One of the things that sticks with me from my adolescent psychology class, way back when, is that students need to take risks in order to learn. A skilled teacher, then, has to create an environment where students feel safe doing that–balancing comfort (a sense of safety and acceptance) with discomfort (a challenge to tackle new ideas, voice opinions, and ask questions). It’s when students are able to connect something new, an intellectual reach, to something they have already processed, that they are truly able to assimilate that information and learn.
Creating a sense of discomfort in the World Religions classroom is easy–students are constantly being challenged by the new beliefs that they are exposed to throughout our study. But creating that sense of security and a welcoming atmosphere is especially important in an elective class like this. Because students come into this class from many different grade levels and walks of life, there isn’t necessarily that natural connection and ease that sometimes happens in an 11th grade Honors history course, for example, where many of those kids have known eachother for years. That rapport has to be built, and that takes time.
The first thing we do is take some time to get to know each other–ice breakers, ice breakers, ice breakers. But we also set the expectation early that we will celebrate diversity in this room. I like to use www.polleverywhere.com to set up free surveys of the class–we can see, anonymously, what religions are represented in the classroom, what questions folks have about the school year, and their feelings on particular topics. Without fear of identification, student voices are heard. And, bonus-from-the-student-perspective, they get to talk out their cellphones in order to participate!
I also want the kids to feel comfortable with me, and while I’m not sure this next bit gets them to feel comfortable, it certainly makes the point that weirdness is welcome here. After we’ve spent some time defining religion, I tell them a little bit about my upbringing, which was pretty non-religious. I did grow up in Pittsburgh, however, and I remember in elementary school being a bit jealous of the kids who got to go to Catholic Sunday school or spent their summers at the JCC summer camp. Mostly, I felt a sense that I was left out of some type of community, which must have been what prompted my next step. I created a religion of my own. I have some evidence of this, a chart and a few notebook pages of writing in an old journal. It consisted of things that one should do in order to be a good person: be honest, be nice to my little sister, listen to my parents, etc. All the important stuff from when you are 9 or 10. And then it had a chart, Ben Franklin-style, to check off when you met those goals. (Don’t worry, it gets weirder). If you did all those things just once or twice, you would be at the tabby-cat level of things. If you kept at it, you might graduate to a Siamese. Keep at it? You could reach the ranks of a mountain lion, jaguar, or leopard. The greatest cat out there, and the deity, so-to-speak, was the White Siberian Tiger.
I tell this story. Some kids laugh, some look at me blankly, and some back away. But then I bring it back around to our definion again–was this really a religion? Or was I just a weird kid? (Don’t answer). The point is made, though. We all have our different ways of believing. Ms. Harris was a total dork as a kid. After sharing a story like that, they know that I’m not gonna judge. And they remember that story all year long.
The final step in creating a classroom where kids feel safe expressing their thought is a simple tool and one I know that many teachers use. We have classroom journals that the students use to write in almost every day. I love this for three reasons. First, writing in a journal is a way for students to communicate with me about what’s going on in class, even if they aren’t brave enough to contribute to class discussion yet (I’ve heard that some teachers like using Twitter during class time for similar reasons). Next, it gives some kids a chance to work out their ideas and responses to questions before we discuss it, so they have something to work with if they get called on. Finally, as the journals are basically just graded for completion, it’s an extension of the judgment-free-zone. Students can work with ideas and ask questions and can expect answers and feedback from me, without worry about grades or what other students will think.
Of course, the goal is that we can move on from journals and anonymous polls to real classroom conversations. This year, I realized that one way to improve this sense of the class as a positive, welcoming atmosphere is to have the students take action. I want them to think actively and purposefully about how we can promote religious understanding in our classroom, and at our school. I’ll share what they came up with in my next post!