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Creating Community: Our Favorite Things

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.

The Individual 

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. 

The Group

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:

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Giveaway Information: 

  • Many thanks to Heinemann Publishers who is donating a copy of ONE of the Classroom Essentials  books (i.e., winner’s choice).  
  • For a chance to win this copy of one of these books, please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Saturday, August 7th at 6:00 p.m. EDT. Amy Ellerman will use a random number generator to pick the winner’s commenter number. Their name will be announced in the ICYMI blog post for this series on Sunday, August 8th.
  • Please leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so Amy can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, our contact at Heinemann will ship the book to you. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.) You must have a U.S.A. mailing address—Sorry, no FPOs—to win a print copy of the book of your choosing. If you have an international mailing address, then you will receive an electronic copy.
  • If you are the winner of the book, Amy will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS—FAVORITE THINGS. Please respond to her e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.

23 thoughts on “Creating Community: Our Favorite Things Leave a comment

  1. Thinking about knowing children individually AND building our classroom community rich with rituals and memories that weave us all (all the individuals) together—I love thinking about both pieces of building community!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This post was so timely! I have been prepping for the new school year and got many ideas from this post. Each idea you shared, sent me to another TWT post and I spent several hours reading old posts that I had missed! One book I’d add to your name study is: Your Name is a Song.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Last year, we started the year remotely, so I used the theme of ‘quilts’ to begin our community. I showed them images of beautiful, colorful, and well-loved quilts. We read some picture books (one about ‘slave quilts’ that we referred to in Social Studies later in the year). I had included a square of colorful paper in their welcome packages for them to decorate with their name and any words/pictures/designs they chose. When we were able to return to the classroom, the squares were all ‘patched’ together on a bulletin board along with many colorful squares of origami paper. We used the caption: Everyone Fits In When They’re In 5C. It was a really good starting point for community building and we used it to launch plenty of writing as well.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Thank you so much for these community building ideas. I have struggled to mentally get ready for the beginning of the school year. You have given me 5 activities I can do with my 2nd Grade Scholars the first week of school, and beyond…thank you, thank you, thank you!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I was struggling to find ways to welcome my students in our fall homecoming when school reopens in September, and you have shared so many wonderful ways that you connect with your students and build community that I need not look any further. I will just slightly tweak yours to suit my setting. Thank you so much for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I love how you have organized your ideas into first welcoming and honoring the individuals in our classrooms and then forming a shared group identity. We always take time to learn about student names at the beginning of the year including reading many of the books mentioned in the link. Love your self-portraits and six-word memoirs, class poem, and class book ideas. I’ve never heard “Funga Alafia” before, but I adore the simple song and its beautiful message! I also invite students and families to share a digital family picture or send in a print and display them in frames in the classroom. Thanks for sharing your wonderful ideas!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Kathleen, what riches you offer here in the building of classroom community! I especially love the idea of the classroom song reflecting the interests and identities of students. I think of “community” in various ways, playing with the word in my mind. It leads me to “commune “- the desire to be on the same wavelength with others, in tune with one another, and “communion,” the desire to take part in something deeply meaningful to all. At the core community is about relationships. As a WWII theologian once said, “The first service we owe to one another in community involves listening to them.” That’s where empathy begins – and then there is that little word within a word “unity.” A community has a shared vision and a concern for every individual…that takes work and accountability! I could go on but please know that your post is so full of invitation and inspiration!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I love these ideas. I often start the year giving each student a paper lunch bag to add six things to share to tell about themselves. I then take a picture of their items, and they write about them. Community is so important.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I appreciate you sharing the wonderful ideas you incorporate with your students as you create your community of learners, of writers, of family. I look forward to encouraging the teachers that I work with to create their community.

    Liked by 1 person

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