One of the most important steps we can take at the beginning of the year is time to build a positive classroom environment where all students feel safe. Fostering a strong social studies classroom community will take time, but laying a sturdy foundation at the beginning of the year is key. Here are some helpful tips.
1. Set Classroom Norms
Determine, what does your classroom look like, sound like, and feel like? These are great questions to go over with your students at the beginning of the school year. Create a collaborative poster or have a place where these norms are posted so that you can refer back to them during the year.
2. Everyone Should Feel Safe
We want to build a classroom where all students feel equally heard and can safely share. Going over communication skills of respectfully listening, asking questions, and being open-minded and tolerant of different perspectives is important to building a collaborative space. This also means that as teachers we need to take care to ensure that our students don't feel singled out or compelled to speak on behalf of an entire group of people.
It can also be helpful to discuss the fact that we don't talk negatively about people. We can talk ideas, because ideas can be unlearned. As well, it is important that our students understand that it is their responsibility to back up their stance with factual evidence.
As a teacher, we can gravitate toward playing the devil's advocate, but this can lead to students putting up walls. We can also appear to advocate for one side or position. Some students may point out what we didn't say or what position we didn't mention. Instead, students should be informed of how we are positioned so that they know the classroom isn't neutral. Our position influences how we teach and students can also be on the lookout for biases.
3. Interrupt Problematic Statements
Let's dismantle the idea that neutrality is the ideal position for a teacher. There are going to be times when a student says something that is problematic that might catch us off guard. If we don't address it, we are doing more harm than good, and our silence speaks volumes. Our students could leave with unfounded prejudices or an inadequate understanding if we don't interrupt problematic statements. The Oregon Center for Educational Equity has a great resource of helpful one-liners and questions if you aren't sure what to say to start the conversation.
As teachers we need to remember that we are not just teaching content, but are teaching human beings. So let's uplift their humanity and be responsive to all students.
4. Provide Feedback
Our students need to hear from us. Providing feedback is so important. I tell students that there may be more than one interpretation, but they can reach the wrong conclusion if they are not careful.
Establish the norm that there can be joy in finding out that we are wrong about something. This means that we are now less wrong than we were before. How great is that!
Social studies is about windows and mirrors--being exposed to other people's experiences while also seeing ourselves in the curriculum. This means that part of a social studies education is the unfamiliar and saying yes to the discomfort and the unlearning. However, we don't want our students to feel shame or guilt, so support their resilience and grit, and uplift their humanity. This means that much of what we do is about cultivating a relationship with our students.
5. Finding Value in Learning
As Zaretta Hammond, the author of Culturally Responsive Teaching has stated, "Only the learner learns." Our students need to find value in what they are learning. If they can discover connections and purpose in what they are investigating, as well as lead their own learning, it's going to spark curiosity and deeper understanding. Just know, that if you're bored, then your students are probably bored. So be willing to switch things up.
I don't know about you, but I am not a big fan of ice-breakers and beginning of the year games. Instead, you might find that this lesson, What is History and Why Does It Matter? could serve as a great beginning of the year activity that gives each student a voice and an opportunity to appreciate the value of history. You can learn more and grab the lesson template for free.