In the Classroom: Build Community and Foster Identity

I have a pretty intense belief in the necessity of the educator to provide a safe and encouraging space. This may be no shock to you, but middle school and high school are not the best places for safely growing into who you are. There are expectations, fears, insecurities, on a terrifyingly magnified level. This is the main reason I start each semester, not with some clever icebreaker game, but a clear establishment of a simple, undeniable truth: you are a beautiful, adored creation. Do I say it that way, exactly? A lot of laws dictate that I can’t… but I want to establish up front, each kid has value, each kid is important, and we will respect one another with our words and our actions. More importantly, I back that up. In my class, you can probably get away with a few things… but speaking down to someone? Insulting them to make yourself feel better? If I hear even a whisper of that, we are in the hallway and talking about why we value someone, and what it means to build people up rather than pull down. So what’s a hands-on way I try to do this toward the end of the year?

Activity: Compliment Sheet

I actually stole this idea from Ms. Lobasso (now Mrs. Letts). She had us do these when I was a junior in high school, and it meant the world. I print off a sheet with the name of every student in class. I pass these out to my students and I ask them to write something nice, something genuine about every student on the sheet. When all of these papers are turned in, I type up all of the comments and print each person a list of the things their peers said about them (obviously, I make my own comment, too. When you have a class of 30, it’s easy to take out comments that are short or really don’t seem too thoughtful and still have a solid amount of compliments from peers). Here are the keys for making it work:

1. Your classroom must involve students working with each other often and in different groups. If they haven’t talked to teach other, obviously they won’t have something to say about them… Build community. Give your students opportunities to interact. This is exceptionally easy in creative writing, where I can facilitate student groups for a wide, wide variety of reasons.

2. Have at least one day where they sit in the order of their names. This will deflect most of the, “Wait who is so and so again?”

3. Frame it- Your thoughts on any activity matter. The way you describe it and the way you explain it matter. I try to explain the importance of what we say to each other. I explain that, often, I hear high schoolers say things that are more destructive than life-offering. I encourage them to take this chance to say the thing that will have a positive impact and may stave off whatever negative words a person has encountered that day.

4. Keep it anonymous. I make sure students know that the other students won’t know who said what.

5. Encourage people NOT to talk about physical features. Yes, I’m sure there hair IS nice… but encourage genuine reflection on why people are special and important.

6. Follow through. You’re going to have to type. A lot. But you can do it, because kids matter and sometimes a sheet of paper is enough for them to remember that they matter.

Feel free to comment, tweet, or email for questions about how to do this!