Much like with parenting, teachers are often the caring and supportive adult in students’ lives. However, we are also the judge, jury and executioner! It can be a tough role to juggle. In order to help strike that balanced chord of showing that you are there to support your students, building community should be your first step. Here are some approaches that I use in my classroom to help build community.
Birthday chart (even for the big ones!). We all have a birthdays and it’s nice to share that as a common ground among students in your classes. I have used birthday charts for my students and they always get excited about it! Typically one poster size chart works and they simply write their name under their birth month and put their birth date next to their name. One chart is able to hold all of my students, around 150 (this doesn’t have to just be for the young students–the bigger ones appreciate it as well!). I have them write their names on the birthday chart on the first day of school during their classroom scavenger hunt. It’s cute because they usually get excited–exclaiming “my birthday is in March too!!” It’s a great way to start building community right off the bat. Be sure to put yours on there too!
Getting-to-know-you sheets for students AND teacher. On the first day of school, I always give out a getting-to-know-you sheet as homework to my students. It has questions that range from where they were born and what language they speak at home to their favorite movie and proudest accomplishment. I also fill this sheet out and hang it in my classroom, explaining to them that if I am going to ask questions about their lives, they should be able to ask the same of me (I don’t think it would be fair to expect them to tell me things about themselves that I wouldn’t want to share about myself). After explaining this, they are usually more likely to open up to me since I am, in turn, opening up to them. This is a great way to initially get to know your students as you read through their sheets and it can help you start up a conversation with a struggling student (see my post on motivating students and using the 2×10 method)
Opportunities to work together. I always give my students chances to collaborate and work together. After all, how can your students build relationships in your classroom if they never get the chance to talk to one another? This allows them to share ideas and listen to one another. Even when they get off-topic, they are still going to build relationships and learn about one another. These interactions are crucial for fostering community-building as well as preparing them for real-world work expectations since most careers involve people working together on projects.
Give your students the opportunity to help/support one another academically. Often, I have my students swap work with each other to give and get feedback from their peers. I especially like to do this with labs. This helps them to be more detail oriented when collecting data and processing it as part of their analysis. They are thoughtful when reading each other’s work, often stating things like “Make sure to explain why you think you got those results when you are writing your conclusions” or “The title on your graph does not really explain what the data is about. Make sure to be specific.” Not only is it good for them to learn how to give and receive constructive criticism, but it’s also wonderful practice for them to proof-read others work and help them to better see errors on their own papers. Also, asking them to give helpful feedback to their peers can sometimes yield helping in other ways between your students as they get accustomed to asking each other for help.
Opportunities to share work on a small scale and have students write about what they liked about each others’ work. Not only is it good to have your students in the habit of giving each other feedback and critiques, but it’s also good for them to practice complimenting one another. Sometimes it can be hard for teens (and adults) to give and receive compliments. I typically have my students compare work (usually an assignment like an artistic pamphlet or acrostic poem) and then I have them choose the one they like best and explain why. This is a nice way to bring the attention off of one’s self and onto another. The students don’t typically feel “bad” if no one chooses their work, they are more focused on choosing someone else’s work. This is a great way for them to practice thinking of others and complimenting others as well (something that we all could use more practice doing).
Share good news with one another. It’s important for your students to build a community among themselves, but it is also just as important for them to build community that includes you, the teacher! One good way to do this is through sharing good news with one another (even if it’s silly). It’s important for you to share your own good news with your students as well as asking them to share their good news with you and the class. Celebrating one another is a great way to build community. You could do this daily, or weekly by asking for good news. You could build it into your curriculum, like with a warm-up or question of the day. If it becomes part of your normal classroom routine, they will expect it, and possibly even come to class prepared to share good news in their life. What a wonderful possibility for your students to walk through life trying to pay attention to the good things happening so that they are able to share that good news with others. Not only will this help build community in your classroom, it could also help your students to become a bit more positive in their daily lives.
Show that you care. Listen to them. Explain your reasoning. Not every day is going to be perfect and happy in the classroom. Sometimes you will have to wear the hat of disciplinarian. If you approach these situations right, they can actually help you build up your classroom community rather than tear it down. When you are in a position where you need to reprimand or discipline your class or one of your students make sure that you help them understand why you are upset and explain your point of view. If you are able to help them understand, they will be less likely to repeat their offense. Turn the situation into a teachable moment for your students! By explaining your side and your thought process, it removes the dictatorial side of discipline and turns it into a supportive environment in which discipline is a necessity for the learning process.
Have students contribute to classroom decorations! Growing up, our parents would hang our artwork and school papers on the refrigerator to show their support for us. In the classroom, students’ work should be displayed around the room. I like to show students’ work, but I especially like them to help with my classroom decorations. For instance, you could have classes create posters for the walls on the first week of school that display class rules or various procedures. This way, they have a hand in helping to decorate the room, but also in deciding and learning what the expectations of the classroom are. Something I want to try next year is having them create science safety posters to put around the room. This way, they can learn how to practice lab safety while also helping to decorate the room and build community in the process.
I hope these tips inspire you to try new ways of building community in your classroom. In my opinion, this is a great use of your time. The stronger your community is, the better your year will be with your students!
-The Ardent Teacher
Photo Credit: opensource.com https://www.flickr.com/photos/opensourceway/