Building trust at the table

It’s the end of August and so a time to think about “beginnings” again…

How do we get a class loosened up? How do we work to pay attention to one another? Can we get everyone to speak before the “class” has really begun? Can students connect with each other a little better? Does each student feel noticed by the group?

“Building Trust at the Table” is an Exeter Humanities Institute session created by Becky Moore, and inspired by the world of improv. She put together this collection of exercises for the beginnings of classes. Becky writes, “Think this collection of practices as building trust for discussion in a progression from the non-verbal to the verbal and from  memorized words to composed words. As you modify and develop your choices, keep working from the premise that you are creating a space where ‘everyone is a listener, everyone is a speaker.’” At EHI West, I included these activities in a session on “Orienting new students to Harkness.” Several people who attended these sessions have asked for a recap, so I will attempt to do so here.

For openers: Name Cards (non-verbal): start your first class with students making tent cards for their names— 5×7, bulky markers, names on both sides. Just as students come into class these cards give an unspoken way to confirm how important knowing and recognizing each other by name will be to our class community.  Keep the cards in the classroom and use them for the first several weeks; some days arrange them yourself to move students around and other days have students pick their seat and pass out the cards when all are seated.

Then: Saying Names — go around the table having each student say their name on the card as they like it pronounced; have the whole table repeat the name together. This engages collective speaking on a “planned” word (the name).

As you get to know your class, consider what they could use. The following short exercises might be good for a class new to Harkness, but I certainly wouldn’t consider them only as “introductions.” I think they can be great ways to get an established class to focus on specific behaviors and practices. They are also often funny and can just break up tension. Some of these exercises make people more self-conscious, and that can be a good thing, depending on what they need. I might do these more often as a group comes together for the first time, and just occasionally later in the term. A key part of each of these is taking the time, even just a minute, after completing the activity to debrief. You might ask, “How did we do with that?” as an opener.

Hands on the Table (collaboration without words): Everyone pulls in close and places their hands on the desks or table top in front of them. One person begins and taps their hand, then continuing around the circle in order. After a couple times around, introduce that a “double-tap” changes the direction of play. Play around with tempo. Then, to add a more complex element, ask, “Will everyone please place your left hand over the right hand of the person to your left?” (Everyone’s right hand stays in place). Now try the exercise, but following hand-by-hand takes a little more concentration here since the hands are not in order by person.

A to Z  (collaborative, speaking using well-known letter order): The group works to name the letters of the alphabet, A to Z, one person at a time, without any discernable order. Tell them it is also a required that everyone be involved. When two people speak at the same time, they must restart at A. I do this one often when we just need a little energy. Also, good if the class has been having trouble with interruptions. You can give them a time limit to try to accomplish this.

Eye Contact Exercise (speaking/motion, using well-known word order): This is a pairs activity (all pairs do this at the same time). Each pair stands and faces each other. The task is simple: say “one,” “two,” “three” alternating between partners, and trying to maintain good eye contact. (The eye contact part is hard). After a minute of that, add a new element. A clap replaces “one.” “Two” and “three” are still said aloud. Again, maintain eye contact, and repeat for a minute. The next time through, the clap replaces “one” and a stomp of the foot replaces “two,” with “three” remaining the same. Maintain eye contact and continue for a minute. Now, do the exercise with the clap, stomp, and crossing the arms in an “x” across the chest replaces “three.” Again, maintain eye contact and continue for a minute. Finally (and the group already thinks they are done), ask them to go back to the original task of maintaining eye contact while saying “one,” “two,” “three.” In the debriefing here, they will often talk about how hard that “one,” “two,” “three” was in the beginning, but how easy it was by the end.

Improv Scenes (for eye contact and affect): Pair up and give a task all only using the words “one,” “two,” and “three,” along with tone, gesture and volume to indicate meaning. Examples include: ask someone to dinner, tell someone to clean up their room, ask someone for a loan.

And a more elaborate activity, which we use to open the Exeter Humanities Institute involves

Telling A Fairy Tale. This is a full-class collaboration, participants compose as they speak, everyone is a listener and everyone is a speaker. With this exercise we typically offer participants a chance to write in order to reflect/prepare before spoken debrief). Separate instructions on this post.

Other icebreakers: Dip into your repertoire of icebreakers with building connections in mind. “Whip arounds” on a fun category can get folks laughing and, importantly, get everyone to have uttered a few things before they begin talking about any material.

Don’t forget the debrief: On the one hand, you might be looking for things to be fun and light and might skip the debrief. But if you are just introducing students to Harkness for the first time, the debrief can be really valuable to highlight what skills the exercise focused upon, and how the group is doing with those skills. In all the de-briefs, ask students to think about their attention during the exercise — did they wonder about the next class, what they might have for lunch?  No? Good — that is the intensity of feeling present that we need to make our learning together fully engaged.  During each of these exercises, in our attention to the task and each other, we are setting the standard for our learning through discussion.

It’s also a chance for one person to say, “I had fun,” while another says, “I was nervous that I was screwing up.” And that’s the honesty you want at the table.

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