to deal with that is to find people to say something nice to. We’ll do this for the next twenty minutes or so, then we’ll return to our seats and debrief.”
The activity usually lasts more than 20 minutes and sometimes they beg me not to stop them. When I see that someone is standing alone, I go up to them and say something positive to them about themselves. Sometimes the class asks me to grab my notebook so they can say positive things to me. Invariably, at least one student says, “I value the fact that you created this activity for us to do.”