Relationships are the foundation for nearly everything that happens in education. Without them, we will likely see very little learning and growth. As we know, relationships lead to trust. Trust leads to risk-taking and growth mindset, and this willingness to stretch leads to learning and growth. For these reasons and more, it’s essential that we begin establishing relationships and building a positive, trusting classroom community as early in the school year as possible. Whenever you can, include yourself in the activities, so you become a trusted member of the community, as well.
Most teachers are comfortable establishing relationships and community in a face-to-face environment. After all, this is where they often have the most experience. However, when school takes place in an online or hybrid environment, you may need to rethink some of your strategies. If possible, develop strategies and activities that can be modified and adapted to work in a variety of learning environments, not just face-to-face. Think about how you might make a traditional in-class activity work in a virtual or hybrid classroom, as well. In some cases, this might not be possible, and you may need to rethink your approach altogether. That’s okay, but whatever approach you take, design with change in mind and be flexible.
“Design with change in mind.”
To help you get started, we have compiled some strategies, activities, and templates for you to try in your classroom. Think about how these might work in your back-to-school setting.
Before the School Year Begins
You don’t have to wait until the first day of school to begin connecting with your students. In fact, reaching out to them before the first day can set everyone up for success and create a positive tone when you get together for the first time. This early communication can help answer burning questions, reduce anxiety, and create a familiarity with what is ahead for the new school year. Whatever you do to reach out to students before the school year begins, be sure to be positive, encouraging, and inviting. This will make students excited to be a part of your classroom community, and it will go a long way toward meeting their social and emotional learning needs.
Ideas and Strategies:
- Send a welcome letter to parents/guardians and students.
- Send out a greeting using your school’s digital messaging system.
- Send a personal email to each family.
- Record a video introducing yourself and describing your classroom.
- Record a virtual tour of your classroom to send to students.
- Record yourself reading a story and send it to families of younger students.
- If it’s set up and available, invite students and families to your virtual classroom space.
- Send out a link to a Flipgrid or Padlet and encourage students to introduce themselves.
During the First Weeks of School
The first days and weeks of school might be the most important days of the entire school year. It is during this time that students need social and emotional learning support as they experience the anxiety of something new. This is your opportunity to set a positive tone for everything that is to come. You can help students feel safe and welcomed, so they can be excited to learn. Creating a positive, supportive classroom will open the door for risk-taking and a growth mindset throughout the year. These are both essential to helping students reach their personal potential as well as feel socially and emotionally secure.
When planning your first two weeks of school, consider including a community-building activity as part of each day. These might be longer and more involved during the first few days of school and then reinforced with more compacted activities as you get further into the school year. These first activities will often be specifically designed to build community, and it’s helpful to call this out when you are doing them. Explain to students that community is important to you, you care about them, and you want them to feel comfortable and included in your classroom.
After the more focused community-building activities, it can also be helpful to weave smaller mixers into your academic learning activities. For instance, if students are asked to work in groups, build in a mixer or introduction activity to start the group process of fostering a team atmosphere. This process can also work when students are paired up with a work partner. Another efficient approach is to weave personal topics into the academic content. If students present a speech, have them share a personal experience. If they are practicing their writing, have them write about something that helps you get to know them better. If they are counting, have them count something that matters to them. This approach allows you to get to know students while they are practicing their academic skills.
As you plan your community-building activities, consider how you can facilitate them in a variety of classroom formats: face-to-face, virtual, or hybrid. You’ll probably even need to consider the different ways that face-to-face instruction might look, as well. Are your students allowed to move around the room, or do they need to remain socially distanced? If social distancing is required, can you use collaborative documents and tools to connect students? Even with social distancing, are there ways to have your students share verbally? These connections and opportunities to have a voice are key to creating a classroom community, but they may require some creativity on your part to make them fit your specific environment.
Ideas and Strategies:
- Encourage Student Ownership and Voice
- Give students a voice in creating classroom norms.
- Ask students what is important to them.
- Allow students to decorate the classroom.
- Rotate classroom duties and tasks, so everyone is involved.
- Ask for student feedback about a class activity or assignment.
- Personal Introductions
- Share verbal introductions to the whole class, in small groups, or with partners.
- Interview and introduce a partner.
- Record and review introductions virtually.
- Schedule individual Google Meet, Zoom, or Microsoft Teams meetings with each student.
- Learning Teams
- Create smaller learning communities within your classroom.
- Teams can create names, logos, and cheers to establish a team identity.
- Create a team T-shirt (Template).
- Start every team activity with a quick personal share-out.
- Make sure that each team member has a group role.
- Solve a puzzle or complete a task (such as a Flippity Scavenger Hunt) as a group.
- Use live breakout rooms in a synchronous remote-learning setting.
- Full-Class Mixers
- Games: Survey students and create a Quizlet Live or Kahoot! activity for them to identify and get to know each other in a game format.
- BINGO: Play “Community Building BINGO” by getting classmates to sign off on a square of your BINGO board. If you are doing this virtually, you might need to post the board and have students “sign” (type) their names on a common board, allowing multiple names on each square. Encourage students to try for a blackout!
- Would You Rather…?: Have students share out quick responses to “Would you rather…?” statements.
- “My Favorite…” Speeches: These are simple, quick share-outs that allow students to learn about each other.
- The Name Game: This lets students learn each other’s names by going around the circle repeating each student’s name and something they shared to a quick prompt.
- Musical Shares: Randomize partner groups by mixing students until the music stops, and then they share their response. In a virtual environment, you could use a virtual partner generator, like the Flippity Name Picker.
- Two Truths and a Stretch: Have each student submit two truths and a stretch to you with their name. You can periodically pull up one student’s list and ask the class to try and identify which item is the stretch. You might consider using a polling tool, like Socrative or Poll Everywhere, so everyone gets to be part of the activity.
- Use Google Meet, Zoom, or Microsoft Teams to facilitate synchronous meetings during remote learning.
Throughout the School Year
While the beginning of the school year is essential for establishing a positive classroom community, it must be nurtured and reinforced throughout the year. This will help to protect the foundations of those relationships, even when students face academic and personal struggles. Consider how you can connect to holidays or events that are happening in your school. This can be as simple as having students share out their favorite holiday tradition or creating a decoration to be displayed in the classroom. This is also a great opportunity to continue creating a culturally relevant classroom by recognizing the different perspectives and cultures of your students.
In addition to sharing, allowing students to personalize your classroom learning space can be powerful. It not only helps students feel comfortable in the space, but it is a great equity strategy that allows each student’s voice and identity to be recognized and heard. This also reinforces a culturally responsive and relevant classroom.
Ideas and Strategies:
- Post student work.
- Facilitate brief student share-outs.
- Recognize a different student each week.
- Create a class publication to showcase work from each student.
- Create an identity wall and allow each student to add to it.
- Collaboratively decorate the classroom.
- Make classroom decisions together, giving students voice in the process.
- Have students plan a class celebration.
At the End of the School Year
When the end of the school year is nearing, community is still important. You will want to validate the positive feelings and experiences that students have shared in your classroom. This positive ending to the school year can be a catalyst and catapult for future learning.
Ideas and Strategies:
- For details on how you might do this with your students, explore our collection Honor Students and Celebrate Academic Milestones.
Extend Your Learning
- Fostering a Strong Community in a Virtual Classroom (Edutopia)
- Strategies to Create a Community in Your Classroom (PBS Education)
- Creative Ways Teachers Are Building Classroom Community Online (WeAreTeachers)
- Remote Unity: Building a Sense of Community During School Closures (Fast ForWord by Scientific Learning)
- 3 Ways to Reduce Stress and Build Connections During Distance Learning (Edutopia)