Building a classroom community

When thinking about successful learning classroom management is key and in my opinion, the best way of achieving a harmonious classroom is by building a classroom community. Creating an environment where students feel safe and supported means creating the correct environment for language learning. Language learning means growth through making mistakes and that will only happen if the learner feels at ease to experiment with language and make those mistakes. For this reason, it’s fundamental that the initial lessons of any course focus on building a classroom community. But how do you do it?

Any social group will clearly be a mix of different personalities with different motivations, objectives, and reservations, so it stands to reason that the classroom can act as a bubbling pot of complementary or conflicting perspectives.  Most learners, new to such a group will be nervous or anxious about making mistakes among strangers and this will inhibit their language learning. It’s therefore crucial from the first lesson that we as teachers take steps to alleviate any potential conflict and try to make the class “gel” as quickly as possible.

According to Social identity theory, our learners are constantly identifying with, comparing themselves and categorising other members of their group; it’s human nature to assign roles in groups and for people to actively seek to fill those roles whether it be the rebel or the teacher’s pet.  This need for understanding social context can indeed heighten learning if students feel that their peers are intelligent or have desirable characteristics that they themselves would like.  While this is a natural part of group forming, it can also cause huge divides between peers who can feel intimidated or even struggle to find their own pre-defined role.  It’s therefore important to encourage individual identity by being as inclusive as possible but also ensuring not to pre-assign ‘roles’ for our students and instead give every student the opportunity to adopt different roles. For example, assigning different classroom ‘jobs’ to different students every lesson, varying interactions between learners including implementing different seating plans and ensuring that feedback is not conducted by the same few students.

One of the key factors for building a classroom community is obviously getting to know our students and gaining trust.  If we want our students to feel safe to experiment with language and feel comfortable to fail, as we know this plays a key role in language acquisition, then we need to gain their trust and create trusting relationships among classmates.  In order to do that we need to ensure that lessons provide familiarity and consistency, but obviously still avoiding being monotonous which leads to students becoming disengaged.  An easy way to do that is to have key points within our lessons which our students can identify with.  A checklist or lesson aims on the board is a good way of signposting to our students the direction of the lesson and helps them to contextualise the activities they are doing and to understand why they are important.

Another key moment for interaction is the register at the beginning of the lesson.  In my lessons, this is a key moment which indicates to students that we are ready to begin to learn.  I always ask students questions when calling their name, to find out a little more about them, give them the opportunity to voice whatever it is they are dying to tell their classmates (which then avoids distracted chatter later on) and then I ask them to ask a question to another member of the class.  This not only provides good language practice but it also helps foster relationships among the class.  To ensure that students don’t just ask their best friend and therefore leave anyone out I write students names on pieces of paper (or lolly sticks) and the student then picks a classmate to ask a question to.  An activity which takes a mere 5 minutes but I think is really important in building relationships, consistency, and familiarity,  and immediately gets students on board as they are listening to their classmates.

Community is also fostered by making sure that the class recognises that they are a group and that everyone has something to offer to help the class move forwards.  To reinforce this idea lots of varying group projects help foster relationships but also differentiating between individual goals and class goals.  While the class moves forwards as a whole, it’s also important to realise that individual work is essential, as after all a group is the sum of its parts. If too much is group work it also runs the risk of being demotivating as certain students might take this as an opportunity to sit back and let their classmates do the lion’s share of the work.  This could in turn be counter-productive so balancing individual projects with group feedback and pairwork can instead ensure that all students have the opportunity to work with and listen to different members of their group and learn about their experiences, perspectives and ideas.

As a teacher praise makes up a great deal of classroom management and I can’t overemphasise how important it is to remember to praise achievements no matter how small.  It doesn’t matter if our students don’t arrive at the correct answer, it’s the enthusiasm they demonstrate and the willing to try which needs to be recognised. If we show that trying is valued as much, if not more, than constantly getting things right, we will encourage students to be more confident with attempting language.  Then through subtle and inclusive correction we can then steer our learners to focus on more accurate contributions.  It’s a case of encouraging them to get to a stage where they are happy to try and then once they are actively participating, focus on correcting them, because at that stage they are more likely to be less discourage by corrections.  We can also model good behaviour by highlighting key students, “Well done Giuseppe for reading quietly”, “Listen to how well Lucia pronounced that sentence,” Allowing individuals to shine will encourage others to want to.

By getting to a stage where learners feel comfortable to attempt playing with language we will encourage their curiosity.  Getting to grips with target language and feeling as if you are ‘part of it’ will throw up natural questions as students compare L2 with L1 and this is where true learning moments are born. It could be argued that questions are in fact more valuable than giving correct answers, as they demonstrate a thought process.  The more questions our students pose the more they demonstrate real engagement and therefore learning.  If they reach a point where they can openly question what they are learning without being embarassed, inhibited or intimidated, they are owning the language, processing it and are more likely to adopt it and use it correctly.

So, as a new academic year creeps up, let’s focus on really getting to know our students as soon as we can and put down the foundations in those initial lessons for meaningful relationships and successful learning.

 

 

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