Creating a Reflective Classroom Community

Posted by Doc Miller on May 24, 2016

The philosopher Hannah Arendt said that the essence of being human is participating in moral discourse with others.

The things of the world become human for us only when we can discuss them with our fellows.  We humanize what is going on in the world and in ourselves only by speaking of it, and in the course of speaking of it we learn to be human.”[1]

Facing History and Ourselves has a distinctive philosophy of teaching that relies on  discussion of history to understand different dimensions of humanity.  In that discussion, with an overall aim of deepening our humanity, teachers of Facing History have three goals:

  • To foster an inquiry approach into deep historical content
  • To explore history’s connections to one’s own life and to contemporary events
  • To nurture students’ active participation in civic life

In the process, attention needs to be paid to the tone and climate of the classroom. Facing History and Ourselves has long recognized the central importance of a classroom environment that allows students to work together in an engaging study of history and our world today.  A reflective classroom community is not one in which knowledge is passively absorbed.  Instead, knowledge is constructed.  Most importantly, students are seen as subjects actively engaged in a community of learners.(Freire[2])  In a Facing History classroom, mobilizing both the head and the heart, their task is to come to a deeper understanding of history and to explore how this study is relevant to our lives today.  History is viewed not as an inevitable event, but as a human construction, a dynamic process in which human actors shaped their destiny by choices.  Students study not just factual information, but explore together how and why events unfolded as they did and look at how citizens can be active moral agents who can make a difference in society.

Teaching and learning is a social endeavor that needs to have  a healthy exchange of ideas.  John Dewey said that classrooms are not training grounds for democracy, but places where democracy is enacted.[3]  If students are going to be active historical agents, then they need to be just that in our classrooms.  In this learner-centered Facing History environment, students are treated as thoughtful participants who are encouraged to voice their own opinions and to actively listen to others.  The teacher together with the students poses problems that promote critical consciousness.  Students are asked to look deeply, to question underlying assumptions, and to discern underlying values being presented.  In this classroom environment, students develop confidence because they are taken seriously and respected as thoughtful citizens.  The educator Diane Moore has written,

Encouraging students to take themselves seriously and inspiring in them the confidence to do so are two of the most important roles of an educator in a multicultural democracy.” [4]
Students also learn humility, recognizing that they don’t necessarily have a corner on the truth and that there is always more to learn.  A trusting classroom atmosphere creates the space for deep democratic learning.  

Components of a Reflective Classroom

The creation of such an environment requires a thoughtful approach.  In this section we list eight practices that are components of a reflective classroom.  These are:

  • Mutual Respect
  • Intentional Use of Space
  • A Culture of Questioning
  • Thoughtful Silence
  • Student to Student Discussions
  • Connecting Content to Students’ Lives and to the World Today
  • Allowing for a Variety of Ways for Students to Express and Enrich Their Learning
  • Creating Space for Diverse Viewpoints

They are not listed in a hierarchy and this is not an exclusive list.  While there are other important behaviors that help to create a thoughtful classroom community, including personal teacher characteristics such as honesty, compassion, warmth, and humor, this pedagogy brief focuses on these eight practices.  Each component describes a discrete range of behaviors that help to cultivate a reflective classroom.  There is clearly some overlap when these components are put into practice.  Many of them support and complement each other.  While these components can be useful for creating a climate to teach many different units of study, we have found them to be especially effective in the teaching of Facing History and Ourselves.  

Mutual Respect

This must permeate every aspect of a classroom and is embedded in all of the other components.  It includes a deep respect for both the students and for the subject matter.  Teachers need to have what the educator Bronson Alcott called ”a reverence for each student” and the belief that the student is capable of unlimited growth.  At the same time, teachers have to be well-versed in the content and have a passion for helping students explore this material. For their part, students watch closely to see if the classroom is a safe environment.  Can they take risks?  Will they be “shot down” or ridiculed by other students or even by the teacher for openly sharing their thoughts?  How will the teacher handle it when one student personally insults or belittles another student?  Will students be respected and honored as thoughtful participants in a community of learners?  Will the teacher ask them follow-up questions that invite students to look more deeply and provide important details to flesh out their original answers?  In a Facing History classroom where we are attempting to create a thoughtful learning community, a teacher’s behavior in these situations sets the tone for the whole class.  We need to be explicit and put into practice our belief  that a deep respect for each student is at the heart of our educational endeavor.  

Intentional Use of Space

How we arrange our rooms makes a statement and sends a message to our students.  Some arrangements promote a reflective community better than others.  When a whole group class discussion is going on, it is easier to talk to each other if each participant can directly see the faces of the other students.  Arranging the furniture in a circle, as minor a point as this might seem, promotes a sense of community and can make a difference.  Likewise, arranging chairs and desks in clusters for small group work facilitates that process.  Depending on your objectives, there are a variety of ways that a room may be effectively set-up. Beyond the arrangement of the furniture, what hangs on the walls of a classroom can send a powerful message.  If students see an essential question clearly prominent  in a classroom, it can be used to help create a thoughtful environment. When Facing History students entered their classroom and saw a large sign that asked , “What are the conditions that create a just society?”, this helped them understand their focus.  Likewise, relevant pictures, posters, and student work on the wall can play a role in generating a thoughtful atmosphere Aware of this importance, teachers need to be intentional about the use of space.  

A Culture of Questioning

Inquiry learning is a central part of Facing History’s approach to teaching.  Perhaps more than anything else, questions promote active learning.  A question such as, “Why would people act this way?” can spark deep thinking and thoughtful learning.  When the teacher and the students are involved together in a dialogue, they are engaged in a process of ever deepening consciousness.  Facing History teachers try to be mindful of the questions that they ask.  Some use a significant essential question for each chapter as they move through an historical case study.  They also want to create a climate where students not only learn information, but are encouraged to continually ask their own questions about this information.  A healthy questioning of  causes, motives, and underlying assumptions and values can only enrich student learning and foster a deeper understanding.  Facing History teachers realize that establishing a classroom culture of questioning is a major way to promote a thoughtful learning environment.  

Thoughtful Silence

Perhaps the most powerful, underused tool in the classroom is silence.  Whether it is used when a teacher slows down his or her speech to emphasize a point, or after asking a question, or even after a student has responded to a question, silence can be  invaluable.  It creates space for thought.  It can send students the message that we trust them as thoughtful learners who need time to reflect.  Used skillfully, silence can serve as a pause that unifies a class and helps them focus.  Teachers who can be comfortable with this kind of silence create an atmosphere where students know they are seen as mature young men and women, capable of handling the important issues we deal with in Facing History.  We encourage teachers to experiment with silence as a tool for creating a reflective classroom.  

Student To Student Discussions

The teacher does not have to be at the center of a class discussion.  Students can respond directly to each other without the teacher as an intermediary.  Studies have shown that this kind of interaction deepens student learning.  This can happen in a number of ways, including:
  • A spontaneous discussion - because of the captivating nature of the material, students just begin to address each other and the teacher encourages it to happen.
  • The “No Hand Discussion” - students create their own criteria for a successful discussion, try it out, and assess how it is going on a regular basis.
  • Student led discussions.
  • Small group work
In a curriculum like Facing History that involves both the head and the heart, it is important to create space for students to talk directly to each other.  Teachers need to structure opportunities for this to happen.  

Connecting Content To The Students’ Lives And To The World Today

When students can connect what they are studying with their own lives, it sparks a deeper interest in them.  They see the relevance and realize that this kind of learning can enlighten and enrich them personally.  They want to learn more.  Facing History lends itself to this process.  It connects the history of the Holocaust and other case studies to the moral questions young people face in their own lives.  This essential connection, involving the head and the heart, engages students and enables them to see how they can make a difference.  For example, looking at the role of a bystander in a historical case study leads them to reflect on how they themselves respond when they see an injustice occurring.  With these kinds of issues at stake, students are often eager to build and participate in a reflective, trusting classroom community and learn from each other.  This particular focus of Facing History, connecting content to students’ lives, has proven to be an especially powerful learning experience for numerous students through the years.  

Allowing For A Variety Of Ways For  Students To Express And Enrich Their Learning

Drawing on the work of Howard Gardner [5], Facing History has seen how the use of multiple intelligences in the classroom can make a difference.  Students have many kinds of intelligences that are not usually tapped in our schools.  Facing History teachers have invited students to express their learning in a variety of ways.  Because the nature of the curriculum is so often captivating and relevant to their lives, students are inspired to produce good work.  In Facing History classrooms, students have created sculpture, music, poetry, art work, dance, short stories, video productions and other forms of expression to demonstrate their learning.  Not only has this work deepened and enriched their understanding of the content, but it has also helped to create a classroom environment where a variety of student gifts are appreciated and celebrated.  For students who have a difficult time in the language/math focused world of our schools, creating these products has often provided a place for them to shine.  While not all projects are outstanding, it has been a joy to see so many students amaze each other with their thoughtfulness and creativity.  

Creating Space For Diverse Viewpoints

At times in a Facing History classroom, issues are introduced that can lead to students expressing highly charged, differing, and even opposing viewpoints.  Teachers need to have both the courage to raise these issues and the wisdom and skill to manage them. Some teachers are concerned about raising controversial issues, afraid that a class discussion on such issues might be upsetting, get out of hand, be unmanageable, and cause hostility between students.  However, this does not have to be the case.  One of the roles that Facing History plays is to encourage teachers to not avoid these kinds of issues, but rather to deal with them in the classroom in a constructive way.  Because Facing History teachers have worked with difficult issues in our institutes and workshops and talked with other teachers about discussing these kinds of issues with the students, they are often willing to raise them in the classroom.  But how is this to be done in a way that will not simply create controversy and problems, but rather will enlighten our students thinking? In his book, The Dignity Of Difference: How To Avoid The Clash Of Civilizations, Jonathan Sacks asks a question that is relevant here: “How do we live with moral difference and yet sustain an overarching community?”  Although not speaking of only school communities, Sacks gives a helpful response to this question and one that applies to the classroom.

The answer is conversation – the disciplined act of communication – the disciplined act of communicating {making my views intelligible to someone who does not share them} and listening {entering into the inner world of someone whose views are opposed to my own}.  Each is a genuine form of respect, of paying attention to the other, of conferring value on his or her opinions even though they are not mine.  In a conversation neither side loses and both are changed, because they now know what reality looks like from a different perspective.  That is not to say that either gives up its previous convictions.  That is not what conversation is about.  It does mean, however, that I may now realize that I must make space for another deeply held belief.  That is how public morality is constructed in a plural society – a sustained act of understanding and seeking to be understood across the boundaries of difference.” [6]

In this passage, Sacks expresses what can happen in a classroom that deals with difficult, controversial issues in a respectful, positive environment.  Learning to voice your own thinking on an issue and listening to those with whom they disagree is a cornerstone of a well functioning democracy. When students are able to have a conversation which involves communicating their own views and listening to diverse viewpoints, their thinking is both enlarged and enriched.  Being challenged in this way helps them to mature and develop as thoughtful, active citizens.  They have begun to create space for the other and, in the process, have deepened their own thinking.  In a Facing History classroom that  has been practicing these eight components, this kind of deep democratic learning is possible.

A question is sometimes raised as to whether teachers should express their own thinking on topics.  In discussions of controversial subjects, a teacher does not necessarily have to share his or her own opinion on every issue that is discussed.  In fact, wise teachers often refrain from presenting their own positions on many issues in order to encourage the students to look deeply and think for themselves.  However, there are times when teachers will want to take a stand.  When some actions under discussion are clear violations of justice and respect for human life, a teacher might well want to express that.

   

Classroom Example

While we realize that a reflective classroom environment can take a variety of shapes and forms, it might be helpful to look at how one Facing History class dealt with what proved to be a contentious part of the curriculum.  After studying the Holocaust, this class went on to look at the issue of judgment after World War II.  In this particular class, the teacher talked about Julius Streicher, the publisher of “Der Stuermer”, an anti-Semitic newspaper printed in Nazi Germany.  This paper, with over six hundred thousand readers, week after week, month after month, described Jews as “ vermin in need of extermination”.  Streicher, writing in the paper himself, referred to the Jew as “a parasite, an enemy” and he demanded the extermination of the Jewish people.  After the war, the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg put Streicher on trial and charged him with inciting the population to murder and exterminate the Jewish people – a “crime against humanity.”

In the class, the Facing History teacher, after presenting these facts, asked if Streicher should have been found guilty. Immediately one student said, “No way!  Freedom of speech!  He was only using words.  He never even laid a hand on any Jews.  You have a right to say what you think.”  Another student said, “Wait a minute.  He played a part in influencing thousands of people to kill innocent victims.  He was part of the brainwashing propaganda that led to the Holocaust,  Of course, he’s guilty.”

At this point in the discussion, the teacher relaxed and realized that while there was sharp disagreement and charged feelings, the students could handle it.  There was a common understanding in the classroom that this kind of interaction was healthy and challenging.  Because it was a passionate and captivating topic, other students, speaking one at a time, became engaged and began to talk about the Streicher case from different perspectives.  A classroom culture had already been established so that the students knew that it was a safe environment.  Personal insults and put-downs were not allowed.  But disagreements were.  It wasn’t so much a debate as a common search for an honest, just way to handle the Streicher case.  Even though all the students wouldn’t reach a common agreement, they all were forced to look at the issue from various perspectives.

After the discussion had gone on for a while, the teacher informed the class that Streicher was found guilty, and asked the students what would be an appropriate sentence.  Students’ answers ranged from community service to the death penalty.  The teacher then told them that Julius Streicher was sentenced to and received death by hanging, and asked, “What do you think?”  Right away one student spoke up, “You don’t show killing is wrong by killing.  Even if Streicher was responsible for deaths, we shouldn’t  go ahead and also commit murder.  We’d be acting just like the Nazis.”  A number of hands flew up and the teacher called on one.  “Are you kidding me?  Six million lives were destroyed and this guy should walk?  I don’t think so.  For what he did he obviously deserves to die!”  Again a lively discussion ensued.  Sitting in a circle, students both shared their own opinions and actively listened to other viewpoints on the topic of the death penalty as applied both to the Streicher case and to our society today.

With several minutes left in the class, the teacher stopped the discussion and said, “Please now write down the name of the student whose comments most influenced your thinking today, and then write how those comments influenced you.”  After having quiet time to reflect and write, the students were invited to say an individual’s name and share how his or her comments had influenced their thinking.  This last activity proved to be especially powerful.  It helped students to realize that what they think and say has an impact on others and that this kind of civic discussion can both enlarge and enrich their own thinking.

 

Conclusion

The reflective class that we have described is just one of many possible ways a community of learners might take shape.  What is important is that teachers have the opportunity to step back and reflect together with colleagues on how they want to create these thoughtful classrooms.  These kinds of classrooms don’t just happen overnight.  Teachers and their students are always growing and developing in the art of creating a community of learners.  Numerous decisions are being made everyday.  Mistakes will be made.  But the more teachers take time to look at the components of a reflective classroom and consciously work at creating a thoughtful environment, the more effective they will be.

Facing History and Ourselves has a democratic vision of the classroom as a civic space where teachers and students come together to explore both history and our world today.  By engaging in respectful, thoughtful, and open conversation, students can be both enlightened in their understandings and empowered to take action to create a more just and compassionate society.  

ENDNOTES

  1. As quoted in Margot Stern Strom, “Facing History and Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior,” Moral Education Forum, Summer 1981, p. 13.
  2. Freire, Paulo, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (NY: Continuum) 1994.
  3. Dewey, John,  Democracy and Education (NY: The Free Press) 1916.
  4. Moore, Diane, Overcoming Religious Illiteracy: A Multicultural Approach to the Study of Religion in Secondary Education (NY: Palgrave) 2006, p. 11 of the manuscript.
  5. Gardner, Howard, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (NY: Basic Books) 1983.
  6. Sachs, Jonathan, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations (London: Continuum) 2003, p.83.

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