Faculty Club / Student Engagement / Forming Relational Connections: 6 Exercises to Build Community in Class

Forming Relational Connections: 6 Exercises to Build Community in Class

A community sculpture, breathing exercises, and a clever acronym help Dr. Anastasia Prentiss inspire communication students to engage and bond.

A community sculpture, breathing exercises, and a clever acronym help Dr. Anastasia Prentiss inspire communication students to engage and bond.

Anastasia Prentiss, PhD


Assistant Professor of Communication Studies,
Holy Names University, Oakland, California

PhD in Philosophy and Religion, Women’s Spirituality; MA and BA in Communication Studies

A major goal for Dr. Anastasia Prentiss is to help her students reclaim some of the natural sense of community that occurs among children. “I think of my son’s fifth-grade classroom and how delightful it is, because they’re young and they just talk with each other,” she says. “There isn’t that sense of, ‘I’m an adult,’ where you go into the classroom and people are on their phones.”

So, no matter what course she is teaching—dance, yoga, Conflict and Meditation, Performance and Feminism, or Gender and Communication—Prentiss begins each semester with exercises designed to foster face-to-face, heart-to-heart engagement. She achieves this with creative games, interesting exercises, and effective strategies that defuse tension and foster sharing.

“By the end of the semester, when I walk into most of my classrooms, people are not on their phones. They’re talking to each other. And that’s a crucial skill, right?” says Prentiss. “If I accomplished nothing else but, for this particular generation, the ability to reach across and have a conversation, then I’ve done a good job.”

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“At the core of my pedagogy is love: Love of self, love of community, and love of other people. You have to make a concerted effort to create community.”
-Anastasia Prentiss, PhD

Course: Comm 165B Gender and Communication

Course description: This course provides an overview of the relevant research on gender issues and the construction of gender through mediated forms. Communicator styles of women and men are discussed. Attitudes and beliefs concerning female and male cultural stereotypes as they are manifested through communication are investigated.

Prentiss’s 6 exercises for fostering classroom communication

Prentiss encourages teachers to try different things to make a personal connection. “It’s all about keeping people connected and in relationship.” Here are some of her favorite approaches. Most of them, she says, can be adapted for use in any type of course or discipline.

1. Get acquainted with a “community sculpture”

One of Prentiss’s first projects is a group exercise that she calls Community Sculpture, in which students get to know each other by sharing artifacts that have deep meaning for them. “In Conflict and Mediation, I say, ‘Bring in something that represents conflict or peace to you, through yourself, your family, your community, your work, and the larger global world,’” says Prentiss. In Gender and Communication, she asks for something that represents their experience of gender. Students lay their artifacts on the floor, and Prentiss uses scarves to tie the items to each other.

Finally, students sit in a circle around the sculpture, taking turns talking about their item. “I insist in circles in all of my classes,” says Prentiss. “Indigenous communities have used circles for millennia. The idea is that the circle holds everything, not individual people.” Each turn ends with the group saying, “Thank you.”

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“It sounds contrived, but it forces folks to become conscious of our relational connection,” Prentiss says. “By the end of it, you’ve got a lot of people who now are acquainted, so they can’t just dismiss each other.”

2. Learn more than monikers with decorated name tags

Prentiss recommends making name tags for students, not only so that the teacher can learn their names but so that their classmates can, as well. This is particularly important in larger classes, she says. “Name tags are a way of being able to get them to think about how they move through the world. They can decorate their name tag, and then they’ve got this whole identity—they’re invested in how they are representing themselves.”

3. Use the body and breath to ease negativity

When students feel “activated” or negatively triggered by a situation or comment, Prentiss recommends they change their body position to inspire a mental shift. She wants them to understand their power to unlock positive energy through movement. “You know, if you’re sinking [down in your chair], sit up,” she says. She also recommends taking a breath before you speak, which can help center you and calm your response.

4. Teach students to THINK before they speak

She also encourages mindful communication by asking students to THINK before they speak. She breaks down the acronym this way:

T: Is it Truthful?

H: Is it Helpful?

I: Is it Interesting, Important, or Inspiring?

N: Is it Necessary?

K: Is it Kind?

“I emphasize the last one, because I think it’s truly the most important,” she adds.

5. Profess (and repeat) a message that matters to you

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Having lost a nephew in a drunk driving accident over a decade ago, Prentiss has gotten in the habit of delivering this weekly message to students: “Don’t drink and drive. Drive the drunks. Stay safe.” While Prentiss does not suggest all educators repeat her mantra about drugs and alcohol, she encourages them to share a message that has meaning for them. “It’s about having a vested interest in the students in the room,” she says. “This will help them have a vested interest in being in connection with you.”

6. Demonstrate multiple pathways with role-playing

Particularly in courses that cover hot-button topics, role-playing can help students see others’ points of view, says Prentiss. For example, in Conflict and Mediation, she asks students to (anonymously) share a case study from their life in which they experienced conflict. “We work on all of these bizarre things that have happened to people. And we role-play each scenario maybe five times,” she says. “Each time, you have to take a different path than the person before you.”

The point of the exercise is to show the many possible outcomes to any interaction. “What I am trying to do is teach students how to be in a world with so much uncertainty,” she says. “I want them to use that as a strength, as a way of being able to be creative in whatever they’re doing.” She hopes that by easing their instinctive fear of the unknown, they will be better able to navigate their lives. “After all, we’re trying to teach students for careers that don’t even exist yet,” she says.

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