Building community in your classroom can be hard work.
Some years it’s easier than others, but it takes a long time to build trust with your students, and a lot of planning. Yes … planning.
It’s so easy to just find something super quick off the internet because, “Oh, yeah! I’m supposed to build a classroom community on top of all the paperwork and curriculum that’s already bogging me down.”
As educators, we have a lot on our plates and teaching is not an easy job. We know how important it is to build a solid community in our classrooms, and how much easier it makes classroom management as well. Instead of going over WHY community building in your classroom is important, I’m going to talk about HOW to do it as efficiently, and quickly, as possible!
First, embrace any chance you get to build community in your classroom.
As teachers, we are usually hard-wired to recognize learning opportunities when we see them. So, apply that same super power to recognizing those community building moments when they surprise you.
For instance, when you make a mistake in front of the class, make a big deal out of it and laugh with your students about how funny it was. Then, reference it at other occasions to bring up that fun memory again. Having shared memories is a quick way to build community.
If you are purposefully doing an activity to create camaraderie within your room, get excited about it. Even if it’s an activity that someone else is asking you to lead. Learn the activity well enough to show energy when presenting it to the students. If you find you don’t have time to learn the activity ahead of time, then put that excitement into having the students help you figure it out together.
Bottom line, your energy makes all the difference.
For some teachers, debriefing is a part of almost every activity. I’ve found that we often don’t do enough of it with the activities we do in our classrooms. Many times, this is simply because we are so bogged down with other things that we either forget or don’t feel like we can allocate the time. But if you want to build your classroom community more quickly, leading a debriefing session after each activity will move you closer to this goal.
Debriefing discussions don’t need to be long. The key is to help your students see the learning that just happened, or to process group dynamics that occurred during the activity. No only will they see the purpose in the activity you just did, but they will also know that you value their thoughts and feelings. You might find you need to take notes during the activity and to intentionally look for situations that you can reference later in your discussion session. Here are some questions you might ask your students when you are debriefing an activity or experience together:
- Who was talking? Who was listening?
- Was there too much talking when trying to complete the activity? Or not enough?
- In this activity you needed to rely on others to do their job in order to do yours. To what other areas of our lives can this be applied?
- What strategies did you use when “working with” other people? Can you use any of those strategies in real-life situations?
These questions don’t have to be heavy or monumental. However, they should have meaning. Try not to just “review” what happened in the activity. Your goal is to “get something out of it.” Pay attention to your students’ body language during these conversations. If they show signs of “checking-out,” then it might be time to wrap it up. If they are fidgety, it might mean that they aren’t able to relate to the questions you are asking. Try another question first, before moving on.
I mentioned that we don’t debrief enough in their classrooms. Well, even less revisit experiences from the activities they’ve done. I’m sure you’ve been in a situation where you’ve learned a life lesson after experiencing an event. You may or may not have vocalized it to anyone, but you realized the magnitude of something after it was over. This same thing can happen with the activities you do in your classroom.
Some students won’t “get it” when you are debriefing the activity. They might even seem like they’re zoning out of the conversation. But if you were to bring up the experience a week or two down the road, they would probably have something meaningful to say about what happened. Likewise, after a week or two, those students that were fully participating in the conversation may have forgotten about important lessons you talked about together.
Revisit these activities as often as you can, even if it’s just a side comment you make while your class is struggling through a new activity. You might say, “I see you struggling as a group. Let’s think back to how we solved the problem in our activity at the beginning of the year. I remember students showed their leadership in different ways. Could we take any of the knowledge we gained from that activity and use it in this one?” It’s also great modeling for the kind of problem solving you want them to show in the other parts of your class.
I mentioned this at the beginning, and you might not like it, but planning your community building can make all the difference. It’s just like your lessons, if you spend the time planning for these kinds of activities, you will see success sooner.
But … don’t just “schedule” the activity. Take the time to learn it so you can be enthusiastic about it.
Write down questions you can use in a debriefing session afterward. Then purposefully schedule other times (activities) later on that you can reference the experience your students had. You might need to wait until you see how the activity plays out. However, if you schedule a time to revisit it, the more likely you are to actually do it. And, as we all know, the more you’re able to revisit anything, the more it sticks.
No matter what approach you take, building community takes time. Add enthusiasm to what you present to your students. Listen to and acknowledge their thoughts. Involve them whenever you can in making decisions and their learning. Most importantly, respect them, even when it feels like they aren’t showing respect to you.
Laura Hipp is a teacher of gifted and talented students and former music teacher in Connecticut. You can find out more about Laura and her work at totaltimesavers.com