Building Community with Questions

Relationships will be more important than ever this school year.  Last spring, we were sent home for the fourth quarter in my district–like teachers and students across the world, we tried our best to teach and learn from home.  It was not a success, but it wasn’t a failure either.  The main reason we didn’t fail is that we had established relationships. Teachers and students of year-long courses had 27 weeks to get to know each other prior to the pandemic, while semester courses had spent 9 weeks together.  

When we return in the fall, we’ve got to make relationship building a priority.  We’re going to need to know our students sooner and better than we ever have before.  And that’s going to be more of a challenge than it ever has been before, too.  

The general approach to high school teaching is to jump right in, spend a day on rules/expectations and then get going with content. We’re going to have to slow down a little and account for the fact that we’ve been apart for a lot longer than the typical summer, and that this time apart has been anything but typical.  Taking time to get to know each other—is essential.  And it’s within our control.  

We’ve known for a long time that teacher-student relationships matter, but one thing we may underestimate is the value of student relationships within the classroom. We talk about creating safe environments that allow students to take risks and make mistakes, but inspirational posters on the wall and a caring teacher can only do so much. Students need to be comfortable with each other before they will truly open up and ask questions to improve their learning.

Here’s an activity that will help you get there:

A few years ago, I was working with a group of 12th grade students who were still trying to meet the standardized reading test graduation requirement. Although most of them knew each other, these kids are the ones who hide out in classrooms, trying to stay under the teacher’s radar so they don’t risk embarrassing themselves with an incorrect guess.  In their Intensive Language Arts classroom, where they are all in the same boat, we needed to build a sense of trust and establish a culture of understanding and risk-taking. 

I had a set of not-too-personal question cards that I had used in a leadership club that I felt would work well with these seniors. We played the game, and I was truly amazed at the depth of sharing. They opened up quickly and it changed all of our perspectives about each other. I’ll never forget the boy who drew the card about his favorite childhood toy and shared that he grew up in Cuba–they didn’t have toys. Another 17-year-old shared that his biggest regret was his hand tattoo; what an eye-opener to the others who probably saw the mark as a symbol of courage or cool.

I’ve used the cards with my leadership students, with the seniors I mentioned above, and with an ELL peer tutoring group–all with amazing success. But, that game won’t work now–we’re limiting movement in the classrooms and trying not to touch things others have touched. So, I re-imagined the game as a teacher-led PowerPoint. Instead of drawing a card, students pick a number from a grid. That number links to a prompt that the student then answers, aloud, sharing a little about him/herself. Then, another student picks another number and shares.

After each number is picked, it disappears from the board. With 40 prompts, you will have extras, should you decide to allow a student to pass on his/her first choice. It’s also fully editable, so although the questions are designed for high school, you could easily change some to make them more appropriate for your grade level.

The activity is fast-paced and breaks down barriers pretty quickly. The secret, I think, is that other students are not allowed to question or comment after a student shares; we go right to the next student. This keeps the focus on the individual (for a short enough time that it’s tolerable, even for the most shy student) and prompts further discussion later–students who connect with another’s answer will seek that student out afterwards to continue the conversation.

Download the PowerPoint for FREE from my TeachersPayTeachers store. Then put it in your back-to-school lesson plans; it takes about 30 minutes and will fast-track the transformation of your classroom into a community.

This post is the first in my Making Lemonade series. Follow my blog to be alerted as I continue to post resources and strategies to help us all make the most of the lemons we’ve been given in 2020.

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