What is a community?
The Oxford Dictionary defines community as “a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.” The second definition is “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of having common attitudes, interests and goals.” When I think about communities I have been part of in my life, I ask myself, “Where have I felt the most connected? Why was that? In what communities have I felt I belonged and mattered? In what communities did I feel left out?”
The groups I’ve felt the most connected to valued me as a person and member of the group. We had regular get-togethers and customs. We laughed. We shared ideas and compromised where we could. On the flip side, where I’ve felt most left out were groups where I didn’t really feel valued or recognized for what I know and could share. I didn’t feel I had a voice. I didn’t think it mattered to the others if I was there or not. I didn’t feel like I belonged.
My personal experience tells me that feeling connected to a community means you are appreciated and valued in that community. The community itself has customs and practices that define you as a specific group with a specific purpose.
After teaching for 20 years across grade levels from kindergarten to sixth grade, how can I use my own reflections on community to create a space where my students feel truly connected? How do I define classroom community?
For me, community in a classroom means each individual is seen, valued, and heard first. When everyone feels they are appreciated and welcomed into the space, the next layer of community includes rituals and routines that everyone takes part in and provides a group identity. This could and should involve feelings of joy and fun. In community, you are valued for who you are but also belong to something larger than yourself. How can I help every student feel they belong to our classroom community? How can writing play a role in forging a community of learners?
Here are some of my favorite ways to build a community of writers.
My efforts at creating a classroom community begin with knowing each individual student. This process begins even before school starts.
- In the past, I’ve created a Flipgrid to introduce myself and have asked students to introduce themselves, too. Now that all students in my school have devices, I am hopeful more students will participate and share a video before school starts. This helped students see and hear from me and it helped me get to know some students’ faces and personalities before the first day. I could ask a student about his favorite sport or let another student know we share a favorite food after watching their videos. This helps us begin to build a relationship.
- I look through my students’ literacy portfolios, which often include an end of the year writing sample in the form of a letter to their third grade teacher. I make notes about the students’ likes and dislikes as well as what I notice about their writing skills. (I described this in my post Write Them Back.)
Once students have started school, I design activities and lessons to get to know them.
- As students enter the classroom on the first day of school, they find a blank piece of paper with their name on it. I ask students to decorate the paper however they like. The paper becomes the cover sheet of a portfolio folder where I keep notes about the student, tests, assessments, and writing samples. The decorated paper becomes another piece of information for me. As I observe what students create, I ask myself:
-Who takes a lot of time making careful drawings?
-Who quickly makes swirls in pencils and proclaims themselves done?
-What hobbies and interests are evident from this initial drawing?
I begin to get to know students a bit from this quick activity. I can jot down notes and observations about students to help begin to build positive relationships.
- 6 word memoirs and self portraits: Students draw a picture of their head and shoulders on a large piece of white paper. I show them a model of my own self portrait and introduce the idea of 6 word memoirs. It is very interesting to see what students share about themselves in this exercise. It also helps students see connections to each other as they learn about siblings, pets, hobbies, and favorite foods from this experience.
- Acrostic name poem: Name studies are another way to learn more about students’ and their families and cultures. Logan Beth Fisher shared ideas on having students write about their names in her Voices From the Community post I Write Therefore I Am. Early in the year, I ask students to create acrostic poems for their names. I display the poem when the student is our Thoughtful Third Grader. Celebrating a Thoughtful Third Grader each week is another way to make sure every student in the class has the chance to shine and feel appreciated by the class.
- Territory Maps: Heart Maps, as created by Georgia Heard, are an excellent way to help students share the important people, places and feelings they have. A few years ago, I wrote about a variation of Heart Maps – Territory Maps. These maps help students generate ideas for writing but also allow the teacher to get to know what matters to each student. Sharing territory maps in partnerships or small groups can also help students to feel connected to each other and learn more about each other.
Much of my effort is spent creating opportunities for students to show who they are and what is important to them. Another aspect of community is creating rituals, routines and a class identity.
- Welcome song: One ritual I created for my class was to begin each day with a welcome song. In a workshop with Mark Weakland, I learned the song “Funga Alafia,” which comes from Liberia. The song has hand motions and simple lyrics. In English, it means “I welcome you with my mind, my eyes, my words and my heart- see I have nothing up my sleeve.” This video shows the tune of the song, the lyrics and the hand motions.
- Class poem: This is an idea I am thinking of trying this year. I always call my students “The Learners in 215” (our room number) instead of “Mrs. Sokolowsk’s class” because I feel like it centers them instead of me. The first and last line of a class poem could be “We are the learners in 215” and the lines of the poem could be like a list of things about our class. It could look something like this:
We are the Learners in 215.
We play soccer, baseball and football.
We play cheer, basketball and hockey.
We like sushi and pizza and tacos.
We like fidgets and slime.
We try our best and are kind to each other.
We are the Learners in 215.
A poem like this could be displayed and read aloud each morning. As we get to know each other and live in our classroom community, we could revise our class poem together- an opportunity for students to see an authentic purpose for revision.
- Class book: This coming year, I will have several students learning English as an Additional Language (EAL). There will also be students who are returning from being remote learners since March 2020. I anticipate a wide range of literacy skills and I’m thinking of ways to meet everyone’s needs. One idea to help create a classroom community and support literacy skills is to create a book with pictures of students and activities we do each day. I’m envisioning a simple sentence on top of a photograph of students doing that action. (Example: “We eat lunch in the cafeteria.”) Underneath the photo, the class could engage in a shared writing activity to write more about what happens at lunch. Students who are ready for a challenge could take on writing the paragraph to describe the activity in partnerships or by themselves. This activity would allow:
-Students with more limited literacy skills can read the simple sentence and see themselves displayed in pictures. They can benefit from shared writing.
-Shared writing can help support everyone’s composition and conventions.
-Allowing some students to write the words for pages of the class book independently can meet the needs of more proficient writers.
How do you define community? How do you build community with your students and other educators? Please share your ideas in the comments!
Click the Padlet below to explore some of my favorite TWT posts on community:
- Many thanks to Heinemann Publishers who is donating a copy of ONE of the Classroom Essentials books (i.e., winner’s choice).
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