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Classroom community. It is something discussed more and more amongst teachers and is beginning to be perceived as an integral part of student learning. But what is a positive classroom community, and how do you cultivate one?
Teaching your students that they are a community teaches them to care about one another. It shows them that they are a part of something and thus motivates them to do their best to keep that something thriving. By establishing a classroom community, students learn accountability. Their actions fundamentally impact how the community operates. Additionally, students learn valuable social-emotional skills such as empathy, compassion, and respect. Building a classroom community is about establishing a safe space for all learners. Every child should be successful.
Here are eleven ways that you can begin to form a community within your classroom. While every classroom is different, and no one classroom community looks the same, these ideas are a place to get started.
1. Utilize community-based language.
In order for students to believe that they are a community, you have to treat them like one. Refer to them as a community when you are talking. If there is an issue between two students, discuss it as an issue amongst your community members. Whether you use the word community, or family, or something else that indicates the relationships amongst your students, the impact of your words is profound. Students will listen, respond to, and begin to utilize that same language. Last year, I referred to my class as a community and family frequently. A parent e-mailed me later to tell me that at a PTA meeting, a student independently referred to our class as a community. Students take pride in being a part of one.
2. Ensure ALL community members know each others’ names (and how to PROPERLY pronounce these names).
While getting to know the name of class members is a classic back-to-school activity, it also serves as an important function for members of the community. When all of the students in a class know each others’ names early on, every child feels acknowledged. This acknowledgement helps students establish confidence within the classroom and also leads to a sense of safety. They are surrounded by peers.
Taking the time to pronounce a child’s name properly is also important. A child should never feel self-conscious about her name, ever. A learning support once told a student in my class that “she would never be able to pronounce his name correctly” after hearing its rather unusual intonation. This student was crestfallen. Teach your kiddos that all names are important and valued, just like each individual student.
3. Build community through Morning Meeting.
If you have not already, implement a morning meeting within your classroom. You will *not* regret it. Morning Meeting was, and always has been my favorite time of day with my students. Responsive Classroom, an evidence-based approach to teaching that focuses on awareness of students’ needs, provides an excellent format for running Morning Meeting. To read their description regarding what Morning Meeting is and its benefits, click here. I purchased a copy of The Morning Meeting Book and was so pleased that I did. The basic format is a four-tiered meeting that involves a “sharing” component. This sharing component can be immensely helpful in establishing feelings of community amongst students. Kiersten from @missmorrisinsecond has her students answer a question daily during this sharing time and enhance their understanding of each other.
4. Create “classroom rules” collaboratively.
Whatever terminology you use (rules, contract, values, etc.), there will always be certain “principles” that exist to maintain order in your classroom. Now, you really have two options. You could decide what these values are ahead of time, post them, and tell the students the expectations upon their arrival. OR you could wait until you meet your students, have a discussion about THEIR values, and create classroom rules and expectations together. Personally, the latter is a much more effective way to build community within the classroom because students realize that their voices matter and are important. If you create overarching expectations together, not only is it more likely that your students will adhere to them (they helped create them, after all), but you are laying the foundation for a community that works together, makes decisions together, and brainstorms how to create peace together.
5. Incorporate team-building exercises into your instruction, particularly during Back-to-School Time.
Team building never gets old, especially when students first arrive to class. While it is always important to take time for students to cultivate friendships and meaningful relationships, the beginning of the year is particularly important. Some students will just be meeting each other for the first time. Other students might know each other from previous classes but have never formed meaningful relationships. By taking the time to cultivate relationships at the beginning of the year (prior to diving into academia), students will have the opportunity to get to know other students that they may not have otherwise. Cindy from @theldcoach referenced the importance of team-building exercises and having students seek to understand each other’s “why.” One example of this kind of activity is this Getting-to-Know You Jenga by Nicole @teachinginatopknot. Click on the picture to snag her product. 🙂
6. Encourage group work whenever possible.
As mentioned above, students getting to know other students is one of the key components to having a successful classroom community. If there are assignments where students can collaborate, by all means, have them do this. They will not only be learning academic content but also important life skills regarding working together. By navigating the challenges that arise when working in groups and overcoming these challenges (sometimes, with your assistance), students will become closer and learn to respect each other. Group work is something that has to be practiced, modeled, and practiced again. Students might not display this mutual respect initially, but it is something that can be achieved with time. Jeanne from @i_dream_of_first_grade referenced how the sense of pride her students display after partaking in group work is tangible.
7. Establish a classroom job system.
Again, regardless of the terminology (classroom jobs, community helpers, student staff, etc.), implementing a system of classroom jobs, something many teachers already do, can help build community within the classroom. Students are given a sense of responsibility, and they play an important role in maintaining the classroom community, just as it is. Last year, I used the terminology “community helpers” which ties along with the first point that community-based language is important whenever possible.
I have heard about teachers having students on “teams” or “crews” for particular jobs, and that would also be another wonderful way to build community. Students on particular teams could help keep each other accountable. Kaitlyn from @krsunshine519 says her students are in charge of leaving the room the same way they found it in the morning. Whatever the case may be, having students’ take pride in maintaining their classroom space is yet another way to build community.
8. Utilize equitable calling strategies within your classroom.
One way to make everyone feel a part of the classroom community is to make sure everyone’s voices are heard. One way to accomplish this is by using equitable calling strategies. Some teachers do this by having popsicle sticks with students names/numbers in a jar and calling students that way. Some teachers have criticized this technique as potentially singling out students who do not wish to participate; however, if a comfortable, safe community has been established, then fears associated with participating will begin to subside. Another strategy for equitable calling is using a student lottery, which can be made by putting ping pong balls with students names in a bowl. Julie from @gotmteaches does this with her classroom lottery, depicted below.
9. Take the time to get to know your students.
Everyone says “know your students,” but what does this really mean? Hold lunch bunches in your classroom. Join your students on the playground. Get to know their personalities and what makes them tick. This will help you anticipate challenges in your classroom as well as create an environment geared to their interests. Additionally, you will be showing your kiddos that you are a PART of the classroom community (and not an evil dictator trying to get them to constantly do work).
10. Integrate social-emotional learning into your instruction.
A huge part of forming a caring, understanding community is helping students with their basic social-emotional competencies. Depending upon the grade level, this will look more or less complex, but it is essential all the same. Students have to learn skills like empathy, responsibility, and respect. Teaching students to respect each others’ differences, specifically culturally, is an immensely important aspect of creating mutual understanding and having a well-functioning community. Cara from @virtualelementaryteachers sometimes takes the time to teach her students about the art of compliment-giving, which in turn, establishes a positive atmosphere. Erin from @teachingsparkles had her students engage in an activity where they collaboratively analyzed a fictional student’s actions. This is just another great way to have students analyze and reflect upon behavior. Take the time to teach your students these skills.
11. Prioritize community needs over your lesson plans.
I saved this one for last because it may be the most important. As teachers, we plan constantly. We plan for every second of the day, but seasoned teachers, and new teachers, know very well that oftentimes, the day does not go according to the lesson plan. There were several instances last year where students came into the classroom, distraught over something that had happened at recess. I could have told them to talk to the guidance counselor and ignored the problem, but in doing so, not only would I have lost my students’ trust, but they wouldn’t have learned. They weren’t ready to learn. Trust your intuition regarding when you need to handle something that is important for all of your students. Prioritize them as humans, and then think of them as learners. This well help keep everything running smoothly.
Having a classroom community can be one of the most rewarding, worthwhile aspects of teaching. Cheers to cultivating a positive one!