Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Safety and Participation in the Classroom

          As I mentioned in an earlier post, the sense of community in the classroom involves several interlocking variables. For example, the variables of safety and participation in the classroom go hand in hand. You rarely have one without the other.  The students who participate are the ones who feel safe and no amount of coercion will make the student participate who does not feel safe. One would think that a classroom should be a safe haven for any pupil, but it isn’t always the case. Feelings of insecurity, shyness, isolation, or simply the fear that they have come to class unprepared can all conspire to make a student feel less than safe and being called on to participate under those circumstances can often make the situation even worse, the anxiety greater and the room feel even less safe. “What will my classmates think? Will I sound stupid? Will the teacher notice that I’m not prepared, haven’t done my homework? Why am I even here? I hate this class.”
            There are a number of things a teacher can do to reduce that sort of anxiety, that fear of exposure. The suggestions given here are ones I’ve used in a college lecture class of sizes ranging from 25 to over 600. I’m not sure how applicable they would be to other class formats or age groups. But maybe the principles will still apply. Some things I found helpful were: Comments like, “This isn’t easy; I don’t expect you will always have the right answer but don’t be afraid to give it a shot; and, by the way, if you have a question, remember that there is no dumb question in here.” can sometimes help. Another technique that seems to work for most students is to interrupt the lecture periodically and ask if there are questions, comments. “No? Ok, why don’t you discuss this section with your ‘group’ for a few minutes?” The “group” consists of the four of five people sitting around a student, a functional unit identified early in the term when students were also asked to keep the same seat throughout the term if at all possible. This was done only after they had a chance to check around for a few days to see where they wanted to sit. The class at that moment for each student becomes those four or five people rather than the 30 or 50 or even 500 who fill the room. You can feel a lot safer with five people you know than with 500 most of whom you don’t even recognize.
            Any other ideas for increasing the sense of safety in the classroom -- for example, in elementary, middle and high school --  and making participation less scary? No? C’mon, give it a shot and leave a comment below
. Thanks

PS. Here are some helpful references about participation in the classroom:
A link to a great Cornell University site on “Increasing Student Participation” :

And a terrific book on teaching by Prof. Stephen Yelon, one of my former colleagues at Michigan State: