ASK A TEACHER: how do you create a safe classroom for all?

Posted by Mary Hendra on October 13, 2011

Given the sometimes challenging or controversial discussions that come up in a Facing History classroom, how do you create a safe classroom for all of your students? (In this series, we asked a number of Facing History teachers to respond to a common question.)

I learned early on that you cannot change people’s minds but you can provide examples that counter their opinions that might lead them to view issues in a different way. As an educator we have an incredible amount of power and must be careful to present material and introduce topics in way that students can develop their own opinions and beliefs. From day one in my classroom we use Facing History materials and strategies to create a safe learning environment. Readings such as ‘In Group’, ‘Who is Human?’ and ‘Who is Equal?’ bring up great discussions about how we interact with each other, how we see ourselves and how others see us. Big Paper assignments, museum walks, and developing questions strategies all help in creating a safe classroom where students believe they have a voice and that their voice matters.

I am honest with students that US History is about the good, the bad and the ugly and that some topics and events will make us uncomfortable. I also spend a lot of time discussing the use of language and have a discussion about whether ‘words = violence’. This is why one of the greatest gifts that Facing History has given me as an educator is creating a common language of acceptance and respect that goes beyond history and even more importantly beyond my classroom. I also nip some common phrases or statements that I hear in and around my classroom early on, so that not only do they begin to understand the power of words but also that they are not acceptable in my classroom.

Finally, I allow students, if they wish, to share their experiences. I will openly admit that there can be times when tears are flowing in my classroom due to a student sharing their personal story sometimes for the very first time in public. For me it is being the silent support in the room and allowing the time for reflection. I have watched apathetic students suddenly ‘wake-up’ while other times they remain hardened, possibly afraid to let a wall they've built weaken.

Merri Weir teaches US History at Carson High School.

We have ice breakers during class and workshops at the beginning of the school year that allows us to meet everyone. In class before we have a discussion we analyze the issue at hand so students are well informed. Our kids write high level questions (modeled after Costa’s ‘Level of Questioning,’ an AVID strategy) to have ready for the discussion. Also, I model for them the type of discussion I would like them to have. I explicitly tell them what I don’t want to hear in the discussion. We have discussion rules and I give them prompts if they disagree with one another. At the beginning it is very structured but as the year progress the students start leading the discussion on their own and asking more detailed questions.

Maritza Cha teaches teach U.S. History, Government and Peer Counseling at Social Justice leadership Academy

And we also wanted to highlight the following two narratives which address both September and October 'Ask a Teacher' questions - how to start the school year, and how to create a safe classroom

I usually start the year with my students creating a ‘Culture Tree’ for themselves; they brainstorm during class and create the tree at home for homework. The next day I place them in small groups of four and have them share their trees with each other. I try to place them into groups with people outside of their social circle. Afterwards, I ask them to develop a group list of similarities and differences. One student records the group's findings on a paper. I invite the entire group to come and share their findings with their classmates. The students are always amazed that their similarities outweigh their differences. Since our school is small and the students have been together for a long time (in most cases, nearly nine years), I am always amazed that they know so little about each other.

Deidre Powell teaches Religion and US History classes at St. John Chrysostom

Since aspects of the Scope and Sequence portion of Facing History Curriculum apply to both the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust, I will start off my school year with an in-depth examination of the first two stages: ‘The Individual and Society’, and ‘We and They’. There are several advantages to starting the school year off like this. Both stages can be taught in a way that is fairly devoid of historical knowledge, as the students are looking at themselves and examining their already preconceived notions of identity. This lesson can take 2-3 class periods depending on length and how much in-class time students are given to complete the tasks.

The first step in the lesson is the Identity Chart. Students are given a graphic organizer to complete (available through Facing History) that provides detail about their lives. I model my own chart for the students, a process that serves the dual role of providing a chance to let the students get to know me. I find that when the students view me as a ‘person’ with interests and a background and flaws, they are more apt to respect me and more apt to learn. I talk about my life, paint a picture for them of who I am; from my taste in music to my interest in motorcycles and my collection of Marvel comic books, my upbringing by immigrant parents, the peaks and valleys of my education. The students then ask me questions for a bit (never fails) before I set them on the task of completing their own identity chart for homework.

The next day, they share out and are introduced to the ‘I Am Poem’, a simple format that gives the students a chance to write about their favorite topic: themselves. They complete the assignment by building and elaborating on the Identity Chart to create their own ‘I am Poem’. The finished product is then decorated and made into the cover-page of their class notebook. I also use this assignment as a chance to introduce rhetorical devices, such as simile and alliteration, which the students will be using throughout the year in essays and speeches delivered to the class.

The next step is to complete the Layers of Identity handout that asks students to try to begin identifying the difference between how they view themselves versus how others may view them. The purpose of this exercise is to give students a paradigm into the way identity becomes an important aspect of society, and ideas formed here will be built upon in later lessons, especially when we look at upstanders and bystanders of history, the eight stages of genocide lesson, etc. The activity can be teacher led, or each student can complete it individually.

The next part of the lesson is the Responsibility Survey, a questionnaire that presents certain scenarios to the students, and they are charged with the task of gauging to what appropriate degree the student is responsible for taking action, whether it be confronted with cheating in a classroom, facing a homeless family, or helping victims of large scale natural disasters. The survey may require some explanation, but students will negotiate through each scenario. The object of the lesson is for students to try to quantify their degrees of responsibility towards other human beings. As a class, the survey is actually completed twice. The second time, after a discussion concerning the various scenarios. Students often change their answers, and it interesting for them to realize how much they can change their opinion.

In the process, students also get a better sense of how we divide ourselves into ‘We and They’. This becomes a major theme in our study of genocide, the concept of ‘the other’. This first set of lessons could take up to a week of class time, but they are essential in giving students a sense that the way they will be studying history will be an active one, in which they will be forced to think. Once these introductory ‘start-up’ lessons are complete, students will be more prepared to be critical observers of history.

These activities also serve an additional purpose of being instrumental in the formation of a community of learners. Students have to be made ready to learn, comfortable to share ideas and express opinions, however controversial. The Socratic Seminar is an activity that I will be doing in class regularly throughout the year, and after seven years of teaching, a favorite activity of students is the Socratic Seminar. There have been many times in my career that a topic will come up that is just ripe for Socratic discussion; the students are actually requesting the activity.

Successful seminars, however, must be practiced. These intro lessons give me an opportunity to practice norms, expectations, and protocol of a seminar. Since the content of the seminars do not require background historical knowledge, the students are given the opportunity to participate without fear of giving a wrong answer – something that is paralyzing to some students. By the end of these lessons, many class norms have been established, community has been formed, and respectful relationships have been created between student and teacher.

David Jauregui teaches World History at Alhambra High School.

Topics: Safe Schools, A View from the Classroom

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