Sponsored by The Modern Classrooms Project.
One of the lessons that came from the pandemic is that most people really need social interaction. Spending time in community with other people teaches us to work together with others, gives us a sense of security, offers lots of opportunities to understand human behavior, connects us to new ideas, art, books, music, hobbies, and even career pathways, and ultimately shapes us into richer people. And presumably, it’s one of the reasons so many of us send our students to school, rather than educating them at home.
So it has been alarming to me that, as my own three children have moved into high school and beyond, the number of people in their classes whose names they actually know has gotten smaller and smaller. I can’t count the number of times I’ve said something along the lines of “Does anyone in your biology class do x, y, or z?” or “Who else besides ___ is in your English class?” and they’ll shrug and say something like, “I don’t know. I don’t know the other people in my class.”
I don’t know if this is just my kids or if it’s common everywhere, but it’s SO SAD! Yes, I know there are logical explanations for this. In elementary classrooms, classes are smaller, more self-contained, and students’ names are all over the place — on their desks, cubbies or lockers, and so on, so it makes sense that they more easily learn the names of their classmates. Once students get older, they switch classes all day, the academic work gets harder, the pedagogy often becomes less interactive, and yes — I’ll say it for you — they are always on their phones. On top of that, technology has made it a lot easier to manage most of the business of learning through devices, so whether students are in school or at home, they can access their schoolwork pretty seamlessly. This makes physically interacting with other people far less necessary than it used to be.
But just because there are valid reasons for this apparent lack of interaction in some secondary institutions, it doesn’t make it right. School is really the only opportunity people in modern society have to interact regularly, in person, with a large number of people who are different from them. Once we graduate from high school or college, we go on to jobs that will most likely put us in contact with a far smaller, less diverse number of people. This on its own is a reason to take more deliberate steps to get older students interacting more with each other. Add in the fact that so much of this generation’s human contact comes through devices and we have an even bigger reason to treat the time we’re actually together in one room as precious. The time your students spend in your classroom may be the only opportunity they have all day to engage with other humans in any meaningful way. And it’s such a shame to waste that by letting them stay in some sort of Matrix-like environment where they’re only plugged into devices and rarely even look to the left or to the right.
So this tip isn’t really a tip. It’s a reminder to set aside time, regularly, to get students interacting socially outside of their social cliques. In your classroom. And the first step toward doing that is to get them to learn each others’ names. There are tons of different ways to do this. Here are just a few suggestions:
- Have students wear stick-on name tags or put paper name tents on their desks. Yes, they are going to balk at this idea. Explain why it’s important.
- Give students a class list. If they don’t already have some kind of electronic access to the names of other people in your class through a learning management system, you can simply print out a list of first and last names, just so they know who is sitting in the desks around them. Again, they will likely not understand why you’re doing this. Explain it to them.
- Do some icebreakers. One that would be really good for this purpose is called concentric circles, which gives students the chance to have lots of one-on-one conversations with many of their classmates. Have students arrange themselves in an inside circle and an outside circle, forming pairs. Pairs discuss their answers to a getting-to-know-you question, then rotate for the next question, forming a new partnership. Each time, you can ask students to start by introducing themselves and saying each others’ names. Questions can be simple and open-ended, like these:
- Do you play any sports? If so, which ones?
- What was the last movie you saw? Did you like it?
- Describe your perfect dinner.
- What is one thing you’re good at?
- Establish and practice a norm that during class discussions, students need to refer to each other by name and build off of one another’s points by name. In episode 109 of my regular podcast, teacher Jeff Frieden shares a fantastic strategy for classroom discussions called ongoing conversations, that really pushes students to talk to everyone in the room.
- Make it a competition: For the last few minutes of every class session, have a competition to see who can correctly name the highest number of their classmates. You can even offer a small prize — I could get my middle school kids to do just about anything for a measly Jolly Rancher.
If you’re already doing things like this and your students are familiar and comfortable with most of their classmates, pat yourself on the back for a job well done. If not, think about ways you can start building in more opportunities to help students get to know each other. The effort will not just pay off in all the important human contact stuff I mentioned earlier, but it will make your students more comfortable in your class, and that means they’ll learn better.
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