Creating Classroom Communities to Support Students

When we think of the classroom, we often think of it as a space for logic to thrive, ideas to flourish, and critical thinking to expand. But how often do we consider the classroom as a space for emotional processing and connection? Connecting with students in the classroom can be both a rewarding and frustrating endeavor. It takes intentional effort to plan out how you want students to build community with each other and with you. And even after we’ve planned, it doesn’t always turn out the way we intended, which can be a good thing!

I recently received an email from a student after our latest winter course ended. It was probably day two of the spring semester, and I had already buckled down into the beginning of a new course with all new students. After a few follow-up questions, the student wrote:

“The atmosphere and environment within the classroom is honestly amazing and I’m feeling the withdrawal of our group going into the Spring semester.”

-English 1B student

Withdrawal. I was pleasantly shocked at this response. Withdrawal is a powerful emotion. And I think this tells us that students walk away from our classrooms with much more than new knowledge about writing. They walk away with an emotional experience, one that hopefully remains meaningful long after the semester has ended.

Sarah Cavanaugh makes a case for emotion-based pedagogy with her text, The Spark of Learning. When we engage student emotions in the classroom, there is a higher likelihood they will retain knowledge, enhance memory, and increase the value of their learning. If you’re looking for some heavy-lifting research on this, I recommend the first eighty pages or so of Spark of Learning. There are also further resources included below. The conversation I’d like to focus on is how these emotions are embedded in the connections we build in the classroom. By creating communities in our classes, we give students the opportunities to grow as learners.

First Impressions

Perhaps the most important day of the semester is day one, first impressions. It’s the day students make micro decisions about us and about their capacities in the course. This day comes with a whole host of emotions. I ask students to reflect on their first-day emotions and several come back with ideas of self-doubt, lack of motivation, and uncertainty in their abilities to make it all the way through. Fear. Rebecca Cox addresses this fear in her text, The College Fear Factor, where she says: “[t]he fear of failure – rather than the actual failure or evidence of unsuitability – prevents full commitment and engagement” (41). On day one students’ emotions decide their levels of commitment, engagement, and the value of the course to their lives. By creating a strong connection with students, we have the opportunity to lessen this fear and anxiety.

Fear and anxiety are disengaging emotions, and their presence in the classroom is why Cavanaugh spends quite of bit of time discussing the first day. It’s the most important day. Several semesters ago I made a decision to focus intently on connections on the first day rather than the syllabus. Hold on – we still cover the syllabus. But the emphasis for the first day is quite clear: I’m interested in each of you as people, not just as students or waitlist additions. Cavanaugh suggests that this emphasis on instructor-student connection is one of the markers of student persistence and motivation.

Emphasizing connection means making ourselves human in students’ eyes. They are curious to know why we love teaching, why we love learning, and why we’re excited to be there. Ask them similar questions. The first day sets the groundwork for the rest of the semester. When we are able to make micro moves like using student names or asking intentional questions, we make meaningful connections with students on the first day, which opens the door to stronger instructor-student relationships throughout the semester (Cavanaugh 62). When students feel they can trust us, it increases the likelihood that they’ll reach out for help, seek guidance, and listen to feedback about their writing development.

Instructor Emotions & Transparency

We know that students’ emotions run high in the classroom, especially on the first day. But what about us? Cavanaugh really challenges us to consider: What are our emotions in the classroom? It is no unfortunate surprise that we run from classes to meetings to professional development activities. And when we finally sit, we slog through emails and projects and planning. And then when we have some glorious free time…oh yeah.. grading. We’d be remiss to think that our jobs do not impact our emotional states and that this emotional state does not cross over to the classroom. If we’re tired, moody, or overtaxed with uncharted amounts of caffeine and cortisol coursing through our system, how effective are we as instructors (or humans)? There isn’t an easy solution, but Cavanaugh makes a few suggestions. Most of these we’ve probably heard before: sleep, eat healthy, practice mindfulness, get that Vitamin D in (it’s the sunlight), go for a walk, exercise, spend time with loved ones.

We can be more intentional, though, by increasing awareness of our emotions that spill over into the classroom. Are you frustrated or overwhelmed or bored? How is that going to impact the way you deliver instructions or connect with students? Instead of finding ways to eliminate these emotions, the better suggestion is to embrace them with awareness and honesty. Again, become a human in your classroom and be honest. If you are grumpy and you do end up creating a disconnect, try apologizing. Be polite and recognize there are humans sitting in those seats. This type of behavior is what Cavanaugh considers immediacy, which “[r]elated to being mindfully in the moment and connected with your students, immediacy pertains to behaviors that are both spoken and unspoken and convey to students that you are interested in them, the material, and the process of learning” (100). By practicing this idea of immediacy, we’re also reinforcing a cycle of healthy connection: rupture and repair. Demonstrating transparency and honesty models this behavior for students. It lets students know that mistakes happen, and the point is to keep going.

Cavanaugh suggests that this type of transparency may be our most powerful policy. Being humans in front of students also extends into course policy. Our transparency policies can look like sharing rubrics and grading methods from the very start of the semester, vocalizing expectations on assignments, vocalizing reasoning for why we are doing activities and assessments, and how we expect students to perform, especially when they’re falling behind. The varying levels of honesty and transparency of our roles as instructors and how we’re organizing the classroom will extend the connections we make on day one into the rest of the semester.

The Power of Choice

Wherever possible, give students the power to choose their learning.

After the first day, how do we keep students connected? If we first do the work to create a strong instructor-student connection, then we can reinforce this trust in the classroom by organizing course materials and activities around the idea of emotional connection. One of the most helpful ways to do this is through high value and high control assignments and activities. If students have a choice in their learning, if we give them the opportunity to make decisions, the work they do and activities they engage in will hold more value. Cavanaugh notes that students make several appraisals in the classroom: “The first appraisal is that of control: to what degree students feel in control of the activities and outcomes that are important to them” (148). Wherever you can, embed choices into your course. Some good ideas are to practice active learning and give students options within that framework (see our first post in the series!).  Other ideas are to select an agenda for the day, give students the opportunity to elect due dates together, or practice setting class norms for the semester (an idea from the Reading Apprenticeship model). For assessments, consider multi-question writing prompts and using book clubs as a way to give students a choice in the texts they are reading. Creating a community of choice helps students see value in their work. Further, we can reinforce this value for students by representing their experiences in the class. Relating course material to real-life scenarios and choosing texts that reflect students’ experiences helps to create value for the work you are asking them to do. When students feel valued in this way, that positive emotion goes right back into the community.

Sticky Situations

Sometimes we don’t always connect with students, especially if there are negative emotions in the student’s experience. A few years back, I was consistently challenged by a duo that liked to sit in the back and whisper. Except it wasn’t whispering – it was talking. And they happened to be talking about me. I’d like to report here that I handled it well, drew excellent boundaries, and didn’t react at all. Not exactly.

While I did eventually pull in a colleague to strategize solutions, the impact of those students’ loud talking about me held a significant impact on my ability to manage discussion and deliver instructions for the day. I was distracted, my face turned red at some point, and I definitely called on them (twice) to answer questions I knew they weren’t paying attention to at all. Yikes.

This type of passive aggressive behavior is a huge impediment to the classroom as a safe space for learning and building community. Cavanaugh writes “They may flout your requests, refuse to participate in class discussions, engage in academic dishonesty, or actively or passively demonstrate disrespect. Reactance can be particularly problematic if students begin to share their disgruntlement with each other and encourage each other to greater heights of rebellion” (192). When we’re working with large groups of people in vulnerable environments like a classroom, reactance and defensive behaviors are bound to occur. These moments though are, again, a great opportunity for awareness of what else might be going on.

Am I reacting to my emotions here? What emotions might be informing these student behaviors?

In a separate semester than the talking duo from above, I decided to engage a reactive student. I was sensing some resistance, so after class I asked how she was feeling about the class. After some back and forth, she expressed fear and anxiety and was honestly just really confused about what the expectations were. She was afraid she was failing. We set up a time to meet in office hours and there we talked through the confusion and helped her feel more grounded. Cavanaugh suggests that we can disrupt negative emotions, or potentially disengaging behaviors, by practicing empathy and using politeness in our language (195-196). Again, the idea here is to consider students’ whole experiences as humans and not just students in a 2-hour class. These relational connections, however brief or extensive, can go a long way in supporting students to persist through the semester.  

The Impact of a CommunityBased Classroom

When students feel connected to the course material, are challenged to critically think about ideas, and are given support, their lives can be changed. And I think a lot of us come into teaching for this reason. We want to develop and impact students’ lives for the better.

“When I started taking this class, I wasn’t looking to be moved or understood – I was looking for a checklist element as a transfer student into a four-year college. What I found was a way to grieve my father’s death.”

-student writing reflection

Below are two examples of writing reflections that I ask students to submit on their last day of class. There are three responses included. After, reflect on how decisions about first-day activities, learning activities, course policies, and course material can help students create a stronger connection in the classroom. We’ll also get the discussion going below with some questions to think about.

A Note on The Spark of Learning

Cavanaugh has a lot of suggestions and strategies for engaging students and using emotions-based thinking to influence decisions about course material and learning activities. There are several concepts that haven’t been covered here, so if you haven’t read her book, I recommend it!

In the meantime, I’ve put together a quick tip sheet based on Cavanaugh’s text: Emotion-Focused Tips for the Classroom (PDF Download). Check it out!

Further Readings

  • Small Teaching – James Lang (and blog)
  • Reading for Understanding (the Reading Apprenticeship Model)
  • The College Fear Factor – Rebecca Cox
  • Teaching Community  – bell hooks (and to reiterate Star’s suggestion: everything bell hooks)
  • Pedagogy Unbound – David Gooblar
  • “The R is for Repair” – Gottman Institute: this is a great source for understanding the importance of repair in relationships which we can translate to situations in our classrooms.

“Connecting with StudentsWorkshop

Join us on Friday, March 27th from 11a-12pm in QD119 for a one-hour workshop. We’ll test some ideas and think more about how we can create stronger communities in our classrooms.

Food For Thought: Let’s Get a Dialogue Going!

Take a few minutes to reflect on the questions below and leave your thoughts and ideas in the comments. Feel free to add further resources, strategies, and ideas you are currently practicing or using.

  1. Which of your own emotions impact the learning and teaching in your classroom?
  2. How can we create more opportunities for high-value and high-control in our classroom activities? With assessments? With policies and practices?
  3. Which student emotions are you reluctant to acknowledge and/or address? Why?
  4. How can we be more transparent in our practice?
  5. When students go wayward with some of their emotions, how can we bring them back into the community? Strategies?

Workshop Resources

Resources mentioned from the workshop today are listed below! We have the session recorded (a few minutes late – sorry!), but you can download the full session below! There are also articles to read, discussion questions from the session, and some assignments templates that you can import directly into your course. Browse and have fun!

“Connecting with Students” Workshop Recording & PPT

Here is the link to the live Zoom session for the “Connecting with Students” workshop!

Lessons and Discussion Board Ideas

COP Lesson: Historical Materialist Interpretation of Student Anxiety (Rob Hyers)

Articles for Reading

Assignment Templates for Download from Canvas Commons

I’ve created a module with 5 assignment templates you can download directly into your course. Download from Commons can be done in a few easy steps. You can also just view the templates as well in the Commons to see if you want to download them into your courses.

Follow the simplified directions for downloading below – OR view these directions for downloading from the Commons

  • Login to your RCC Canvas account
  • Select the “Commons” button on the far left navigation bar
  • Type in the module name: “Connecting with Students” – Assignment Templates
  • You’ll see my name (Alexandria Gilbert) come up as the author
  • Click on the title of the Module
  • On the far right select the blue “Import/Download” option
  • Select the course you want to import it to

Workshop Discussion Questions

Think about the stuff you have accumulated so far in your life. How did you acquire them? How much of it took hard work? How much of it was luck? How much help did you have from others? Considering what was said regarding the causes for student anxiety, how might the narratives you have created for yourself be helping or hurting your students? 

Consider the COP which focused on Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT) and SODA (Stop, Observe, Detach, Awaken). What techniques do you already have in place in your classroom to address CRT issues? How might those techniques be modified to also include the treatment of your students in poverty? 

What are emotions that instructors are feeling during this transition? How might those emotions impact the way we interact with students? What are some strategies we can use to address our own emotions?


What are some of the ways in which we are allowing students to run the learning and feedback portion of our courses or might adapt those things to allow students to be more closely at the center of the power?

What are some of the ways in which we might de-center ourselves from the power of that learning and feedback loop in our classes or in feedback loop? Or ways in which we might adapt things we are doing to provide a more collaborative approach?

In what ways may students feel out of control right now? What areas of your course have “choice” built into them already? Is there another area where choice can be added? What opportunities for student-student interaction do you have in your online environment? How can you add 1 more opportunity for students to connect in the next week or unit?

5 thoughts on “Creating Classroom Communities to Support Students

  1. Janelle Arafiles

    1. The planning process and desire to be trusted can be overwhelming at times. On the first day, I definitely feel vulnerable, but establishing connections reduces that feeling and solidifies trust. In turn, I hope students feel the same way: trusted and accepted. At the heart of my motivation is to be caring and kind. This takes more time to express and prove sincerity in the things I say and do to promote their success from start to finish.
    2. I’m planning to give students some high-value and high-control opportunities by providing some choices in talk aloud assignments. This will give them an opportunity to read and discuss topics they’re truly drawn to while simultaneously exposing the rest of the class to more textual content.
    3. Anger is usually the emotion I’m more reluctant to address. It requires alot more energy and patience to remove the self from the situation and defensive emotions, acknowledge their frustration, and guage what you need to say or do to diffuse the emotions.
    4. I think we can be more transparent with our expectations. In Star’s first week of class, she has a discussion with the students about expectations regarding their roles and her own. I think it’s a brilliant way to set a foundation and build trust for the term.
    5. In my experience, a conference (informal or formal) with the student is critical to bringing them back into the community when their life gets shaken up. Expressing genuine concern for them as people is key. Even if they’re not willing to open up or get back on the horse, it means the world to just let them know you’re there for them and willing to help or listen.

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  2. Wendy S

    Alex, this was great. Thank you so much for your wisdom and ideas. I’ve added The Spark of Learning to my Summer reading list . I’d like to start with your 3rd question because it caused me to reflect the most. The emotions I am reluctant to address are apathy or hostility. If I feel a student thinks what we are reading is stupid or useless (or if they vocalize that), my immediate emotional reaction is disillusionment with myself. I beat myself up about not making better text choices, or not varying my options enough. I become afraid that my choice will derail the student from their education. I also get worried that the student’s emotions will become hostile towards me, and my own insecurities about looking too young or too gay start to peek their heads in. However, I, like you, have begun trying to address those situations up front by asking questions and being willing to work with that student. I have been trying to integrate more choices into my classes as well, and this is something I need to think more about for the fall, especially regarding due dates. I really like the idea of students having agency with due dates so that when those dates come around, they feel a sense of personal responsibly for those dates, since they chose them. This semester, I’m actually going to try letting my 1B students write their own essay prompts for the last essay, using the course SLOs, as a way to give them agency in what they want to write about regarding Watchmen. I’ll let you know how that goes!

    I’m also digging the idea of emotional transparency as a way to humanize ourselves and as a way to model for students how they too can just be honest and upfront with me about how they are feeling. I’ve noticed that often times, students just want their emotions acknowledged. Just because they tell you they are sad doesn’t mean they are going to have a crisis moment. Sometimes, they are just sad. Or angry. Or excited. I’m going to work more on this type of transparency and take note of the impact that has in my classroom.

    I’m in totally agreement that day 1 of the semester is CRUCIAL for building the type of learning community many of us are after. I always start with some kind in introduction activity, usually partners introduces each other, and I make notes by each student’s name that will help me learn their names by the end of the class period, or by the 2nd class. Students are always shocked that I know most of their names by the end of day one, and I have had several students actually express that they can’t believe I learned their name so fast, or that other teachers they’ve had never learned their names. Granted, some classes are much larger than English classes, but I think that personal connection can begin with something this simple. On day one, we break the syllabus into chunks and each group writes down the main points of each section. Then, we frame the conversation round my expectations of them. Then, we do an activity where we discuss what their educational experience have been like and what their expectations of me are. The need that was expressed more than any other was their need for me to not get angry when they ask questions. When I asked follow up questions, every single student in the room said that they have had teacher get angry or show outward frustration at them for asking questions. It broke my heart, but it also solidified my belief in taking the time to have these conversations to show them that we want them to not only learn and be successful academically, but that we want them to have a positive emotional experience in our classes.

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  3. Audrey H.

    Thanks for your post Alex! It has been helpful to see how others have connected to your discussion here as well. For instance, I can definitely relate to you, Wendy, when you discuss the immediate tendency to question or critique yourself when a student demonstrates apathy or hostility to reading choices. I have to work hard at personally refashioning that student’s response into helpful feedback that allows me to improve the course in some way, rather than tearing myself down about it.
    In the post, I specifically appreciated Cavanaugh’s discussion of how we can (and should) give students more power and control in the classroom context. Steven Brookfield talks a lot about this in his book, Powerful Techniques for Teaching Adults, and offers some great strategies that I’ve found positively impact students’ feeling of ownership. For instance, allowing students to assist in the construction of their writing prompts can make them feel more involved and responsible in class discussions and activities because they know that they will play an important part in creating the essay assignment for that particular unit of learning.
    Additionally, I appreciated Cavanaugh’s point about allowing students to participate in setting classroom norms. For example, this semester I started with an activity that asked students to create criteria that defined a so-called “stupid question” in our class, given the general sense of fear and shyness in the classroom that students seem to have about participating and asking questions, especially for 1A students. This emphasized the notion that as long as one is not meaning to disrespect or dismiss another, any question is valuable in the classroom. Addressing those fears at the start seems to have helped improve the way students participate so far this semester.

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  4. ProfKD

    Alex,
    I love this post — it is so helpful and encouraging, and nothing you say here is any less relevant in our new WFH semester. I’ve been noticing that some of the same students who had a hard time engaging in my courses in the face-to-face are also not checking in regularly yet to the online sessions (though I’ve lost a couple regular reliables from the F2F to the new conditions). But reaching out just like you did in your example, but now via Remind and an offer to get privately via Zoom to get caught up and sorted out in Canvas, have been effective. As Wendy and you both note, the transparency helps a lot in general, but also now. The students laugh right along with me and help me in the zoom chat when I admit I don’t know what I’m doing with the mic while we try to watch a video together. I love this Cavanagh book and find her ideas so useful and practical with a theoretical base that I totally get, and your distillation of the ideas is helpful as well — I love the infographic!
    Thank you,
    Kelly

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