With all the talk about national education reform, mandated standards and curriculum, and everything else that goes into teaching, it can sometimes be hard to remember that we teach students first, and subjects seconds. These are individuals that we are entrusted with, and we must focus on their social and emotional development before any content can be taught. Below are three ways we work together as a classroom family to build strong community in our fourth grade class.
1. Start each day with a class meeting
Every single day, our class starts with a morning meeting. We go through the daily schedule, review behaviors expectations, and discuss any issues that have arisen in the school. This is also a time where students can vent their frustrations or issues they are facing. We brainstorm possible solutions and make an action plan to implement.
Another vital part of morning meeting is “open sharing.” This is when students can share whatever they want – events from home, sports wins and losses, family happenings, etc. In my experience, five minutes of sharing now will help them stay focused all day while helping them learn more about each other.
A few weeks after the school year begins, I transition the morning meeting responsibilities to students. I give them access to my lesson plans so they can detail the schedule and they lead all other components of the meeting. Occasionally, they’ll do a read aloud from a motivational book (Kid President’s Guide to Being Awesome is wonderful for this). The most important part is that the student-leader is facilitating a strong dialogue. This helps everyone feel welcomed and a valued as a member of the classroom.
2. Select strong read aloud to spark discussion
Read alouds are a great way to model the “think aloud” comprehension strategy, demonstrate good fluency and expression, and facilitate questions among students. (Bonus points if you use character voices or act the book out along the way.) My favorite series to use is Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events… but an evil man trying to steal a fortune doesn’t lend itself well to sparking discussion about compassion.
I have used two other books that I found have profound impact on my students: Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt and Rules by Cynthia Lord. While both books revolve around characters with learning disabilities, FIAT is told from the perspective of a student with dyslexia and Rules is from the viewpoint of the sister of a young boy with autism. Both diagnoses are becoming increasingly prevalent in education and this can be a way to illustrate both good and bad ways to interact with students with these types of disabilities. Students of all ages connect with books in their own ways. This makes conversations about sensitive topics flow better than simply presenting discussions out of the blue. Even if there are no students with those particular disabilities in your class, both books share the same important message: We all learn differently and everyone should be valued.
3. Help them develop autonomy
The best way to develop autonomy is through assigning classroom jobs and holding the students accountable for their responsibilities. In our classroom, each student has a job, from the custodians who check each student’s area before dismissal, to the attendance attendant who submits attendance to the office using the online system, to the highly coveted teacher’s assistant who does whatever odd task I assign. These are clerical tasks that could be done by me, but are actions the students can handle. In the beginning of the year, I train the whole class on every job. Each month, we rotate to new jobs and the former position retrains the new one. It’s a flawless system that allows me to focus on daily teaching.
Beyond giving me more time to instruct and develop rapport with students, this allows the students to feel like they have a vital role in the classroom. If they forget to do their job, another student gently reminds them because our classroom doesn’t run as smoothly if everyone is not doing their job. This prepares students for a future of responsibility in a low stakes way.
One new classroom job I added this year that directly helps the emotional atmosphere of the classroom is the “Well Wisher.” The WW is in charge of monitoring the classroom for students who appear upset or frustrated. Once the WW notices, they go to that student and see what is upsetting him or her. They can offer advice, or in most cases, an ear to listen. Often times, a random student will notice an upset student and notify the WW. This helps all students, not just the WW, become cognizant of others around them, which helps develop a strong community of caring learners.
What do you do to build a strong classroom community?
3 Ways to Build a Trusting Class Community | Justin Birckbichler