Sunday, May 24, 2009

Setting A Positive Tone

By Maria Spelleri
Instructor, Department of Language and Literature
Manatee Community College, Florida, USA

It’s hard to put a finger on what makes a class gel and be a lot of fun, be a place where students laugh and respect each other, where there are few or no class management issues, and excited students eagerly engage in the day’s activities.

It’s equally challenging to try to turn around those other classes, hopefully rare in their occurrence, that seem like a chore and a bore, where students grumble at the teacher and at each other, where they prefer to work alone rather than together, where trying to get a discussion going is just opening yourself up to eye-rolling and not so furtive glances at an incoming text message.

There are a few reasons we want to avoid these “poisonous” classes. First, to be self-serving, they are just no fun. Days are low-energy and teaching becomes a grind rather than a pleasure. Secondly, they are not good learning environments, and learning will at least be impeded if not blocked all together.

Consequently, the teacher’s enormous job description includes that of classroom host or hostess. Just as the host of a party works to set a tone and mood for the event, teachers are responsible for making the classroom environment the right environment for learning and a pleasant environment in which to spend time. Similarly, like a party host looks after the well-being of each guest, setting each at ease and making sure needs are met, the teacher needs to follow suit in the classroom.

I believe the tone for a course is set in the first week of classes, but it takes an on-going effort throughout the semester to keep the tone positive and the energy up. What can teachers do in the first week to set a positive tone?

  1. Learn all student names — quickly. When I was first observed by my Department Chair, he commented on the fact that I called students by name. I later learned, to my surprise, that not all instructors bothered to learn their students’ names. How disrespectful!
  2. Use daily gentle repetition of important class information, resources, or expectations so students who are overwhelmed at the beginning of the semester can hear and see and hear and see again what they need to be successful in the course. They want to do things right, but the first week can cause information overload for full-time students, especially their first time in a program or in college.
  3. Send a personal welcome e-mail message to each student after the first class, or even before the first class if you have access to contact information. Weeks into the semester, students often comment on how much they appreciated getting that first, reassuring message from me.
  4. Be sure course expectations are clear and that the grading process is transparent. Explain “how the class works” in detail. Hopefully, this information is written somewhere where students can access it as they need to be reminded.
  5. Encourage students to get to know each other. Especially in the first week, use daily ice breaking activities that allow students to form relationships. I get bored with the name, country, work, family questions and sometimes ask students to interview each other as to an accomplishment they are proud of or what their career goals are. I also ask students to design a personal crest or coat of arms with 3 or 4 sections that serve as a visual depiction of who they are. We then put them around the classroom for a few days and students always look at them before and after class and ask each other questions. At the end of the first week, I ask them to exchange phone numbers or email so they have a “buddy” they can call if they need to.
  6. Acknowledge the accomplishment of small steps. On the last day of the first week, I spend 15 minutes in a small celebration of making it through the first week. I break students into groups of four, and while eating donuts as soft jazz music plays in the background, students are encouraged to share their feelings about college: Was it what they expected? Harder? Easier? How did they feel the first day? How do they feel now?

While no amount of good planning nor good intention can guarantee to eliminate all unpleasant class experiences, what the teacher says and does in the first week has the greatest influence on the tone of the class — first impressions, after all! — but by no means can the efforts flag after that. We are the hosts and hostesses of a 16-week party, and our guests are counting on us to help them have a pleasant experience.


Pingback from Teacher Talk » Breaking the Ice on Day One
November 1, 2013 at 11:52 am

[…] filter lowering doesn’t begin and end with a game, of course. Check out Maria Spelleri’s ideas for creating a positive tone in your classes.  These activities can also be the first step for […]

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