Developing Community Agreements in Your Course

In the framework for culturally responsive teaching developed by Wlodkowski and Ginsberg (1995) , they begin with the premise that motivation (and its outward manifestation: engagement) cannot be separated from culture. Therefore, if student engagement with learning is connected with culture, then teaching and learning processes must attend to culture. According to their framework, educators can focus on four conditions created by the teacher and students that directly impact intrinsic motivation. These conditions are:

  • Establishing Inclusion
  • Developing Attitude
  • Enhancing Meaning
  • Engendering Competence

Establishing inclusion is foundational for the stabilization of the rest of the class. It is essential that inclusion be demonstrated and made the centerpiece if students are to truly feel included and safe to participate in the course. This is especially important if you plan to address difficult topics in your course content.

Wlodkowski and Ginsberg (1995) outlined the following conditions for establishing inclusion, which they defined as, “creating a learning atmosphere in which students and teachers feel respected by and connected to one another”:

  • Norms:
    • Emphasize the human purpose of what is being learned and its relationship to the students’ experience.
    • Share the ownership of knowing with all students.
    • Collaborate and cooperate. The class assumes a hopeful view of people and their capacity to change.
    • Treat all students equitably. Invite them to point out behaviors or practices that discriminate.
  • Procedures:
    • Collaborative learning approaches
    • Cooperative learning
    • Writing groups
    • Peer teaching
    • Multi-dimensional sharing
    • Focus groups
    • Re-framing
  • Structures:
    • Ground rules
    • Learning communities
    • Cooperative base groups

One of the first practices to implement to establish inclusion is the development of ground rules. The UTLC has worked with folks in the past who chose not to establish community ground rules or norms before heading into difficult dialogues. Inevitably, each one of them regretted the decision. Ground rules, or norms, help keep the conversation learning-focused and empowers students to participate and hold each other (and you) accountable. 

Ground rules are essential for us to understand the parameters of the space and how we are to engage with one another. Here is another great resource from Dr. Silvia Bettez in the School of Education.

Here is one example of how to set up ground rules in your course:

For smaller courses (20 or fewer), you can provide students with a wide-open approach. This means you provide students with a primer – such as this primer based off the work of  Claude Steele’s work “What guidelines can we agree on now in order to create a learning environment in which we can ask each other anything?” Then, have students call out their recommendations or needs in response. Have someone write these recommendations down in a visible space followed by student vote on which recommendations they want to keep. Jennifer has her students vote in a thumbs-up manner – thumbs up means “I agree to this recommendation,” thumbs sideways means “I can live with this recommendation,” and thumbs down means “I do not agree with this recommendation” (which requires additional group discussion).

For slightly larger groups (80 or fewer), you can provide a semi-structured approach. This means you can ask students to reflect on a prompt, such as the one listed above. Then, have students in pairs or small groups compare lists and develop a set of recommendations for the class. After each group has set up their recommendations, have them share these with the larger group. Have a note-taker write these in a visible space as they are being shared, with students voting on each recommendation.

For large groups (anything above 80), you can provide a structured approach. This means you provide the students with a prompt, such the one listed above, but you also provide them with some guiding terms that you ask the students to define in context of the prompt. These terms can include respect, active listening, and engaged participation. Collect the student responses and then develop a set of ground rules for the course. You can have students respond and suggest potential edits to your drafted ground rules for a more inclusive approach. 

Things to keep in mind:

  • You are not creating safe space – that is reserved for spaces of healing. The goal is to create “Safe Enough” space – “Safe Enough” to share and contribute –  but you cannot guarantee a truly safe space. Additionally, learning requires a level of discomfort: too comfortable and we don’t grow; too uncomfortable and we enter a state of fight, flight, or freeze – we want to operate in that “space between.”
  • You will need to re-frame non-specific behaviors. Students will quickly say, “We should respect each other.” It is important that you push the students to define what behaviors demonstrate respect. You will have to help students process things like “eye contact” that can have cultural implications. 
  • Develop a check-in procedure. A check-in procedure defines the action we agree to take in order to hold each other accountable and return to the rules. This can be as simple as saying, “Time out,” or, “Let’s return to the ground rules we agreed upon.”


Here are a few example recommendations you can suggest if students get stalled in the process (*adapted from Sustained Dialogue Institute):

  • Don’t just jump in when the water’s warm: challenge yourself to respond at different points in the discussion.
  • Share airtime.
  • Listen with an open mind.
  • We are all here with the best intentions.
  • We are all experts on our own personal experience.
  • Avoid “two-valued” thoughts and statements.
  • Address the statement, not the person.
  • Participants represent only themselves and are not representing whole social groups.
  • Use “I” statements.
  • Don’t substitute “all” for “some” or “some” for “one”.
  • Challenge yourself to say what you really mean.
  • Honor confidentiality.
  • Practice empathy.
  • Try to acknowledge, not correct, the generalizations and stereotypes in your own contributions.
  • Listen harder when you disagree.