Monday, December 19, 2011

Safety Dance

If you're old enough to remember when Men Without Hats put out their video "Safety Dance", then I have a 5-disc carousel CD player you might be interested in ...

What does this have to do with teaching English unplugged? Well, Josette LeBlanc posted recently about a tool used by some practitioners of Nonviolent Communication called a restorative circle. She described it as a place where conflict can safely take place.  That immediately put me in mind of the EFL/ESL classroom, where I hope to create a safe place as well, albeit a slightly more generalized version where students feel safe enough to take risks.

"The effective language teacher is someone who can provide input and help make it comprehensible in a low anxiety situation."  - Stephen Krashen, Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition, p. 32

Krashen proposes that when someone feels stressed, an affective filter blocks the ability to absorb input.  I believe this would apply to any communication situation.  If you're distracted, anxious or angry, you're not in the best position to truly hear what another person is trying to say.

So, what have I done to facilitate a safe place in my classes?

As Mr. Barter notes in the video on Josette's post, a sense of community is essential.  One small, but effective practice: I make a point of learning and using student names as soon as possible, asking for help with pronunciation and checking that the way I'm addressing them is to their preference.  This models what I would like students to do with each other.  To facilitate that, I ask all students to make a "name plate" -- a piece of notebook paper folded into a triangle with their name and home country on it.  I have one too.  Students pick their name plates up from a shelf in the classroom when they come in and they tuck them back on the shelf when they leave. It's amazing how effective this is in getting students to notice each other as people. Before we used name plates, learners rarely addressed each other by name.  With the name plates, they will reach over, turn the plate to read it and initiate some discussion about the name or country with a classmate.  After a few lessons, students begin leaving their plates on the shelf.  That's fine, as long as the plates have done their job.  When a new student joins the group, we start using the plates again. I love that a student will go to the shelf and get the plates for everyone at the table! A tip: use a different color of paper for each class if you have several classes that meet in the same room.  A thought that occurs as I write: after a while, I could take away all of the name plates.  I'd let partners make new plates for each other, asking each other for help with spelling as needed.  That would benefit kinesthetic learners.

Developing ground rules can also help with building community. I haven't done this with all of my classes, but it's been effective in the cases where I have.  (The process I'm about to describe is based on tips from this article by Emma Mendiola.) Briefly, I begin with a discussion about "what makes a good place for learning?" (the list includes things like few distractions, good temperature, good light, suitable furniture/supplies).  We then follow with "what makes a good student?" (does homework, comes to class prepared, is motivated, participates actively, listens well, is respectful to the teacher) and "what makes a good teacher?" (is knowledgeable, is patient, is on time, helps the students, gives advice).  I like to question the separation between the teacher and student lists.  (Shouldn't a teacher come to class prepared, too?  Couldn't a student help/respect another student? How? etc.)  I don't spend a lot of time on the classroom list, but do point out that we have some control over the "few distractions" item and ask for ideas about that (cell phones, interrupting, private conversations are things that come up). Through various activities (depends on the group) we come up with a list of five things that apply to both student and teacher and then make a poster.  In one class, we had this lesson shortly after Independence Day and  we each put our own John Hancock on the poster before we hung it up!  This activity creates a safe place because the items are all out in the open and the list is co-owned.  If a learner needs to, he or she may be more comfortable reminding another learner of the agreement.  (Note that the classroom list can be used in a future lesson to stimulate thought about what makes a good study space at home, too.)

Another "safe space" idea sort of slowly revealed itself to me over my first year or so of teaching.  It has to do with truly being myself in the classroom.  That sounds obvious in hindsight!  But, in reality, a classroom is very similar to a stage.  I mean, you walk into a room full of people who are sitting in a bunch waiting for you to get "the show" going.  As a new teacher, I was very conscious of what I was doing and whether it was "what I'm supposed to be doing".  Many of my adult students, meanwhile, were all set to play a "good student" role that they've played many times before.  Knowing what our roles are is a kind of safety.  Unfortunately, it's not conducive to a communicative English class.  When we're in our roles, we're saying the lines we think we're supposed to be saying and doing the things we think we're supposed to be doing (perhaps a sequence of  "communicative activities" as outlined in a book).  It didn't feel right.  I thought it was mostly due to the students' lack of understanding about the structure of a communicative English class, but I came to realize that my own role-playing was literally setting the stage for them. I wasn't sure what to do about this, however.

About a year ago, I read Facilitating Group Learning: Strategies for Success with Adult Learners by George Lakey.  He emphasizes the need for authenticity in a learning group.  In a section with the title "Design for Discomfort", he says:

"A lot of zest gets unleashed when people give up pretense and get real.  As the container strengthens, people give themselves permission to get silly or make puns or do the funny things they are ordinarily too self-conscious to try."

Lakey reminds the reader that the point of establishing a safe place is to support students as they venture out of their comfort zone (in SLA, I guess that would be Krashen's i+1).  I began to give myself permission to make little jokes, be silly, draw funny doodles on the board and that opened the door to my being more authentic in general.  In a section about supporting authenticity, Lakey advises facilitators to give permission to the learners as well.  I now make a point of mentioning some of the unconventional things we're going to be allowed to do in class -- for example, sticking out your tongue and making funny noises when practicing the "th" sound.  When students disagree, I make a point of nodding and smiling and mentioning that disagreement is a great opportunity to practice communicating.

All of this seems to lead naturally to unplugged teaching.  I guess it's no surprise that I'm using it more and more these days!

I would love to learn more about making a safe place for learning.  Please share your experience and ideas?

I'll leave you with these immortal words from the Men Without Hats web page:

I say, we can dance, we can dance
Everything's out of control
We can dance, we can dance
We're doing it from pole to pole
We can dance, we can dance
Everybody look at your hands
We can dance, we can dance
Everybody's taking the chance
Well it's safe to dance
Yes it's safe to dance
Well it's safe to dance
Well it's safe to dance
Yes it's safe to dance
Well it's safe to dance
Well it's safe to dance
It's a Safety Dance


  1. Kathy, thank you so much for this post and for mentioning my blog! I love that song and each time I listen to it also brings to mind the concept of safety in the classroom. It's so very cool that you thought the same thing! :)

    I really connected to the rules (norms) discussion that you have with your students. This is an activity/concept I have introduced to the teachers in my classroom management lessons. They have largely appreciated and connected to the concept.

    I also really connected to the idea of being yourself. It seems so simple but so many of us try to create a type of teacher image, not realizing that out discomfort translates into the classroom atmosphere.

    I sense that this also relates to your relationship to the concept of mindfulness. A few years ago I took an online course which helped teachers connect mindfulness meditation practice to reflective teaching. It was amazing. When I read your "about" page I immediately thought of this experience. You might be interested in what they have to offer

    One last thing, you might also be interested in an article I wrote about the concept of safety and support

    Happy blogging and Happy New Year!

  2. Thanks for the tip about your article! I couldn't get a connection at that link -- did KOTESOL move their website -- but I found it here:

    I especially love the experience of Jeong-A Lee, who models making mistakes and taking them in stride in order to help her students feel comfortable with doing that too.

    I hadn't thought of letting the students know what's coming in their next class as as safety-builder (idea suggested by Eun-Ju Jang), but it makes sense. That ties naturally to an unplugged approach where "materials" come from the people in the room. Students have a chance to bring something from home that relates to the upcoming topic, for example.

    One-on-ones (Eunji Lee and Bu-Kil Cho) are the takeaway for me. I can see how these would build trust with the teacher, and hence strenthen safety!

    A Happy New Year to you too!