Alisha Sims… Love the Ones You’re With: Creating a Classroom Community
Learning doesn’t happen in isolation, so what strategies can a teacher use to create a classroom community that gives students a sense of security and study pals?
My PSIII placement is at Catholic Central High School in Lethbridge, which operates on the quarter system. Quarters are shorter academic units than semesters and allow the school to offer four different sessions of classes per academic year. Students are enrolled in two classes every quarter. My practicum started at the beginning of Quarter 3 and I taught the entire English Language Arts 10-1 course over 38 three-hour instructional days. That's not a lot of days! I wanted to know how to create — within 38 days — a classroom community where students connect, feel safe enough to express ideas in front of peers of varied backgrounds, listen to one another’s ideas, engage in authentic dialogue, and push their own academic, social, and personal limits in order to grow.
Method and Results:
It’s the first day of class. Students shuffle in, spot their friends, and slip in with that group. My worst fear is that these students would stick with their friend groups for 38 days and conclude this class not knowing the names of the other students sharing the same space. That didn’t happen.
The education faculty stresses the importance of teachers building relationships with students. It's frequently recommended that teachers not even start delivering curriculum until they've taken a few days — a week even — to get to know the individuals on their classlist. In a 38-day quarter, instructional time is valuable, and with five units to cover, I felt the time crunch on Day 1. I looked online for ideas to arrange the physical setup of my classroom in a way that promotes a positive learning environment, and brain break strategies that would help students mix and mingle without sacrificing instructional time.
Who says icebreakers can only be used on the first day? Using them throughout the course helps prepare students for collaborative group work, and encourages students to share ownership for the learning environment of the class.
Throughout the quarter, I purposely chose activities that required students to “mix and mingle.” Whether they drew playing cards to form small groups (all aces together, ones, twos, threes, etc.) or were asked to seek out the person they know the least in the room for a “speed date” review, students were encouraged to cooperatively work with their classmates. Did students complain? Sometimes, but it was interesting to observe the obvious student separation on Day 1 dissolve as the quarter progressed.
Teacher blogs, school websites, Pinterest, and other PIP websites offer plenty of fun icebreaker strategies that are ideal ways to help people get to know one another. These activities can also be designed to get students acquainted with course content and expectations. An added benefit is that these get-to-know-you activities help create a relaxed environment where students share ideas more freely, and participate more fully in the course.
In the physical space, I constructed bulletin boards aimed at building classroom community, but they spilled over into the entire campus. A meme wall I created to communicate classroom procedures and expectations had a watercooler effect. Students not enrolled in either English language arts class taking place in this classroom could often be found gathered and chatting around the wall. A vice-principal event came into the room asking to see this “meme wall I keep hearing about.” Students from an English class other than my own asked if they could be part of the bookselfie wall. The engagement of these two bulletin boards was bigger than I imagined.
In the quarter system, students attend two 80-minute blocks with an eight-minute break in between. Yes, instructional time feels like it’s in short supply, but research shows that students should have a kinesthetic brain break every 25-30 minutes. Brain break activities take about 1-3 minutes of class time to complete, but the efficiency of students skyrockets after, so it’s time well spent. I never had to justify a “game” to my administration. They acknowledge that students can’t work for 80 straight minutes, and encourage these types of breaks.
Don’t be afraid to participate alongside students. It shows them you’re part of the community. Again, teacher blogs, school website, Pinterest and other PIP websites are great resources for suggestions. Keep a brain-break list handy and throw one into your lesson plan. Gauge your students. You may not use it that day, and that’s OK. It’s just nice to have on those days students’ energy levels are low.
I believe brain breaks are a quick and effective tool to improve students’ concentration and relieve stress. After a quiz, with 100 minutes of instructional time remaining, I launched a quick brain break and saw students shift gears. They were suddenly settled and ready to learn. However, next time I’d explain the purpose so students understand that brain breaks are researched-based and scientifically proven to be effective. In my course evaluation, some students recommended “less games.” My mentor teacher suggested some students in the academic stream are driven to work, and would see brain breaks as a “waste of time.” On the other hand, every student left this classroom knowing their peers’ names. They came in as strangers on Day 1, but would voluntarily work with each other during group work early in the quarter. To me, that indicates success.
I do not consider this project complete. I created a website, http://createclassroomcommunity.weebly.com/, that acts as a resource for first day activities, student engagement strategies, fun formative assessments, energizing brain breaks. It’s a compilation of strategies I learned during my education classes at the university. Others I picked up from fellow teachers I observed during my professional semesters. Plenty came from online sources such as teacher blogs, school websites, and other professional inquiry project websites. This is a one-stop spot for strategies to use throughout my teaching career and I plan to add to the project throughout my teaching career.
In reflection, I learned two important things about teaching. The first is to “read” your students. We teach students, not curriculum. As a beginning teacher, our lesson plans are our safety nets. We fear deviating from “the plan.” But what’s best for our students? An unplanned three-minute break that boosts their brainpower is better for them than plowing through coursework when they aren’t paying attention. I also learned to take time for fun. When the teacher participates in brain breaks, it helps students feel more comfortable expressing their thoughts and feelings in and out of class. They’re more likely to improve class participation. Plus, it creates a mutually beneficial and exciting learning environment.
Alisha is a recovering reporter and editor trying to adjust to life outside the newsroom with the help of a BA/BEd degree. She will complete her degree in Spring 2016, with a major in English Language Arts education and minors in social studies education and CTS.