Activities that help create a safe classroom space

By Angelika Becker
@diebestefrau

At the beginning of the school year I like to ignore the old advice “don’t smile before Thanksgiving” and start with a big smile on my face and a lot of community building. Students need to know that my classroom is a safe place to learn and that it is okay to make mistakes; they need to know that I care about each and every individual student and they need to know that their classmates will be supportive.

On the first day I have, on the average, one hundred new names to learn. My students also need to learn names, so we begin the first day by forming a circle. If you remember, my classroom has a big empty space in the center for circle time, but if you can’t set you room up that way, use the hallway, the cafeteria or go wherever there’s enough space to do this.

During the first round of the “Name Game”, the students just state their name in the target language. “My name is ….” Easy enough, right?

Then we add on a name in round number two: “My name is…” and turning to the next person with the question: “What is your name?” During round three, they have to remember the name of the person before them. “This is Bob, my name is Jane. What is your name?” Please note that the students don’t have to repeat EVERYONE’S names that precedes them. I never like that kind of activity, because my stress level rises and I forget everyone’s name. And if I, as an adult get stressed doing an activity like that, imagine what it does to a teenager? Teenagers are extremely self-conscious, so having to speak in a new language, and remembering all the new names is enough information for the first day. The goal here is to get to know a few people, remember a few names, and make a connection with at least one person in the class. By doing it this way, we can lower the affective filter, while also getting the students to speak a new language, and also getting to know some names in the process.

Another fun name game is called “Hatschi Patschi,” pronounced “hat-shee pat-shee.” Again, we need to be in a circle, either sitting in chairs or standing. I use masking tape to mark each student’s spot. We also need a small token, which is the “Hatschi Patschi.” In my class, we use a little gummy bear that came out of a German Kinder Surprise Egg.  Generally, I start the game by standing in the middle and handing the “Hatschi Patschi” to a student without the other students knowing who it is. Then I ask every student their name in the target language and they reply with “My name is….” When I get to the student with the token, he or she will say “My name is Hatschi Patschi” and everyone must find a new place or chair. The student who can’t find a spot, stays in the center and has to ask the question in the next round.

I start in the middle and become part of the circle in the next round, so that a student will end up in the middle. A few important rules to explain before we start the game are: When everyone finds a new spot the student with the Hatschi Patschi has to secretly hand it off to a new person. Depending on the size of the group, you may want to have rules about how many spaces students must move each round. Mine have to move at least 3 spaces and they can go outside of the circle, thus behind other students, but have to stay within the circle. This game can be used to practice many different concepts. For example, asking for a favorite animal, color, school subject, food, drink, etc. But beware, and my students ask for it all the time. Use it sparingly!

In order to get to know my intermediate level students, I have them write a postcard with facts about themselves that they want me to know. This interpersonal communication will help them learn writing conventions, such as formal form of address and appropriate closing. Of course, I have to model it for them because most students have never written a postcard, but it is a great first step when teaching interpersonal written skills. This postcard serves two purposes: it helps me learn more about my students while showing them that I care about them and I can assess their writing skills at the same time.

Investing the time early in the school year fosters a sense of community that helps with partner and group activities throughout the school year.

For both team-building and name-learning, we practice with the “Hobby Activity.” In round one, each student says his or her name and a hobby or sport they like. The latter needs to be accompanied by a motion. For example: My name is Jim and I play soccer (here Jim would kick an imaginary soccer ball). In round two, each student has to first introduce the person before him: “This is Jim. Jim likes soccer” and everyone in the circle will kick an imaginary ball. Then the student introduces him- or herself and their free time activity. This game really helps students get to know each other and they are also encouraged to help each other out, should one forget or just freeze. Investing the time early in the school year fosters a sense of community that helps with partner and group activities throughout the school year.

Because intermediate-high to advanced students have much more language available to them, we can do more advanced activities. Often, they already know each other, so the simple name game may not be engaging enough for them. They really like the “Two Truths and One Lie” activity: The students write 3 statements in complete sentences in the target language on a piece of paper. They read their sentences aloud and the rest of the class will guess which sentence is the lie. To make is more competitive, I have students write their answer on a personal white board and the winner, the students who guessed most lies correctly, gets a prize. Another activity we do is to have the students write a poem about themselves.  The poem is patterned after a poem by a famous German writer. Another great format for this activity is a “Cinquain” poem. I collect them, read them aloud, and students guess who the author is.  I am often amazed at what the students write and how well they know each other.

Aside from the fun factor, these activities encourage collaboration and communication, they foster creativity and camaraderie, and they lower the affective filter, thus making the classroom a safe place to learn.

Angelika Becker teaches German level I, III, V, AP, and IB at Carmel High School in Indiana. She is a member of the AATG Trainer Network, a College Board consultant and an AP Reader. Her special interests include children and youth literature, using authentic materials at all levels and differentiated instruction.

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