On Building a Community in the Classroom

By Ryan Donovan|March 10, 2016|Pedagogy Guide, Peer mentoring, Reflection, student-centered pedagogy|0 comments

This blog is a reflection on implementing strategies and tools I learned as a student in the inaugural course offered by the Futures Initiative in Spring 2015 at The Graduate Center/CUNY. Though my students gave me permission to write about their experiences, I have intentionally obscured any identifying details.


In the second week of the semester, my students were assigned to give introductory speeches to the class. As this is a public speaking course, I wanted to demystify the experience of public speaking and naturalize students’ anxiety, so we dove right in. I was unprepared for what happened next.

Simply put, the students amazed me with their bravery, honesty, risk-taking, and emotional openness. One student spoke openly about their struggle with addiction and overcoming this to return to school. Another opened up about rebounding from a sexual assault in their past. Yet another told us about the emotional cost of immigrating to the US and being separated from parents for many years. Others shared stories of being bullied and having to fight their whole life. Some students also shared their joys with the class from making music to speaking French to discovering new passions like fitness or performing slam poetry. Remember, all of this happened in just the second week of the semester.

How did students get to feel safe enough to allow themselves to be so vulnerable so soon?

The biggest single reason comes from implementing student-centered pedagogy that encourages students to take ownership of and responsibility for their learning. I explained to the classroom on day one that I am not there to be the sole content delivery system but rather that I see my role more as facilitator of their learning.

In the first week of class, I gave students a few choices about this speech assignment: they could interview and introduce each other, they could introduce themselves according to their cultural/familial or academic background, or they could begin with a prized object or a newspaper headline from the year of their birth. The majority voted the second option, speeches of self-introduction. This speech was intended to be a “get your feet wet” experience. It was low-stakes in terms of assessment. Each student received full credit simply for getting up and delivering their speech. They were asked to use a notecard and to provide an outline, the purpose of which was for me to assess the level of their familiarity with basic academic preparation skills.

The first assignment that we did was based upon the Think-Pair-Share exercise. Students were asked to consider the best and worst classes they’ve ever had and to write down what both the teachers and students did in each of these classes. You can view the results here and here. While this was a fun way to get to know each other and to discuss what makes a good classroom, the point of the exercise was to be the starting point for our Class Constitution (I was inspired to make this with the class by Kalle Westerling and Cathy Davidson). Like Kalle’s class, we created this using Google Docs and we looked to theirs as a model.   

The Class Constitution helped foster an instant community. We spent time in class together discussing it and then students were assigned to contribute to it on their own. At the top of the document is our motto: “Consider Everything an Experiment”  (from John Cage’s “Ten Rules for Students and Teachers”).

The students asked that I “be mindful that each student is different in how long they take to adapt, especially those with a Zero level comfort of speaking in front of others” and “grade according to each student’s own personal level of improvement and not according to the rest of the class.” In turn, they promised me that they will strive to “apply what we’ve learned in this course into our lives to help us become overall better people.” They promised each other to “grow together as a class in terms of listening, teaching, speaking, and presenting. Leave no one behind” and to “honor and respect each other’s ideas.”

Students were also tasked with providing peer review for each other’s speeches, which also fosters a supportive classroom and helps students remain engaged listeners. Though this is an experiential course about the practice of public speaking wherein every student is required to speak, it is still important to me to build in structures of equality beyond those assignments. Peer review is one way for shy students to contribute. Another way is to insert time for reflection in class (metacognition!). Ask each student to write two reflections from the assignment/reading/etc. and then each student reads one aloud in a lightning round where we go around the room and everyone contributes. I have also recently experimented with using strategies from James M. Lang’s series of columns in the Chronicle of Higher Education on small changes in teaching. Lang gives several activities that will encourage metacognition in your class.  FI Fellow Danica Savonick recently wrote a great blog about classroom conversations, which you can find here.

One of the biggest takeaways from this classroom experience is that students will take more ownership of the course if they are involved in planning its structure to some extent. Their concerns deserve seen and heard because, after all, it is their education. This means building in structures of equality and agency into your pedagogy. This means giving up the need to be the sole expert or authority in the room and letting students activate what they already know, which is more than they think. This means implementing student centered pedagogy.

What I expected were basic speeches delivered by nervous students taking this class because it’s a requirement at their college. What I got was a gift. In return, I aim to keep creating a space in which we can experiment, grow, and honor the commitments we made to each other in our Class Constitution.

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