Establishing a Learner-Friendly Culture
Reflections on Community Building in the Classroom is a series of articles based on observations in Professor Clint Rothell’s Religion course at Northeastern Junior College by Instructional Designer Jesseb Adam. This article focuses on a need to establish a learner-friendly culture on the first day of class.
What is a learner-friendly culture?
Jim Knight outlines a learner-friendly culture this way:
Culture is the invisible force that shapes behavior in a classroom. Teachers should do everything in their power to create a culture that will have the greatest positive impact on student learning and wellbeing.
Culture is everything our students see, hear, smell, feel, and experience on a regular basis in our classroom.
We cannot forget that students come into our rooms with six senses and will experience our rooms with all six. They use the traditional five senses and come equipped with a unique sixth sense to perceive the fake or insincere, it’s abbreviated B.S. (Baloney Sense).
How we approach the first day of class will establish much of our classroom culture; student responsiveness to our teaching is often a response to the culture we create on the first day. If you are cold, distant, and focus on a syllabus, rules, and reviewing basic skills your classroom culture will reflect this.
If our culture is cold and distant, our students will respond in kind.
Mr. Rothell is not capable of being cold or distant. Within the first hour of the class he took three steps that set the tone for the rest of the nine days of class.
1. He was himself
There is no pretention or assumption in Mr. Rothell’s demeanor. He quickly admits faults, makes bad jokes, invites students into an open dialogue, and shares his passion. By being comfortable with being himself in the classroom his students are invited to do the same.
2. He values student voice
Rothell does something many teachers do: he has his students share some bits of personal information on the first day. But he interacts with each student as he/she shares. His attention is fully with that student and he proves it by joking, asking questions, and thanking them for sharing their life with the class. He interacts with them. He uses their names. That student is the only student in the class for those few moments, and it matters.
3. He sets the expectation for engagement and learning
In Rothell’s course student engagement with the content occurs for the first time as they are introducing themselves; the content and the students’ lives are joined literally from the first hour of class. To get the students talking Rothell asks them to do a quick write – either on paper or their iPads – on the following prompt:
What does “religion” mean to me? Include: Your name, where you are from, a good place to eat in Sterling, and are you a follower of a religion? (Yes, No, and any details you are willing to share.)
After writing a response students are asked to pair-up and share their responses. Rothell doesn’t set this up formally as a “think-pair-share” or talking to a “shoulder partner,” but has students come together informally and facilitates partnerships where he sees some hesitation.
After sharing with each other Rothell asks for volunteers to share what they wrote. He facilitates a discussion and asks further questions based on student responses.
In the first 45 minutes of class Rothell’s students have:
- Reflected on the core concept of his course in direct relation to their own lives
- Considered how they define religion themselves
- Considered how religion impacts their day to day life – or doesn’t for that matter
In one activity students have written, shared, and discussed. In one activity students have three separate levels of interaction with a core concept in the class.
If active student engagement is our goal, this is a great example to learn from. I saw six things that created a learner-friendly culture focused on student engagement:
- Professor Rothell approaches teaching by being himself.
- Student voice is valued from the first minutes of class.
- By defining a key concept of the course for themselves the students are activating their prior knowledge.
- The low risk writing activity does not restrain the students: they are simply able to write what they know without fear of missing points.
- Having students share with a partner before a class discussion eases the students’ tensions around sharing and greases the wheels of conversation.
- Students’ working memory are primed to learn the day’s content – defining religion academically – by each of these steps.