The most powerful teaching tool I have ever used to create a cooperative and nonthreatening learning environment in my classroom is the common actors’ Trust Exercise. Put simply, it involves “falling”, (actually just leaning) towards another person, and trusting that person to catch you. I have developed this into a series of lessons which I use at the beginning of the year to create a climate of trust among the students in my class.
I always start the unit with a quick description of why I am doing these exercises. (There is no sell job needed. Except for a very few, very insecure people, the kids love this unit. By the end, the insecure ones love it, too.) I am very up-front about my reason for teaching these lessons. I explain that one key element in a good learning environment is a feeling of safety. And not only physical safety. Emotional safety.
By this time, they are all listening intently. Everyone has been bullied, physically and emotionally, and nobody likes it. My intent is to create a bullying-free atmosphere in the classroom, and they all buy in immediately. Yes, even those who might bully. I think most bullies attack first, because they are afraid of being attacked. If you can create an environment where they won’t be attacked, they are happy to cooperate.
So I tell them that a major step towards a safe environment is being able to trust every one of your classmates not to hurt you, either physically or emotionally.
Then I talk about trust, and how it is earned. I talk about how easy it is to lose trust. After all, it takes years to get a reputation as a trustworthy person, and one single error to blow those years down the drain. I emphasize that the objective of these lessons is to build trust. People have to practise trusting you, over and over, and never have a bad experience.
I repeat that it is necessary to trust everybody in the class: every single person. After all, it only takes one person making one nasty remark, and the shyest person will be afraid to perform.
(If you want more on the “Shyest Person”, check out “The First Six Weeks of School” post earlier this month)
So the objective of the next few lessons, clearly stated to the class, is that every student will earn the physical trust of every other student in the class.
LESSON ONE: FIND THE NEAREST PARTNER.
This first lesson isn’t actually a trust exercise as such, but is a cooperative learning exercise. I use it as a five-minute warmup for my trust lessons. It simply consists of having the students move around the room in a random pattern. When I say, “Choose a partner,” they are to choose the nearest partner, no matter who it is. We wait until everybody has a partner, then we move again.
It is important that they are not asked to perform any serious activity with this partner. The point is to make the choice painless. So if a boy chooses a girl, he has succeeded in the objective of the lesson, and he doesn’t have to do anything but stand near her for a moment.
The major rule, and it is one I use all year in all situations, is that no one is allowed to protest or comment in any way on who their partner is. Even jokingly. Remember, the shyest student is hearing you.
The other rule is to make the choice as quickly as possibe. “Don’t waste our time.” I say that a lot. The inference is that they will be wasting valuable class ( and Drama game) time with silliness if they fail in the objective.
After they have played the game for long enough that I can see them truly choosing the nearest person no matter who, I start to make it a bit more difficult, but a bit more interesting. I will ask them to choose a group of three. I will ask them to choose a partner and stand back-to-back. Choose a group of three and touch toes (one foot each). Then I move into more difficult, like standing in a “high five” position with palms of one hand touching. (Yes, he actually touched a girl!) You make these up as you go along, depending on the degree of success you are seeing in the whole class. Obviously most of the group are going to be doing just fine. You are really judging your progress by the kids who find it the most difficult.
Remember, this is a consensus situation. You don’t go on to a harder step unless you’re pretty sure that every single class member can succeed. The key is to make the tasks interesting enough that the successful students are having fun giving the less successful ones time to practise.
My comments during the game focus on how well the class is succeeding at the objective: in other words, how quickly they are all finding partners. If anyone is not succeeding, I help him. I do not deal with any incident as if it is a discipline problem: only as situation where help is needed in achieving the objective.
The secondary objective, of course, is concentrating on the exercise and not goofing around. I don’t actually talk about this one, but I’m working on it big-time, especially at the beginning of the year. After all, success here will pay off in Reading and Math class as well.
If an appreciable number of students are not succeeding, I stop the exercise. I say something like, “All right, I don’t think we’re quite ready for the next step, so we’ll try again next Drama class. Once you can do this one really well, we can go on to the Trust Exercises.” And we all sit down and do some other subject. At this point I usually choose something relatively easy, quiet, and motionless. Nowhere do I want them to get the idea that this alternate activity is either a reward or a punishment.
After all, what do you do when half the class flunks a Math quiz? You don’t say to yourself (I hope), “Those dratted kids just won’t learn this Math.” You say, “I guess I better teach that again.” Drama lessons are exactly the same.
The last thing you want is for them to think, “You will do this my way or else I will punish you.”
The second-last thing you want is for them to think, “If I goof this up, we get to stop and do something more interesting.”
I will sometimes have a student sit out the exercises, if he is really not concentrating, but I get him back in as soon as I can. After all, succes in Trust Exercise requires 100 percent success. Once I have the class well-indoctrinated, being allowed back into the game is enough motivation for most students to improve their concentration.
Once again, I never want a student to think, “I was bad and now I’m being punished.”
I want the student to think, “I did not succeed at the objective, and I’m being helped to succeed.
I also don’t want anyone to think, “I don’t like this. I’ll screw up and get kicked out, and then I won’t have to do it.”
Once every student in the class has demonstrated the ability to make a quick choice of partner, I move on to the real Trust Exercises. Of course, for the next few lessons, I let them choose their friends as partners. Doing Trust Exercises with a randomly-chosen partner is a long way up the line.
Next post I will start the “I fall and you catch me” lessons.