Membership has its privileges. American Express recognizes the power of community and has used this pitch to sell their credit card to 102 million people over the last three decades. People want to be a member, not just a credit card holder.
The same is true with teaching. Teachers have the choice to either conduct a class or create a learning community. I choose the latter because I believe that the more my students experience community, the more willing they are to give of themselves to the group and to my instruction.
Creating community can be challenging because it must flow naturally out of each teacher. What works in Room 129 may not work in Room 128 because Ms. Perry and Ms. Barber are different people, and students will sniff out a teacher being inauthentic as fast as you can say, “Open your book.” Having said that, here are some ways I build community in my classroom.
1 – Family Groups. My students are grouped each 9 weeks into families which are randomly chosen. These groups work together several times a week. They often name themselves at the beginning of the nine weeks sometimes based on a theme like Superheroes or Ivy League schools or sports teams. Naming a group gives the family ownership. I love that students have to work closely with other students for several weeks because they are building community with peers and often with other students who they would never speak to. On the first day when most classes are reviewing the syllabus, my class is divided into groups and either doing the marshmallow challenge or working puzzles in groups and assessing how the group works together.
2 – What speaks to your soul? During my AP training, my trainer told of an activity she does with her students at the beginning of the year, and I reluctantly tried it. After only one try, I was hooked and will continue to do this every year. On day one I tell the students I want them to come to class within the next two to three days with some type of visual that speaks to their soul and take no longer than 5 minutes to explain this. The class bonding that is done through this activity has always been immediate and long lasting. I have had students bring guitars and sing special songs, bring a softball and speak of how this represents the time she and her dad have spent through the years, and even a beloved book of a student’s mother who recently passed away. Students are able to put themselves in someone else’s shoes much more easily after this activity and become allies and cheerleaders for each other. I would not be able to do this in less mature classes, but AP classes tend to be perfect. Instant class community.
3 – Funny Fridays. If we are going to do difficult tasks together, we need time to laugh together. The first five minutes of each Friday are typically devoted to watching funny videos or telling funny stories. I have learned the hard way that videos must be approved by me in advance. Sometimes we will have a couple of videos on a theme or just random ones. The point is just to relax for a couple of minutes at the end of the week.
4 – Celebrate students. We celebrate birthdays by singing and usually eating, holidays with candy and parties, 8 and 9 essays on the wall, goals accomplished as strips are torn off the Before I Graduate Wall, and college acceptance letters posted. Do not confuse this with golden stars for anything and everyone for no particular reason because then the celebrations become meaningless, but genuine celebration goes a long way. Students are much more responsive to challenging work, tight deadlines, and redirection when they know I have a genuine interest in them.
5 – Food. I am Southern. Everything in the South revolves around food. This carries over into my classroom. I don’t know what it is about the breaking of bread with people that bonds us, but eating together builds community. In Room 128 we do pancakes; it’s kind of our thing. Students know that if they have me as a teacher they will have pancakes.
What are some ways you build community in your classroom?