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Building a Classroom Community

Hey everyone! My name is Jessica Stairs and I’m this week’s guest blogger for the amazing Mme Caroline. I teach Grade 1 French immersion in Ottawa and have taught everything from K-6. This will be my fifth year teaching Grade 1 and I love it the most! I share a lot of teaching ideas on Instagram and Facebook and I’d love to connect with you!

Building a classroom community lies at the very heart of what we do as teachers. Yes, we’re there to teach curriculum, but students are more likely to actually absorb and apply the curriculum if they feel valued in the environment where they’re learning. The importance of building community goes back to the idea that kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Research shows that students learn best when they are in an environment where they feel valued and safe, both physically and emotionally. Every interaction is an opportunity to make that connection and make sure we are meeting each student’s needs as best we can.⁠

So knowing all this, the real question becomes how can we actually build this community within our classroom? Luckily, small actions done consistently over time can make a big difference! It’s important to know that building a strong classroom community doesn’t stop at a few lessons or activities within the first few weeks of school. To foster a truly strong community takes some true planning and repetition throughout the year. Here are a few things that have worked for me in the past, as well as one that I’m planning to trial this year in my classroom.

Morning Greetings

From the very first minute that students walk through the classroom doors, it’s important for them to feel valued and safe. One of the best ways to kick the day off for student success is to acknowledge and interact with each student individually. I LOVE starting off the day with morning greetings and I’ve been using it with my class for the past four years to great success.

One study even found that when teachers started class by welcoming students at the door, academic engagement increased by 20% and disruptive behaviour decreased by 9% (Cook et al., 2018). You never know how the student’s day began at home, so giving them an opportunity to start the day on a positive note is super important. I can often tell how a student is feeling just by the greeting they choose. For example, I had one student this year who always chose the ‘Dance with Mme’ greeting. Anytime they chose something more low key, like a thumbs up or a long distance high five, I knew they were feeling a little off before the school day even started.

In COVID times, I had to shift to physically distant morning greetings and they worked great last year! I’m definitely planning to use them again this year.

Morning Meetings

Ah, morning meetings. This one is a classic for building community! It can be done in so many ways and fulfill a variety of different curriculum expectations. I often include a morning note to include some reading practice, as well as choosing a different student to lead the meeting each morning. One of the big bonuses to morning meetings is it provides a chance for students to develop their oral communication skills in a low-risk, high-support atmosphere.

I start my morning meeting off with a class ‘mantra’ – something we repeat together every day. It reminds students that we are part of the same community, as well as what helps make us a strong community. One of my favourite parts of having a mantra is that it reinforces a common message of perseverance or positive affirmations. I use this resource as a pocket chart poem and it helps set the tone for the risk-taking that is so important when learning a new language – and learning in general!

I also like to do a daily check-in during our morning meeting. Studies show that when students can identify and manage their emotions, they are more resilient and feel a greater sense of belonging. This can be challenging for some students, so having a routine established where students have a forum to talk about how they’re feeling and discuss different coping strategies is highly beneficial. I usually showcase six major emotions up on the board and the first thing students do when they come in the class every morning is place their magnetic nametag next to whatever emotion they’re feeling. Then we do a quick check after our class mantra where they can explain why they’re feeling that way or just say that they don’t feel like talking about it. Depending on the situation, I usually check in on those kiddos that say they don’t want to talk about it one-on-one later in the day.

A Common Goal

When you’ve built a strong classroom community, it will be able to continue in a positive way even without explicit promotion from a teacher. As students build strong relationships with one another based on the development of the classroom community, they should be able to identify areas of need within their community. To encourage this, a little incentive goes a long way!

Every month, we chat as a class about where we think our community needs work – some common areas of growth include recess interactions, lunch expectations, carpet behaviour, etc. I always let the students decide where we need to direct our focus. Every time the class shows positive behaviour in that area, we add a piece to a puzzle. When the puzzle is complete, we draw for a surprise reward – extra computer time, bonus gym period, pyjama day, etc. I use this puzzle resource from 2nd Grade Sassy Pants and then just made French reward cards! I love it because there’s tons of different puzzles for all different times of the year.

Gratitude Journals

Many of you may already use Gratitude Journals in your daily adult lives. There’s a growing body of research that shows that giving thanks and counting blessings can help people sleep betterlower stress and improve interpersonal relationships (Wood et al., 2010). When working to build community, improving peer relationships is a key component. Beyond that, expressing gratitude to others allows students to share things about their lives and develop greater empathy.

This is the first year I’m trying this out and since my students are just learning to read and write, my plan is to start with drawings. As the year goes on, I’ll have students add a sentence or two to their picture and then finally move to full writing by the end of the year. I’m hoping to then have 3-5 students per day share what they wrote in their journal at the end of the day. If you’d like a freebie Gratitude Journal cover, this is what I’m planning to use!

Wrap-up

When you build relationships and community in the classroom, students work harder, behavioural issues disappear, and school becomes a much happier place – for students and teachers. Having a strong and thriving classroom community creates an environment where tackling the big issues facing our students and our society today becomes just a little bit easier. Students are more likely to delve deeper and share more about their feelings when a strong community of risk-taking and acceptance has been developed.

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