One of my professional goals for this year is to create a positive classroom culture where students have a strong sense of community, belonging, and ownership. Creating this sense of community is the second of four elements that I am focusing on to cultivate a positive classroom culture.
Four Elements of a Positive Classroom Culture 1) Students feel safe to make mistakes and grow; 2) Students have a strong sense of community; 3) Students know what to expect, and what is expected; 4) Students have a growth mindset.
What a Strong Sense of Community Looks Like
Ensuring students have a strong sense of community means that students will feel like they belong, they will be taking care of each other, and trust each other. Students work together effectively and work out differences because of an underlying belief that everyone is important, and they are all in this together.
There are four things that I have doing since the beginning of school that are helping to support this sense of community:
Practice Rituals: Sharing What We are Grateful For
Engaging in rituals can help to foster a sense of community because they provide students with a shared, or common, experience.
Rituals can be whatever you want them to be; the important part is doing them consistently. Whenever we have a few minutes before dismissal, we end the day sharing what we are grateful for.
Expressing gratitude is a great habit for anyone to practice. Becoming aware of things to be grateful for isn’t always easy, but it’s a skill that students can develop and get better at. It may even become a habit.
I thought my junior students might think this practice is a little cheesy, but it’s become a normal part of the week. Not only can it be uplifting to share our gratitude and focus on the good, it also provides an opportunity for students to hear about each others successes and struggles. It builds listening skills and empathy, and provides a shared experience, all which help to build a sense of community. This can also be journaling activity instead of, or in addition to, a group share.
Another ritual is to listen to a song while they tidy up at the end of the day. I am trying a few different songs out right now, such as the Zootopia theme song Try Everything, by Shakira, Best Day of My Life by American Authors, and I Can Do Anything (make sure it’s the clean version!), by Hedley, with the hopes that one of them will stand out as a favourite and become our theme song.
Review Often Why This the Place they Belong
One of the first activities I do with students at the beginning of the year is to draw a mind map of all their ideas about why this is a great classroom to be in and great school to be attending. I write down all their ideas in a mind map, then hang it up on the wall for the year. I will mention some of the things as they come up though out the year and point out how lucky we all are to be able to enjoy it together. I haven’t yet, but we could even add to it as things come up throughout the year.
But the message I want students to receive is that it’s more than just about what makes our classroom community special. Students must be able to connect with it and have a sense that they are a part of what makes their classroom the place where they belong. I want students to have a sense that they are a part of something great, but they also need to see themselves in that picture in order to feel like they really belong.
Start the year with a Team Building Activity
For the past few years I have started the school year giving students the challenge of trying to successfully roll a ball through a path and into a bucket. Students are given a couple of feet of track and they must all work together to roll the ball down their track and into someone else’s and so on until it gets to the bucket.
This usually takes a few tries before they can do it successfully, requiring them to work together and encourage each other. Never have I done this with students where they didn’t erupt into cheers when they were successful. I take lots of photos and post them in the classroom as a reminder of what they can accomplish when they work together.
Give Students a Voice and Choice
I often will ask my students for feedback after a lesson. It’s a simple as asking, “How did that go?”, but sometimes I will ask more specific questions like what they liked about the activity, what worked, what didn’t, what they learned, and what they think should be done differently next time. Sometimes I will ask the entire class, and sometimes, if they worked in small groups, I will ask one or two of the groups, or even individual students.
I teach students that feedback is a very important part of how we learn and grow. We spend a lot of time in September talking about, and practicing, how to give and receive feedback. When I ask for their input I get to model how to receive feedback in a real-life situation, and they get to practice giving it. And of course, I often learn something insightful! When students have a sense of ownership over their learning when their needs are met and they feel heard.
Students are also given some choice. This year, I have been experimenting with ‘menus’ in some of my lessons. Here’s how it works:
When I give an assignment, I provide a ‘menu’ of choices that students can pick from. It might be that students can pick any 5 questions from a page in their math book, choose what level of question they want to answer for Depth of Knowledge in mathematics, or choose between a list of 3 topics for a written assignment. It gives students a sense of ownership over their learning, supporting the classroom as being a community of learning.
Creating a strong sense of community can be implementing some small things consistently to make a big impact on how students view their place in the classroom.
Next time I will talk about how I am building a positive classroom culture with clear expectations so that students know what is expected of them, but also so they come into the classroom knowing what to expect.