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Back to School Advice from Our Authors

Forgive my attempt at a pop-culture reference. Is Game of Thrones even a thing now?

We’ve had a post up for a long time on classroom community builders and icebreakers full of back to school advice. And now that the back to school season is upon us, I wanted to highlight a few articles and activities shared by our authors. But do bookmark that page, to read and comment on, and send in your own links and resources. We’ll even give you a coupon for 10% off if we link to your resource!

On to some back to school advice from Patrice Palmer, teacher, trainer, interviewer, and self-care coach:

Group Work Gone Right: Setting Students up for Success from the Beginning

Patrice published Successful Group Work with us after seeing too many group projects fail. The problem is that we assume students are just naturally good at group work, but they aren’t. So she’s written a book of 13 activities that you can do to teach teamwork skills. These are great activities to weave into your beginning of the year plans. Start class off with these simple, mostly low-prep, activities and help students be successful at group work. Take a look at some sample activities in her article on MiddleWeb on avoiding the pitfalls of group work and learn more about why she wrote the book in this interview with Patrice in HLT Magazine.

Question: How Can I Incorporate Reflection into my Teaching?

Sharon Hartle has some great advice for you. Her latest book, Keeping the Essence in Sight, is a remarkable example of what reflective practice looks like. Organized into four key areas, Learning, Teaching, Technology, and PD, Sharon asks and then reflects on key questions that make us better teachers. And if you’re interested in the meaning behind that enigmatic title, read the first post from Sharon’s blog (be sure to bookmark it so you can keep up with her posts). Before we get too busy with classes and admin work, it’s nice to touch base with the reason we teach through this warmly told anecdote.

I Don’t Even Like Icebreakers

As a teacher, in the first days of class, I often feel I’m balancing engaging students and making the class feel welcoming with getting some work done. Now, research suggests that there is some overlap. Students tend to learn better in an environment where they feel respected, where they are free to make mistakes without being mocked, where they believe others are interested in what they say and how the do. And I’m particularly fond of activities that include both rapport-building and language-learning aspects. Here’s the story of how I figured that out and ways to do classroom community building while practicing language: Don’t Break Ice, Build Community.

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Project-Based Learning with Plays

Try Project-based learning with Plays with Her Own Worst Enemy by Alice Savage Alphabet PublishingCurious to try project-based learning in your classroom, but not sure where to start?

Want an engaging project to do with students that teaches authentic communication skills and provides practice in teamwork skills?

Consider project-based learning with plays, using one of the Integrated Skills Through Drama books that guides your class through the process of rehearsing, performing, and producing an original short play. I always like to share resources that contain something a little different in this end of summer, back to school, period, when teachers have time to prepare something like project-based learning (PBL).

The wonderful thing about a project like a play is that students will be engaged in a great deal of authentic conversation as they work together. There’s a lot of logistics to discuss when putting on a play. And students can take charge of a lot of it. That means talking with other students about wardrobe, blocking, set design, props. Some students videotape the performance, so there’s need for a videographer. You may even have students directing each other.

One group of students who performed Her Own Worst Enemy at a local university went to the store on their own to buy props. So they ended up using their English outside of class in an authentic situation! How’s that for a real-world interaction? And student autonomy. It also gives you an idea of how motivating these drama projects can be—Students wanted to work outside class and spend their own money! But even if students chose to perform the play as reader’s theater, they still have to discuss how to play their roles and work together.

Try Project-based learning with Plays with Only the Best Intentions by Alice Savage.

Each book has an attentive listening activity where students discuss a theme related to the play. The students practice paraphrasing or summarizing what someone else said before giving their own opinion. We’ve included this because attentive listening is a key skill in doing any kind of project work.

Try Project-based learning with Plays with Rising Water by Alice Savage published by Alphabet Publishing

In fact, as students study the skills they need to perform, they are also studying the skills they need to work together as a team. Speaking clearly, persuading others to your point of view, showing you are skeptical or enthusiastic about a suggestion—these are all things that both characters in a play and people in a group project, need to be able to do. So the performance skills that students are learning throughout the book are transferable to the project itself. In fact, Alice shared a lesson plan on disagreeing using Only the Best Intentions as an example. But is there anything more needed in a group project than knowing how to express disagreement?

So if you are thinking about a class project for the new school year, I’d recommend project-based learning with plays. The books in the Integrated Skills Through Drama series also make a nice basis for an elective class, or drama club. And search our site for resources or get in touch. We always love to hear what people are doing with our resources. We’re also happy to share advice and ideas for working with our materials in the classroom!


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Four Conditions for Creating Community in Your Classroom

Most teachers I talk to agree that we need to create strong communities in our classroom. Now a few teachers do claim that relationships in the classroom don’t matter much, and that we should focus on the content of the class. However, even they concede that creating community helps with classroom management and that creating a sense of belonging is not a bad thing. However, we also know that helping students get to know each other is a slippery thing. While some students love a good icebreaker where they share a fact about themselves, others are reticent. Being forced to share too much personal information may drive them away from the group in fact. I know a teacher who started classes with a hula-hoop activity. A lot of students loved the chance to play and be silly in class. Others felt that the activity was a sign the teacher wasn’t serious about academics. So how do you bring your students together and make them feel like a community? Having put out a book of icebreakers and getting to know you activities, I get a lot of feedback about conditions for an activity to break the ice in class and build rapport. And my big a-ha moment came when I realized I didn’t want to just break the ice. I didn’t want kids to just talk to each other. And I didn’t want to just have students feel kind of good about coming to my class because I’m a nice guy and the other students are pretty nice, or at least polite with each other. I wanted to create community.

Creating Community

So what’s the difference between a classroom where everyone follows the rules and the teacher is a good guy, and a classroom with a sense of community? It may sound like a cop-out to say that you know a community when you see it. However, it’s really my way of saying that there is no one definitive set of criteria. Here are some of the things I’ve seen in classrooms where the students feel there is a strong sense of community and rapport.

  • students asking each other for help
  • open and meaningful discussions between teachers and students
  • students enforcing the rules themselves
  • students listening and agreeing or disagreeing respectfully
  • tasks done with a sense of interest, not resignation
  • students trying, and sometimes failing, to use new language items

You can see that the signs of a community can also be illustrations of the benefits. In a strong community, you see students taking risks with language, which is a benefit to creating community.

Conditions for Creating Community

So what are the four conditions for creating community in your classroom?

  1. A clear and meaningful task
  2. Freedom to make decisions about how to accomplish that task
  3. The need to work together as a team
  4. The risk of failure

A clear and meaningful task

Students have to want to work on the task for the task to truly bring them together as a team. The task cannot be busy work. Make sure your students understand why you are having them do the activity. Is it to learn a new skill? Or practice a set of vocabulary? Or to become familiar with a particular tool or technique? Ensure that the goal is desirable to the students, that the activities align with the goal, and that they understand how the task meets that goal. For students to be able to work together on a task, the task also needs be clear. hey need to know exactly what the task is. All parameters, expectations, and objectives should be clearly spelled out. They can’t throw themselves into work if they feel that there’s some information they don’t have or they aren’t totally sure whether they are on task or not.

Freedom to make decisions

While the parameters of the task should be clear, there also needs to be room for students to think about how they will accomplish the task. If the students are doing routine tasks that require few decisions, or if there’s only one right way to do the task, there’s no need for the students to really work together. In a complex task with multiple paths to success, individual students will find a place where they shine, whether it be a talent for a particular aspect of the task or leadership and facilitation skills. They will rely on each other to complete the work and be forced to find ways to work together and get along. They will practice teamwork skills without realizing it because they are being forced to make decisions and support each other at every turn.

The need to work together as a team

This brings me to the next condition. For an activity to create community, it has to be one that students cannot do alone. If one or two students take over and dominate the process, there will be little chance of building a community. Instead, the task should be carefully designed so that every member of the group is needed. There are a number of ways to do this. You can design tasks that rely on students’ individual talents. You ensure each student has one part of the information required to complete the task. Jigsaw activities and information gaps are great ways to do that. Or make the task complex enough that they really need all hands on deck.

The risk of failure

Finally, there has to be a chance that the team will fail. If there’s no risk, there’s no sense of urgency to the task. Now, a risk of failure doesn’t necessarily mean that students will get a 0 if they don’t do a good job. Grades are one way to create a sense of risk, but so it a time-limit, or clear criteria for success. You can also design the task to create a sense of authentic failure. Role plays are a nice way to do this. In a role play, students have to convey information and often do a real-world task. If they cannot communicate effectively, they will fail. Why is failure important? Well, it’s a motivator because no one likes to fail. It also makes the task meaningful. Arguably, any task that students cannot fail to do is empty busy work. Finally, fear of failure creates a sense of urgency. Urgency is a kind of glue that keeps students working together.

What do you think? What conditions make for a good community building activity? How are you creating community in your classroom?

Hat tip to this great article that helped clarify a lot of my thoughts on this topic.