As students, faculty, and staff figure out the “newish-normalish” of college learning during the age of COVID-19, prioritizing a “pedagogy of care” (informed by Noddings, 1984, 2013) is essential to re-connecting peer-to-peer and professor-to-student relationships so that mutual care and respect can be re-established in college classrooms. Prompted by my own creativity-based journey of self-healing and self-care during the quarantine phase of the pandemic, I have developed four quick activities that can help professors set the tone of their course, build relationships early in the term, and encourage self-care during course meetings.
Before students even step foot in the classroom, professors can send out a “Welcome Survey” to set the tone that the course they are about to enter will be a learning space that is inclusive and understanding of individuals who hold multiple identities. A Google Form (or similar intake form) populated with prompts that present students with opportunities to share about themselves signals that the professor is thinking about who is enrolled in the course, not just what will be taught in the course. Many of the following prompts are based on my learning/unlearning surrounding how our intersectional identities impact our lived experiences, and the wording has been informed by educators who run the following Instagram accounts: @teachingoutsidethebinary, @teachandtransform, and @britthawthorne. Your Welcome Survey could include prompts like:
- name to be called in class (including phonetic pronunciation cues),
- racialized identity,
- work status,
- caregiver responsibilities,
- cultural/religious holidays they observe,
- primary language they are most comfortable communicating in, and
- their prior experience with the course instructional modality.
An optional space encouraging students to share any “life experiences” that could impact course performance helps establish that professors do care about, and will take into consideration, what pre-established responsibilities, worries, and/or concerns students are entering the course with.
Throughout the years since implementing this Welcome Survey, students have reached out to me for one of two reasons: (1) to thank me for making space for them to share their marginalized identities (with many remarking that this is the first time a professor has ever made them feel welcomed as a transgender student, single mother, etc.) and/or (2) to ask to learn more about the identity terms I presented in the survey—both initiate meaningful professor-student communications early on in the course.
To continue the caring tone set by the Welcome Survey, I present a “Wellness Check-In” alongside my usual attendance sign-in. The Wellness Check-In can be completed digitally with a professor-supplied QR-code, on a paper passed around class, or on a white board as students enter the classroom. I often present abstract categories to prompt students to take the time to truly analyze their feelings and emotions as they enter the learning space. Prompts such as, if your start of the semester feelings were a COLOR, they would be:
- Calm pastel colors
- Loud neon colors
- Rainbow colors of possibility
- All of my crayons are broken
Allow students to share their feelings without having to use labels that can seem negative or judgmental (like “depressed”). I always give students the option to participate in the Wellness Check-In confidentially to encourage more honest check-ins. Often, just an overall gauge of how the majority of the class is feeling as they enter the classroom can help professors determine if a “class talk” is needed to sort out if what is going on outside the classroom is impacting students in the classroom (e.g., major current events).As the semester progresses and professor-student relationships build, time can be reserved to privately or publicly check-in on “why” students self-evaluated their feelings at the category label they chose. Over the past two years of using the Wellness Check-In as a classroom entry activity, many students have expressed gratitude for making space for them as “humans.” Establishing a routine check-in is also a proactive set-up that can reassure students that there will also be a reserved space and time to share when life is getting too complicated, overwhelming, or difficult for them.
While the first two activities shared in this article can help professors set a tone for the course and initiate relationship-building early on within their classrooms, these next two activities are meant to respond to students’ natural tendencies to want to attend to their self-care and socialization during learning time. By intentionally scheduling small “Brain Breaks” throughout class, students are provided much-needed space and time to readjust their bodies, minds, and feelings to improve their learning capacity. A quick Google search can provide professors with:
- music for a two-minute relaxing break during which students can check their phones or take a bathroom break,
- mini-guided meditations to re-center emotional wellness or provide a stretch from long-term sitting,
- fun quizzes to promote friendly competition and increase energy levels in the class, and/or
videos connected to the subject matter or as a quick distraction to break up long lectures.
In my courses, “Quick Chats” and “Spotify Soundtracks” are designed to provide a brief break from the cognitive demands of the course instruction while also promoting peer-to-peer socialization to increase a sense of class community.
“Quick Chats” can help encourage peer-to-peer relationship building. Like the Wellness Check-In, the prompts for Quick Chats can be abstract so students are not burdened with the often-difficult task of figuring out how to make “small talk” with those around them. Quick chat prompts include prompts such as:
- Would you rather take a selfie or a group pic?
- Would you rather be in the photo or taking the photo?
- Would you rather your words be etched in stone for eternity (never to be changed) or erased like chalk at the end of every day (never to be remembered)?
Provide students with creative, open-ended, no right-or-wrong discussion starters. Listening in on how students interpret the questions or justify their responses can add to the professors’ growing understanding of who is in their course.
Student-created Spotify soundtracks
I found music-based breaks to be especially conducive to setting a specific time for students to tend to their well-being and then quickly transition back to classwork; additionally, the tone of music can often calm or reenergize the class. While there are plenty of instrumental soundtracks and pre-designed playlists readily searchable, inviting students to contribute to a course-wide Spotify playlist encourages them to actively invest in creating the course culture and keeps them connected as they listen for “their song” to play on the “Student-Created Spotify Soundtrack.” Suggestions for the class playlist can include a formal assignment that requires students to provide multiple songs to choose from and rationale for why each song should be included, or it can be an informal collection of suggestions as part of the Welcome Survey completion or as a Wellness Check-In open-ended response.
The recognition of “their song” often brings a smile to students’ faces as peers chime in with exclamations of, “Oh! I love this song,” followed by natural conversations with neighboring classmates about concert attendance, other tracks by the band, etc. Setting an expectation that overtly explicit or inappropriate songs may be removed for the mutual respect of the class community usually prevents the suggestion of offensive songs. Students from past semesters have shared that they often check back in on the updates to the course playlist to see what new students are contributing.
Dr. James Comer asserts that “no significant learning can occur without a significant relationship of mutual respect, teacher to student.” As we all attempt to re-enter, re-establish, and re-shape healthy, positive, caring learning environments on college campuses, I encourage professors to consider the intentional inclusion of activities designed to invite students to share their diverse identities as they enter a shared learning space and prompt them to take care of their social and emotional well-being throughout the semester. Collectively, activities like those presented in this article can be quick but meaningful ways to set a caring tone prior to class entry which, in turn, sets up the potential for significant relationship-building.
Dr. Lauren E. Burrow, associate professor of education studies at Stephen F. Austin State University, is a Motherscholar to three adolescents who inform, inspire, and encourage her pursuit of scholarship and that help better prepare teacher candidates to be aware of, care, understand, care about, and take action on social injustices related to education.
Noddings, N. (1984). Caring, a feminine approach to ethics & moral education. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Noddings, N. (2013). Caring. A relational approach to ethics and moral education (2nd ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press.