HOW TO BUILD CLASSROOM COMMUNITY – 10 EASY TIPS by Kelli Smith

“This work” by Wokandapix is in the Public Domain, CC0

Today I am beginning my 28th year of teaching. What have I learned after all these years? It’s this: there is nothing more important in these first days of school than building a classroom community and our relationships with students. Yes, content will be taught, but establishing the classroom community remains the most important “thing to do” first.

So how do we start? Here are 10 go-to activities.

“This work” by laterjay is in the Public Domain, CC0

*Read aloud, read aloud, read aloud. This is THE quickest and best way to build community. Why does it work so well? Stories bring people together. Everyone, from our youngest learners to our high schoolers, enjoys listening to and discussing a great story together. I make a point to read aloud to students every single day, but I especially use it on the first day of school to help me bond with students and to help students connect with each other. Keep a stack of good picture books available and read one whenever you have a chance during that first week of school. Reading aloud regularly (preferably at predictable times) helps establish classroom “rituals”, enabling students to feel safe and connected to the classroom. Consider participating in #classroombookaday. See more here.

“This work” by Wokingham Libraries is in the Public Domain, CC0

*Learn the correct pronunciation of each child’s name. Ask the child. A simple “tell me how to say your name”, said with a warm smile, is all it takes. Names are important and communicate respect and caring about the individual.

*First day “morning work” – you’ll be busy collecting forms, possibly collecting classroom supplies, greeting everyone — so it’s important to have work that students can do independently, but that will also give you a lot of information about them. Something that asks them questions about themselves is perfect. As they’re completing this work at their seats, you have a chance to observe how they get started working, how they interact with other students, etc. Read these morning work questionnaires as soon as you can. Make it your first day of school homework. 🙂

“This work” by Paul Hanaoka is in the Public Domain, CC0

*If you don’t do morning work questionnaire, you can still gather that information in a whole group. Form a circle on the carpet (or pull chairs into a circle). Go around the circle and answer pre-made questions. Keep these simple at first and work your way up to “bigger” questions such as “name one word that describes how you are feeling about school this year”. To do this, you might use an object that you pass around the circle (like a beanbag or stuffed animal). You might share something first then pass the object to a student beside you. Continue going around the circle until everyone has had a chance to share.

“This work” by ludi is in the Public Domain, CC0

*Create scavenger hunts for students to complete with partners. It could be a scavenger hunt in which they have to find someone who went to the beach this summer, has a younger brother or sister, likes pizza, etc. Another option is to create a scavenger hunt of areas in the classroom. This activity also gets students moving around and talking to each other

*Use whiteboard messages. These are quick questions such as “what is one thing you are thankful for, what will you do to make today a wonderful day,” etc. There are plenty of pre-made questions on line or for sale at Teachers Pay Teachers. It builds community for students to share these answers in a way that other students can see. Thus — the notion of answering the question on the whiteboard. If that is a problem (or if it gets too crowded at the board), you might try an online tool such as Padlet or a Google doc. Post the question and allow students to add their answers to the question.

“This work” by Gerd Altmann is in the Public Domain, CC0

*Keep most bulletin boards and hallway displays bare. Have the students do some work in the first week that can be posted and that shows them that this classroom belongs to all of them as much as it belongs to you. It’s also fun to take lots of pictures the first week and post some of those on walls or displays as well.

“This work” by charisse Kenion is in the Public Domain, CC0

*Discuss your class/school expectations and create something that shows what these expectations look like/sound like. Try to continue keeping this activity as a “what do we need/what helps everyone” activity rather than “these are my rules and you need to follow them” activity.

*Share things about you. Kids love to find out things about their teacher which makes you more “real” to them. It’s also a good way to find common areas of interest. I have a Google slide presentation with 50 facts about me. They’re not anything major — just things about my family, what I like, what I don’t like, etc. Think about some facts about yourself that you could share! Another variation on this idea is to share one fact about yourself from the first day of school to the last (such as “I am now reading . . .”, “This weekend I tried sushi for the first time”, and “I am learning to bake the world’s best cinnamon rolls”, etc.).

“This work” by Nappy is in the Public Domain, CC0

*Name homework and sharing – read Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes (or any other picture book about a child having to explain their name). Discuss how names are part of what makes us special and unique. Ask students to ask their families about how they were given their name and what it means, if known. Share these stories in partnerships or in a class circle.

I hope that these suggestions are helpful. Have an awesome school year and enjoy building relationships with your students!

Kelli Smith has been a classroom teacher, literacy coach and an instructional coach for 28 years. She has her master’s degree in literacy instruction and has earned and renewed National Board Certification as a middle childhood generalist. She loves coffee, sticky notes and picture books and she still gets nervous on the first day of school! She blogs about teaching and teacher life at www.stillteachingstilllearning.com.

Your Place Was Empty

In Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram, a recurring phrase is “your place was empty.” One of the characters mentions this is a saying in Farsi: jāt khāli-yé. [Note: I am lifting this phrase in English from the ARC of the book, though I can’t imagine it being cut from the final copy]

It is explained in the book that this essentially means “I miss you,” but in a different sense. As if there was a place waiting for someone, and it is empty — and a reminder of their absence — until they are there to fill it.

I was reminded nearly immediately of Pernille Ripp’s welcome poster she wrote about and shared here. “You are just the child we hoped would show up.” I love this for a first day and every day sentiment.

I also was reminded of my 10 years in the classroom, and how I did not have a single year where a student did not join mid-year. And, inevitably, it was an adjustment. We had to catch them up on classroom routines, figure out what of the curriculum they had or hadn’t learned, and make sure there was a spot for them, physically and emotionally.

My students were pretty welcoming, and our room was a place where I think everyone found a home pretty comfortably. But I don’t know that for sure.

What if someone joined our class mid-year, and felt like an outsider the entire rest of the year? What can I do at the start of the year to help prepare my classroom for the student(s) who will be joining us?

I’m not in the classroom this year, but here is what I would do:

chair-304188_640
Photo credit: Clker-Free-Vector-Images  https://pixabay.com/en/desk-school-chair-classroom-304189/
  • Always have more chairs than students, no matter our seating arrangement.
  • Make certain the students who are there know that this is intentional. We always want to have a place ready for anyone who may join us: a guest for the day, a visiting teacher or administrator, or a student who is joining our classroom. I want my students to know that it is a privilege and responsibility to sit next to an empty chair, as at any moment, someone might come in to fill that place.
  • Say to any student who joins us: “Your place was empty. We are so glad you’re here to fill it.”

Of course, we would do other things, too, to make sure everyone felt welcome in our room. But I think this would be an easy piece to add that could make a world of difference for helping everyone know they have a place with us.

If you’re in the classroom, what are some things you do to help everyone feel welcome? What do you do to help students who join mid-year feel welcome and part of the group?

Note: though this is a borrowed phrase from Farsi, I would speak it in English, as Farsi is neither my culture nor my language. However, I would explain to the students where the phrase comes from, also highlighting the book where I learned of it in the process.

Rethinking Meet the Teacher Event

This past summer I was lucky enough to attend the Teaching for Creativity Institute at the Columbus Art Museum for four days in June.  My teaching soul felt hopeful and excited to revisit ideas that grounded my early days of teaching and gather some new thinking.  We talked about our stakeholders and how we can advocate for creativity teaching.  Ideas were tossed around for working with parents during curriculum nights and I began thinking about the two hour window new students and families can stop by to visit our learning space and meet me.  For many years it’s been an opportunity to unpack your school supplies and find out who is in your classroom.  I began thinking about the messages I wanted to start expressing right away and thought this format could be tweaked.

I saw an idea at the art museum in the Wonder Room and wanted to replicate it.  I thought about how they could express and foster messages about our classroom.  We will be inspired.  We will work together.  We will make things.  We will talk.  We will come together.  We will imagine.  When I thought about picking up my phone for some photos tonight, I had another family to meet and visit with.  I wish you could see the room in action.  It was beautiful.

Creative spaces

  1.  Coming Together – pick a fabric strip and add to chicken wire to make a class weaving
  2.  Imagine – explore with post it notes and make something new, tape and colored pencils were offered too
  3. Drawing with Friends – new markers and a square piece of paper hung together in a larger square grid.
  4. Be Inspired – offered four picture books about bugs, tissue paper squares and rectangles, pipe cleaners, and bendable wire

At first, I was worried the creative spaces weren’t going to be used very much.  It was probably a new option for my students.  They loved adding a strip of fabric to a collaborative weave.  When the room was quieter nudging was needed to engage my new friends.  I turned around at a busy moment and there was more engagement.  Old friends were reconnecting.  Neighbors were laughing.  Parents were reconnecting.  A new student, just moved this weekend to be with us and my new friend V did a great job talking to her while her grandpa snapped photos of her new learning space.  As the two hours ended, I found used creative spaces and things to hang in our room.  My space is now our space and the messages I wanted to send about our year together have been sent.

Collaborative Weaving

IMG_4092

 

 

Summer, Classroom Communities, and You!

Greetings from August!

Summer Beach
Photo Credit: Karen Arnold @ publicdomainpictures.net https://www.publicdomainpictures.net/en/view-image.php?image=33915

I hope that you, like us, have been enjoying a relaxing summer with your family and friends. In this profession, it’s important to recharge and recenter yourself.

Many teachers also use summer as a chance for self-directed professional development. Reading new books and brainstorming new ideas, bouncing thoughts off other educators. It was great to see so many of you at Nerd Camp doing exactly that.

A lot of you are already back at school, or will be soon. I, for one, look forward to seeing your tweets about the things you’re doing as you start the school year.

We’d also like to invite you to share your work here on the Classroom Communities blog. If you’d like to write here about what you’re doing in the classroom, especially in terms of developing community and relationships, we’d love to have you!

Fill out the form at this page: https://classroomcommunities.com/want-to-be-a-contributor, and we’ll be in touch with you from there to schedule your post. Can’t wait to hear your stories!

What’s it going to be like to be a learner in this room?

In June, I had the privilege to attend the Teaching for Creativity Institute at our local Columbus Art Museum. Four days of connecting with area educators while focusing on what creativity is, looks like, and how to foster creativity.  Creativity can be practiced, you can get better at it, and creativity is the basis of change.  Learning and growth require change. To help develop creativity we studied and learned about thinking and how to create cultures of thinking.  As our learning continued, we started talking about how to explain and justify to parents things we may do to foster creativity.  Ideas were shared for engaging parents and changing up the traditional curriculum night format.  I loved the ideas shared and I’m sure I will incorporate some this coming year.

Fred Burton, one of my former principals was a guest speaker during the institute and as he discussed studying and fostering cultures of thinking he proposed an essential question to guide that work.  “What’s it going to be like to be a learner in this room?”  I loved this question and kept pondering it.  This is a big question and an important one to be answered.  It would probably help with the beginning of the year jitters, I think everyone feels on some level.

At the end of day three I visited an area of the museum that’s called the Wonder Room.  It’s a place where families and children can interact with materials either by doing something or making something.  The activities connect in some way and during my visit my head began to swirl with thinking from my time at the institute and Fred’s essential question.  If I was a student, I would hope to find out some answers about learning in our classroom right away.  All the routines and things we do can bog down our first days, if we aren’t careful.

When families visit my room before school starts to meet me and see our learning space I typically have them work together to unpack and sort the student’s school supplies.  This doesn’t answer the question, What’s it going to be like to be a learner in this room?”  I found myself wanting to change the format of coming to see the classroom and meet your teacher before school starts.  What if their time in our classroom had creativity moments and opportunities to talk to others?  What if it involved collaboration and sharing ideas?  What if it generated student work to display and welcome them on their first day?  These photos are ideas I may borrow in one way or another to revamp meet the teacher.

 

 

 

 

 

“Thanks”

This post will be short. Practically a tweet in the blogging world.

But there’s something I’ve been doing, for about 10 years now, and I think I need to share it.

It’s simple, really. But has framed most professional interactions I’ve had for a decade.

I say thank you.

Meeting with a student? End with a thank you.
Meeting with a colleague? End with a thank you.
Meeting with a parent? End with a thank you.

What am I thanking them for, exactly? Their time. Their attention. Their energy. Their ideas. Their willingness to work with me.

Sometimes, the thank you is very natural. Someone is doing something for me, so I thank them.

But sometimes, it’s the exact opposite: I’m doing something for them. And I thank them.

To this point: nobody has thought it weird. Most have probably not noticed. Certainly, there have been times when I haven’t said thank you. I’m not batting 1.000.

And while I like to think it’s helped others have a more positive view of me, that is not very likely. I mean, it’s a throwaway phrase sometimes, so others may not even notice it.

But for me, it’s been a reminder. Every interaction I have, someone is giving me something: their time, their advice, their work. Something. It has helped me be mindful of what others have done for me, in every interaction of every day.

I hope this has helped me better appreciate those around me and better serve those entrusted to my care. I know it certainly hasn’t hurt.

Thanks for reading.

Visiting My Room Too Early…

entering

I went back and it had only been a week and a half since the last day of school.  I was only going to use the laminator in the workroom and head right back out the front door.  I was waiting for the laminator to warm up and got curious.  I began wondering what the room looked like now?  Had anything been cleaned yet?  Was everything out in the hallway?  It hadn’t been that long since I left and I didn’t really want to know the answers to any of these questions but I took a walk down the hall to room 127 while the laminator warmed up.

I work really hard at the end of the year to finish up on our last teacher work day.  I put the room to rest, my work to rest, and close the door.  For years I’ve been under the assumption I do this to rush home and be a full time mother to my three girls.  I love being with them full time.  I was completely surprised to learn this may not be the only reason I put my room to rest, my work to rest, and close the door.

As I rounded the bend in my hallway I saw doors open in some rooms before mine and things shifted a bit but things weren’t out in the hallway and rooms empty.  I kept walking even know I knew things were in the same place as when I left.  I walked in and it felt all out of sorts.  A few physical things had been moved.  My carpet might have been cleaned and then I froze.  Strange feelings surfaced.  I felt alone.  I started envisioning my students working collaboratively at the tables.  I started seeing the books and writing/creating tools on the shelves as they should be.  I started to feel lonely and creepy at the same time.  This is my space and yet it felt all wrong.

It felt all wrong because I was hanging on to what and who I had.  I think putting my room to rest, my work to rest, and closing the door has done more than let me be a full time mom.  It’s let me savor the end of the school year with a community I came to adore.  It’s let me read professional books and connect with others on social media with open eyes and for myself.  Maybe having time to think on my own without student faces in front of me gives me a clearer space for thinking ahead.  I think summers are more than trips to the pool and physical rest.  I think we need time to process the year and put to rest what is behind us.  I think space away from my classroom has let me find time to open my heart and thinking to a new set of students.