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Taking the time to build a sense of community in your classroom is paramount to your students’ success.  Why?  <<<Spoiler Alert>>> It helps with everything!  All year!



When students feel like they are part of a community, they are more apt to participate in activities, contribute to discussions and work hard.  They take pride in what they do, because they feel as if what they do matters and who they are with care.

I mean, think about it: Imagine yourself sitting in a room with 20 other people you only kind of know.  The leader asks you a question and you have an idea to share, but because you don’t know the others well, you hesitate to give your answer.  You squirm in your seat, your heart starts to race, you think to yourself, “Just say it.  Just raise your hand and say it.”  But you can’t get that hand up and now, your chance is over.  The leader is on to something else.

Or how about this:  You are working with a group of peers on a project.  There are 6 of you and ideas are flying.  Every idea, though is shot down by someone in the group without any consideration.  John’s idea was shot down by Anne.  Lisa’s idea was ridiculed by Amanda.  Sara’s idea was just simply ignored.  You have a great idea as well, but after every one else’s was dissed, you wonder if you should even attempt to contribute it, so you don’t.  You look around and realize just how long of a process this is going to be if no one is willing to listen and discuss potential ideas for the project.

Now these scenarios may or may not describe your reality, but they certainly describe how many people, many students feel daily.

So, how can you help your students overcome obstacle like these?  You guessed it!  By working to make your classroom a community.

Actually…  you need to make it a SAFE community. 

Just because you do things together and spend time together doesn’t make your community effective.  There are countless communities around us that struggle to thrive.  That’s because they haven’t been able to make connections with each other.

In a school or classroom setting this is even more important because, by design these places are where students are expected to grow.  When you can create that safe environment in your classroom, office or space, that’s when students can really start to blossom.

Your classroom will then become a safe community for LEARNING.

And it doesn’t even matter how old your students are.  Kinders need to have that sense of community and safety away from home just as much as a high schooler.  I mean, think about it: students, no matter what age are more ready to relax and learn if they feel comfortable in their learning environment.

Let’s face it, even adults need this!  At the same time that I’m putting this post together, I’m also in the middle of planning the next winter SEAL Retreat and part of the planning is the community building activities that we do throughout the retreat.

Whether you see your students all day, every day or once a week, taking the time to build community helps to create a safe learning environment for both you and your students.

 

Key Ideals of a Safe, Learning Community

So, what are the key ideals of a safe, learning community?

Well, it comes down to three things:

  1. People are treated and spoken to respectfully.  (Regardless of who they are, how they behave, or what their background is.)
  2. Each person’s uniqueness is seen as an asset to the community.  (Everyone, after all, has something that they can contribute.)
  3. People’s ideas are acknowledged and valued.  (Even if they those ideas are not ultimately accepted or used.)

Sounds pretty good, right?

So, now the question is how can you actually accomplish this?

Teachers have been building communities successfully for decades and I’m sure you work hard at this as well!  Maybe you already have some tricks up your sleeves: ice breakers, team building activities and even whole class projects you do to help your students make connections with one another and with you.

Let’s take a look at 3 ways you can embed the idea of community into your classroom to make sure your students feel connected, safe and ready to learn.

 

1.CLEAR Expectations

 

Notice I did not say “HIGH” expectations.  Instead, I’m talking about making your expectations CLEAR.  The difference is that with clear expectations, you are being direct with your students so that they fully understand where you are coming from and how you want things to run in your classroom.

No matter if you take the time to create a Classroom Constitution or have only one rule, these expectations need to be understandable to your students.

For example, Megan, a high school teacher has only one rule, “Respect.”  This is pretty clear and she takes the time to talk with her students about what that means in a variety of instances.  When her students need redirection, she can always come back to that one word and allow them the chance to quickly reflect on how what they’ve done follows that expectation or not.

In a completely different setting, Marie, a second grade classroom teacher works over the course of a few days (a little bit at a time) to come up with a classroom set of expectations that the students have had a hand in creating.  With lines like, “We will turn off our voices and face the speaker,” the expectations are clear and provide Marie a document to reference when needed.

Another part to creating clear expectations is making sure students understand WHY these are important.  In other words, bring in the word community.  Make it clear that you create these expectations with one main thing in mind: to create a safe, learning community for all.

In fact, when I work with my own students on creating our Classroom Expectations, I frame it this way, “What We Need so that We Can Learn.”  I take my time in emphasizing that we all need to work together in order to help each other succeed.

 

2.Greeting Your Students

 

The simple act of waiting by your door to greet your students as they walk in is great way to make it known that you want your students to feel welcomed and part of a community.  Making that connection with each person can really be a great way to set the day up for success!

Now there are some wonderful examples of how some teachers greet their students with a high five, a handshake or even a hug.  You can tell that in some classrooms, this works wonders.  Another teacher was videoed himself performing a unique and complex handshake-dance with each of his middle school students.  LOVE it!  These methods fit those teachers’ personalities and styles.  If that is you, awesome!

Marissa, the music teacher at my school greets every student as they enter the room and then, as the elementary class stands ready to be picked up, she goes down the line and gives each student a salutation of their choice.  A fist bump may be accompanied by a compliment on behavior or a hug might send a message that she can’t wait to see that student after school for chorus.  The kids absolutely love and respect Marissa for it!

You don’t always have to do an elaborate greeting to be effective, though.  In fact, my approach is quite traditional.  I stand by my entrance and greet each student with a friendly hello.  Now many students walk by my room, so I try to greet many students at once and then make a big deal when someone not only says hi back, but looks at me as well.  I believe those are skills that are being lost, so I like to try and make a point of acknowledging them.

A couple weeks into the school year, I start to elevate my greeting by implementing a quick check-in with my students.  First I take some time to go over the system with them, but then, once the kids are acquainted with it, they can give me a quick fist to five to let me know how they are doing that morning.  A five is the best: a good morning, no issues, and they are ready to learn.  A fist means something is happening and they need to talk further.  Usually kids are somewhere in the middle.

No matter how you approach it, though greeting your students with a smile can really help to build that safe, learning community you strive for.

 

3.Class Meetings

 

This next idea can be as simple or complex as you choose and again, it can be tailored to fit the needs of your students and the time that you have with them.

Many elementary teachers follow a Morning Meeting routine where the element of community building is built right in.  There are other schools who implement other types of class or small group check-in meetings that certainly help foster a feeling of community.

But remember, we can make this idea very simple to work for you.

In fact, even having a 5 minute class meeting before you start your day, your class or your lesson can be effective.  Here’s a list of ideas you could try:

  • Tell your students the schedule for the day and ask them if they have any questions or concerns.
  • Tell your students your learning objectives for the class or lesson and invite them to share what they already know.
  • Ask your students about their weekend and have a couple of kids share a great story from theirs. (Using all the elements of a good story, of course!)
  • Tell your students a relevant story that ties into the day’s lesson and ask students to make a comment.
  • Ask your students a question that ties into what you are going to teach them that day and give students a change to share their answers.

Notice there’s a little formula here.  First you start by getting the students focused in on something that has to do with your class or your lesson and then you ask for some input.  If you have a class that likes to contribute a lot, consider limiting the amount of responses you will accept.  For example, say, “I’d like to hear from just 4 of you this meeting.”

This is also a great time to bring out the ball and toss it around to indicate who has the floor.  Maybe you have a Koosh ball, an O-Ball (a ball that is made of circles), a stress ball or even a hacky sack to use.

This past summer, at the Arts Integration and STEAM Retreat, we learned how to make yarn and felted balls.  I use my special felted ball all the time in my classroom.  It’s so special and the kids love passing it around.

No matter if your students are in elementary, middle school or high school, giving clear expectations, greeting your students and holding class meetings can really give a sense of community – a safe community for learning.

Why?

Well, each of these things focuses on both predictability and trust. 

 

Predictability

Predictability is an important aspect of feeling safe.  And we all know that there are more and more students who need that feeling of safety.  Being predictable with your schedule and some routines can certainly help many of your students.

When you have clear expectations, there is no guess work in what you expect in your room.  And to take it even further, part of your clear expectations can be that you have clear consequences as well.  My friend Courtney has her consequences posted on her wall right next to her expectations.  Everything is very clear and she is able to easily refer to them often.

Being that familiar face at the start of the day also gives students some ease as they can predict and count on you being there.  And if you are absent one day or unable to get to the entrance in time, consider having a substitute greeter.  This can be a student or group of students that you actually train to greet their classmates with a smile and a, “Hello.”  Talk about building community!  That would be a great leadership role for some of your students.

Even having a class meeting can contribute to the feeling of predictability.  Wether you implement a 30 minute Morning Meeting or a 5 minute check-in before a lesson, knowing that they will have a chance to transition into the next thing as a community of learners can help ease everyone into productive time to learn.

 

Trust

I also mentioned trust.  You see, a safe, learning community can’t be fully developed without trust.  Trust happens between the leader (or in this case the teacher) and the students as well as among peers.

If you stick with your routines and implement these ideas with some fidelity and predictability, students will naturally start to trust you.  Predictability leads to the feeling that you are reliable and, well, trustworthy.

It’s that trust in you and in the others in the class that will help your students to participate more, contribute actively, and work hard!  When students feel safe, they are more comfortable taking risks to try more things and making mistakes that they can learn from.  And THAT is what learning is all about.

So, can taking the time to build community help with student success?  You bet it can!

Let’s get started!

 

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