Laying a foundation for community in a class with (emotionally) tough content

I am teaching a child welfare class for the first time since spring of 2020, which as we know is a semester that went upside down and sidewise due to the onset of COVID. And, we haven’t had a truly “regular” semester since then. Even in the summer I feel like there has been a heaviness in faculty and staff and students I have talked to about the fall. So, when I was renewing my syllabus for this semester, I wanted to be intentional about using some “check ins” in each class, that would both be relevant to the class content and also helpful in building community. As we get into other topics, these check ins will be central in making sure people are experiencing community and safety in the context of learning about child welfare issues, including childhood trauma.

The course outline for the class includes some really emotionally heavy content, as you would expect. We talk in depth about abuse and neglect and other experiences of childhood trauma. We talk about disproportionality in child welfare and we talk about burnout. (We also talk about well being and strengths and resilience and positive things too, but the hard “stuff” can take a toll regardless.) I build the semester so that we have a few sessions of less intensive topics before we get into the content that can be more distressing and so that we can have some different types of discussions as we are getting to know each other.

On the first day we used a “mood board” which was voluntary, but all of the students (25 of them) participated. They could choose how they felt about the first day of the semester, and for many of them—my 9 am class— this was their first class of the semester. Their choices were “Great!”, “Fine-ish”, “Meh”, “Don’t want to talk about it” and “Don’t know yet”. We had 1 “meh”, 7 for “Fine-ish” and 17 who were manifesting “Great!” We talked a little bit about the value of helping children identify their feelings about something, and the value for us as adults in doing it too. It was a good lead in to the discussion about the concepts of safety, permanency and wellbeing in child welfare and the related concepts of safety and trust and relationship we want to build in our learning community.

We also shared a book, movie or TV character that we found comfort or strength or inspiration in as a child. I loved their answers: everything from Violet and Sunny Baudelaire (sisters who were strong!) in the Lemony Snicket series, to the Penderwick sisters (they look out for each other), to Clifford the Big Red Dog (just because), Luna Lovegood (its okay to be weird), and more.

Here’s a good list of questions you can use for check-ins for yourself and your adult learners.

And again, I always tell my students that they don’t have to do the check in and also I always respond to the question myself, since I am not going to ask them to share something I am not willing to share.

I also plan to use some music on occasion. Here’s a piece I used last week and it was a fun way to kick off a class, and then we had a brief discussion about the lyrics they remember from this song in childhood versus this updated version.

Hopefully by the time we hit the harder topics of discussion (after a couple more sessions) we will know each other’s names and have a sense of community in the classroom.

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