As we return back to face-to-face classrooms after such a disruptive year of hybrid teaching, it is incredibly important that we focus on creating community once again in our classrooms. Even if we had students who were in-person last year, our classroom culture was so unlike to what we were accustomed. Honestly, last year I found it so difficult to establish any type of connection and relationship with any of my students (digital or in-person), because I never left from behind my desk!
Last week, I began to implement a "check in" activity called "Brags and Vents," and it is exactly what the title implies: a time for students to brag and to vent about themselves, stuff in their lives, etc. I learned this activity from Christopher Emdin's book called For White Folks Who Teach in the ‘Hood And All the Rest of Y’all: Reality Pedagogy, My colleagues Bob Patrick and Miriam Patrick have been regularly doing this in their classes as a way to build community in their classes. I had tried it out before with less than success in my classes, so I had put it on hold.
However, upon returning to the classroom, I noticed that due to the disruption in schooling, many students really did not know each other in my classes. In many of my classes, students were silent and did not talk to each other - granted this could have been for many reasons: introverted personalities, not knowing anyone in the class, and just adjusting to being in a classroom of 30 other students again. But an unexpected rain storm (we are talking a HUGE downpour) one afternoon which happened right when school let out led to a perfect opportunity to begin doing Brags and Vents. Since this was a common experience shared by all students where most students were drenched, the next day I decided to let students talk about it in class. Wow - every student wanted to vent about their experience of getting caught in the rain. For times sake, I only allowed a few students to share, but gosh, it really got students talking because they all had a common, shared experience about which to share. Now I am seeing students beginning to feel comfortable in the class with each other and with me.
How to lead a Brag and Vents
- Set a time limit for Brags and Vents - I set a timer for 2 minutes for brags and 3 minutes for vents. To me, the time limit is very important, because it is very easy to get sidetracked with this if you do not set a timer.
- At the beginning of the class, explain that you are going to give students a few minutes to share a celebration or brag about something IN ENGLISH. It just so happened that the first time I did this last week, it was a student's 16th birthday, which led me to ask when he was going to get his driver's license. That then led to a student sharing that she was getting her driver's license that day. In each of those instances, it gave me a chance to ask them some questions and to guide their brags some.
- When the two minutes are up, explain that you are going to give students a few minutes to vent about something. This first time, I simply asked, "So who got caught in the rain yesterday at the end of school." Immediately everyone felt like they had something to share since it was a common shared experience.
- This has been a great way for me to get to know students, for them to know each other, and to feel comfortable just back in a classroom again.
- So far, I have only done this 2-3 times a week in order to preserve the novelty. Some teachers do it daily.
- I am loving what I am learning about students during the brag time: one student told me that he is involved with a male roller derby association in Atlanta (I did not know that one even existed!) and is now a junior referee! Another student told me that he just got his first job. I probably never would have learned this about these students nor would their classmates have.
- Look for students who are involved in extra-curricular activities such as athletics, band, drama, etc., and during the brags, give them an opportunity to tell about their games, concerts, etc.
- Before class when students share something with me, such as getting their driver's license or their team winning a game, I now tell them to save it for Brags and Vents so that they can tell the whole class.
- It is important to set rules and parameters for this activity:
- Only one person speaking at a time.
- The timer is king, i.e., I tell students that since we are bound by a timer, please be brief in their brags/vents so that others have a chance. Once the timer rings, we are done.
- For vents, I give them a topic or two so that there is some degree of commonality during that time (or else, students will be all over the place with their vents). Topics which I have done: Who had multiple tests or quizzes today? Tell me about the traffic in the morning. How is your lunch period in the cafeteria? Who has first lunch vs. who has 6th lunch? Is it difficult getting to class on time?
- Students cannot make an ad hominem vent about a particular teacher or person, i.e. no naming of names!