By Rachel Hill
Classroom communities are dynamic and complex. They need to be deliberately built and cultivated throughout the school year. A healthy classroom community includes students and teachers who show respect for themselves, each other, and the space around them, which leads to a happier, less stressed learning environment. This deliberate focus on the different facets of respect leads to more responsive, compassionate classroom management, more harmony in the school, and a jumping-off point for future discussions about disrespectful behavior. I was lucky enough to be a part of the Character Leadership Team at Copper Ridge Elementary last school year, and I learned so much about cultivating character in students and teachers alike with ample opportunity to apply my learning in the classroom.
So what does community building look like? I personally believe it should include a lot of discussions to get to know each other as humans, plenty of games to see how students handle winning, losing, and teamwork, both collaborative and independent work to gauge academic soft skills, and lots of easy, fun assignments to build confidence and academic stamina while students acclimate to being back to school. At Knoxville Innovation School, we start each school day with a community circle, and after the first few days, circle time will only be 10-15 minutes. At the start of the year, they stretch as long as necessary. When the students feel like sharing, the last thing I want to do is shut them down because the info I’m gleaning is pure gold.
Community building at Knoxville Innovation School looks a bit different than what I was used to at my previous school, mainly because my class is a mixed-age group. For example, on the first day, we made bookmarks together. Some were collage compositions, and others were drawn and colored, but all ended up unique! We discussed different scenarios where we could choose to be a helpful or respectful classmate and how we might respond to fellow classmates. We played games to practice being good losers and good winners. We made Kahoots that included important information about what we like, and they also included tricky, funny answers. As an educator, these experiences were vital. Not only did I learn many important things about my students’ preferences, temperaments, and emotional needs, but I also immediately found it incredibly easy to find things to love about them when I had so many opportunities to see what makes them unique.
By the end of our first week together, I knew so much about my students that I was able to design specific learning contracts for each one, outlining individualized social and academic goals until Christmas. These goals are connected explicitly to information the students offered or my own personal observations, and I’m excited to describe these contracts and their impact in a future post! Whether I am using student interest to guide instruction, investing in our relationship by truly listening when students share, or noticing which strength to build on next, community building will always primarily inform my classroom culture.