Building Powerful Communities In Our Classrooms

As teachers, we know that feeling safe and secure in school helps students focus their energy on learning. And the research bears that out: A study by Interactive Learning Environments found that when teachers deliberately foster a sense of belonging, they see “significant improvements in academic engaged time and reductions in disruptive behavior.” The beginning of a school year is the perfect time to start building classroom communities. Here are some simple, easy-to-implement ideas (source: Edutopia) that will not only help build your classroom community but will also help develop students’ social emotional learning. 

  • Shout-outs: With a shout-out, students can quickly celebrate their classmate’s efforts and accomplishments. At any point during the class period, get the classes’ attention and ask who has a positive shout-out for a peer. That way, praise becomes a part of the classroom culture, instead of emanating from the teacher exclusively. 
  • Paper Tweets: Create a bulletin board modeled on Twitter, complete with handles, bios, and at least three classmate followers, including a friend, an acquaintance, and someone students rarely interact with. Have students respond to prompts about their current mood or events in their lives. Then their followers can respond by tacking or taping paper responses underneath.
  • Appreciation, Apology, Aha: To end class in a positive way, have students gather in a circle and share a little note of appreciation for a fellow classmate, a light bulb moment that emerged during group work, or an apology to rebuild trust. Model the behavior by sharing first, and then ask for volunteers. 
  • Friendly Fridays: Ask your students to write a friendly, anonymous note to a classmate. Students can practice positive self-talk and explore storytelling while giving a peer a boost- a great way to end the week!
  • Acts of Kindness: Have students take notice- and celebrate- acts of classroom kindness. For example, when a student sees a peer tidying up in the classroom, they can post a thank-you note on a shared digital “kindness wall.”
  • Class Norms: Have students brainstorm and discuss a set of working norms for the classroom- adjectives like “resourceful” and “collaborative” and “considerate” that describe them as a community of learners. Use the discussion to determine the final set of norms. The practice can help every student feel a sense of belonging, while building students’ sense of personal responsibility and agency.
  • Roses and Thorns: At the start of class, join your students in sharing one rose (something positive, like feeling good about an assignment) and one thorn (something negative, like feeling tired). The activity should take about 5 minutes. Awareness of a peer’s emotional world can help foster empathy and build community. 
  • Snowball Toss: Have students write down a stressor on a piece of paper, crumple it up, gather in a circle, and throw their paper balls in a mock snowball fight; then have them pick up a snowball and read it aloud. When movement, fun, sharing, and discussion about stress are combined, connections among peers can feel more natural. 

I shared these strategies with educators during the first days of school and have been blown away by the awesome ways they’ve incorporated them into their classrooms. One teacher shared that she was surprised how quick and easy to implement these were– there was very little prep work for her. Another teacher took the paper tweets strategy and made it a digital template because she thought it would be more meaningful for her group of students in this format. One teacher admitted she felt overwhelmed by trying to build a powerful classroom community but when she tried the acts of kindness strategy, she had an “aha moment” and realized that building this type of positive community takes small, conscious decisions and steps each day. And as teachers have tried these out in their classrooms, they’ve been sharing their success stories with other teachers. What an awesome way to celebrate and build momentum! If you would like a slide-deck of these you can use in your classrooms, click here!

Our classrooms provide a unique environment for our students to experience peer relationships while they are creating their own community of learning.  A strong classroom community is one in which students feel empowered and valued, and one in which our students ultimately thrive. Cheers to starting out the year with a focus on building positive classroom communities! 

Alyssa is an Instructional Coach at District #16 where she leads educators in professional development aligned with best practices and collaborates with teachers during coaching cycles. A Google Certified Educator, Alyssa values the combination of tech tools and learning intentions to create a masterful design for instruction. Alyssa has a BS in Special Education, a BS in Elementary Education, and a MA in Curriculum Development and Instruction. She is currently pursuing her Ed.S in Educational Administration and Leadership. Alyssa has presented at various state and national conferences on social-emotional learning and cultural competence, assessment and grading practices, language arts instruction, project based learning, and digital citizenship. Alyssa’s husband Mike is a Middle School Principal, and they have three children- Maddie who is seven and twins Hannah and Hudson who are two.