Building Relationships: War & Peace


Not too long ago Marisa Constantinides posted a piece that discussed building trust and relationships in the classroom.  I think this is probably one of the most important things you can do to create a positive classroom environment.  This series will look at a number of different ways to build relationships in the classroom between you and the students as well as between the students themselves.

I think relationship building is often overlooked in the classroom.  How many lesson plans list “to build bonds” or “to establish trust” in their objectives?  Activities designed to build relationships and a positive environment are extremely beneficial for lowering the affective filter.  By doing such activities we are in fact laying the groundwork for a constructive environment in which learning can occur. It’s well worth the time to think about and plan for.  Isn’t teaching really about relationships after all?  The learning of a language really comes second to this.  I think we have all seen teachers who do everything right, but if they don’t have a connection with their students, the lessons still fall flat.

Luckily for those of us in Turkey, one of the greatest things about Turkish students is how quickly they bond with each other.  Despite the many differences that exist, they will quickly form a cohesive whole without a whole lot of prompting by the teacher.  This is a strength you can exploit to the fullest.  Often classes will go to great lengths to stay together and adding or taking away students can be quite disruptive.  Although, again, new members will quickly be accepted into the group given a little time.  I think the most common positive feedback I get from my classes is that they “made some good friends.”

One way to build up bonds between students and get them to learn to rely on each other is to use pair or group work situations where they have to work together to complete the goal.  Of course, any goal-oriented group activity accomplishes this, but something with a physical element and an element of challenge can get much better results.

When I worked in domestic violence we did all kinds of trust-building exercises and I decided to modify one of them to fit an ESL context.  First, let’s look at the lesson plan and then let’s highlight some important aspects of it.  Here’s the lesson plan:


Tank Battle!

Level: Elementary & Up


  • Build up trust in the class
    Direction vocabulary
    Prepositions of place & movement


Plan: Walk into the class and draw a big bull’s-eye up on the board (I like to tape a picture of a tank in the center).  Draw a line on the floor where people have to throw from.  Then throw a crumpled up paper ball on the floor.  Point to the ball to indicate that you want it.  You also might want to tell students not to touch it.

Leave the classroom and put on a blindfold.  Enter the classroom and start stumbling around as if you’re searching for something.  The students should catch on immediately that you want the ball.  If not, ask where the ball is.

The students should guide you to the ball using whatever language they have.  Then indicate that you want to hit the target.  Again, students will guide you to throw it using whatever language they know.  You can scaffold by asking.  For example, “should I throw it (mime throwing)?”

After you have successfully thrown the ball at the target, ask the students how close you were to the bull’s-eye.  Then put up on the board any language they used and try to elicit some more and add your own.  Students will need language like, go forward, move your hand to the right, bend down, , turn to the left, throw it hard, etc.

Depending on the level of the class you might want to do some TPR with this.  Play a quick game of Simon Says to familiarize them with the necessary vocabulary. Or you could set up 3 chairs at the front of the class and have students come up in groups.  The person in the middle gives commands while the other two follow.  Work through a couple groups this way.

Once you are sure people are fairly familiar with the necessary language, point to the tank and ask them what it is.  Ask them when tanks are used.  Tell them that they are going to learn to fight a war in English!

The Rules of War are:  1) No touching , 2) Stay behind your tank at all times, 3) Commanders cannot touch the balls, and 4) if you get hit with a ball, you are out.

Split the class off into pairs.  One person in each group is the tank.  They will be blindfolded.  The other person is the commander.  They will give the directions.

Scatter a bunch of tank balls on the floor (crumpled pieces of paper).  Explain to the students, by way of demonstration, that the tanks must pick up a ball and try to hit another tank with it. Once a tank is hit, they are out until the next round.

Blindfold the tanks and spin them around.  Keep track of who hits who.  The first round the teacher should monitor the game, but the 2nd round should have the teacher participating with someone else monitoring.  If a group uses L1, they are automatically out.

Probably after round 1 you will need to revise some of the necessary commands and directions.  Play the game for as many rounds as the students are interested in.

Get feedback on the lesson and tell students they are now ready to fight a war in English :)


The first thing to notice is that the teacher demonstrates the activity themself.  When building trust, we can never ask the learner to do something we don’t do ourselves.  We can model the activity and create an atmosphere where students feel comfortable copying us.

Simon Says is your typical TPR.  All the students perform the same actions and so nobody really feels embarrassed (well, too embarrassed anyway :) )and it helps foster group bonds, especially as they see the teacher joining in.

The blindfold activity is great because students really have to trust one another to guide them and there is a competative element that makes it really fun.  You could also split the class up into teams, one with blue blindfolds and one with red, to foster more comraderie.

In the end everyone gets a laugh and they really start to rely on each other.  It’s a good way to get classes working together.  They really learn to trust each other and the element of putting yourself out there and taking risks creates an environment that encourages further risk-taking in the class when it comes to language use.

Here is the downloadable lesson.

What do you think?  Do you ever focus on relationship-building as a lesson objective?  What other activities can you think of that build group cohesiveness, relationships, trust, and/or a positive atmosphere?

On another note, I did a humorous guest piece over on TEFLTastic with Alex Case on what managers look for in their teachers here.

Related Posts:

Building Productive Classroom Relationships

Building Relationships 2:  The Human Knot

Building Relationships 3:  Trust Falls

Building Relationships 4:  Circle of Trust


  • By Marisa Constantinides, January 14, 2010 @ 8:58 am


    Thank you for mentioning my own post as well as being fired up by it and doing something to implement the ideas in an actual lesson….

    Your lesson reads like huge fun backed up by good educational value.

    One small reservation which I am voicing with all due respect is this: I would personally hesitate to buid trust and rapport by using a game which includes the idea of ‘war’ and ‘tanks’.

    I know that children use them even as toys but I do not think that educators should repeat the errors of misinformed or uninformed parents.

    Is there some other way you could do this? I wonder.

  • By admin, January 14, 2010 @ 9:09 am

    Glad you liked the idea Marissa. I generally teach adults so I’m not too concerned about promoting this or that. Adults get a laugh out of this kind of thing and I like laughing students.

    For children though I’d be more inclined to agree. Just change it to something more kiddy like pin the tail on the donkey or a new type of basketball or something. When I did the trust exercises in general it was just presented as a game without any context.

  • By 4th grade social studies, March 5, 2011 @ 7:21 am

    All I can say is keep writing. Some professional bloggers post three or four times a day on the blogs, simply because this constant addition of new content helps them how to get regular readers.

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