How to build community the first days of school

“How has your first day been?”

“Pretty good,” replied my student shrugging. “Pretty boring.”

I watched as she tucked my class syllabus into her binder along with those for the three other classes she had attended so far that day.

“Do we need to keep this?” another student asked, holding up the Get to Know You bingo sheet he had just half-heartedly completed. I replied that he didn’t, and he crumpled it up to throw into the trash on his way out of class.

In that moment, I wished I had a do-over for my first day of school plan. I thought about the fact that these students had to attend seven class periods where they had done some variation of the same monotonous tasks: go over the syllabus, play superficial games, fill out information cards, and survive navigating the first day of school for another year. I decided then and there that I wanted the first days in my classroom to be meaningful and engaging for the students in my classes. I wanted them to leave the first day looking forward to returning the next, and the next, and the next. I wanted to spend those first days building relationships with and among my students.

As the new school year approaches, I am again beginning to plan what those first few days in my class will look like. As teachers across the country do the same, here are some activities that I have used in the past to begin building my classroom community from day one.

Bookstack Bookswap

As soon as my students enter my room, I want them to know that we are a community of readers. I have a decently sized classroom library, and one of the first things that students notice when they enter my room is that they are surrounded by books. By doing this activity during the first few days, I ensure that every student in my class has a book in hand, ready for independent reading. However, it also gives me a chance to informally talk with students about their reading habits, what genres they like, and whether or not they see themselves as a reader. As Jim Bailey pointed out in his excellent post, talking books with students is a gateway to building relationships with students.

How it works: Before each class period, I place a random stack of five books on each student desk. As students enter the room, I tell them to browse the stacks and have a seat at whichever desk they would like. Once everyone is present, I introduce myself and explain to students that before they leave, every student will choose any book in my classroom to keep and begin reading for their independent reading book. I explain the rules of the Bookstack Bookswap: (1) They can exchange a book with any student if they want a book another student has, (2) They can exchange a book with any book on the shelf, (3) Once they have their book, they record their name and book title in my checkout notebook. At first students are hesitant to get up and moving, but once they do, the room becomes a hub of activity. Students are browsing my bookshelves and talking to one another as they exchange books. I use the time to check-in with students, recommend books, meet each student, learn how to pronounce their name, and take attendance.

M&M Venn Diagram

During the first few days, I want students talking and learning more about their classmates. A couple years ago, I came across the M&M activity on Pinterest. This is a fun way for students to get to know a little bit about one another, and it often sparks longer conversations as students discuss their interests. At the end of the year, students STILL talk about doing the M&M activity at the beginning of the year, and I have even adapted it during the middle of the year to be a close reading exercise.

How it works: Before school starts, I buy a couple bags of the fun size M&M packages. I create a handout that assigns a task to each color — red means share what movies/TV shows you like to watch, blue means share a hobby, etc. (There are many examples already created that can be tweaked to fit your classroom.) When students enter the classroom, they each get a fun-sized bag of M&Ms and each table pair receives a blank piece of paper. Each pair takes turn drawing an M&M color and sharing that piece of information with their partner. Together, they create a Venn diagram that compares and contrasts their likes, dislikes, and interests. These Venn diagrams are the first pieces of classwork that are hung on my wall, and they provide talking points for students during the first weeks they are up. Students always walk around, checking out what other people’s information and finding people who have similar interests as themselves.

One Little Word

I love Ali Edwards’ philosophy of choosing One Little Word to guide her as she begins each new year. This was an activity that I once did with my students in January to celebrate the new year and new semester. However, for students and teachers, the “new year” really begins at the start of each school year. I moved my One Little Word activity to the beginning of the school year, and it has been a wonderful experience for students.

How it works: Before class, I go through Ali Edwards’ list of past words (here are words from 2016 and 2017) and create a master list that students can pull from if needed. As students come into class, they each receive an index card that is blank on one side and lined on the other. I explain the idea behind One Little Word and how these words will guide our focus throughout the year. I display the master list of words on the projector. Students decorate the blank side with the word they choose, and on the lined side they write a short explanation of why they chose that work and what it means to them. I collect the words so that I can read the reasoning on the back, then I hand them all on the wall so that they create a patchwork quilt of words on our wall. Again, bonds are created among students as they read one another’s words. They encourage each other throughout the year, and these words help our community thrive as a positive climate of like-minded people.

I Wish My Teacher Knew…

After I have built community and trust during the first few days, I end my week with Kyle Schwartz’s “I wish my teacher knew…” activity. I save this for the end of the first week so that students can have a sense of trust with me, trust that they can share with me and I will not judge them.

How it works: Each student receives a lined index card. They write their name on the top of the card and simply complete the sentence, “I wish my teacher knew…” I tell them to complete it with something that they feel I need to know about them. I am the only person who sees these cards. They provide insight into students lives and personalities, their past experiences and future hopes. It is the perfect way to end the first week with my students.

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As you begin your new year, I encourage you to examine the focus of your first day activities. Building your classroom community in an invaluable use of time that pays dividend throughout the year.

8 thoughts on “How to build community the first days of school

  1. A few days ago, I was thinking about changing up my “first week of school” plans. This post gave me the inspiration and ideas to do it! Thanks for sharing these great experiences. My fifth graders will enjoy them!

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  2. Perfect timing as we start with students on Tuesday! I have done OLW in January and use Hopes and Dreams in August in a similar way. I love the idea of “I Wish My Teacher Knew” at the end of the first week- curious to read what my third graders will write. With a peanut allergy in the class I will have to not use M & Ms, but let’s see what I can find at the stores here.
    PS I have been loving this blog.

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    1. I haven’t had to deal with an allergy, but I have had some students in the past who just didn’t like chocolate. You could easily use Skittles as an alternative!

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  3. Thank you for this post! I’m heading back to the classroom after years of working as a literacy coach and a few years off…I feel like a first year teacher again, and appreciate these ideas, aligned with my beliefs and purpose. So good!

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