January 28th, 2013

Love the One You’re With: Creating a Classroom Community


It’s the first day of class. They shuffle in, spot similar life-forms, and slip in with that group. Hipsters sporting wild hair and tats, buttoned-up and serious young scholars, middle-aged moms and dads, maybe a couple of aging hippies. One or two sad souls choose spots isolated from the others; they don’t want to identify with them for reasons of insecurity, arrogance, or something else.

Every good teacher knows that learning doesn’t happen in isolation. Creating a learning community gives students a sense of security, study pals, and somebody to double-check with about assignments. While once upon a time classrooms were largely homogenous, filled with young white males who shared many of the same real-life experiences, these days most classrooms can, at first glance, seem to be a wild cacophony of humanity, tender and tough, curious and hostile, open-minded and most definitely, absolutely closed.

Here’s the question: How do you get them to connect? How do you get them to feel safe enough to express ideas in front of such a varied group, listen to one another’s ideas, engage in authentic dialogue, and push their own academic, social, and personal limits in order to grow?

From the moment the class passed the threshold, I feared this was one pot of stew that was never going to mingle flavors. It wasn’t just that there were a number of different “types,” it was that already, 43 seconds into class, an invisible but palpable distrust was rumbling just below the pitch of human hearing. However, it was not below the pitch of teacher hearing, and it filled me with fear. I had Goths and girlie-girls, straight-shooters and loose cannons, bookworms, and back-row mutterers. I had a guy proudly sporting a spaghetti stained chef’s hat, and another proudly displaying a bald and vibrantly tattooed skull, and they were glaring at each other.

I opened my mouth to say, “Class dismissed.” Fortunately, my inner administrator reminded me that if I dismissed them before the first class had even started, I would lose my job. My mouth has a mind of its own (often not a good thing) and instead, I said, “Let’s dump the desks.”

“Huh?” the class sang in unison. A good sign. Unison.

“Shove them out of the way and make two circles facing each other.”

“Huh?” they sang again.

“You with the gorgeously tattooed skull, you’re in charge. Make them do it!”

He glared. They scrambled. It was done.

The circles formed, the inner circle facing the outer one. They looked almost ready for some spontaneous folk-dancing.

“Inner circle: You’ve got one minute to pry out as much interesting information from the person you are facing as you possibly can. Skip the boring stuff parents ask their kids’ dates. Ask what they’re afraid of, if they’ve ever been lost, or what makes them laugh hysterically.”

“Ummm,” a girlie-girl trilled, “Like, what are we supposed to be doing?”

“You are speed dating,” I said. She perked up immediately, as did several of the older returning students who probably hadn’t dated in a while. “When I flick the lights, everyone absolutely stop talking—even if you’re in the middle of a word. When I flick them again, outer circle has one minute to ask questions. After your two minutes are up, inner circle steps to the left, outer circle stays put, and do it again. Go!”

“Are you crazy?” my inner administrator said. I didn’t bother to answer. The room became a concert hall filled with glorious word-music—murmurs and mutters, giggles and snorts, the rapid gallop of syllables leaping atop one another, all rising to a beautiful crescendo…

I flicked the lights.


I flicked again.

Words. Conversations. Eye contact. Here and there, a hand reached out to touch a shoulder, mouths slipped from crescent-moon grins to open laughter.

And thus it went. Round and round the room they probed and questioned and probably overstepped bounds, but nobody complained so I let them be. When everybody had finally met everyone else and it was time to sit down, I saw several students grab their bags and books and slip next to someone from a completely different group. We reviewed policies and talked about my grading system, and they actually listened. But that wasn’t the best part. The best part was when the chef-hat guy and the tattooed skull guy left class together, their charmingly ridiculous heads tipped, chuckling over who-knows-what.

Dr. Cynde Gregory teaches composition and literature at Gwinnett Technical College in Georgia in addition to tutoring second language learners of all ages.

  • Dr. Ryan James

    I start every semester explaining what "5 Minute Dating" is all about and then share we are going to do something similar. I have a list of questions for one student to ask another and then have them number off 1, 2, 1, 2. All ones stay put. All twos get to ask the first round of questions. After 5-8 minutes, I call time and have all twos move one seat beyond to be with the next one. Then one gets to ask the questions.

    After about 7-9 rounds of this, depending on class size, I then tell the entire class they can question me about anything they wish to know. I hold my breath waiting for that one inappropriate question, but it has never happened. The class melds like one functional family. It is wonderful.

    • Lynda Deckard

      I would love to know your list of questions…..

  • Stephanie Wall

    This is a great ice breaker. I'll have to remember to use it…

  • Reinhold Gerbsch

    Great idea, thanks!

  • kristigirdharry

    I do a version of "speed dating" later in the semester with my Advanced Writing in the Disciplines students. It's an interdisciplinary course, so I give them a few minutes to express their field's values/conventions and my students' interest in the field quickly–they have to look for "connections" between the (sometimes highly varied) disciplines. After each "date," I ask them to briefly "Rate your date!" on a sheet of paper so that they will remember what connections they made. This can take multiple routes afterwards, but I have them make a claim for what classmates should work together in a group (everyone just kind of shouts out what they think: it's messy but fun, and we get a chance to deliberate why the Computer Science major should work with the Art History major or what the Music Industry major has in common with the Biology major…).

    All this to say that "speed dating" doesn't just have to be an icebreaker (though it's a great one, and I'm so glad you shared this idea)! I bet we could speed date over lots of different topics…

  • Conred Maddox

    A very good approach to "breaking the ice". Though some may not be so forthcoming, I always reveal that I have flunked out of college seven times before it stuck. Admitting that you, the instructor, are human makes it OK for the students to be human. That making mistakes and learning from them is the key to being a better human and student. It also helps the embarrassed to accept that they can contribute to the learning community (the AA approach of we are in this together). The final moment of my classes is no leaves until I go to the door to shake everyone's hand while pointing out what each contributed or that he or she needs to engage a little more. The anecdote to this is one time I was busy with a student as the class ended, and none of the students stood to leave until I finished and headed to the door. The fact that I treat them as equals is one of the main comments that are listed in my teacher evals.
    I always look forward to what my peers share on this sight. Mahalo (Hawaiian for thank you)!

  • Lynda Deckard

    It is a very good way to breakthe ice. I am wondering if it would work with my students, who have been living and studying together for three years, but who sometimes have not formed a completely cohesive group.

  • Loretta Driskel

    Being that social relationships are THE most important part of college, I was thrilled to read this article. Feeling safe and among friends in class is the first step to students success and it is essential whether we (students & instructors) realize it. Take time for icebreakers and learning content will be more engaging for all.

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  • Mahendra Thapa

    I agree that learning does not happen in isolation. In my physics class, group homework and group discussion were proved to be most effective than just merely giving assignments.

  • Great article, and I agree with Loretta's comment above about social relationships. This is the best defense that non-electronic colleges have against the move towards online-only learning. I also think that its a vital part of the educational process in general and I've even written about "Teaching as Relationship." To continue this practice past the first day of class, I've even taken to changing the genre of my assignment prompts from the business memo that I grew up with to a personal letter. In this letter, I describe the assignment components, but not in a checklist kind of way. Instead I try to "speak" to them as human beings and describe in friendly language what I'm looking for.

    The results so far have been excellent. Each day over the last 2 weeks I've had numerous students talk to me, either in class or in my office, about their ideas and writing strategies. They've been really engaged with the assignment and seem to be taking a personal investment in it.

    So keep doing what you're doing! If anyone is interested, I have the letter-format assignment prompt online here: http://wp.me/p2YkM5-3m

    • Kenda C

      Danny, thanks for sharing…love your sense of humor which is so evident in your writing. I smiled multiple times while reading the introduction and what you wrote to your students.

  • Kenda C

    Love this idea. I just ended my term feeling quite blue to lose one of my all-time favorite classes. As I gear up for next term I need some ideas to build another one just like it…I feel like the community built last term was a fluke and want the next term with new students to experience something similar. Dr. Cynde, thanks for sharing!

  • vickie

    Wow that was awesome, I'm going to try that technique, I just love it !!!!

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