Building a Safe and Supportive Classroom for English Language Learners

It was a teaching strategy that had an impact I never expected. Here’s how I used a wiki discussion board to build a safe and supportive classroom for my students.

It was a teaching strategy that I never expected to have the impact that it did.

A strategy that highlighted the immense value of tapping into our students’ worlds – drawing on their experiences and expertise.

I was teaching an mid to upper level English Language Learner (ELL) class.

All were relatively new arrivals to Australia so there was much for them to navigate.

Acutely aware of the challenges to their well-being.

Acutely aware of the silence and stigma around mental health.

I wanted to do something different in my class.

I wanted to provide a forum for freely writing about the issues that affect us all.

I wanted them to know they weren’t alone.

And I wanted to work from a strengths focused perspective, recognizing and valuing their expertise.

And so I set up a class wiki discussion board which all students joined anonymously.

The primary purpose of the discussion board was for the sharing of issues, experiences and ideas.

As many of the students tended to underplay their knowledge and expertise – not seeing themselves as having something to offer others – there was some work to do.

So we spent time identifying our skills and areas of expertise, documenting this in a class list, and regularly referring to this list during class activities.

And gradually I started to model writing on the wiki.

I had 6 key questions (that they were introduced to – over time):

My Wiki Prompts - Building Safe and supportive classroom - Pushing The Edge Blogpost

As I had a health-promotion agenda, we focused on Ways to Move Forward – with Proactive Strategies.

Along the same lines, I viewed my students – and encouraged them to see themselves and their peers – as having Agency. These were key components in my teaching.

By the time my students began writing on the wiki they had a very clear idea of the purpose of the wiki, the sorts of things they could write on it, as well as possible structures for their writing.

And wow did they write. It was like opening a floodgate.

Each piece of writing – went to me for checking – before I approved it for publication.

Here I was keen to ensure that they didn’t write anything that revealed their identity or revealed personal details about others.

This was also a key teaching point within our class – along with key concepts like privacy and confidentiality, and notions of ‘what’s appropriate’ or ‘inappropriate’ to include or write about on a class discussion board.

I was also mindful of students revealing any serious health or well-being related issues. In this regard, I could refer them to our student counselling service who we worked with quite closely.

Here’s some excerpts:

When I was in XXXXX (country), those who I love will always makes me happy. When I came to Australia sometimes my relatives make me happy and sometimes my imagination make me happy because I’ll always imagine that I am living in the same country with those who I love the most.

The thing making me to laugh were my children when they were watching TV, and they used to correct their mother when she speak wrong English and also my class mates sometime make me to laugh because I can’t get what they are speaking. This really makes me to laugh.

When I feel sad or upset, I will play the guitar and write in my diary. Mostly, I will deal with the problem or will discuss my problems with my friends.

As students had an active and engaged audience for their writing, they were always keen to participate on the wiki.

And from their writing we built lists of well-being strategies as well as lists of useful phrases and language structures (given that it was an ELL class).

Plus we identified health and well-being resources they could tap into.

Time was also spent learning how to respond to each others’ writing – sensitively and respectfully.

Here I taught them particular structures they could use like:

  • That reminds me of when I….
  • I also XXX when I’m feeling sad
  • Here’s something that works for me when I feel ….
  • Can you tell me more about….
  • Your idea about XXX was really helpful to me because….
  • You made me laugh when you said….
  • Thank you for your idea about XXX. It helped me to….

This wiki discussion board had numerous benefits:

  • health and well-being wise;
  • reading and writing-skill wise;
  • self-confidence wise and;
  • community-building wise.

Building Safe and Supportive Classrooms via a Wiki - Benefits

There was something about participating in the wiki (and the associated class-tasks) that contributed to the building of bond between us.

Their knowledge and their experience mattered in our class. They saw over and over again how they could positively impact on others.

They came to see that they weren’t the only ones feeling particular emotions. They weren’t alone.

They began to focus more on action ‘what can I do?’ or ‘what can we do’ as a class or community?’

And here they had an ever-growing list of strategies they could consider.

But that’s not all.

As a teacher, I came to know my students at a much deeper level, tapping into their worlds outside the classroom.

And my students’ writing proved to be especially useful in respect to planning my future classes.

Indeed challenging the silence around issues often not discussed in ELL (English Language Learner) classes, opened the door to many opportunities and possibilities.

Related Posts and Podcasts


  • Beyond Blue – Support and resources relating to depression and anxiety
  • MindMatters – A Whole School Approach to Mental Health

You're not alone. Creating Safe and Supportive Classrooms


  1. หนัง March 13, 2016
    • Greg Curran March 14, 2016