Picture yourself walking into your first class on a Monday morning. Imagine you could hear all the thoughts running through your students’ heads. Here’s a sampling of what they’re thinking:
- “Sooooo tired.”
- “I hope the teacher doesn’t notice I didn’t do my homework.”
- “I wish I hadn’t skipped breakfast. I’m hungry.”
- “Is the teacher going to give us a pop quiz?!?”
- “Don’t wanna be here!!”
- “I’m freezing. Can we shut the window now?”
- “I forgot to charge my tablet. It’s gonna die on me halfway through class!”
There are some potent Monday morning blues floating around! How do you attend to your students’ emotional needs and show you care on Monday, or any other day of the week?
But first, what drives us to care?
The biological basis of caring
Caring is an integral part of who we are as human beings. We not only care about people we’re close to, like relatives and friends, but also people farther away from our inner circle, including acquaintances and strangers. Caring for others is necessary for our own survival and the survival of our genes. One essential part of caring is empathy, which involves sharing and understanding the feelings of others. From a very early age, children develop empathy towards other people in their vicinity (link). It has been suggested that our ability to empathize with other people connects with mirror neurons in the brain. What are mirror neurons?
Let’s imagine you’re bending over to tie your shoelaces. To do so, certain motor neurons in your brain fire. They are part of your neural routines for bending over and tying. Now, imagine you’re watching someone else reaching down towards their untied shoelaces. Some of the same motor neurons fire in your brain, even though you haven’t moved a muscle yourself. These are what are known as mirror neurons. They collect information about the world. They allow you to plan and make sense not only your own actions but also other people’s actions (link). They make meaning of motor actions, because when the neurons for bending and tying fire, they activate a cascade of related routines like shoe types, walking, or the intention to go out.
Mirror neurons are also activated when we observe someone else expressing their emotions. So, if you see a little girl sobbing, you’ll likely find yourself welling up. If your school’s soccer team has just finished a hard-won match, and one player runs up to you beaming from ear to ear, you might feel elated too even though you only watched the match. And this doesn’t just happen through vision; mirror neurons can also fire through sounds, via the auditory mirror system: Hearing a team whooping for joy and their fans going wild is enough to activate mirror neurons in your brain and for you to start feeling that jubilation yourself (link). Mirror neurons do not cause these feelings directly, but the information they gather helps us recruit social and emotional areas into predictive processing.
As teachers, we likely feel joy when we see a student’s eyes light up after an Aha! moment during class, or we may feel uneasy when we see a student visibly anxious before their presentation. Likewise, students can notice and feel the emotions their classmates are experiencing. How can teachers marshal their natural empathy and their students’ empathy to foster a culture of care in the classroom?
Fostering a culture of care in the language classroom
So, let’s return to our Monday morning classroom blues scenario. As you walk into the classroom, you sense your students’ myriad feelings of apprehension, anticipation, embarrassment, irritation, insecurity, . . . How might you show you care and help your students move the emotional needle in a more positive direction?
One way might be to start the lesson by empathizing with the emotions you’re sensing. You might say something along the lines of, “It’s Monday morning, and you might be feeling a little sad or tired now,” and then move directly into an affective activity that helps students transition to a more positive frame of mind. In her book, Caring and Sharing in the Foreign Language Class, Gertrude Moskowitz encourages teachers to incorporate humanistic activities in their classes, in particular activities that emphasize positive emotions, attitudes, and experiences (1978, p. 25). For example, an activity might have students reflect on and share their own strengths and their classmates’ strengths. Similarly, it could ask students to give each other positive feedback. Or it might guide students to a better understanding of themselves and their classmates. Moskowitz advises teachers to choose enjoyable, stimulating, and non-threatening activities that foster a classroom climate in which students are willing to share with each other (p. 27). She notes:
By sharing ourselves, others get to know us. When we don’t know what others are like, rather than feeling acceptance towards them, we are more likely to feel neutral, indifferent, mistrustful, or disinterested. Sharing, then, enhances acceptance by others. As we come to feel that we are accepted by others, we can risk being ourselves. The discovery of finding we are liked as we are builds trust and self-acceptance. There seems to be a relationship among sharing, being accepted by others, and self-acceptance. We might say that sharing leads to caring. (p. 28)
In her book, Moskowitz provides teachers with a plethora of affective activities that they can use in class with learners at different language levels, including guidance for the activities. She highly recommends that teachers:
- Select low-risk activities that focus more on positive aspects. For example, instead of having students reflect on a topic, like Something I wish had never happened, give students a more positive topic, such as Something I’m glad happened (p. 27).
- Give students the right to pass. Sometimes, a topic might touch a nerve for a student. Instead of forcing the student to share something that makes them uncomfortable, allow them to simply listen to the other students (p. 29).
- Consider students’ language level and provide linguistic support as needed. For lower levels, teachers can give students target vocabulary and useful grammar patterns to help them express their ideas. In addition, Moskowitz recommends not correcting language mistakes during the affective activity, and instead using the mistakes students make as information to determine which linguistic areas students need to practice more (p. 30).
- Give students clear ground rules before introducing an affective activity. Moskowitz suggests these three rules (pp. 31-32):
- Everyone gets listened to.
- No put-downs.
- Everyone has the right to pass.
When selecting affective activities for a group of students, keep your students’ personalities, preferences, and development front and center. For example, if you’re considering trying out a particular affective activity and one of your students has autism, you might need to consult with that student first and tweak the activity so that they can participate more easily. Here is small selection of 10 activities found online that you can use and adapt to promote empathy and caring in your classes.
Five activities suitable for children and teenagers
- Tell Me Something Good: One way you might do this affective activity is to have a few students share something positive from their own lives to the whole class and repeat this activity throughout the school year with different students (link). A variation, as demonstrated in this video, is to get students to stand up, find a partner, and give their partner a positive comment. This could involve complimenting their partner or expressing appreciation for something their partner has done.
- Flow and Tell: This is a short mindfulness activity. Sitting in a circle, students first spend a few minutes listening to ambient sounds and checking in with their own emotions, thoughts, and bodily sensations. Next, one by one, students briefly say what they are experiencing in the present moment.
- Crooked Circle: A Game for Building Trust: This activity is a good one for younger students. The students stand in a circle and hold hands. The teacher numbers off the students by 1’s and 2’s. When the teacher says it’s time, the 1’s lean forward while the 2’s lean backward. Students need to keep their balance while still holding hands.
- Beyond All About Me: If you teach at primary or middle school, you may already be doing an “All About Me” activity at the beginning of the school year. In this activity, students generally share a little about themselves in a poster or on a worksheet. In this blog post, you can find “All About Me” templates, some digital variations, and follow-up classroom activities; for example, a personalized “Find Someone Who” activity.
- Dialogue Journals: This is a long-term written exchange between the students and the teacher. Each student dedicates a notebook to their dialogue journal. After the teacher gathers some initial data about students, the teacher begins the dialogue journal by writing an individual letter to each student in their notebook. In the next step, the student replies to the teacher. Students and the teacher continue writing letters to each other for the school year. The dialogue journal is a good way for teachers and students to build positive relationships, and an easy way for teachers to show they care about each student. It has the added benefit of giving students written fluency practice on topics that interest them.
Five activities suitable for adults
- Personalised Conversation Cards: After passing out blank index cards to students, give them a topic; for example, People I Respect. Let students take a few minutes to brainstorm on the topic on their card and then have them stand up and find a partner to talk to for five minutes. Next, ask them to discuss the topic with a new partner.
- Language Portraits: To start, draw a simple silhouette of a person on the board, and ask students to copy the silhouette on a piece of paper. Then, have them select colored pencils or markers that represent different languages and language varieties for them and fill in the silhouette in the way that best shows their language background. Finally, let students share their portraits with a partner and talk about their language backgrounds.
- I see you. Everyone matters: In this short activity, the students and teacher stand up to form a circle and spend a minute respectfully looking at each person in the circle. The teacher ends the activity by having everyone say, “I see you. Everyone matters.”
- What’s new?: The teacher asks students to think about something new in their lives that they want to share with a partner in 1-2 minutes. When students are ready, the teacher divides them into pairs. One partner shares their news while the other partner simply listens without commenting or asking questions. Then, they swap roles.
- Spiral Journals: In this guided reflection, students fold a sheet of paper into four quadrants. The teacher gives students four sentence starters, one by one, and students write down whatever comes to mind for each sentence starter in the corresponding quadrant. After rereading their own responses, students briefly share one thing with a partner. If, for example, you’re dealing with a grumpy class on a Monday morning, your sentence starters might be:
- This weekend I enjoyed . . .
- Now I’m feeling . . .
- Something that puts me in a good mood is . . .
- This week I’m looking forward to . . .
As teachers, we care deeply that our students learn and develop their language skills. However, we also care about our students as people. By integrating affective activities into our classes, we can harness our students’ natural empathy and foster positive and caring relationships between students as well as between our students and ourselves.
Five Recommended Resources
Community building activities suitable for adult learners: https://onehe.org/equity-unbound/
Moskowitz, G. (1978). Caring and sharing in the foreign language class: A sourcebook on humanistic techniques. Newbury House Publishers.
Resources for cultivating a positive climate for younger students: https://ggie.berkeley.edu/collection/cultivate-a-positive-classroom-climate-for-younger-students/
Resources for cultivating a positive climate for older students: https://ggie.berkeley.edu/collection/cultivate-a-positive-classroom-climate-for-older-students/
Your pain is my pain: What makes us feel empathy: https://futurumcareers.com/your-pain-is-my-pain-what-makes-us-feel-empathy
Heather Kretschmer has been teaching English for over 20 years, primarily in Germany. She earned degrees in German (BA & MA) and TESL (MA) from Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Currently she has the privilege of working with Business English students at the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Germany.