Throughout these modules there have been a few references to creating “safe learning environments.” What does that actually mean and how is it related to social and emotional learning?

Learning is not supposed to be easy. In fact, its supposed to be challenging and provide opportunities to become stronger, more capable thinkers and doers. Creating challenging situations, posing difficult problems, and facilitating rigorous exercises requires a keen awareness of group dynamics and the emotions that fuel them.

Read chapter 9 of Lakey’s book, Facilitating Group Learning: Strategies for Success with Diverse Adult Learners, where he looks at how authenticity and emotions impact groups and the various ways educators can navigate and work with these powerful forces. Lakey’s experience is born from work primarily with adult learners, however, the principles and ideas in this chapter are applicable to younger learners as well.

“The habitual stifling of emotional expression is about control and domination. Those who enforce suppression tell us they are teaching us to be “appropriate.” The habit of suppression is not, however, about appropriateness; parts of our population are taught from childhood that it is never appropriate for an adult man to cry or for an adult women to express anger. It’s exactly that rigidity which makes this issue huge for classroom teachers and for workshop facilitators. Rigidly holding back emotional expression prevents authenticity. And authenticity is essential for deep learning [emphasis original].” (Lakey, 83)

Reflection Question: On page 89, Lakey writes, “to promote authentic behavior and therefore optimize learning in your class, build a strong container and support people to express their emotions. Boredom will be a relic of history.” When, if ever, have you taught or participated in a class, workshop, training, or learning experience where a strong “container” had been built? What was done, said, or facilitated to build that container? How, if at all, could those container building techniques be incorporated into your educational contexts?

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26 thoughts on “4.5

  1. One particular instance in which I was a part of a learning experience central to which was the formation of a safe and fortified emotional space was during the spring semester, when I took EDU 609, Effective Teaching for Diverse Learners. The course dealt with issues of race, sexuality, sexual orientation, cultural ethnocentrism and more. Needless to say, the ability to speak freely without judgwment, and ro trust that youre good intentions and current views would be respected was essential to our learning.

    Part of how that was established was that we began the course by laying ground rules for discussion and talking about what a respectful dialog would look and sound like. How that would feel, and how we would manage disagreements was also mentioned. We also began each class with a bonding activity or greeting and ended with a closing circle. Both of those were huge take aways for me. Beginning and ending with discussion and team building are powerful tools for building trust.

  2. Earlier this week, I took a training on Singapore Math for ELLs. The atmosphere created by the two facilitators was strong and allowed me and the other educators to openly voice our concerns, frustrations, questions, excitement, ideas, etc. To build the strong container, the facilitators had us sit in groups and participate in an icebreaker. We were rearranged in small groups throughout the training to discuss and reflect on what we were learning. The icebreaker and small groups helped me get to know the other educators in the training, which helped me feel safe and act authentically. The facilitators actively checked for understanding and took the time to discuss and address questions as they arose. This showed me that everyone’s ideas were valued and made it safe to share my own ideas. The facilitators supported us as we worked on our final project by reading over our work, giving feedback and suggestions, and answering questions. This showed me that they wanted everyone to succeed.

    I think that all of the techniques used by the facilitators could and should be incorporated in my classroom. It’s important for me to know my students and vice-versa and important for my students to know each other. It’s only after you know someone and you feel they know you that you feel safe and begin to act authentically. I can use icebreakers at the beginning of the year to help us get to know each other and I can set time aside each week for us to share what’s happening in our lives and how it’s making us feel. I can also rearrange tables each unit and vary partnerships/groups on a daily/weekly basis so students have an opportunity to get to know and work with everyone. As an educator, checking for understanding is part of my job, but I don’t always have the time to answer everyone’s questions. I could incorporate more partner reflections and sharing so that students feel like their ideas are valued and safe to share with others. This would also make it possible for me to hear multiple questions/ideas at the same time as I listen in on the partner discussions. To help students know that I want them to be successful, I can acknowledge their successes (through praise, posting work, sending notes to parents, etc.) and support them as they struggle with difficult concepts/tasks. I think that all of these techniques will help me build a safe container and promote authentic behavior.

  3. I think I must be very fortunate, I have felt a part of a safe learning community on several occasions, including this online platform, thank you Daryn.

    At present I am halfway through a 2 week intensive workshop at the university of missouri with 35 journalism educators from throughout the country, and the sessions have been inspiring from day 1, small groups have been established for group projects and reflection, the days have been very exhausting, very long, and have pushed all of us outside our comfort zone in terms of what we are accustomed to doing in our classrooms with our students, I’ve been overwhelmed with new ideas and strategies for teaching, and at the same time I am taking this Peace Pedagogy course and getting great ideas!

    One thing that has attributed to the successful “container” I am experiencing in this particular group is the demonstrated feeling of respect for the work we do as educators, and the community support and shared experiences of my colleagues, who are honest and open about their challenges. The coordinators of the workshop also went to a lot of trouble to make us all physically comfortable, providing us nice hotel rooms, catered meals, and quality equipment.

    While I definitely can’t realistically deliver on all these things for my students, I can translate this experience into the classroom by doing my best to make students feel valued for their efforts, for doing my best to allow them to be physically comfortable in my room, within reason.

  4. One container that I have implemented in my classroom is the Socratic seminar. This is a strategy that I used for analyzing and interpreting the events and characters’ actions in the numerous novels that we read throughout the story. Througout this session students have to respect and honor the opinions of their peers as they express their opinions to the plot of the story.
    I note that students who are not generally out spoken are usually unwilling to participate and decides to loose points at the first two settings for this activity. However by the third session they are more relaxed and confidently share their thoughts. Overall I can say that this method is a container that give my students the opportunity to make connection with their reading on a social and emotional level.

  5. I think I must be very fortunate, I have felt a part of a safe learning community on several occasions, including this online platform, thank you Daryn.

    At present I am halfway through a 2 week intensive workshop at the university of missouri with 35 journalism educators from throughout the country, and the sessions have been inspiring from day 1, small groups have been established for group projects and reflection, the days have been very exhausting, very long, and have pushed all of us outside our comfort zone in terms of what we are accustomed to doing in our classrooms with our students, I’ve been overwhelmed with new ideas and strategies for teaching, and at the same time I am taking this course and getting great ideas!

    One thing that has attributed to the successful “container” I am experiencing in this group is the demonstrated feeling of respect for the work we do as educators, and the community support and shared experiences of my colleagues, who are honest and open about their challenges. The coordinators of the workshop also went to a lot of trouble to make us all physically comfortable, providing us nice hotel rooms, catered meals, and quality equipment.

    I can translate this experience into the classroom by doing my best to make students feel valued for their efforts, for doing my best to allow them to be physically comfortable in my room, within reason.

  6. Beyond supporting the academic programs of the school, a library media center must support the patrons’ personal information needs. For adolescents, they consider many of their questions personal and “embarrassing”. They want answers but don’t necessarily feel comfortable speaking their questions to an adult or searching for the information when their peers are present. We have developed great resources to help them. For this reason, it is imperative than the library media center be a safe learning space. How do I build this container?

    At the beginning of each school year, I hold orientation for every student through their English or social study classes. In those sessions, I make it a point to let every student know about the Library Bill of Rights which guarantees them the right to “open inquiry without having the subject of one’s interest examined or scrutinized by others” . I share that I am available and will always honor their right to information privacy. I set up resource exhibits on topics I understand (from talking with students and following research trends) may interest them in case they don’t feel comfortable asking for help finding it. I promote the concept of our media center being a “safe space to research, read, and study”. Finally, I’ve earned the reputation of being a trusted ally and make myself available in person as well as through our website and by email.

    Teachers also help build this container. For example, a couple of years ago, Mary had an ELL student that came to the media center but was afraid to come in. She ran back to Mary who escorted her back to the media center and brought her to me. Since that time this student has been an active patron.

    • So, in rereading this assignment, I do not think I answered this question in terms of creating a safe space for expressing emotion. Let me try again.
      The best demonstration of creating a safe container for expressing emotions I’ve seen was shared early on in this class as I shared the icebreakers at the Louder Than a Bomb DMV Festival. To reiterate, the facilitators of that opening session over the course of 2 hours, created a sense of shared community where the young poets felt safe enough to talk about the stereotypes associated with their individual neighborhoods and how they felt in that regard. This was done by employing icebreakers that helped them meet/greet each other and find commonality. This was also done by carefully selecting a discussion topic that they all had issue with. To further enforce the container, the facilitators ended the session by thanking everyone for being brave enough to share their thoughts, and looking forward to hearing their poems.

      You know, the poetry community has several practices that support emotional expression and I’m sure at some point in the past someone or two initiated the practices but today I think they are simply observed and the newbies join in. There are two that resonate with me. When a poet expresses a deeply felt emotion that interrupts their poetic flow, all the poets in the room extend the palms of their hands as if to send positive energy. The other is when a poet forgets a line of their poem. In support, as the performing poet finds their words, the other poets snap their fingers and quietly say things like,” You got it poet”, or “Take your time”.

      Now I don’t have a regular classroom, but, in Wilson’s poetry club meetings/practices, it is essential that we create and maintain a strong container that all feel safe to lay their emotions, first, on paper and then perform them on stage. One thing I’ve learned, the container is extremely sturdy by the end of the school year but must be recreated each fall as new poets join the club. We definitely mirror the Louder Than a Bomb program’s strategies to build an emotionally safe community.

      • I’m glad you shared about how you try to make the library a safe place. I think you’ve succeeded because a lot of ELLs feel comfortable there. I think it’s wonderful, too, how you read so much of the teen literature so that you are able to make suggestions for them about what to read after they tell you what they are interested in. From the start of my time at Wilson, the library has felt like a friendly place. OK, I know I’m supposed to call it a media center but I’m old-fashioned and still use the word library.

  7. The best example that I have of this is when I attended a dental conference (for my job) at National Harbor last year. Each day before classes began, the conference leaders organized a morning meeting called a general session. These periods consisted of talks that were always motivating and uplifting. The speaker was the author of The Book of Awesome. I remember him telling each of us to write down 3 awesome things in our lives. Then, he would pick people at random out of the audience to read one of their awesome things. By doing this, everyone in the room of 1,000+ people felt really connected. On the way out of the meeting that morning, he instructed us to put our responses up on this board on our way out, so every day when we would pass by that board on our way to class, we would see people an endless list of amazing things. There were always people stopped reading the board, and needless to say, it was an “awesome” feeling.

    I could use a similar idea in my future classrooms as an “icebreaker” activity in the beginning of the year, or during periods of high stress, like midterms, finals or SAT time. I could also use it randomly in order to break up the monotony of everyday work and give the students a fresh mind.

  8. I was never a teachers pet but I must admit that you a doing a excellent job. I was very concerned and nervous about taking an online class. This is my first class online and I must admit that I’d rather be in a classroom but you are making this experience a great one. Although we have never met in person, I’m sure that my classmates would agree. You have been full of energy and very enthusiastic about this class, so ultimately we are as well. It is a saying that players have the character of their coach, in this case you are our coach. Everybody reflections and responses are great, I’m intrigued by the responses and I’m learning how to be a be teacher because of this class. I definitely can incorporate what I’m learning. Classroom safety and comfort is very important, I get excited to turn on my computer to see what’s new. Daryn you have set the tone from day one to week three with your personal introduction, welcomes, class agreements and videos.

    • I agree that Daryn does a great job of setting a tone for a class in which we can share and be ourselves. He’s modeling how education can address the whole person. And I like the positive vibes of all the participants in this class.

  9. I really like how the author phrases creating a safe/comfortable environment as “building a strong container’. A great experience I had was a presentation I attended two months ago, which was about trees/ environment. First of all, the minute I got in the room, I was all relaxed because the presenter was chatting with people, and made the environment pleasant and friendly. Then he started telling jokes, making us feel very close to this person before he presented. He did a great job of including everyone in the presentation. I think that is the most successful part, because when I feel I am involved, I am more willing to participate. Just like kids need attention, as adults, we also need to feel we are not ignored, so that we can learn better. The presenter had all kinds of activities to make us feel all engaged. He also had a good tempo of teaching. For example, right before I felt tired of listening, he gave us hands-on activities; right before I was bored, he started something else interesting. The whole presetation lasted three hours, but I wanted it even go longer.

    After the presentation, I did reflection on my own teaching. As a learner, what are the styles that engage me? Why didn’t I feel bored? How did I learn and what made me want to learn more? So I have been working on the transitions during my teaching, such as how to make it smoother; how to control times; when is the time I need to be serious and when I can be loosen up, etc. There are so much to learn and the key is we have to be aware of it and try to improve it as much as we can.

  10. I recently participated in a workshop two weeks ago and I believed the presenter built a strong container for the partners attending the class/workshop. In the workshop the presenter started off by letting people know she was nervous and need some time to get herself into a comfort zone where she feels as though she is at ease to publicly speak in front of others. This class was for partners to be able to learn how to give a business opportunity presentation effectively using the right word choices.
    From breaking the ice and allowing the partners to hear it was ok to be nervous, it allowed the partners to feel better about getting up speaking in front of others to present the business opportunity. I noticed that the partners were not expecting to participate in the training but because of the presenter being at ease, information clearly given, and people were made to feel comfortable it was a great workshop to attend after all.
    The presenter modeled allowing the partners to get up and try it first in their own approach and if it didn’t sound ok she gave examples using the word choices that would better equip us for public speaking then she would say now try it this way. She also made you feel like you were doing a great job, gave positive feedback and encouraged the partners as they practiced and performed.
    I can implement some of these container building techniques in the class by knowing my audience. Know when they ready to receive the information, feel comfortable in the working environment, have all the materials to be successful, model what is being asked of them, clearly explain what the activity is, and most important the objective should clearly be stated in the beginning, so the outcome of the activity can be a success where the student feels great and so will the teacher.

  11. One of the safest yet most challenging learning arrangement I ever had was participating in a Spanish-English exchange with a Colombian woman. I already described this arrangement to my buddy for the first week, Paige. My language partner and I were connected with each other through Georgetown’s visiting scholar program, but after that initial email introduction, we arranged everything on our own. The exchang lasted for three years. It was free. We started at the intermediate level and became much more fluent.

    I think the arrangement was so safe because the learner and teacher were equal. We spoke for two hours, one hour in Spanish and one hour in English. If we started in Spanish one week, the next week we made a point of starting in English. The learner got to decide what we would talk about during “her hour.” We would be sure to affirm each other a lot and be patient as the teacher because we wanted that kind of affirmation and patience while in the learner role! We didn’t use a textbook but rather talked about every topic imaginable. We got to be good friends.

    Sometimes we invited each other to house parties, which meant my friend interacted with native English speakers and I interacted with native Spanish speakers. But we actually learned much more in the two-hour sessions because we had to talk quite deep in order to fill up the time. –Mary Ann

  12. Honestly, I think the strongest container that I have been part of is this class. From day/week one this class has kept me wanting more. But your introduction and definition of this class topped with the energy and passion that overtakes you is exciting. We started with conference calls and ideas or things that we use in our classes, but having to look at them differently.
    In my class safety and comfort is key for me. I need my students to feel safe in order to perform their task at hand. Most of the time them seeing me perform the task makes it easier for them to attempt. If they don’t feel this way their performance will be lacking.

  13. Honestly, this is probably not the answer your looking for, but the experiecnce that comes to mind is this class.  Though I’m sure I’ve had experiences in other situations, I am having a difficult time remembering one that outshines my experience thus far this semester.  Does this mean I’ve had lousy teachers? No.  I think part of it has to do with my own emotional state (confidence cheif among it) that allows me to take advantage of the containor created.  Long ago, I used to be unsure of myself and pretty shy.  As I’ve gotten older and more comfortable with myself and my views on the world, I have felt more able to open up and to appreciate others opening up around me.

    Ironically, I think that part of the reason our class containor became so strong so quickly is beacuse of the small size of our classroom.  There’s nowhere anyone can hide.  There’s no where anyone can feel left out.  We’re all together in this small space exploring our feelings on different topics and there’s a physical containor keeping us close together.

  14. One of the most safe “containers” I have experienced was with my alternative break group to San Francisco last spring. The two co-leaders did a great job of facilitating discussions, ice breakers and high risk trust activities that set the tone for the entire trip. They did a great job mentoring participants and checking in throughout our trip to make sure everyone was doing alright, and that they felt comfortable asking questions or sharing about concerns etc.

    Right now the “Education context” that is constantly in my head is my own alternative break group that I will begin working with in November. Matthew and Kathleen (the SF leaders) set a great example for how I want to lead my group and what kind of safe and strong container I want to build for my participants throughout the pre-trip–post-trip process these coming months.

  15. The strongest container that I have been a part of was a conference for YP4. I believe the openness and intentional effort to make a safe space is what built a strong container. For example, we started off the conference introducing ourselves and stating our preferred gender pronoun. That in itself laid a framework of ensuring everyone’s identity was both acknowledged and respected.

    I could incorporate this type of container by laying a foundation before the activity/workshop of respect, confidentiality and listening rather than judging. Moreover, I could facilitate this type of container by letting individuals state what their needs are instead of assuming.

  16. In elementary school we use to take one day each month and go to the multipurpose room to participate in a problem-solving workshop. These were by far my favorite days in elementary school; boredom really was a relic of history. The class was separated into groups of about 4-7 students. Each group had the same supplies (often some string, tape, Popsicle sticks, etc). The teams would have a challenge of moving something across a large space, collecting a certain number of items using self-made tools, or really any challenge designed to develop teamwork and creativity skills. Not only were these classes fun and creative, they often had a competitive component which I greatly appreciated. I think that these can be used in all sorts of ways to help develop teamwork, communication, understanding, and problem solving.

  17. My Peace Corps training group comes to mind, as does my pre-service training for the Fellows Program, through which I received my certification. In both cases, we spent a significant amount of time together and the development of the container took some time – I definitely agree with Richard in that in was built piece by piece. For most of the trainings, in both cases, the majority of our existence was outside everyone’s comfort zones, but also in both cases, we had trainers and facilitators who had gone through the experience themselves. They were not afraid to share their experiences and problems, which were very similar to ours and everyone became more comfortable.

  18. The strongest “container” I’ve experienced was also home to one of the most meaningful educations I’ve received. I participated in a Dialogue Development Group at AU my freshman year, not really knowing what I was getting into but wanting to be involved in something. It was a small group led by two grad students, and we focused on what identifying as “white” meant, for three hours every week for the whole semester. Every session was incredibly dense with discussion, reflection, and because it was my first experience with dialogue, I got twice as much from the group as I expected. I realize now that my perceptions of my identity were clarified because of the wonderful container that had been made thanks to our safe dialogue space. Each participant could share at ease, without judgment, and with the understanding that the others would respond thoughtfully and with respect. Our facilitators played a very small part in the group after the initial session. It’s clear to me that for any kind of similar type of learning to take place, there must be mutual respect and interest first. I would love to see this happen in a classroom of younger learners.

  19. I participated in and facilitated a series of workshops over more than five years between 2000 – 2006, in multiple Sub-Saharan African countries, where we were able to build strong “containers”. Each workshop was typically 1 week to 10 days in duration and included 40 participants from Government (senior officials), World Bank staff ( professional and support staff from headquarters and Country Offices), and from partner development institutions.

    It took at least 4 days of at least two (2 ) team (10 persons per team) exercises per day plus plenary sessions and evening activities , to build the container (safe environment) for the role play exercise – simulation of a community/civil society hearing conducted by the Government on a World Bank-financed project. Every participant was given a role to play in the hearing. Amazing acting out, emotional sharing, and lots of laughter. Multiple boundaries were crossed, taboos openly discussed (gender and class discrimination), and the collegiality and camaraderie seems to have been maintained for years after.

    Containers have to be built brick by brick. It took a methodical approach of incremental “exercises” day after day (supposedly how a development project is put together technically). As facilitators, we wanted to teach and experience team work, partnership, collaboration, mutual respect and other similar values which are actually more important in the “development” business than technical skills. We understood however, that these adults with all their baggage of status, class, position etc. would not feel safe until some things are no longer off limits. In my current educational context, it is important to appreciate that containers will take time to construct.

  20. It may come as no surprise that my thoughts actually turn to my high school social studies class. I had a teacher – a coach, mind you – who created a classroom environment where students of all shapes and sizes felt comfortable discussing history and politics (circa 2000). He did this through providing time for discussions to stem naturally from the topics being discussed.

    Perhaps he spent much of his time outside of class constructing classroom debates, but I have a feeling he spent most of his time drawing up football plays. Instead, he allowed for discussion and created an environment where we could express our opinions and let the material provoke any number or emotions.

    In terms of actions, this particular teacher did express his personal views, but it was in order to model how to respect opinions different than yours. It didn’t hurt that he used humor and would take on himself if he situation called for it.

  21. A strong and safe “container” that comes to mind is my alternative spring break group. I recall the experience like it was yesterday, but it was my junior year in undergrad and I was about to board a plane to leave the country for the first time, heading to Egypt on a service learning program. Instead of being nervous or anxious, I was so incredibly excited to explore another culture. In reflection, I think I felt this way because of the support from my “container.” During our pre-trip meetings, through exercises, discussions, and writing reflections we had established a group that was free of judgment, and full of encouragement. This was a foreign land for all of us, the vast majority had no previous exposure to Arab culture, no one had any idea of what to expect from this experience. The playing field was level and we all felt like even contributors to the group. There was a sense of cohesion and the idea that “we have no idea what we are getting ourselves into, but at least we’re on this journey together.” All participants were from different backgrounds, majors, years of schooling, etc. and because of this we were allowed to be authentic and to recognize and appreciate the differences that each member brought to the group. From this experience, some techniques I would seek to incorporate in educational contexts would be: a level playing field, student autonomy, little faculty interruption (student-led), appreciation for diverse groups, and the idea that any and all emotions are warranted and will be respected.

  22. Experiences in which instructors have had a good time ‘building a container’ seem to involve the instructor themselves being involved and ‘unashamed’ and participating alongside everyone else. If an instructor can model and be that comfortable exhibiting such ‘authenticity’ then it makes it okay for everyone else to participate. It is important to create a safe environment where a range of feelings, emotions and ways of expressing ourselves are acceptable. Modeling can be a valuable way of creating that safe environment.

  23. I took a grad class at AU a few years ago on incorporating Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences into teaching. This class was facilitated by a “theater-y” person who made us warm up each day with theater exercises that drove me absolutely crazy. The class seemed mostly geared to elementary school teachers, a whole sub-culture unto themselves. There were countless times that I could feel my muscles contracting with the palpable tension I felt in this class. It was absolutely not my comfort zone. However, over time, the teacher somehow got her results out of me (and my like-minded classmates). Before I knew it, I had plunged right in and was crawling, singing, pantomiming, you name it. I believe she accomplished this because she was unabashed in her attempts. She laid it all out as though we were going to discuss a scholarly text. She didn’t waver for one moment — and I know I had disgust plastered on my face, so she could have read my signals and become discouraged. Her determination and fierce belief in her methods gave me confidence and the container in which to try and fail and try again. I had to figure she knew what she was doing, because she didn’t show an ounce of self-doubt or consternation.

    I am currently working on maintaining and outwardly demonstrating this same level of fortitude when I teach. Working with teenagers is all criticism and judgement all the time. I admit, it gets to me. I often find myself back-peddling out of an activity I thought would be “fun” because of adolescent malaise, teeth-sucking, and eye-rolling. Perhaps if I plowed forward with the eagerness of my Multiple Intelligences instructor, I would eventually garner more support from my clients.

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