Creating a Safe Space in your Classroom

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When I started teaching Religious Education, my mind wandered back to a Reading Seminar we had done in fourth year with @DrSandraCullen on how to create a safe space in the classroom. I found this Reading Seminar particularly helpful at the time, so I dug my notes out on it and it has really helped me create (what I hope students feel and see as) a safe space in my classroom. The Council of Europe Signposts document is available here in full to download for FREE which is what the Reading Seminar was based on. You can access it here. This document looks at the policy and practice for teaching about religions and non-religious world views in intercultural education. In the past number of weeks, I’ve found this so useful and it has really benefited me when preparing for Religious Education classes.


The Council of Europe suggests “provision of a safe learning space to encourage expression without fear of being judged or held to ridicule” (7.1, p.47) In this respect, the recommendation is consistent with the Council’s work on human rights, education for democratic citizenship and intercultural dialogue (Council of Europe 2008b, 2010). When teachers provide a “safe space” for the exploration of diversity, it shows sensitivity to the belief and values positions of individual students and does require recognition of “internal diversity” and the personal character of religions and non-religious world views.

It is also important to remember that students are more likely to discuss issues relating to religious and world issues in school rather than anywhere else. Most recently, many teachers will have had this experience particularly after the tragic attacks in Paris and all the questions that followed from students about Religion and indeed World Religions. Initially, discussing issues at a distance from the personal experience of students can help to establish an atmosphere of safety in which students can draw directly on their personal experience. Some teachers have found that dividing classes into smaller groups encourages more diffident pupils to express their views. The age and personality of students is crucial to this. For example, research with 10- and 11-year-olds used didactical methods more suited to younger students.  Students are also likely to gain in confidence and ability to participate competently in classroom dialogue with practice. Tolerance can act as bridge to studying religious language as well as implementing and recognising inter faith dialogue. I remember when we as a group discussed this at we felt more than a mere tolerance was needed here – but for many it is a great start when facilitating discussions.

The role of the teacher and student is crucial in any classroom. According to Robert Jackson (1982), ‘Teachers need to be aware of their own beliefs and values in relation to their professional role, and to be able to adopt an impartial procedural position’. As many of us are aware, we  need facilitation and moderation skills; and knowledge of the field of religions and beliefs; and awareness of the backgrounds of young people; and of power relations within classes. It seems like a big ask but really for a safe space to be successful and secure, this needs to occur. The personality and professionalism of the teacher is important, as is the personal relationship between teacher and students. If teachers take a too directive role, students may rely on the teacher’s arguments or not participate in discussion which is needed for a lesson like this.

Students in turn, need to feel safe to participate confidently in the lesson. Likewise, students need to understand that the principle of freedom of religion or belief gives individuals the right to hold a particular belief, even if others do not share it. They need to understand that they should respect the right of others to hold particular beliefs. In terms of evaluating others’ views and practices that are different from their own (and in clarifying their own views), Signposts offers students to consider possible responses to views and beliefs they do not share through

  1. Tolerance – I do not agree with your view/accept the truth of your claim, but I respect your right to hold that view.
  2. Respect – Even though I do not accept the truth of your claim, I respect the positive effects it brings to personal and social life.
  3. Recognition – I do not agree with your view/accept the truth of your claim, yet your position/way of life has some very positive moral and social effects which should be recognised by

The following ground rules have been developed by various groups of students in collaboration with their teachers to facilitate a safe space in the classroom which again, is highlighted further in Chapter 5 in Signposts.

  • Appropriate language should be used.
  • While respecting the principle of freedom of expression, it should be acknowledged that there are limits; for example, there should be no expression of racist or sexist language or any form of “hate speech” (See No Hate Speech Movement website).
  • Only one person should speak at a time, without interruption.
  • Respect should be shown for the right of others to express views and beliefs different from one’s own.
  • Ideas should be challenged, not the individuals who express them.
  • Students should be encouraged to give reasons for their views.
  • Exchanges should be inclusive: everyone should be given the opportunity to express his/her view.

The general conclusion for a safe space for any classroom is that there are suitable methods and procedures for making classrooms safer spaces, but all classroom interaction involves some degree of risk, especially when controversial issues are discussed and different claims to truth are made. This can be minimised by increasing teachers’ awareness of power relations within classes, their knowledge of the backgrounds of students and their awareness of relevant research findings. Moreover, there is evidence that young people’s confidence and ability to participate competently in classroom dialogue improves with practice. Regarding freedom of expression, the view is taken that controversial issues should be covered, but that all views expressed should be sensitive to the plurality of viewpoints within the school, to minority groups represented in the school and to the principles of democracy and human rights.

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Make it a Safe Space for Everyone!

Some activities I have included here (and used myself) really help facilitate a safe space within the classroom and build up a good relationship between class groups and teachers.

Save the Last Word for Me

“Save the Last Word for Me” is a discussion strategy that requires all students to participate as active speakers and listeners. Its clearly defined structure helps shy students share their ideas and ensures that frequent speakers practice being quiet. It is often used as a way to help students debrief a reading or film.

Step One: Identify a reading or video excerpt that will be used for this activity.

Step Two: Ask students to read the text or comment or the video and to highlight three sentences that particularly stood out for them and write each sentence (preferably on an index card) On the back they should write a few sentences explaining why they chose that quote – what it meant to them, reminded them of, etc. They may have connected it to something that happened to them in their own life, to a film or book they saw or read, or to something that happened in history or is happening in current events.

Step Three: Think-Pair-Share. Divide the students into groups of three, labeling one student A, one B, and the other C. Invite “A”s to read one of their chosen quotations. Then students B and C discuss the quotation. What do they think it means? Why do they think these words might be important? To whom?  After several minutes, as the A students to read the back of their cards (or to explain why they picked the quotation), thus having “the last word.” This process continues with the B student sharing and then student C. The same process can be used with images and questions instead of quotations.

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The Human Barometer – Taking a Stand on Controversial Issues

The human barometer teaching strategy helps students share their opinions by lining up to represent their point of view.  It is especially useful when trying to discuss an issue about which students have a wide range of opinions.  Engaging in a barometer activity can also be an effective pre-writing exercise before an essay assignment because it gets many arguments out on the table.

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Step One:  Identify a space in the classroom where students can create a line or a U-shape. Place “Strongly Agree” and “Strongly Disagree” signs at opposite ends of the classroom. Or, you can post any statement and at the other end of the line post the opposite to that statement.

Step Two: Since this activity deals with students literally putting themselves and their opinions on the line, it has potential for outbursts which result from some not understanding how classmates can hold whatever opinion they hold. Voice your class rules about respect for the opinions and voices of others, and call for the students to be honest, but never insulting.

Step Four:  Ask students to stand on the spot of the line that represents their opinion  – telling them that if they stand on either extreme they are absolute in their agreement or disagreement. They may also stand anywhere in between the two extremes, depending on how much they do or do not agree with the statement.Once students have lined themselves up, ask the students to explain why they have chosen to stand where they are standing. Encourage students to refer to evidence and examples when defending their stance. Run the activity until you feel most or all voices have been heard, making sure that no one person dominates.

This activity can also be changed up as ‘Four Corners‘. It is simply labelling the four corners of the room with signs reading: strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree and proceed with the steps above.


Safe Space Circle Time

This is a really useful activity for a group that may not know each other really well or a useful activity for Friday.

Step One: By gathering in a circle and creating norms and having discussions will hopefully help build trust in the safe space with the class group.

Step Two: A talking piece, an object of significance chosen by the class group, is passed around inviting equal participation. Whoever holds the talking piece is invited to speak, while all others listen to and support the speaker. To familiarise students with this process, you might ask them, “What does it look and sound like to listen respectfully?” (Sometimes, students will have experienced this type of exercise in primary school or an SPHE lesson).

Step Three:  Once you have gone over the ground rules/ guidelines for the discussion, the Circle Keeper can read a short piece of text to set the tone or just dive into the first question or reflection. Although the Circle Keeper is the facilitator (usually the teacher at the beginning), he/she participates as an equal member of the group. Once students learn the process, they can be invited to be Circle Keepers which is an empowering process for them.

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If you have any further suggestions/activities on how to make the classroom a safe space, please let me know and I will include them here 🙂

As always, let me know what you think!



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