Creating a safe, positive and inclusive learning environment is one of the most critical aspects for supporting learning and to build a classroom community. This is particularly important in a skills-based health education classroom where participatory methods (the use of modeling, observation and social interactions) are the primary instructional strategy. There are many ways to achieve a positive learning environment. Throughout this post we provide suggestions for activities that can be implemented in the classroom and we encourage you to start integrating participatory methods from the very beginning of the year or term so that expectations are set from the moment students enter the classroom.
This is more than the beginning of the year name games and “get to know ya” activities. Creating a positive learning environment is an ongoing process that requires investment from you and your students. You need to continue to work on creating and supporting the classroom community throughout your time with students. Here are some ideas to get you started!
Do you have activities that you use in your classroom? If so, please share in the comments and we will include in future posts!
Getting to Know You/Team Building Activities:
Getting to Know You Survey: I always send out a survey at the beginning of a class. I ask a number of questions but I make sure to always include a space for their preferred name (as it may be different than what is on an official class list) and their preferred pronouns (to provide an opportunity for students to share their gender identity in a way that does not single them out in front of class). I also include questions such as what they are nervous about for the school year, what they are looking forward to, something they are proud of that they have done and a song that makes them happy (that is appropriate for class). I end by asking them what they want to tell me that will help them be successful in my class; I often share some of the ideas to help establish commonalities among the group. I also use the “happy songs” during the year at transitions, during group work, etc. It always lightens the mood in the room and I know that at least one person is happier having heard it!
Group Juggling: This is an activity that I have used for years – I don’t remember where it came from but it is by far one of the best ways for me to learn names (and have a some fun and provide a safe space for students to be a little uncomfortable).
Here’s how to play:
- Have students stand in a circle (you should be in the circle too).
- Toss a beanbag around the circle so that everyone gets the beanbag. Make sure that students remember whom they throw to.
- When the person catches the beanbag, they say their name. Then the WHOLE group repeats that person’s name.
- Repeat as necessary before proceeding to the next step. Make sure that students are always throwing to the same person.
- Continue to toss the beanbag around (to the same people) but this time, when the person catches the beanbag everyone says their name (without waiting).
- Repeat as necessary.
- The final part of this activity is the “juggling.” Add beanbags to the circle. People still throw to the same people that they have been the whole time but in this round, the beanbags will start at the same time. The goal is to have the beanbags make their way all the way around the circle without being dropped, crashing in the air, etc. Names do not need to be included (except as needed to make a successful catch).
Cult of Pedagogy has some great resources for “Ice Breakers that Rock”. Concentric Circles is a great format not only for getting to know you activities, but any time that you want to engage the entire class, at the same time in discussions. I have used it as a review strategy and for general discussions.
If you have the time, I have had success with The Marshmallow Challenge. It is a great way to have students working together right from the start and when they see spaghetti and marshmallows within the first few lessons – they are intrigued about what they will doing. I also inevitably have groups that take pictures of their successful designs (of their own accord because they are proud of their work!).
Creating classroom expectations or norms (as opposed to rules – students will tell you that rules feel like they are imposed upon you. Norms/expectations are agreed upon as a class) as a group. Allow students to brainstorm and create norms for their classroom. Create a document or visual that has the agreed upon norms. You may want to have students sign or “formally” agree to meet these expectations. It can be helpful to have these displayed so that they can be referred to throughout the year.
Establishing classroom routines is also important in supporting a positive learning environment – students benefit from routine and can also benefit from understanding why certain activities are included. For example, I have begun to include 1-2 minutes of meditation at the start of every class. I explained to students that I am on my own mindfulness journey and I will be integrating activities during the year, including the start of class meditation to provide them opportunities to explore this practice as well. The meditation ends up being one of the activities that students comment on at the end of the term – they love it! They tell me that they enjoy it not only for the time to focus but also because it shows them that I care about them and their wellness beyond just what I teach in the classroom.
We look forward to hearing your ideas and your feedback!
Have a great start to the year.
“I have always been delighted at the prospect of a new day, a fresh try, one more start, with perhaps a bit of magic waiting somewhere behind the morning.” J. B. Priestley
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