Before the first day of class, I considered the atmosphere I wanted to try to foster in my classroom. I wanted it to be a place of conversation, questioning, and mutual respect. I wanted to encourage my students to bring themselves – their personalities, senses of humor, genuine questions – into the classroom. I wanted to underscore that what happens in the classroom is partly up to the students. I wanted to share my belief that the more of themselves they bring into the space, the more we can learn together. I wanted to find a way to show this, not just state it
I selected a set of activities through which we would make agreements as a group and think through the ways the students might learn best together. But how to begin? Those very first moments? I wanted to start with something tone-setting, besides a roll call.
I concluded that, for the first day of my class – starting at 6:30 PM on a dark, very cold night – I wanted to acknowledge not just my students’ presence, but what it took for them to get there. Instead of setting a tone of judgement in which I am constantly sizing up and quantifying my students, I wanted to set a tone of appreciation. I wanted to create a welcoming threshold, across which my students would want to step.
This past summer, I attended a great weekend workshop with the organization Training for Change. Their focus is on social justice facilitation with groups of adults. When we – a group of organizers and facilitators from around the country (and world) – first sat down together, we were welcomed in a deliberate, almost ritual way. Our facilitators acknowledged the wide variety of identities and experiences we brought to the room, using what they call the Diversity Welcome. You can read about it, here: http://www.trainingforchange.org/diversity_welcome
I thought about what it might mean to welcome students in their entirety. To genuinely invite their thoughts and questions into the room. To acknowledge the various places they might be coming from, and the various ways they might be feeling as they entered a new class for the first time. My goal was not to initiate a long conversation about the day that preceded our meeting; I didn’t want to distract from the work ahead. My goal was to acknowledge our arrival into the space together, to offer some validation of the fact that they may have other things on their minds, and, in doing so, to invite the students to be more present in the room.
The diversity welcome as practiced by the TFC facilitators was really a beautiful thing. What I did was not so much a variation of their practice, but was inspired by it. I lowered the stakes and focused on recent experiences, sensations, and feelings that might be present for the students as they came into the room.
“Hello,” I said. “I want to welcome those of you who came here directly from a day of work, and those of you who are coming from class. I want to welcome those of you who are hungry, and those of you who may be full from having just eaten dinner. I want to welcome your minds, and your bodies. I want to welcome those of you who are looking forward to this class, those of you who don’t know what to expect, those of you who are here as a requirement. . .”
I continued, not for very long, but at a steady and deliberate pace, looking around the room and making eye contact with my students, and really meaning what I said. The atmosphere in the room felt peaceful. In the end, before I even asked for any more suggestions, one of the students volunteered some more criteria. I repeated what she said, welcoming the group in that way. And then I paused for a moment and I let it sink in.
After a breath, another one of the students said calmly, “I think that was the best welcome to a class I’ve ever had.”
We’ll see where I can take us from here. I hope, at least, that the students who were there on the first day know that I’m glad they’re in the room – grumbling stomachs and all.