Creating a classroom atmosphere where students feel accepted is important in most subject areas, but it is absolutely essential in English classrooms. If students are afraid that the teacher’s red ink pen will zap every error they make, they will continue to write the same boring essays repeatedly, refusing to ever take any risks in their writing. If they are afraid that their peers will belittle them or laugh at them, teenagers, whose lives so often are ruled by the views of their peers, will refuse to share their writing with their classmates or participate in classroom discussions of challenging literature. Teachers who want to create and maintain a cheerful classroom where students work productively, laugh frequently, and support each other automatically must establish that environment from the opening day of the school year or semester.
We all know the routine of the first day of class where we go around the room and ask students to introduce themselves so we can learn names. This activity has been part of my opening day activities for decades. Some shy students squirm a little, but most students enjoy the activity as they start to learn the names of their new classmates.
A couple of years ago, I stumbled upon a new activity that was so successful it has become a staple of my introduction to my class. I only wish I had discovered it years ago. The activity is quite simple.
1. I begin by emphasizing the importance of getting to know each person in the class.
2. I then give students one week to write a letter to their classmates where they tell a little about themselves and things they want people to know. I distribute a handout that outlines ideas of what they can include in the paper. I insist that the letter can be only one typed page, and it must include a photo. I also give students a copy of the letter about myself that I write to students.
I am often amazed at how seriously students take this assignment and how much time they spend writing good letters. Some letters are particularly poignant as they tell about a significant event in their lives while others are funny and illustrate students’ enthusiasm. Students who are shy often tell their classmates that they aren’t unfriendly; they just don’t like to speak in front of groups. Students who have recently experienced the deaths of family members will usually include that information because they think it is important for their classmates to know. Students who have health problems that may require them to miss school often convey that information.
Student letters allow me to get to know students better, but, just as importantly, the letters allow students to get to know each other and start bonding as a class.