George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Cultivating Community With Smiles and Frowns

A simple activity helps students feel more comfortable sharing details of their lives, a foundation for a strong classroom community.

May 27, 2021
Ivan Dudka / Alamy

I started this pandemic school year like so many teachers: staring at rows of empty boxes representing disabled cameras, struggling with taciturn class discussions, and even getting “Zoom-bombed.” Students were showing up for the most part, but they were going through the motions, with little buy-in and enthusiasm for learning. Most important, the positive relationships and sense of classroom community that are fundamentally important to my teaching practice were not being developed.

Conversation with other English teachers led me to Monte Syrie’s “smiles and frowns” activity. Once I tried it, the improvements were immediate. I had time every day to connect with every student, and students began asking one another questions about their lives.

Introducing Smiles and Frowns

I use smiles and frowns at the start of a virtual lesson, as a way of taking attendance. The instructions are simple: Share a smile for something that you’re happy about or looking forward to, share a frown for something that you’re unhappy about, or pass. (You may be familiar with a similar social and emotional learning activity, roses and thorns.) I start by sharing my emotional state and something from my life to model sharing something personal. I then call on each student in alphabetical order, which as Monte Syrie explains, gives me “a chance to say every kid’s name, every single day.”

On any given day, one student might share that he is looking forward to a visit from his grandparents, and another student might reveal that his pet was just put to sleep. When a third shares that she’s nervous about an upcoming gymnastics competition and I ask her a follow-up question, the class learns that she is heading into a rigorous statewide competition. Students learn to ask each other their own follow-up questions and refer to things that were shared previously, which further builds community.

At first, I was worried that the title of the activity might sound a bit too kindergarten-y for my eighth graders, but they took right to it. I also considered doing away with the option to pass, but I found that it’s key to the activity: Kids participate only if they want to, which makes it more authentic and gives them more agency.

Before introducing smiles and frowns, I would log on to our Zoom meeting to be greeted by 20 sullen faces. No matter how creative I was with breakout rooms and collaborative Jamboards, I couldn’t push student engagement beyond tacit compliance. Smiles and frowns changed that entirely—virtual learning was suddenly more human.

Supporting Classroom Community

With virtual learning, it’s easy to go through a marking period without getting to know students on a personal level. You can show up, deliver your instruction, and require students to submit assignments, all without developing relationships and giving students an opportunity to get to know one another.

However, we know from research and from experience that relationships, classroom community, and a sense of belonging are fundamentally important preconditions for classroom engagement and student achievement. Smiles and frowns develops classroom community on a daily basis, and it invites students to talk about what’s on their minds, whether that’s a basketball tournament or how they’re feeling about the Derek Chauvin trial, or even what they’re having for lunch that day.

Fostering Student Self-Awareness

In his landmark book Emotional Intelligence, psychologist Daniel Goleman identifies self-awareness—being tuned in to our mood, feelings, and thoughts—as one of the foundational components of emotional intelligence. Goleman explains that “there is a crucial difference between being caught up in a feeling and becoming aware that you are being swept away by it.”

By making space in our lessons on a daily basis for smiles and frowns, we give students a chance to practice looking inward to identify how they are feeling, which empowers them to make a choice to accept or even change that emotional state.

Building Teacher-Student Connection

If you’re like me, greeting students by name at the doorway to your classroom is part of your daily routine. But there is no doorway to a virtual classroom. Smiles and frowns can, however, serve the same purpose and help you be more aware of what’s going on in your students’ lives, no matter the setting. I found that once I started smiles and frowns, I asked them more casual questions more frequently, like, “How did your soccer tournament go last weekend?” “Are you catching up on sleep?” and “What are you doing to celebrate your birthday?”

Practice Speaking in a Videoconference

Zoom anxiety is real, including for students. Smiles and frowns gives students a regular, low-stakes opportunity to toggle that mute button and speak over the conference call, even if it’s just to say “Pass.” It might not seem like much, but this daily practice can transform the sometimes-daunting task of speaking in front of a group of peers into a routine.

Over the course of the school year, my school has transitioned from a fully remote learning model to a hybrid in which I have most students in the classroom, and a few attend remotely. In spite of the challenges that this format poses to whole-class activities, I’ve continued using smiles and frowns on a daily basis, and it will remain core to my practice. 

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