Building Class Community: Role Call Questions

23 May

Most of my best classroom ideas come from students. As a young teacher, I was wise enough (and desperate enough) to ask them what they liked about their favorite teachers. I was confident in my own bumbling, so I wasn’t fishing for false compliments. I KNEW their favorite teachers would be somebody else.

My students—luckily—were honest and kind and eager to share teaching practices they enjoyed. Like every new teacher, I struggled with classroom management and daily lesson planning. I was devoted to the idea that a teacher’s primary responsibility is the delivery of curriculum. I did not allow for any wasted time in the 45-minute period. I planned every second of class.

Fifteen years later, I’m still this way. I plan out every moment of class, but now I know to welcome (and even engineer) tangental moments where we throw out my plans. Role Call questions are one of the most productive ways to steer off course.

The idea comes from one of my students who raved about a Personal Choices class and the role call questions the teacher used. Role call questions consist of the teacher asking a question at the start of class to which every student would provides an answer. Such questions might be something like, “What is your favorite band/movie/book/food?” or more personal like, “What is something that scares you to your core?”

At first, I scoffed (inwardly, of course) at the notion of a Personal Choices course. What a blow-off. Second, I wondered why the teacher would give up so much class time to an “introductory” activity. Every day, for the entire term, the students would take five to fifteen minutes to answer these role call questions. I was stunned, and I ignored this particular suggestion…for ten years.

As I grew as an educator, however, I started to think more about how I could build a sense of community within my classes. In a recent TED talk the speaker claimed, “Students learn best from teachers they love.” I had started to sense this truth and looked for ways to bring love into the classroom.

Now, in addition to helping my students grow as communicators, I now teach my students to trust one another and me. I have discovered that Role Call Questions are a concrete strategy that help engender empathy, love, and belonging in the classroom.

Once a week, during our double block, I begin class with a role call question. The students love them and always remind me if I forget. Of course, I also ask them to come up with questions, too. I am regularly amazed at the empathy, playfulness, and joy my students reveal in their answers.

Moments like this happen regularly. When asked for a greatest fear, a very outgoing, boisterous boy answered, “I don’t have any self-confidence. I’m always scared of being seen as dumb.” Students who have known him since grade school were floored, and everyone realized that self-doubt can be in anyone. Today, one student asked, “What was your favorite Disney movie of all time?” The roomful of very cool and very stressed out juniors melted into a giggling puddle of toddlers as they debated the merits of Ursula and Scar. The ten minutes we spent off topic directly improved the rest of the class. They were more relaxed as they wrote their in-class essays on Invisible Man, and they let go of some of their end-of-the year stress.

It’s a bit odd to write about this topic as the school year winds down, but I encourage you to give role call questions a try. I know you’ll find them valuable, too. Here’s a list of some of the questions you might ask. I hope others will leave more questions via the comments:

  • What are you most afraid of?
  • Name of movie that you really love, but that you’re a bit embarrassed to admit that you love.
  • If you could be any fictional character for a day, who would you be and why?
  • If you could swallow a pill and be instantly competitive in any Olympic sport, which sport would you compete in and why?
  • What is something in the world that you consider truly evil?
  • Name something that always makes you smile.
  • If you could take a one-time round trip in a time machine, where would you go?
  • If you could swap lives with one other person for a week, with whom would you swap?
  • Tell us something that is central to your identity that we probably don’t know about.
  • What would you be willing to go to jail for?
  • What is something you’re really good at that you were initially really bad at?

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