The classroom community is the single most important focus in the school year. Your classroom community is the foundation of your classroom for 180 days. It’s crucial to have behavioral and social expectations, routines, and ground rules that are reinforced every day. A solid classroom community is something we all want, but it’s often easier said than done. This is largely because our students who walk through our door one year are different than those of prior years and years to come. So, what works one year might not work the next. It’s important to be flexible and open-minded regarding your classroom community, but you can also stick to these tried and true mindsets that will withstand the test of time and prevail even in the most challenging of years.
Classroom Community #1: Talk the talk, don’t just walk the walk
Kids hear what you say and they watch what you do. It’s crucial that these two things align. A very simple example of this that is easy to implement but has a huge impact is reading when your students read. We strive to instill a love for reading in our students, so I make it a point to keep a book for me in the classroom. Every so often, I take some time to read my book while the students read. This modeling obviously applies to behaviors too; practice the character traits in addition to just preaching them. The way we talk to other students is so important: kids are always watching, listening, and looking to you to set the tone.
Classroom Community #2: Make the classroom theirs, not yours
In the shiny world of Instagram, it is tempting to outfit your classroom to resemble a teaching catalog. Remember, though, that this usually means building a classroom you will enjoy–not one that benefits your students. Don’t be afraid to start the year with blank walls and empty bulletin boards. Make it a goal to build those areas with meaning and as a community. A bulletin board that turns into a place to house student work or a word wall filled with words you discover together is far more impactful than a wall filled with store-bought posters.
My all-time favorite way to fill a portion of our walls is to have students illustrate a self-portrait the first week of school. We first use them to fill the chairs during the parents-only Curriculum Night, and then they adorn our walls the rest of the year. Some years, I’ve even had the kids create updated portraits halfway through the year. It is fun and interesting to compare the first portraits with the updated ones.
Another way to create a student-centered classroom is for students to create classroom labels or materials. I also love giving students blank calendar squares at the beginning of the year so they can illustrate the special event cards like holidays–and of course, each student decorates one for his or her birthday!
Classroom Community #3: Home and school lives should intersect
Gosh, this is a big one. We need to value where students are coming from every day rather than focusing on them solely as learners. Knowing details about their families, extracurricular activities, and beyond is so important in getting to know your students and also for students to get to know each other. Details like these can aid in selecting appropriate books your students can relate to and also factors that might impact their academic lives.
In addition, I think it’s important to invite families into the classroom when appropriate. Offering a guest reader spot year-round has been helpful, although I encourage you to make the time slot and expectations flexible to accommodate parents who work and might have very little free time to come in. Guest reader spots can also be filled by the community and school members so students don’t view it as a family-only event; this can result in disappointment when a student’s parent or family member is unable to fulfill this role.
Classroom Community #4: Seating should encourage a community feel
Desks arranged in groups are my jam. I think there are so many organic opportunities for social lessons when students are arranged in a group. Students learn to support each other, talk to peers with whom they might not otherwise engage, problem-solve as a group, take accountability for individual actions that affect their group members–the list goes on! I know flexible seating is all the rage, and that’s okay too, but group seating is timeless. Sticking to 4-6 group members is effective, and changing groups at least once per quarter is ideal. Depending on the particular students, it’s also usually fun to let students name their groups and offer behavior incentives to groups as well as individuals. Grouping your students together on Class Dojo is a simple and effective way to reward groups who are showing behaviors like teamwork, kindness, and hard work.
Classroom Community #5: Begin and end each day on a positive note
It’s ironic that the very first thing in the morning and the last few minutes of each day are the most challenging. These are also the times that hold the most potential to lend value to your classroom community. For the first few years of teaching, it felt as though the beginning of every day was like a mystery box–I never knew what it held. Sometimes it went smoothly, and other times we were catapulted into a day of chaos. Similarly, I grew to dread the afternoons. The moments leading up to dismissal were some of the craziest, stressful times I had ever experienced.
Not only did we start and end our day with meaningful conversations, we did it in a predictable and seamless way. Using paperless morning meeting slides and afternoon meeting slides allowed me to start each day feeling actually prepared. I ended each day feeling like I actually had control over my classroom climate. The activities we developed together that first year were just fun enough to keep the kids engaged. They weren’t too unstructured to cause us to veer from the scheduled meeting. It was lifechanging, and once we started, I never looked back. You can try morning meeting for free here.
Classroom Community #6: Make sure students get to know each other all year, not just during the first week
Listen, I am guilty of doing all the back-to-school icebreakers because–let’s be honest–they are fun! In the spirit of honesty; however, I am also guilty of only focusing on getting-to-know-you activities the first month. A few years back, I was learning how to meet the needs of an especially challenging class. Students bickered, there were constant tears and moving of seats, and it largely impacted our learning environment. Personalities mixed worse than oil and water, and I was at a loss for what to do. Desperate to find a solution, I spent a few weeks putting my classroom community under a microscope. I examined the triggers, behaviors, and correlations between all the events in our classroom. I decided that–above all–my students needed to learn how to respect each other. This was going to start with getting to know each other–again.
We started back at square one, and mid-November, I introduced my kids to the Peeramid game. The Peeramid game went like this: Every week, students would be shown 5 questions. Each student submitted his answers to me, and throughout the week, we would stop our instruction for Peeramid time. Some days, this involved reading one of the 5 questions aloud and students answering in partner discussions. Other days, this looked like students finding a given number of peers to share their answers to all of the questions. I also encouraged students to ask these questions outside the classroom walls: at lunch, recess, or on the bus. The goal was to get to know each other in hopes that knowing would equal kindness, patience, and respect.
Every Friday, I would choose one student randomly to sit in front of the class. Their peers would guess that student’s answers to the 5 questions of the week using dry erase whiteboards. The student who guessed the most would win. This also encouraged students to talk to each other. They were determined to learn as possible about each other in hopes that they would be the winner.
Winning is fun, but the longterm outcome was better. Students developed new and surprising friendships, a sense of togetherness became palpable, and a tightknit classroom community was born. In fact, the class that reduced me to desperate, frustrated tears the first month of school joined me the last day of school in a fresh round of tears: of sadness to be leaving behind such an incredible peer group that had grown into a family.