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Equity Resources, Mindset & Motivation, Truth for Teachers Collective   |   Oct 5, 2022

The ultimate guide to authentically creating a secondary classroom where students feel safe, welcome, & whole

By Alissa Bratz

French Teacher, Global Ed Coordinator, Instructional Coach

The ultimate guide to authentically creating a secondary classroom where students feel safe, welcome, & whole

By Alissa Bratz

SEL can sometimes feel like “one more thing” we have to do, and can sometimes feel inauthentic to students.

This is especially true for secondary students. Younger learners are used to SEL (socio-emotional learning) practices like sharing circles and morning meetings; these procedures tend to fade away as students get older and into more specialized secondary content. I know I’ve had more than one SEL-focused lesson fall flat in a room full of high school juniors.

I realized that in a way it’s like trying to get little ones to eat their vegetables: you have to hide it in something they’re already used to.

That’s how I came up with these five strategies and routines that help me cultivate a safe and welcoming classroom for secondary students.

These strategies are relatively low-prep (although some may require a bit of prep to set up at first before automating) and have been effective for my students in grades 7-12. Some of these strategies can also streamline planning as well, as they have some classroom routines built in.

I’ve organized these 5 strategies in the order that I usually introduce them in my classroom. The order is intentional because it starts with simple/low-stakes activities that signal to students that this is a safe space for them to be their true selves, and eventually spill over into more authentic student interactions, where they can be a bit vulnerable after they are comfortable.

However, you do NOT have to do ALL of these strategies.

They work together quite nicely as a whole class, year-long system, but if you only have the time or energy to do one or two of them, they can also stand alone.

Whether you decide to do just a few of these strategies or all of them, I recommend tackling them in the order I’ve listed, but you know your students and your teaching context best.

Strategy #1: First day name tent procedure

Many teachers do name tents and similar “getting to know you” activities on the first day. There are a lot of great student questionnaires out there that capture a lot of really important information for teachers to know. My personal struggle has always been what to do with that information. It has always been overwhelming for me to process all the information captured on these questionnaires in the first few days, when I am still trying to learn names and schedules.

In reflecting on this, I decided to settle on 4 key “big picture” pieces of information that give me a lot of insight into students’ personalities right away and enable me to spend the rest of the school year getting to know the kids in greater detail. I capture these 4 key pieces of information on their name tents. That way in the first few weeks I can learn names and associate those names with a general idea of who they are. Students can also get a more general sense of one another early on, which helps get the classroom community rolling.

First, before the school year starts, I semi-randomly create a seating chart. I say “semi-randomly” because I am intentional about seating for some students. For example, those with IEPs or 504s that include seating accommodations; however for most students I just assign their seats randomly (often just clicking the “randomize” button on my school’s rostering software, and then manually moving individual students as needed per specific learning plans).

This seating chart is just for the first week or so, to avoid confusion on the first day. I want students to know right away on the first day that there will be assigned seats in our class, and their first task when they arrive on day one is to find their seats using my seating chart. This gives me a chance to observe student interactions, including which students are more inclined to cooperate than others. It plants the seed that my classroom is a collaborative learning environment.

In the days leading up to the first day, I also prepare a name tent template and a Google Form. The name tent template has sentence starters on the back flap to help facilitate academic discussions. This year I also plan to add sentence starters to the inside flap, to facilitate student discussions centering on reflection and empathy.

The Google Form captures the same information that I want them to include on their name tents. This might seem redundant but doing so serves several purposes:

  1. It frontloads for students the information I will be asking them to provide on their name tents. This gives more introverted students a chance to process the information and share it safely before putting it on their name tents.
  2. One piece of information I ask about on the Google Form is students’ preferred pronouns (and in which contexts I should use them). This can be a very sensitive topic for students, giving them a confidential space to share that information via Google Form means a LOT to students who may be questioning or exploring their pronouns. For several of my transgender or questioning students, they are only “out” on my confidential Google Form and nowhere else. Having a safe space to do this, where being out about their gender isn’t an “all or nothing” is powerfully important.
  3. Having students complete the Google Form on their devices is an easy bellwork activity for the first day, which frees me up to greet students at the door, help students find their seats/the right room, etc. And it establishes the bellwork routine right away (which is a regular routine in my classroom).
  4. It also helps me to notice any discrepancies between what a student shared on the Google Form and on their name tent, so I can follow up if necessary. This follow-up provides an easy opportunity for me to connect individually with a student on something low stakes (“I noticed a difference here and I just want to make sure I have the right information”) while communicating to the student that I care about them.
  5. In setting up the data spreadsheet for the Google Form, I can have it automatically color-code responses which makes it much easier for me to get a sense of who my students are (big picture), group students, etc.

The main pieces of student information I rely on in the first days/weeks are:

  • Students’ names that they want me to use in class
  • Their preferred pronouns (and in which contexts I should use them)
  • Whether they tend to be more cautious or more adventurous
  • Whether they tend to prefer individual work or collaborative work
  • Whether they are more “big picture” or more “detail-oriented” when processing information
  • Whether or not they like to read

Obviously, names and pronouns are critical, but I have found that just those 4 key pieces of additional information can tell me a lot about a student and what helps them thrive in class, without overwhelming myself with information in those first few days. I feel as though I’m getting the most critical information that I can leverage for establishing relationships with kids and creating the right learning conditions for them right away, and then let the connection unfold naturally and organically over time as I get to know more about them over the course of the year.

On the Google Form, I have students share with me the appropriate contexts for their preferred names & pronouns. Some students are comfortable with their peers knowing their preferred name & pronouns, but not their parents, and vice-versa. This information is critical for creating a safe environment for all students.

Having them share this in a confidential Google Form helps me know how to address students in class, in front of their parents, and with colleagues. It also signals to students that I will honor and respect their boundaries and choices, and helps them reflect on the relationship between their identity and their various social contexts. Doing this on a Google Form provides them with the necessary frontloading and foreshadowing to complete their name tent with confidence and security when we get to that point in class.

While completing the Google Form, some students really struggle with picking just one option for some of the either/or questions. I get a lot of students who say, “Well, I’m adventurous in some situations but not in others. What should I choose?” I advise them to pick the one that MOST resonates with them. I deliberately left off a “Both” option because most kids would just pick “Both” for every prompt, and then I wouldn’t have terribly meaningful information.

Keeping it to just two extreme opposites also really forces them to do some quiet self-reflection, which is great practice for what I will ask them to do in class throughout the year. SEL skills like Self Awareness need to be practiced, just like any academic skills, so this is an opportunity for them to practice that deep self-reflection.

Once class starts and I’ve taken attendance (by doing a visual sweep with my seating chart, never by calling out names on the first day) and ensured that every student has completed the Google Form, I then distribute the name tent templates. I walk students through folding them and filling them out with me modeling, step-by-step with my own name tent. This ensures that I capture all the right information on the name tents (which I will be looking at every day) and also helps the students get to know me on that first day, beyond just a list of my hobbies and preferences.

While I definitely think that sharing hobbies is a great way for students to get to know me and for us to find common ground, I think most students would find it much more compelling, meaningful, and relatable to know that their teacher, for example, is adventurous, prefers big-picture information, and prefers collaborative work. It gives them, in a broad sense, an idea of how the class is likely to go, and every student wants to know that on the first day, whether they realize it or not.

First, I have students fold their name tents in half to make the “tent” shape. I point out the pre-printed sentence starters and explain that we will be using these a lot during in-class discussions and that I expect the students to use them throughout the year. I tell them that they will learn more about this as we go along and that they will get lots of opportunities to practice.

Next, I have them write their official, rostered name (first and last) on the inside flap near the crease. This helps me match the name tent with the student on my roster in cases where the rostered name is very different from their preferred name.

Then, I have them draw lines to designate the 4 corners of their name tent, making a triangle in each corner, like this:

Next, I ask them to write the name they want me to use to call on them in class, in big, visible letters in the center. I encourage them to decorate their name if they want to, but to keep it simple as I will be relying on these name tents to learn their preferred names.

I give lots of examples of what I mean by preferred name: “So if your full name is Matthew and you want us to address you with the name Matt during class, write Matt on this part. If your full name is Isabella and you want us to call on you as Izzy, write Izzy. If your full name is Jonathan and you want us to call on you as J-Dog, put J-Dog on this part. If your full name is Suzanne and you want us to call on you as Mark, put Mark on this part. Use the name that you want me and your classmates to use when we address you in this class.”

I deliberately go from a relatively common ‘go by’ situation (Matthew to Matt) through progressively more uncommon situations (nicknames to gender-non-conforming names) to normalize the idea that all names are welcome and it is up to each person to decide how they want to be called. It sets a norm that students’ preferred names are honored in this class. Even if a student may not yet be ready to share their preferred name, normalizing it in this way sends a powerful message to ALL students.

Once students have completed their preferred names, I invite them to write their preferred pronouns underneath their names. I give my own personal example (she / they) as I write it on my name tent. I remind them that these are the pronouns they want us to use in class. Again, it sends the message that all students are in full control of how they want to be addressed and that their wishes will be honored. Any inappropriate snickering or harassing comments are addressed simply and swiftly: “That’s not funny,” or “That’s disrespectful/hurtful,” and I redirect the student to follow directions.

After they complete their names and pronouns, I direct them to color-code their corners, according to the 4 pieces of information they shared in the Google form. We do this together, one corner at a time, with me modeling, starting with the upper left:

  • Upper left: red (cautious) / blue (adventurous)
  • Upper right: green (work alone) / stripes (work in groups)
  • Bottom left: yellow (big picture) / polka dots (details)
  • Bottom right: heart or smiley (love to read) / frowny face (don’t like to read)

I use this Google Slides presentation to model through it with them, as well as my own physical name tent.

As we work through coloring our corners, I give students lots of examples of what each attribute looks like in a classroom, and also remind them to think back on what they put on their Google Form responses. For those students that feel they are in-between attributes (i.e. cautious in some situations and adventurous in others), I invite them to color-code their name tent corners accordingly – maybe by dividing their corner triangle in half and using a different color in each half, or by blending the colors, etc.

This is intentional because comparing what they chose when there wasn’t a third option (on the Google Form), with how they chose to express their “in-between-ness” on the name tent tells me vital information. Perhaps a student chose “cautious” on the Google Form but colored their upper left corner half red and half blue. This tells me that they probably tend towards caution but can be adventurous in certain contexts.

Or maybe they colored their upper left corner purple, which indicates to me that they might not always be the first one to volunteer, but they’d be willing to put themselves out there if they felt safe enough. And so on for the rest of the corners. By moving from a strict binary (on the Google Form) to a bit more room for nuance (on the name tent), this tells me a lot about students’ personalities in a few key areas and gives me a chance to see them with more complexity.

This may seem like a lot of information to process but by creating a template for the name tent, I now have a quick “at a glance” overview for each student. During the first few weeks I can use the color-coding on the name tents to decide which students to call on, and when, with relative confidence before I’ve really gotten to know them.

If I need a student volunteer I can glance around the room for any blue corners (indicating adventurousness) and invite one of those students to be my volunteer with relative confidence that they’ll be game for the task, rather than randomly calling on a student and hoping I haven’t just made my shyest student feel put on the spot – which can be incredibly damaging in those early days before relationships have been established.

If I glance around the room and see a majority of green corners (indicating a preference to work alone), then I can quickly adapt my planned small-group group activity to accommodate that (for example, changing it to a silent discussion or gallery walk). And I can also use that information to intentionally plan specific activities over the course of the year that foster collaboration, so my “loners” can learn some collaboration skills in a way that is constructive rather than forced, as well as prioritize individual activities in planning so that my students feel that their learning experiences are a match for their personalities.

Using the color-coding also helps me redirect behavior in a personalized, effective way in those early days before I’ve really formed relationships with students. For example, if during a silent reading task a student is distracted, a quick glance at the name tent might provide some insight. If they have a frowny face on their name tent, indicating that they dislike reading, that can help me address the behavior appropriately (perhaps by quietly suggesting that they listen to the text). Or if their name tent shows that they love reading, but also that they prefer collaborative work rather than individual work, I can suggest that they do a shared read-aloud with a partner instead.

I can make this very transparent for students as well, to model SEL self-awareness and help students see the relationship between who they are and how they learn, in a way that goes way beyond a simple “learning style” label and teaches them to advocate for their learning needs.

For example, after explaining an activity, I might say: “For this activity, you have the option of doing it alone or with a partner. Think about what you put on your name tent for that preference and let that guide you. Maybe you prefer to work alone but want to get better at collaborating (or vice-versa). You can decide if you want to use this activity as an opportunity for that or not.

Think for a minute about what you’re going to choose – working alone or with a partner, and why. Be prepared to explain your choice. Maybe you’re going to choose to work alone, but your friend wants to work with you. You may need to be prepared to say, ‘I’d like to work alone on this activity because I want to focus today,’ or whatever your reason is.”

I give them some time to make their choice, and then I release them to do the activity. The name tent corners give students an anchor to understand how they interface with learning, and how to make sound decisions about how they will learn. In this way, they take ownership of their learning and increase their self-awareness skills.

On the back end, I’ve set up my Google Form to auto-format the data spreadsheet by color-coding the cells according to students’ responses. This makes it really easy to see any whole-class trends (for example, is this a class that loves to read, for the most part?), and also to have a quick at-a-glance record of students’ pronouns and the contexts in which they can be used.

I alphabetically sort the data by student last name to match my roster, and color print this spreadsheet after the first day or two. That way I have a whole-class visual even if I don’t happen to have the class in front of me with their name tents (for example during my planning period). I can also use the spreadsheet to write students’ preferred names & in-class pronouns directly on my seating chart, below their picture so that I can be sure to always refer to each student appropriately. I usually keep each seating chart in a manila tab folder (one class/chart per folder).

I print out the seating chart (with student pictures) for the first day, and have students use that to find their seats. After the first day, once I have their Google Form responses and their name tents, I hand-write their preferred names and pronouns on my seating chart. Then I staple that seating chart to the inside of the manila folder, with a sheet of transparency over it. On the inside of the other half of the folder, I staple my color printout of the Google Form spreadsheet, with “Confidential” written on it. This way I have all the critical student information handy at a glance in one place. Substitute teachers have shared with me that they appreciate having all this information available as well.

As an aside, you may be wondering why I put transparency over my seating chart. That’s just to make attendance easier for me – during bellwork, I can do a quick visual sweep of the room, mark absent students right on my seating chart with a dry-erase marker, and then enter it into my school’s attendance software. I can also mark down any other key information such as tardies, if a student left the room to go to student services, if I notice I may need to make a seating chart change, etc. It makes it easy for me to keep track of individual student needs on the seating chart, that I can address after school or during my prep period, and erase the dry erase marks at the end of each day.

Strategy #2: Create an “SEL Station” for students, and give them routines for using it

This is another strategy that needs quite a bit of prep during your initial classroom setup but can be easily automated once it’s done. There will be some legwork at the start of the year as you teach your students the expectations and routines for using the station, but just like all classroom procedures and routines, it should run itself for the most part (although you may need to re-teach these expectations and routines periodically throughout the year, just like with any other routines) once they are taught.

Just by having this available in your room on the first day, and pointing it out to students, communicates powerfully to them that they are in a classroom with a teacher who sees them as a whole person, and who cares deeply for them. Since we usually spend the first days/weeks of the school year gradually introducing and teaching expectations and routines anyway, this can be a part of that process.

Your SEL Station does not have to take up much space. Depending on your classroom situation it could even be a small crate or tub rather than a designated physical space if you teach in a shared classroom or on a cart. Your SEL station or tub should have a selection of items that students can access when they need emotional regulation. You know your students and your teaching context best, but here is what I have in mine to give you some ideas:

  • Curated short meditations on YouTube, accessible via QR code
  • Curated playlists on YouTube, featuring adorable puppy videos, calming nature scenes, etc; each accessible via QR code
  • A few small containers of Play-Doh
  • A few quiet fidgets and manipulative brain-teaser puzzles
  • Coloring books & colored pencils/crayons
  • Short, uplifting picture books
  • Glitter bottles
  • A deck of cards with various yoga poses
  • A set of workout dice

If your teaching space does not allow for an actual physical place for these items, you can just keep them in a tub and label them accordingly. If your classroom and budget have room for it, you can also add a couple of comfy chairs, maybe a lamp or rug, or some plants – anything to create an inviting space.

You may also want to consider setting it up in such a way that students may have a little bit of privacy while still being visible to you – perhaps in a back corner that you can still supervise, or by setting up a short bookshelf or small lattice room divider. Setting up some privacy, if it’s possible for your teaching context and space, helps students feel safe being emotionally vulnerable.

Once you have your station or tub set up, the next step is to create your expectations and routines for using it and prepare to teach them to students. You know your students and context best, so develop what will work for you. To give you some ideas, here is what works for me:

  1. Only 2 students in the space at a time.
  2. 10-minute maximum time per student in the space. Students are to return to the classroom activity once their time is up and try their best to catch up if they feel able. They are always welcome to visit with me during our school’s study flex/advisory period if they are really far behind, but usually, they can get what they need from a peer.
  3. Students do not need permission to use the space. They can start using it as soon as they enter the room, or if it’s during class they can just discreetly go to the area. In the past, I have used a small hand signal that has worked well as a “heads up” that they are going to the space but I haven’t always seen when students are signaling me, so I don’t really use this strategy anymore.
  4. No cell phones in the space. (I have a classroom tablet with headphones that they can use to access the YouTube videos and meditations via QR code).
  5. Students must sign in and sign out via a Google Form when they use the space. This is to capture data that I can share with student services, guidance counselors, parents, and other interested parties if need be (for example if a student is using the space daily it may indicate that more intervention is needed). In the Google Form, I capture the student’s name, date, how they’re feeling and why (in narrative, as much or as little as they’re willing to share), what tools they used, and how they felt afterward. This narrative is helpful for me and for student services, as well as to help students learn to reflect on their emotional state and what strategies do/don’t work for them. Over time this can help them learn coping skills and self-awareness.
  6. If after 10 minutes in the space, a student is still feeling escalated, they are to ask me for either permission to “take a lap” in the hallway, or for a pass to student services/guidance. I follow up with student services later as needed.
  7. Students not using the space are to respect and honor students who do: no staring, drama, discussion, or speculation. The expected responses are empathy and allowing.

Having these expectations on a poster (in student-friendly terms) in the SEL station is helpful.

It does help to do some of the SEL station activities as whole-class activities first – especially in the first weeks of school to help build community and reinforce the idea that your classroom is a safe place. It teaches the students how to use the resources in a low-stakes way, so that later when they are feeling stressed they already know how to use the tools in your station.

I highly recommend also teaching students to self-evaluate their feelings during this whole-class time. I like to do it as bellwork: students do a check-in as they arrive, for example, memes such as “Which Baby Yoda are you today?” or color-coding (Blue for sad or tired, Green for calm & ready to learn, Yellow for anxious or excitable, Red for angry or impulsive). Then as a whole class, I do 1 or 2 of the calming strategies together (play with Play-Doh, watch a puppy video, do a meditation, etc.), and then have them re-check their emotional state using the same prompt as when they came in.

You can also have them write or talk about their experiences and how the strategy worked for them. As they get more familiar with the procedure and the strategies you have available, you can allow for student choice in picking a strategy during the whole-class SEL time. Continue to reinforce that students can use the station individually anytime they need to and refresh expectations for its use as necessary.

This SEL station has worked wonders for students coming back from Covid schooling and has also been great for my students whose IEPs include strategies for self-regulation. It is a universal-level intervention that empowers students to exercise self-compassion, develop self-awareness and coping skills, cultivate empathy, and build resilience.

Strategy #3: Daily classroom routines (built into your weekly planning) that leverage SEL skills & content teaching at the same time (and streamline your planning!)

This is a strategy that saved me during Covid, and that I plan to keep in the future. I credit my French teacher colleagues (in the French Teachers in the US Facebook group) for the inspiration for this strategy, as many of them have provided ideas and/or do some version of this in their own classrooms. Each day of the week has a theme to help me focus my planning and narrow down the options for what to plan. The themes in my class are in French and linked to French-language acquisition goals as that is my content area, but the principle can apply to any content area. The themes are:

  • Lecture lundi (Reading Monday)
  • Méditation mardi (Meditation Tuesday)
  • Musique mercredi (Music Wednesday)
  • Jeux Jeudi (Games Thursday)
  • Vidéo Vendredi (Video Friday)

Clearly, some days such as Meditation Tuesday and Games Thursday lend themselves more readily to SEL skill development, but during Covid, I tried to intentionally build SEL instruction into each day’s activities. Here is how they work in my high school French classroom. I share them by way of example in hopes that they might spark some ideas for how they could work in your classroom.

Reading Monday: After greeting students and taking attendance, going over bellwork/announcements, etc; we begin our Free Voluntary Reading time. This is our routine every Monday. Students choose a book from our class library and read silently for 10 minutes. Then they fill out a reading response sheet that includes lots of scaffolded French language to talk about the book and their opinion of it, as well as a self-reflection on their comprehension level and any new vocabulary they picked up from the reading. This helps them process what they were able to understand, and talk about their book in French with a classmate.

We do partnered book talks using this sheet and it’s great for communicative practice in the target language. However, we also reinforce listening skills and conversational turn-taking. The sentence starters on the backs of their name tents help reinforce this as well. It builds students’ relational capacity while they are working on their French reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills.

Reading Monday has obvious connections for World Language or ELA classes, but it can also be useful for any content area. The goal is to have a classroom library of compelling, interesting reading material at a variety of levels, that students can self-select. You can build a classroom library around your content area, and set up your partnered book talk materials to facilitate reinforcement of your content.

Even if students choose reading material that is about something other than your current unit topic, they are still building content knowledge, strengthening reading skills, and developing interpersonal skills. When setting up your classroom library, seek out books at a variety of reading levels and on a broad range of topics that could be of interest to students; there will always be a way to connect it to your content area.

For example, a comic book featuring a science-based superhero, or an image-heavy “coffee table book” featuring origami, would both be great additions to a math or science classroom. Dystopian or utopian science fiction stories (short stories, novels, or graphic novels) are great for history, social studies, or science classrooms.

Anything that kids will find interesting, that has a tangential real-world application of your content, is great. The important thing is to have a wide variety of choices (if you’re short on budget, ask your school librarian to help you curate a book cart for your classroom) that students can self-select each week; and then establish the weekly routine of reading and talking (or writing) about their chosen books.

I should point out that none of my Reading Monday activities are for a grade. We spend the first few weeks practicing my expectations for Reading Monday, and I remind students that the purpose of it is not for a grade, but to help them build their communication skills in French. I explain that it’s like cross-training for athletes.

For example, the football team would never do push-ups during a game, but they do push-ups regularly in practice. They don’t get points for their push-ups, but doing them regularly helps them perform better in the game. Our reading activities each Monday work the same way. This helps build intrinsic motivation and also removes the grade pressure from reading, for those students who have reading struggles.

Meditation Tuesday: Many students share with me that this is what they look forward to the most in our class, and it has helped them in other areas of their life. The premise is simple. Every Tuesday we do a French-language mindfulness exercise. I intentionally create meditations that are at the appropriate level for their language learning and also fit with what the class seems to need at the time (for example positive affirmations before a big exam, or seasonal-themed visualizations, etc.)

I don’t always write my own meditations: I also have curated a YouTube playlist of French-language meditations over time, for those weeks when I am really crunched. If you teach a subject other than a World Language, I imagine it would be relatively easy to find meditations on YouTube that would be appropriate for your content area, for example, nature-based visualizations in a biology class.

Meditations and visualizations can be a healthy and pleasant way to conduct a review or help students connect to the content in a mindful and different way. The meditation usually only takes about 10-15 minutes total of class time, and then the rest of the class goes according to whatever my plan is. In some very special cases, for example, following an emotionally-intense school-wide experience such as a lockdown drill, we’ve used up the entire class period on mindfulness activities instead of content, and I have never once regretted it.

Music Wednesday: This is another popular one for students, and lots of World Language teachers do some version of this. The idea is simple: I choose a French-language song for every Wednesday and we do one or more activities with the song. The song and the activities depend a lot on my students, their level, and the particular content I’m teaching that week, but it helps to narrow my focus when I’m planning.

Students love to hear music from French-speaking countries, especially if it’s current music that kids their age are listening to right now. Many students start to curate playlists of the songs we’ve studied in class, or they follow their favorite French musical acts on social media. It has also led to some lively classroom discussions about who the class’s favorite artist/song is, and new friendships have formed as students discover common ground.

The predictability of knowing that “On Wednesdays, we do music” gives students something to look forward to, and keeps my planning focused. Sometimes our music activity only takes up about 10-15 minutes, other times it takes the whole class period if I am able to plan lots of extensions and connections. This is easier to do if I can find a song that dovetails with whatever content we have on the docket at that time, but if I can’t, I have a file of 5 or 6 standard activities that will work with any song, and I rotate those. It makes my planning much more streamlined.

Games Thursday: Sometimes we play a whole-class review game, but usually I prioritize board games or card games that students can do in pairs or small groups. This way they are reinforcing turn-taking, teamwork, communication, and interpersonal skills – all skills that have suffered due to the isolation of the pandemic, and that are key SEL skills.

I have several class sets of games that I’ve purchased over the years, that are specific to my content area. Some are more language-based review games, some are culturally-authentic board or card games that French-speaking teens and families play around the world. Either way, it’s furthering my students’ content-area skills.

Depending on what we have going on, sometimes the games take up the whole class period, sometimes it’s just the last 20 minutes or so, after we’ve gotten through some additional content together. Sometimes the concept we’re learning dovetails perfectly with a game that I already have, so the choice for that day is that particular game. Other times I leave it up to students to choose their game based on what they need at the time.

I invite them to do some reflecting on what they need emotionally as well as academically in French class and suggest various games they might play in various situations. For example, “If you’re really feeling like you need to review adjectives and descriptions, I suggest playing ‘Guess Who.’ If you need to practice your conversational skills, try Headbands. If you’re feeling like you need lots of social interaction today, and want something a little more low-key, you might want to try 7 Familles…” etc. Then they choose their game and they’re off.

For some classes that maybe need a little bit of extra guidance in how to play fair, be a good sport, take turns, etc. we do some establishment of expectations and norms for games in the first few weeks, to build community and ensure a positive game-playing environment. Again, this helps streamline my planning and keeps me safe from “analysis paralysis” when planning, because I know that no matter what, on Thursday I have to plan something through a game lens.

Video Friday. This works just like Music Wednesday except that instead of a song, I find a video clip. This tends to be somewhat anticlimactic because I use video clips a LOT in class, but I try to make the Friday video clip a bit more substantial, usually designing the whole day’s lesson around it.

One thing I’ve found that makes this work really well is that I use Video Friday to teach a film. That way it doesn’t feel like we’re being “bogged down in a movie” like we might if I were to teach it all at once over the course of a week or two. I can stretch an entire movie out over a whole quarter or semester, by just showing it in 10-minute clips at a time every Friday, with instructional/reinforcement activities to go along with it. This helps the students really digest and process the film in smaller bites rather than zoning out during a full class period of movie-watching.

It also helps me plan film-related activities more effectively, as I can plan it out in bites over the course of the semester as well, often with really appropriate “just in time” lessons and activities that are responsive to what my students need at the moment. If I don’t have a movie in the curriculum, I choose a relevant video segment related to whatever we are covering.

Sometimes I “cheat” and use the music video from the song we did on Wednesday, but I approach it from the video angle instead of the music angle. For instance, instead of doing a listening cloze exercise with the song lyrics, I might have students do an identification activity where they watch the video and circle the French vocabulary words of all the objects they saw in the video, or identify cultural products/practices in the video.

I might invite students to work in groups to come up with an alternate ending for the video or stop the video before the end to make predictions. There are a ton of possibilities and it all depends on what my instructional goal is. I usually try to stick with video clips that are about 5-10 minutes long, because the important thing is what they DO with the video content, not the video content itself. The activities can take anywhere from 15 minutes to the whole class period, depending; but once again, it streamlines my planning and creates something predictable for students, which helps them succeed in so many ways.

The predictability piece is probably the biggest help to students. If a student is absent on a Monday, for example, they know that they at least missed the reading routine and can easily make that up because it’s a procedure that they know. If a student is absent on a Friday, their peers can easily help explain what they missed so they can make up the work easily (and it takes the pressure off of me to chase kids down for make-up work: they can handle it with their peers).

And of course meditation, music, games, and video clips keep a lot of students wanting to come back for more. It makes our class a place they want to be and keeps me from becoming too much of a “sourpuss” with my planning. It’s hard to get bogged down in a planning rut when you KNOW you have to plan for a game on Thursday or find a catchy song for Wednesday.

Strategy #4: Using a tool like Pope Notes to help students learn to communicate their needs, and help you respond to students’ changing stress levels

I learned this strategy from a middle school colleague. It’s similar to strategies you may already be familiar with for checking for understanding: for example giving students a red, yellow, or green card and having them hold up their card to indicate where they’re at in their learning.

The implementation is relatively simple. Print a class set of cards from this template, using colored cardstock. The template indicates which color to use (R= red, Y=yellow, G=green, B=blue, P= purple). Cut out the cards. The template also has larger-format cards that you can use on a bulletin board so that you and the kids can see what each of the colors represents. Have the cards available to students, separated into piles by color.

Once you have your cards ready, teach the routine to your students. Let them know they can take a card from the stack anytime they need to: when they come in, during work time, etc., and keep it on their desk. If their situation changes they can swap cards or even use multiple cards at a time depending on their situation.

As you are teaching, you can sweep your eyes over the room to see students’ cards. (It can be helpful to have the students stand their cards up using binder clips to make them easier for you to see). During work time, you can easily circulate around and check in with students who have blue or purple cards or check in emotionally with students who have red or yellow cards. Students should always return their cards to the appropriate pile at the end of each class.

You can extend this strategy if you like by having students keep a log of which card(s) they used each day, to help them learn self-awareness skills and coping strategies. This does not have to be elaborate and can even be done as part of an exit ticket process. This information can be helpful during parent-teacher conferences as well as when collaborating with colleagues to support individual students. Another possibility is to connect it to student reflections on their use of the SEL station described above, and/or to connect it to my 5th strategy, below: student reflection and goal-setting guides.

Strategy #5: Tools such as reflection & goal-setting guides, sentence starters, and anchor charts to help students self-reflect as well as give authentic, constructive peer feedback and cultivate compassion and empathy

This strategy probably takes the most effort to fully implement, but the good news is you can start with just one or two of the tools and gradually incorporate more as you are able. Some of the tools, such as sentence starters, you may already have in your toolbox; or if you’re using my name tent template you can use the sentence starters included on the template. Since students use their name tents daily, it can be easy for you to incorporate using the sentence starters in your lessons by encouraging/challenging the kids to use them during class discussions and partner work.

If you’re just going to do one strategy to start, I recommend starting with a quarterly reflection & goal-setting guide. Students keep their reflection & goal-setting guides (or you may choose to keep them in in-class student portfolios), so that they can view their progress as the year goes on. This can be a simple form where students self-assess on their academic progress over the past quarter.

In addition, create some prompts where they can self-assess their study habits and in-class behaviors. Although we should never grade on behavior, it’s important for students to see the relationship between their in-class behaviors and their success, and the reflection guide helps them do that. You may also want to provide some prompts to help students develop an attainable goal for the following quarter.

One thing I have found to be successful is to separate out goals and habits. Goals are where we want to go, but habits are what get us there. Most students need to work on cultivating habits, so providing a way for them to really focus on which habits they’re going to develop over the quarter can be very helpful.

Kids are usually great about setting lofty goals for themselves (“I want to get an A next quarter”) but they may struggle with how to get from where they are to where they want to be. The reflection & goal-setting guide helps them see the relationship between their habits and their performance, so they can develop actionable steps to apply over the quarter. For example: “I will make flashcards every time we have new vocabulary,” and “I will study my flashcards every day in study hall for at least 10 minutes.” Or perhaps, “I will sign up for teacher help during advisory time at least once a week,” or “I will contribute meaningfully at least once every time we have a small-group discussion.”

Towards the end of each grading period, you can work this form into your routines, modeling for students and talking them through how to reflect on how last quarter went for them, and why; and what they’re going to reach for in the upcoming quarter, and what specific habits they will develop to achieve that.

You can also incorporate some partner discussions into this time, to help students build empathetic and supportive interpersonal skills, inviting students to use their discussion sentence starters to facilitate a meaningful conversation. In some classes, I’ve taken this a step further by having students find a partner with a similar goal to theirs, and having them become “accountability buddies” to each other. This fosters a sense of cooperation and helps students stay on-track with their new habits.

As the quarter goes on, when I have students engaging in work time, I can encourage them to work with their accountability buddy, or I might say something like, “Think back to your goal for this quarter. If you are trying to work on using your time more effectively or eliminating distractions, now is a perfect time to do that. We will have work time in a few minutes.

It can be tempting to browse YouTube videos or be on your phone during this time, but remember your goal. What habits are you trying to cultivate? Decide right now how you will use your time, and if it would help you to get support from your accountability buddy, ask for their help now in keeping you on-task, or whatever strategies you both agreed upon.” In this way, I make students accountable to themselves and to one another for how they use their time in class, which is much more motivating for students.

These strategies have all been a great help to my students and to me. I emphasize some tools more than others year to year, depending on my classes and our needs. Over time, experimenting with these strategies and refining them, I’ve seen my students become more resilient, more independent, and more empathetic.

This has made teaching much less stressful for me, and many students have commented that they appreciate how safe and welcomed they feel in my class. Over time I have started to center SEL in my teaching practice and let my content teaching grow out of that. As we all know from the very wise Maya Angelou, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel.”

Alissa Bratz

French Teacher, Global Ed Coordinator, Instructional Coach

Alissa is a National Board Certified Teacher, linguist, and Global Education coordinator with nearly 2 decades of public school classroom teaching and instructional coaching experience. She has also worked as a teacher, coach, and trainer in disciplines ranging from classical...
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