How homey is your class?
I only ask because sometimes making a class feel more like home is just what your ESL students need to relax and prepare to learn. If your room is feeling a bit too institutional, here are some ideas for helping ESL students feel at home in class.
7 Ways to Help Students Feel at Home in the Classroom
I don’t know if you feel the same way, but sometimes the bright florescent lights that usually comes along with any classroom can be a bit abrasive. Very few people have that kind of light in their homes, and so any time they encounter it, it brings up feelings of institutions rather than comfortable living. You don’t have to turn off the lights in your room to make things more comfortable, but consider bringing in some lamps and more “homey” lighting into your classroom. You can find some great deals at garage sales and thrift stores, and just bringing some more natural light into your classroom can be enough to help students relax and feel a little more like they are at home. So even if it’s just in a cozy corner of class, bring in some lamps to fight the florescent foes that shine down from above.
Can a classroom really feel like a living room? It can when you are careful about the arrangement of your furniture. If you can, let friends and family know you are collecting couches or soft chairs for your classroom. You’ll be surprised at how many people offer donations. But even if you can’t bring in outside furniture, consider arranging tables and chairs to feel more like a social space. Ditch the rows and columns in favor of larger tables where students can sit and face their classmates. Put desks in a circle so everyone feels like one big family around a giant dinner table. Do whatever you can to dispel that sterile institutional feel in favored of something more like family.
Give Them Ownership
Yes, it’s your classroom, but it’s their classroom too. Your students spend almost as much time within its walls as you do, so it’s only right to let them have some say in what that room looks like. You can do this not only by hanging student work around your room, but also by giving them a say in how you decorate. Consider designating one of your bulletin boards for student design. Break students into groups and have one group design and decorate the bulletin board each month. Supply ideas if they need it, but give students the freedom to really make that space theirs.
You might also create a shout out wall where students can brag on their accomplishments as well as the accomplishments of each other. Keep it simple by getting some 5x8 sticky notes and let students write out their successes or those of their classmates. Then simply stick them to the wall where everyone can see. Don’t be afraid to give a shout out to individual students from you too. Keep filling in the spaces as the school year continues and let students feel some pride at just how much they and their classmates have accomplished in just a short amount of time.
Agree to Disagree
When culture comes up in the classroom, things can get heated very quickly. Our cultural values are so deep down and so much a part of who we are, we often don’t even realize someone else might have values that differ from ours. And when you have multiple cultures represented in one classroom, clashes are bound to happen. Start out your year right by instituting the rule that it is okay to agree to disagree. Sometimes the people in your classroom just won’t see things the same way. That doesn’t mean that we and our students can treat each other with disrespect. Help students understand that everyone has the right to express their values without a fight about who is right. Respect does not equal approval. It’s okay to agree to disagree, and there is no more important place to embrace that than in today’s ESL classroom. While you’re at it, take some time to talk about what respect is and how to express it. Then require that your students show respect toward each other no matter what, especially when they disagree.
See and Affirm the Benefits of L1
It can be hard to be the only native speaker in a room full of ESL students, particularly if they all speak the same first language and you don’t know it. Our first reaction may be to ban L1 from the classroom. After all, they are there to learn English. But that’s not always the best idea. Students’ first language isn’t always an inhibitor to learning English. It isn’t always a crutch. Sometimes it’s the key to understanding. Allowing occasional use of L1 in the classroom can not only help your less proficient students understand concepts you are teaching, but it can also help them build the relationships that will sustain them throughout their long and sometimes arduous language learning journey. Don’t be afraid to let students speak their first language, especially in social situations. Sometimes the comfort it brings can work wonders to ease them into more advanced English success.
Form Personal Relationships with Students
Sometimes it surprises me how much my students value a personal relationship with me. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t care about them. I most certainly do. But to them, I am often the only native English speaker they interact with on a regular basis. I am their link between their home and their new world. I am their guide in a strange place. The same is true for the relationship between you and your students. So it’s important to spend some time developing the relationship you have with your students on a daily basis. You may have tons of items you want to get through on your lesson plan, but just taking five minutes to interact socially at the start of class can make a huge difference in how students feel when they are there. Take some time to ask how they are doing, what they have been up to lately, anything they have encountered but don’t understand. And don’t hesitate to share some of your personal life with them too.
Make a Safe Place
One of the easiest ways to deal with an overwhelming or threatening situation is to remove yourself from it. But we don’t often have that option available for students in our class. You can do much to alleviate stress your students experience by creating a safe place, a time out corner in your classroom. In Montessori classrooms it’s called a peace table. But whether it’s a table or a couch, giving your students a place to take a time out, where they can go when they are overwhelmed or angry or simply need a break, can be the stress dissipater they need. Make sure students know that while they are in your safe place, they don’t have to listen or speak English, they can use their first language. Make sure your safe place has comforting items, which may vary depending on the age of your students. When first introducing your students to the take a moment area, make sure they understand it’s not a place to get out of doing assignments, a place to socialize, or a place to spend long periods of time. It is a place to take a step back when you need it, and then step back into the flow of class.
Does your classroom feel like home?
Maybe it does, and maybe it doesn’t. But either way, consider implementing one or more of these ways to help ESL students feel more at home. Your students will be glad you did.