When the pandemic began, more teachers started using check-ins so that students could engage with one another before engaging with the content. Students might fill out a form rating their current mood, or choose an emoji that captures how they’re feeling, or select a picture from a three-by-three grid that best represents their mood: “Which hedgehog are you?”
Such activities can be a playful way for students to start class, a ritual through which they establish community, and an assessment tool that helps teachers know how well students are faring. Community and wellness have always been important, but they’ve become a higher priority than ever during the third year of pandemic teaching. How can we make check-ins a greater source of community and wellness for our students?
7 Ways to Improve Check-Ins
1. Ask for multiple emotions instead of just one. We’re capable of feeling many different emotions—sometimes simultaneously or in rapid succession. Students might feel angry about something their sibling did, excited about that afternoon’s basketball game, and worried about tomorrow’s math test. They might even feel multiple emotions about the same thing, such as feeling happy and scared to attend school in person. But asking students for just one emotion means they’ll disregard or silence everything else they might be feeling. Instead, we can ask questions that elicit multiple emotions.
- Which three emojis tell the story of your day so far?
- Thinking back on the past week, when was a time when you felt each of the following emotions?
Questions like these prompt students to honor the complexity of their emotional experiences. When students notice and name multiple emotions, all emotions become a healthy, expected, and respected part of their everyday experience.
2. Vary the tone. Some check-in questions can be playful, such as “Do school subjects have colors?” or the internet-famous “If a tomato is a fruit, is ketchup a smoothie?” Other prompts can be serious, such as questions about students’ homes, responsibilities, identities, and beliefs.
After a traumatic event—and there have been many amid Covid, racist attacks, and climate change—the check-in can make space for students to bear witness, grieve, and plan a justice-oriented response. Still other check-ins can invite celebration: “What was your proudest moment this week?” or “Who in this class inspired you this week?” Varying the tone of check-ins means that students will experience a range of emotions together.
3. Make it culturally responsive. This doesn’t simply mean using more inclusive language, such as by asking how students are celebrating December holidays instead of Christmas. While Christmas is a major holiday, many Jews don’t consider Hanukkah as holy as, for example, Sukkot and Shavuot, which are less well-known because they don’t coincide with major Christian holidays. To be more inclusive, try asking about family and seasonal traditions at various points in the year—not just in December.
When designing check-in questions, take care not to explicitly or implicitly recenter historically dominant sociocultural groups—white, cisgender, heterosexual, Christian, affluent, able-bodied, and neurotypical folks. Use prompts that apply to all students and that don’t assume knowledge of or participation in a dominant culture.
4. Involve students in creating check-in prompts. Once students are familiar with check-in structures and the sorts of prompts you use, invite them to create their own. You’ll need to vet student-created prompts first, but most students will take the responsibility seriously and offer prompts that reflect their diverse personalities, histories, and interests.
You might find that a student who says very little during check-ins creates prompts that lead to meaningful discussions among their peers. That becomes its own way for students to contribute to a healthy community and a sense of wellness.
5. Build emotion-noticing into academic routines. Check-ins at the beginning of class honor experiences that students bring into the room before we ask them to think about something else. Some teachers also do a check-out, asking students to share insights, questions, or feelings about that day’s work. These rituals orient students within the class period, but if students only share their emotions before and after academic learning, they might get the message that their feelings exist outside the main business of school—the academics—and matter less.
Students need opportunities to observe their own psychological experiences of the content, connect with one another through the content, and develop the willingness to struggle with challenging content in the service of their larger goals. Protocols like the emotions and values audit in Two-for-One Teaching, a book I cowrote with Jonathan Weinstein, embed emotion noticing into academic lessons, enabling students to bring more of themselves to their learning and more of their learning to themselves.
6. Connect emotions to values and values to actions. Emotions signal that something important is at stake. When we feel sad, it means something important is gone. When we feel angry, it means something important was taken away—from us or someone important to us. When we feel afraid, it means something important is being threatened.
When students share their emotions, they need time to stay inside those emotions instead of then folding them up into a neat package that they set aside during class. They also need opportunities to discover the values their emotions point toward as well as opportunities to choose actions consistent with those values. Classrooms are ideal spaces for students to discover their values and to bring those values to their learning, work, and relationships.
7. Use a pedagogy of belonging. If check-ins are the only opportunities for students to share their emotions, values, stories, observations, and dreams, they have no reason to go especially deep. If students are going to open up about themselves, those conversations need to be part of a larger culture in which students feel seen, heard, respected, and supported. Protocols ensuring that every student makes meaningful contributions and that all contributions are listened to and appreciated help create a safe and affirming environment where students can open up about the content—and themselves.