Suzanne Caines has been teaching high school English in public school settings in New Jersey for thirty-four years. She grew up on the West Coast, graduated from the University of Oregon, and later earned a master’s degree at Montclair State University, where she wrote her graduate thesis on using mindfulness and meditation to improve learning conditions in high school classrooms. She currently publishes a biweekly education blog on her website teachingandbeing.com. She resides in New York City with her husband and has one grown daughter and three grown stepchildren. This post originally appeared on Norton’s K–12 Talk blog in September 2021. Check out their blog for additional educational resources and teaching tools.
Like every teacher I know, I was really looking forward to business as usual this fall. I was excited to hug my colleagues hello after a long summer break and to chat casually with students in the hall; to greet them with a smile as they walked through my door and to celebrate a classroom in which every single desk was filled.
In fact, I was going to start this post with a past-tense statement about how the pandemic taught us all so much about teaching and learning. How all this unexpected pivoting had given us new tools: tools that helped us to be more flexible, more responsive—more effective.
But alas, and in the words of baseball legend Yogi Berra, it feels a lot like déjà vu all over again.
Back to school we go, this time with a scarier version of Covid, classrooms full of students, still masked and many here for the first time in over a year, a list of confusing and quickly changing mandates—and a whole lot of uncertainty. As I prepare to meet my students next week, I think about the latest educational buzz phrase—trauma-informed teaching—and what it really means. The words plant a question in me, and as I work to keep my own disappointment and fear at bay, I ask myself: What is THE absolute best thing I can do for my students? It doesn’t take me long to land on the realization that getting to know my students and making time for them to get to know each other, i.e., community building, has to be the first order of business.
Of course, I realize that community doesn’t happen overnight. Rapport and trust, the cornerstones of strong community in any classroom, develop over time. I do think, however, that there is a way I can prioritize relationship-building in the first days and weeks of school and that this choice will signal to my students that my class is not a place where they sit passively taking in information, but rather a place where they are an important part of a close-knit community.
The following activities are fairly simple and are easy to implement in any high school classroom. I plan to use some of them in my 12th grade English classes in the days and weeks ahead. Each activity is aimed at cultivating relationships by breaking down the barriers between people. Some are icebreaker-type activities; others are activities in which students identify and share their own values and passions; and yet others are aimed at helping to create a consistent tone of empathy, cooperation, and kindness in the classroom. At the very least, these activities can promote conversation and laughter, and in the best cases, they lay the foundation for authentic relationships in the classroom—and the kind of strong community that makes students feel comfortable, engaged, and ready to learn.
For the past fifteen years, I have started every high school English class I teach with a short silent meditation. Done with consistency, this activity can set the tone for the class and help to improve student focus, concentration, and class cooperation. (For more information on this, see my article.)
Two Truths and a Lie
This tried-and-true game is a great student icebreaker. I put my students in groups of four and have them use index cards to write three statements—two that are true and one that is a lie. I urge students to adopt the same tone and level of seriousness for each of the statements, so that it is not obvious which is a lie. They then take turns reading their statements, and the other members of the group guess which statements are true and which are not. Depending on the size of the class and the time, you can have students rotate to a new group. This activity gets students talking—and laughing—all while learning about each other.
My students really like writing haiku, and they love Instagram, so after reviewing the rules of haiku, I ask them to pick one of their own favorite IG photos and to write a haiku to go with it. They do this on a single slide, and I put them together in a class slideshow; last year, I had a student who added music, which made it extra fun. Watching the slideshow together at the end of a long week is fun and an easy way to create a shared experience for the class.
I introduce my students to Ernest Hemingway and the origins of this timeless activity and then I give them strategies to tell their own stories in only six words. (I have found this YouTube video to be great for getting reluctant writers started: Tips for writing a 6 word memoir.) Again, this is an effective way to use a low-stakes writing activity to help me to get to know my students. I sometimes use their memoirs as the centerpiece for a one-on-one writing conference, or have them share with each other in small groups.
One Word, One Year, One-Pager
As any English teacher will tell you, one-pagers are a great way to help students identify central ideas about a text, an event, or themselves. Putting the ideas on a single “page” and making it visually compelling is always the goal, and I have been consistently surprised at the creativity and enthusiasm my students bring to this activity. For this one, I ask students to identify their theme word for the school year and to write a formal definition for that word, as well as the part of speech and pronunciation guide (just as you would see in a dictionary entry). I then ask them to write a short explanation (4–5 sentences) about why they chose this word and some sort of representation of the word and of themselves. I give students the option of doing digital or hands-on one-pagers, emphasizing that when given the option, students should always play to their strengths. I like to put these up in the classroom and do an informal “gallery walk,” encouraging students to talk to each other about their projects.
Hexagonal thinking activities can be used to help students make connections between ideas and events to deepen understanding and critical thinking skills, but they can also be used as a tool to help students get to know each other. This activity is simple and is a good way to get students walking around the classroom and talking to each other. I give students a paper/cardboard hexagon, a little tape, and six icebreaker-type questions. They write their answers to the questions on each of the six sides. Then they go (in small groups, to avoid crowding) to my giant chalkboard/wall/floor and put their hexagons adjacent to other common answers. I plan to play music while they’re doing this and encourage lots of conversation and questions.
The Ideal Teacher
This is more of an assignment than a class activity and one that can be done for homework. I ask my students to write me a short private note in which they identify what they consider to be the three most important attributes of an effective teacher. They end their note by completing this sentence: I am most comfortable in a classroom and learn best when . . .
In closing, I would say to my fellow teachers, let’s not get back to business as usual. Let’s start the year by engaging deeply with the people in front of us—acknowledging their trauma, their uncertainty, and their aspirations by listening and talking and sharing and laughing. Let’s help our students make up for lost time by creating a space in which they can be themselves, and where they also feel that they are an important part of a strong, close-knit community.