If you had a superpower, what would it be?
That's the kind of safe question Dawn Nelson used when she started "circle-ups" in her Language Arts classes this past year.
Almost every day in her Culture and Identity class and a couple times a month in her other classes, the Forest Grove High School teacher starts out with a "question of the day." Every student has to share their answer out loud — either in a small group or with the whole class.
The activity gives each student a few moments in the spotlight, even the quiet ones who usually hide during class discussions, said Nelson, who gradually moved from "safe" questions such as "What's an urban legend your parents told you?" to more intimate topics such as "What's something you've observed your parents doing that you never want to do?" or "Talk about a stereotype people have about your identity (female, person of color, white male, gay, etc.) that really bothers you."
There have been particularly vulnerable moments, such as when students had to describe difficult experiences growing up and some talked about how people made fun of them.
The goal is to help students from widely varying racial, ethnic, political and economic backgrounds understand — and perhaps even care for — each other better. "It hasn't solved all the problems but it's a way to create a safe and comfortable culture," Nelson said.
That's what FGHS Principal Karen O'Neill had in mind at the beginning of this school year, when she directed all her teachers to build a classroom culture that supports equity, student voice, engagement and participation.
This was partly in response to a high-profile walkout last May a few weeks before school ended, when political and racial tensions between students boiled over and roughly 600 students walked out the school doors in protest.
When school started this year, O'Neill decided to make community building within each classroom — and the school — a priority.
Some teachers are better at this than others.
At FGHS, teachers who'd had success improving student dialogue and engagement used to share their ideas and strategies with colleagues during late-start Wednesdays. But late-start Wednesdays stopped in January to help make up for the instruction time lost to a record number of snow days.
Some teachers gave up trying to create community early on, say students. But it's not all their fault.
"A lot of students didn't want to participate," said junior Sofie Dobberfuhl, whose teachers all gave circle-ups a try at the beginning of the year but "not so much anymore," she said.
Junior Kasia Heesacker agreed. "It's kind of frustrating for me when people don't care about the questions, like I've heard them say 'Oh, yeah, this is a problem but I really don't care about it.'"
On the other hand, some teachers don't seem to understand the value of community building, said senior Sergio Bucio. "They're just so into their content" that they don't want to take the time, he said.
Bucio spoke to Forest Grove School District Superintendent Yvonne Curtis about the importance of community building in the classroom and had volunteered to promote it to all the teachers at one of their early-morning Wednesday staff meetings — before they got cancelled.
"I'm trying to make an effort for students to feel welcome at this school," Bucio said.
Classes are easier "if you don't feel divided, if there would be more comfort," said junior Marina Aranda.
And that's what a strong classroom community does, said Heesacker. "You'd be able to share. You'd know you have people around supporting you."
Activity turns powerful
Nelson isn't the only one who uses circle-ups. Science teacher John Worst has his freshmen students each give their names, then rate — on a scale of 1 to 10 — how they feel that day and why, then answer a big question, such as: what's one thing in life you're thankful for or what's a big decision you're facing?
The whole exercise takes about 20 minutes and he's done it about once a month, at the beginning of the extended block. He wants students to open up to each other "so they see each other as having a story to share."
Many of the students are shy and worried about what their classmates might think of them, but "even though they may not share deeply, they're still talking about their families and listening to each other," Worst said. That "generally leads to students being more comfortable around one another, which helps them to do better science."
Occasionally, something deeper and more significant can happen, such as when Worst inadvertently flipped the normal teacher-student power balance one morning after asking everyone to talk about a big decision they were facing.
As an example, Worst shared that he and his wife were considering adopting a foster child and he described a few of the questions they were struggling with as they tried to come to a decision.
His students immediately began jumping in to help. One called out "I'm adopted — it changed my life!" Other stories and support and encouragement poured in. The students' eagerness and concern nearly brought Worst to tears, he said. By giving his students a chance to help him, he'd sparked a moving and important experience for all involved.
Humility, spontaneity are key
Nelson, too, has discovered the effectiveness of changing that power balance. The more students understand she's open to their viewpoints, the more respectful they are in return.
"The more authoritarian a classroom," Nelson said, "the more potential for tension and conflict." Students are more likely to say (or think) 'This is stupid — I hate this' if something is being imposed on them from above.
Sharing power with students doesn't mean a teacher lets them do whatever they want. "There's definitely boundaries," Nelson said. "There are objectives, assessments, standards that must be met." It's more a question of the best way to meet them.
When students in one of her classes continually failed to meet writing standards, for example, Nelson approached them for a solution. They asked her to let them do their writing activities at school rather than as homework.
The difference was "night and day," she said. Instead of just two or three students completing the assignments, about 80 percent of the class was now doing so.
Another key for Nelson is spontaneity. When students in one class reacted uncomfortably after Nelson changed the seating chart, for example, she dropped her original plans and sent the new groupings on scavenger hunts around the school, where the casual activity helped them bond.
And in her AP Language Arts class the day after the presidential election last November, Nelson's lesson plan featured a multiple choice test. But many students were in turmoil or even tears over President Donald Trump's victory.
So Nelson scrapped the test and opened a discussion about civil discourse — how to talk respectfully and openly in difficult discussions with people whose opinions you strongly oppose.
She introduced the concept of positive ways to frame a response, such as "That's an interesting perspective but have you considered this?" Or "I don't agree but can you tell me more about ..."
After practicing such "sentence frames," students turned them into posters and put them up around the school.
Not every teacher will feel comfortable spontaneously changing their lesson plans and moderating in-depth discussions.
But even taking five minutes at the beginning of class to let people share how their weekends went would be helpful, said Bucio. "Because simple things like that matter. Because it makes you feel like part of a community in that class, not just a student here to pass and leave."
Community through content
Forest Grove High School language arts teacher Megan Murtaugh assigns projects that will help students from different backgrounds get to know each other.
One assignment, for example, has students identify a theme in a poem or short story and then connect it to their own lives.
"Students will often create projects centered around their families and other aspects of their identities," she said, "and then I have a 'gallery walk' where students tour each other's projects and have a chance to share and ask questions."
Science teacher Calvin Stark builds community through content-related questions. But the key is that he gets responses from students who don't usually talk in class. How? After asking the class a question, he assigns each student a partner and the two then practice their answers on each other. That gives them time to prepare what they want to say — as well as practice saying it aloud to another person.
And that makes them less nervous when Stark calls on them to answer in front of the whole class.
This technique, pioneered by education consultant Anita Archer and used by a number of FGHS teachers, not only helps students feel more comfortable speaking in public but also forces them to interact with different people and get to know them a little better.
Science teacher John Worst uses the same approach. "It sounds small," he said, but it helps the students feel noticed rather than ignored. For once, "everybody's looking at them, they're standing up, they're in a power position."
COMING NEXT: A year after the May 2016 walkout, how have students changed?