If we want our students to be risk takers in their learning, we must create an environment in our classroom where they feel safe to take risks.
So much of what we ask our students to do in reading and writing workshop involves risk. BIG risk. Letting people see your reading and writing abilities, asking questions when you don’t understand something and sharing your ideas for writing are all things that could lead to other people judging you and maybe even deciding that you are stupid.
Sometimes our students weigh up the perceived risks in reading and writing workshops and decide they are scarier than the perceived benefits, this can lead to undesirable behaviours and/or disengagement. (Think of the student in your class who refuses to write anything because they are petrified of misspelling).
We can create THE most perfect structures, activities and lesson plans and facilitate THE best minilessons, guided sessions and debriefs, but if none of this sits on a foundation of strong, caring and supportive relationships, all of it will be for nothing.
In my experience, the more students know about each other, the more supported they feel and the more likely they are to take healthy risks in the classroom.
So, what are some of the things we can do right from the first week of school to build a warm, inclusive and risk-supportive environment in our classrooms? Below, I have a few suggestions on activities that can help you do just that.
West Coast footballer, Nic Natanui, last year released a picture story book called Little Nic’s Big Day Out. This is an incredibly inclusive text about valuing the differences each child brings to the classroom. It follows Nic’s first day of school, from his before-school nerves, to meeting his teacher and his classmates, to sharing different lunch foods with new friends. It looks at the (non-gender bias) likes and dislikes of different students and carries a lovely message of inclusiveness throughout. (As I heard on this podcast recently: “Diversity is a fact, inclusion is a choice”).
This book would be ideal to read to students in the first week before engaging in the following activities focused on getting them to learn about and celebrate their similarities and differences with peers:
This was one of my favourite activities to kick start the year. I created an A3 template of a t-shirt and students spent class time in the first week filling it with hand drawn images of all the things they loved. Naturally, I encouraged lots of talk and discussion while the students were designing their tops (the whole points of the activity was, afterall, to get everyone in the class to learn more about each other). I always made my own t-shirt, sometimes before the school year started to use as an example or sometimes I sat with the students and did mine alongside them.
I would go around the class and take mugshot photos of each of my students, print them in colour (shhhh…don’t tell the Business Manager) and when the students finished their t-shirts I would stick their head at the top of it, laminate it and then it would go up on our “Team Leung” wall. When a new student would join the class during the year, I would give them the template to complete at home so they could be added to the ‘team.’
The students LOVED doing this activity (as did I). I kept my t-shirts for a number of years and loved seeing the changes in the things I had drawn each year. Ideas for things to draw: family members, football team colours, pets, things you love doing, food you like, favourite places, words, holidays, etc.
I think this idea may have come from a TRIBES PD I did years ago. In the first week of school I would tell the kids I was giving them homework already. Yes, in the FIRST week of school. (They would groan of course). I would then explain the homework to them: they were take the brown paper bag I was giving them, fill it with 5 items from their home that represented who they were, and return the bag in a cone of silence. They were not to tell or show ANYONE what they had put in their bag. They were not to write on the outside of the bag. They just had to stealthily place it in the special homework tub without anyone seeing.
Starting in the second week of school, whenever we had 5 minutes spare in class, we would randomly examine one of the bags. Naturally, I would drag this process out by pulling one item out at a time and seeing if anyone could guess who owned the bag. The real owner was not allowed to reveal themselves until after all five objects had been closely examined and I had given the special cue for them to out themselves. As a curve ball, my classroom support (teacher aide) and I also put our own bag in without telling the students.
This activity is SO much fun! We used to repeat it several times throughout the year.
2 Truths and a Lie
This is very similar to the brown bag activity in that students have to secretly reveal information about themselves and others have to guess who they think the person is. In this case, students write 2 things about themselves that are true (things they don’t think many people will know about them) and 1 thing that is untrue. They do not say which bits of information are true or untrue. I would put these in a bowl near the floor space and we would pull these out at random times during the week. We did this activity several times a year as it is super quick, easy and effective.
This activity is great for staff meetings as well!
I used an older version of this in my senior class, but many teachers engage in this version.
Read the book ‘Have you filled a bucket today?’ to students. (If you don’t have a copy of the book you could use this youtube clip of John-John, an Australian teacher, reading the story). After reading the book, discuss things students can do to ‘fill’ other people’s buckets and things they do that ‘dip into’ other people’s buckets (in ‘senior speak’ we used to call these two things ‘warm fuzzies’ and ‘cold pricklies’). Students then decorate a receptacle of some description (eg. a brown paper bag or a paper cup) and these all go on display for other students to ‘fill’ with their kind written comments throughout the term.
Of course, all of these getting to know each other activities are just the start of creating a warm, supportive culture in your classroom; the work must be continued throughout the year and reinforced in everything you do with your students.
What are YOUR go-to activities for building a supportive classroom environment?