Build a Community in Your Elementary Classroom: Ideas to Start the Year out Right

Preparation and Planning

In August, elementary teachers begin the most exciting step of the new year. They busily prepare their classrooms for excited students who will enter with snazzy new duds, backpacks, and school supplies.

After teachers fix up their classrooms to resemble a billboard advertisement for the Teacher Store, they develop their first days’ and weeks’ lesson plans. Personally, I think the term “lesson plan” sounds too contrived. Too pretentious. Too punitive (I hope you have learned your lesson!). Too segmented. I avoid the term at all cost.

At any rate, there is a great book by Ruth Sidney Charney called Teaching Children to Care. She asserts in it that no real teaching or learning can occur in a classroom where a community feeling has not been established. This may take weeks, but should remain the primary effort of the classroom teacher.

Many teachers may find this a hard thing to commit to because of the silly standards and other external forces that stand to hamper real learning and values training in our schools both public and private. But since a great majority of teachers, thanks to the unions and tenure factor, can’t be fired anyway, why not give it a try? Give your children a chance to live and breathe in a classroom full of life and love by establishing a great community of friends and helpers in the first couple of months. They’ll learn double the rest of the year and may end up more decent human beings, the latter notion not a top priority among the policymakers.

Thanks to an excellent resource, Building Character and Community in the Classroom by Rick Duvall, I can share a variety of ideas and how they have translated in my classroom, and how you can go about starting and maintaining a great classroom community throughout the year. However, it does entail making time for it, which means putting some of the other trivial stuff aside.

The Friendship Circle

I begin my year by establishing a friendship circle. This circle meets once a week to discuss classroom conflicts, share jokes, or offer compliments.

  • I put a three-column chart up on the wall on Monday, and the kids sign up throughout the week.
  • On Friday we gather in a circle and go through the list of kids who have signed up.
  • We establish ground rules together for listening and responding while in the circle.
  • It is a great way to end the week.

With certain classes I found it necessary to introduce an object (stuffed animal for example) that can be passed to the speaker so the kids know who has speaking rights at a given moment. The friendship circle, if done consistently, is something all the children look forward to each week. They especially love sharing jokes, but it is also nice when the kids offer their peers compliments and are able to bring problems to the circle that we can resolve together in an open forum.

I typically introduce the friendship circle in the second week of the year, and tie it together with several other intorductory community building activities. So, get that chart on the wall next to all the other cute little bulletin board creations. Let the kids get curious about it the first week, before you tell them what it is, and let the community sharing begin.

Creating a Classroom Bill of Rights

Children should not come into a classroom in September and simply be told what the rules of the house are. Without having been a part of the rule making, they will not be as likely to respect the rules. Instead, the teacher should work with her class to establish a classroom Bill of Rights.

The strongest reason for having children brainstorm classroom guidelines together in the beginning of the year is control. When students walk into a classroom and are told what rules to follow, an element of control is lost. Nobody, children or adults, enjoys being controlled. We all want to have a say. Many teachers feel the need to be in control, and for many giving up that control is hard to contemplate. I think, however, that it is an important concession to make. I have learned that children are not wily beings predisposed to anarchy if someone isn’t there every second to manage their daily routines. In fact, I believe just the opposite to be true. I think that, when given authority over their own lives, children can be trusted to make and follow through with great decisions – especially when this authority is coupled with loving guidance, help in planning activities and exercises that model good decision-making skills.

Related to all of this is establishing a classroom Bill of Rights. In the first week of school I gather the children before me and put them to the task. I tell them that I am going to put them in small groups. In their small groups I expect them to come up with as many rights that they think they should have in the classroom throughout the year. Once put into their groups I give them time to talk with each other about their ideas. One person in each group is directed to write down the group’s ideas on paper.

We return a short time later to the carpet and I chart each group’s responses, having a healthy discussion about their ideas along the way. The list generated typically contains about twenty important ideas, some of them similar. I next ask the whole group how we can narrow it down by deciding which ideas are similar. Some children will notice that “not to be hit” and “not to be kicked” can be grouped together and later turned into a classroom right relating to student safety. Some other children may notice that “have fun” or “play games” are related, and items like these can be later grouped into a classroom right related to socialization. For general classroom rights under which many of the student ideas can be grouped refer to my previous article on student rights.

Once we have all the items or most of the items on the list grouped (typically they can all be broken down into four or five groups) I will suggest a general student right that encapsulates each group. I discuss each general right with the class and how it relates to all of their suggestions.

For the last part of this activity I get one of our talented printers to draw up a poster that highlights the student bill of rights in various color inks and I post it on the wall for the year. When children behave in a manner that violates a student right I immediately refer to the chart. Since the student helped make the chart, I don’t have to explain that it’s my rule he is breaking. Instead, I remind him that it’s his rule he’s breaking, and highlight how his behavior is affecting the classroom community.

A classroom Bill of Rights is a great way to put accountability on the students. In having been a part of establishing the standards for behavior themselves, they are more apt to take these guidelines seriously.

Building Character

Beginning the elementary school year right means taking time to nurture a loving and supportive classroom community that will carry its own weight through the duration of the school year. In a previous article I mentioned that I started the year by introducing the friendship circle, which is a weekly class meeting at which time children can sign up on a chart throughout the week to tell jokes, offer a compliment, or bring a problem to the attention of the class for resolution. This idea and subsequent ideas sprung from a great resource authored by Rick Duvall called Building Character and Community in the Classroom.

Come Up with a Classroom Name

In addition to introducing the friendship circle, in the first week of school I also enjoy having the children come up with a classroom name, which helps them each feel immediately part of a living, breathing entity.

In the initial week of school I break the children into groups, or simply use the table groups they have placed themselves into and have them brainstorm a list of possible names that might be appropriate for the class (stars, high tops, coolers….). Prior to the small group brainstorm session we discuss guidelines so that everyone is clear only positive names will be accepted. I also let them know that each small group should go through their list and narrow it down to their top choice.

Once each group has come up with one top choice we gather together as a class and each group presents its top choice. I write each of the top choices on the board and proceed to conduct a silent vote to find the winning class name. I do this by passing out an index card or slip of paper and allowing each child a moment to write down his top choice. Once the votes have been turned in I tally the results and the class name with the most tallies ends up becoming the new class identity. Since my last name is Styles I typically tell my kids it would be neat to think up a name that might add an alliterative quality to our new title (Styles Saints, Styles Superstars…).

Coming up with a class name in the beginning of the year truly adds to the essence of a strong community, especially if the teacher goes out of her way to use the title regularly (“All right stars, time to line up!”). It helps create a sense of family in which everyone is a valuable member.

In the subsequent weeks the children can design T-shirts with fabric paints boasting their class name. Special days can be coordinated where everyone wears his or her shirt and each can beam while walking through the corridor knowing that he is not only a fifth grade student but he is a part of something much more wholesome.

Get to Know you Activities

Another good opening week activity is the student interview. In many cases, children will come into their classes knowing several of their classmates, but how well do they really know them? Not only does this activity work for getting to know one another in the class better, but it is also a fun way to tie interviewing and writing opportunities into a social context that lends itself to strengthening the classroom community.

The teacher can begin the lesson as a whole group and post a series of interview questions on chart paper such as What is your full name? What is your favorite food? What do you want to be when you grow up? Whom do you admire? The teacher can then solicit other appropriate questions from the group and write their ideas down on chart paper. Next, tell the children that they are going to be paired up and that each person in the partnership is going to rotate the jobs of interviewer and interviewee. Have each interviewer ask his partner some of the questions from the list and write down the responses. After ten minutes switch roles. When everyone completes his interview gather in a large circle and have each child “introduce” his friend to the class. Make sure that the class claps and cheers after each shared interview is completed.

This is a great activity because in every case, no matter how well the kids in the class know each other, they always end up finding out something new. In addition, the interview format sets the groundwork for future adventures into the world of journalism (from my own experience I train the children to maintain a classroom newspaper) where interviewing becomes an important job. On top of it, the task is a highly motivational one, and if reluctant writers enjoyed interviewing, then the teacher can encourage him to pursue this form at writers workshop, during which time he can invent a whole new string of questions and choose another child to interview and write about.

As you see, the activities discussed here put most of the work on the student, with the teacher acting as facilitator. This will end up being a valuable learning experience and set the tone for the rest of the year.