It is a natural desire for teachers to plan out the layout of the classroom, the décor, the rules, and more. Structure is a good thing, but what if we left a little room for the students to take ownership over a part of their classroom? What if instead of having set rules for the students to follow, the students actually take part in the rule making process? What if we, as teachers, create opportunities for students to learn about one another's similarities and differences in an accepting and encouraging environment? When I have implemented these activities into my classroom, an authentic classroom community began forming immediately and flourished throughout the year.
So how do we start the year off right?
1. Creating essential agreements-The word essential agreement was something new for me when I started teaching in an IB school, but quickly I saw the power behind it. Instead of rules like walk in the classroom, keep your hands to yourself, essential agreements go beyond that and help students reflect and think about what is important to them in their classroom. What is it that your class values? Do they value the opinion of others? Do they value creating an environment where everyone can learn? Obviously if you teach younger grades you will have to give some guidance on this discussion but you will be amazed at how many ideas the students have about what is important to them. Step 1 is brainstorming ideas and giving ample time for students to participate in this discussion. It will be so much more meaningful for them then being told what and what not to do. After the list is created, you can condense it and combine any that may fit together. The last step is to print it or put it on a poster and have a signing ceremony where each student signs their name in agreement of holding to it! If you want to read more and see some examples you can go to this link: https://www.peoriapublicschools.org/Page/11713
2. On that note, I will admit I couldn't move away from rules completely- call it control if you may- but with 1st graders they do need some clear guidance. Many times I would take our essential agreement discussion and see what rules we could pull out of it, such as if we value each other we will respect other students and teachers. If you are looking for really simple rules I recommend the PBIS program (https://www.pbis.org/) which sticks to be safe, be respectful, and be responsible or whole brain teaching rules (http://wholebrainteaching.com/intermediate/five-classroom-rules/).
3. Go deeper than learning basic information about others- Really take time to think about the beginning of the year activities that you do and spend time doing it well. I know that there is SO much to do to get ready for back to school, but one of the most important is creating lessons that allow students to share, discuss, learn, and respect each other for each individuals strengths and weaknesses.
4. Encourage differences amongst students and show how our differences make the classroom a greater place- Early on in my teaching career I went to a training on classroom management and one of the ideas shared has stuck with me to this day. What was shared was this idea on how to help students have a better understanding for why some students need to see a different teacher, or may need a wiggle chair, etc. How it works is all the students sit in a circle and the teacher tells them that the teacher is a doctor who is going to hep fix their problems. Have each student pretend to have a problem- stomach ache, broken leg, or whatever else they come up with! After everyone has shared what is wrong with them, you will walk around and give each student a mint (or another small piece of candy) to "fix" the problem. As you are handing them out ask the students if someone had a broken leg and someone else had a stomach ache, would the doctor give you both the same thing to fix it? No! The same is with the teacher. I would always take time explaining that as the teacher I knew how to help each student with what they needed. That might mean someone needs a little more help in math, or someone else needs a little help in reading, but that doesn't make anything unfair! It is what each student needs! This truly helped set an understanding climate in my classroom!
5. Don’t be afraid to take time to discuss important social skills- If you begin to notice recurring problems and situations arise take the time to talk through them. There are so many excellent social story books for children that help bring up conversations that maybe you aren't sure how to. Taking the time to talk about these things will help maintain a strong classroom community throughout the year.
6. Use a behavior plan that has a whole class component to it- Giving the students opportunities to work together and work for a goal will empower them to encourage one another and become unified in working together for a purpose. Behavior Bingo was a favorite of mine! I used a 100's chart and when the whole class was on task, quiet in the hall, received a good report from a specials teacher, etc. they would get to pick numbers to mark off on the hundreds chart. When they marked off a whole line of numbers (and it would take a while!) they would vote on their prize... extra recess, ice cream or a movie were some of the favorites!
I would love to hear from you! How do you help create an authentic classroom community?