We often focus on “getting-to-know-you” activities during the first weeks of school yet what are some ways I can develop community and encourage students to build positive relationships with one another throughout the school year?
Developing and maintaining a positive, safe learning environment and community is essential during the middle school years. The young adolescents we work with are diverse in many ways. Their diverse views, cultures, races, religions, family structures, and assets highlight the important need to establish a classroom community that is inclusive and positively supports all young adolescents.
In addition to your responsibilities in helping students develop academic knowledge, you are tasked with creating the foundation for a positive learning environment, promoting collaborative relationships, and addressing the social, emotional, and physical needs of young adolescents. Developing community with and among students is one way in which middle school teachers accomplish many of these goals.
Below are suggestions to help you create and sustain community with students:
Set norms using a community agreement approach. Successful classrooms need boundaries. Boundaries are important, necessary, and generally welcomed by your students. One way to set boundaries that help to build community is to use an approach that respects and requires the input of all involved—all students, and you, the teacher.
Consider using a norm-setting approach that involves community agreements. Classroom members brainstorm, discuss, and agree upon the norms that are conducive to positive interactions and productive learning in the classroom. The teacher facilitates the conversation, yet students need to participate in this process.
Lead a revision segment to narrow down the community agreements to those that are meaningful and vital. Try to keep the number of agreement statements in the range of three to five norms, having too many may be difficult to consistently maintain. Have students create and sign a written document or pact of the agreed-upon norms to promote accountability and participation.
Ensure norms and agreements have specific indicators of success. Once you set norms and agreements in your classroom, identify indicators of success. If community members are respecting the established norms and agreements, what should it look like? Discussing and identifying indicators of success for your community agreements will help students set appropriate boundaries based upon the agreed common norms.
Revisit and revise community agreements as needed. Communities are living organisms that grow and change. Periodically consider whether the agreements set at the beginning of the year need to be amended to better support and reflect the nature of learning later in the year. Use your professional judgment to determine when your revisit and revision checkpoints are necessary.
Kristie Smith, Ph.D., is a Literacy Instructional Specialist for Gwinnett County Public Schools in Gwinnett County, GA. She is also an adjunct professor for Mercer University’s Atlanta Tift College of Education.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, October 2016.