Soft Landings: Community Building at the Start of the School Year

By Rachel Hill
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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.

“I’m nervous because I want to be excited!”

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The title of this post is a direct quote from one of my younger students on our first day of the school year, and it also embodies exactly how I felt as the teacher in the room. I disentangled myself from the public school system last year to embark on a new chapter of teaching at Knoxville Innovation School, a small progressive, student-centered private school and a completely different educational paradigm. My seven years in the public education system conditioned me in many ways, not all of them healthy or helpful, so as my students are learning this year, I will be doing my own share of unlearning. Unlearning and unblocking will help me go from nervous to excited, hopefully for good.

“Bell to bell” is an expression I heard a lot as a public school teacher, and the urgency it suggests has stuck with me. I have always been driven to be good at things as quickly as possible, even things as multi-faceted and complicated as teaching. The educational field is definitely one that benefits from teachers with a love of learning and the ability to adopt a beginner’s mindset, so my urgency to “master” teaching is counterintuitive to the learning process. But I am who I am, so I tend to overplan lessons and then rush through them, not truly in the present moment, and definitely not truly responsive.

My best lessons by far are the ones where I actually let the students lead me off the beaten path and authentic learning magically happens. In those moments, I go from being the expert in the room to being a facilitator and a fellow learner. For example, one year when I was teaching figurative language, students started throwing out examples from their favorite song lyrics. The discussion veered, and suddenly, they were begging me to do a group project where they identify and explain figurative language examples from school-appropriate songs. That was and is now one of my most engaging ELA lessons, and I have the students to thank. It can be especially difficult to remind myself about these improvisational moments when I’m crafting the perfect lesson, but I believe my new school environment will help me remember to remember more.

As thrilled as I’ve been to jump into this new educational paradigm that honors and encourages imagination, flexibility, and creativity, I overplanned and rushed through my first day of school. Don’t get me wrong-the students had a great day and didn’t want to leave. We did some mindful movement, created class agreements, organized work spaces, and tried out supplies. But because of my fabricated urgency, I didn’t savor every moment and rushed more than I wanted to. I was still stuck in that previous, hectic pace, and until that moment, I didn’t realize what an ingrained habit it was. Afterward (as I was worrying about how to overplan the following day), my administrators/friends offered me love, support, and choices about how to go forward in a less stressful way. We decided “bell to bell” may work in other schools, but we’re going to try a “breath to breath” strategy.

“Breath to breath” means that there is ALWAYS time to stop and regroup. It implies that learning can look like many different things, and that there can be (and should be) multiple right answers. “Breath to breath” encourages me to combine the magical and the mundane right in front of me to see what’s best for me and the students right now. It suggests that sometimes community-building and learning can happen at a slower, more deliberate pace, like a blooming flower. It invites the unexpected to emerge. “Breath to breath” makes space for possibilities, loving-kindness, patience, and joy in the classroom. I am looking forward to teaching breath to breath today.