What I’m trying to do is not so much build a community of learners, but rather a family.
I’ve read a lot about classroom community building through the years and it's been great to see the switch to that from the “professional distance” that was preached when I was an undergrad but I’d like to suggest a slight change in language. What I’m trying to do is not so much build a community of learners, but rather a family.
When my students see themselves as part of a family, they are more willing to take risks, accept challenges, and welcome and encourage others. I find that classroom disruptions are fewer and, in general, everyone is happier. Without this crucial part of the equation my classroom isn’t the best it can be.
One thing I always do at the beginning of every year is get to know my students. This goes beyond the “Getting to Know You” circle activities and survey sheets. Those are great but I have found that kids will tell you more about themselves if you just listen to them and pay attention. If the only thing you do with a survey sheet is to stick it in a file then that was really a waste of everyone’s time. Use that information to inform your teaching and goal setting for those kids. You can build incentives that really matter and find out where the barriers to learning may exist just by engaging them in real conversation and listening to what they have to say.
When my students see themselves as part of a family, they are more willing to take risks, accept challenges, and welcome and encourage others.
Another thing that seems simple is that I share my life outside of school with them. My classroom is decorated with photos of my own children and family. I often start the day with stories of what my kids did over the weekend that made me laugh and then I let them tell their stories. I ask them for advice on birthday presents, how to know if my daughter really did her homework, what to make for dinner, anything to draw them into my circle. In doing this I establish trust between us and if you can get a kid to trust you then you can get them to move mountains.
Finally, and likely the most important thing I do to build a sense of family in my classroom is that we read together. A lot. I’ve worked very hard to build a classroom library that is diverse and representative of many cultures and family structures. For independent reading time I make sure that every kid can find themselves represented on my shelves in no less than five different novels. That’s a tall order but so necessary to show how much I value their contributions to our classroom family. EVERY SINGLE DAY I spend time reading to them from those books. This shared experience brings us together in a way that nothing else really can.
Through all of this we develop a group identity as “”Our Family” and not “Mrs. Tanner’s Class”. The difference might seem subtle but it is essential to keeping my students engaged and willing to work together to change the world.
Stephanie Tanner is an elementary Gifted Intervention Specialist with the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West. She’s been teaching for 17 years.