As educators, we imagine happy students bouncing into our classrooms every day, full of energy, enthusiasm, and wonder. We want these students to inspire one another and collaborate with ease. This is the classroom community we each hope to build. It is a classroom culture that is safe, meaningful, and full of purpose and connection.
For some, it seems like a purposeful classroom community comes naturally. I’m here to tell you, though, that it does not. Taking a group from a set of individual students to a community of learners takes time, effort, and intentionality. I’m also here to tell you that the same amount of planning and preparation you put into lesson planning should go into preparing your classroom community. With that said, if you follow these five tips to building a purposeful classroom culture, you are sure to get the community of learners you have been hoping for.
This is a great tip that comes from the Reggio Emilia Approach. Each year, many Reggio-inspired teachers think through their “Image of the Child.” This image is a series of words that characterize the developmental age of the children they work with. Each word is selected with great care, thought, and positivity. After thinking through their “Image of the Child,” colleagues share their thoughts and craft a cohesive image, one which describes how that school or classroom approaches childhood.
As you prepare to welcome children into your classroom community, I encourage you to create a similar list of words that describe how you view your students. Challenge yourself to thoughtfully consider the developmental attributes of your students. If you think of a word with a negative connotation, examine where that comes from and challenge yourself to reframe the word as a positive.
When we shift how we view children, we respond to children differently. This positive portrait of students will infuse your classroom community with good intentions. You will begin to see students for all they can offer.
Be sure to hang this portrait full of words like competent, curious, and intelligent, somewhere in your classroom. The students will see it daily, and you will too- making this portrait a constant feedback loop, feeding your classroom community with the positive messaging it craves.
When I first became a teacher, I did not want to proactively reach out to parents. It just felt like a needless aspect of the job to me. I was three years into my career when I finally realized the importance of integrating parents into classroom culture. I was sitting across from a couple at a parent-teacher conference and I could tell how uncomfortable they felt not knowing who I was as a person and professional. Worst yet, it became clear that I did not know their child as they did. I left that conference knowing that that child could be further along, had I taken the time to get to know him through his parents’ eyes.
There are other advantages to reaching out to parents before the school year begins. One of the most important is that you are able to paint a picture of your classroom community. By speaking about your portrait of a student and how you envision students learning and interacting with one another, you set the tone for families. This is the moment you have to set boundaries and get buy-in from parents.
It is inevitable that at some point during the school year, you will need parents in some way, so take a moment and be proactive. Over the years, I’ve seen educators integrate partners into their classroom cultures in a variety of different ways. Some teachers prefer to do home visits, where they visit a family in their home setting so they can observe a student where he/ she is most comfortable. I have also seen educators write personal letters to the families before they meet in person. I have seen educators host back-to-school, parents-only tea parties. Notice all of these efforts set a caring, meaningful tone for the classroom community. It’s a great benefit to develop a relationship with parents and learn a child’s story through their eyes.
If you want a purposeful classroom community, then you need to start your school day as a classroom community. Students are most certainly empowered to entire their classroom and give the individual greeting of their preference; however, once the school day begins, you need to be together, no matter what.
Throughout history, we see the echoing importance of the circle. Whether it is with the early humans who told stories around a campfire or with a modern rounded dining table, circles are important for establishing community. Circles have no beginning or end. Circles do not denote a hierarchy. There is an unspoken safe feeling that exudes from this inclusive space. Whether you teach small children or older students, begin your day in a circle.
Educators and students are able to choose from a plethora of activities to use during their circle. Structured activities can look like posing a question-of-the-day to students. Unstructured activities can be a simple conversation.
My morning circle dialogues changed each year when I was a teacher. Some years, the students and I built a classroom culture of academic rigor, so morning conversation would be full of reflecting on the previous day and hypothesizing as we looked at the day ahead. Other years, I had a seemingly more sentimental classroom culture. Our morning circle would be simple conversations based on how we were feeling.
Regardless of how you structure the start of your day, it is important to recognize this is a key moment in developing the skills that shape classroom cultures. I always encourage educators to be deliberate about expressing a skill they want their students to develop in real time. For example, morning circles are a great way to shape and discuss communication skills.
Nothing shapes a classroom community quite like empowerment. Empowerment means that an educator, a figure that has traditionally been seen as the conveyor of knowledge, trusts his/her students to own their learning. This is a hard one for teachers to do though, but trust me, if you have followed tips 1, 2, and 3, then the students will not revolt against you!
Teachers can be intentional in planning for empowerment. We can think of empowerment as a three-pronged fork, with the prongs being voice, choice, and ownership. Start small and work your way up! When assigning a big history project, think through the project’s structure before presenting it to the class. Reflect and look for evidence of empowerment. If you don’t see much evidence, be kind to yourself and look for ways to add more voice and choice to the project. Look for ways to minimize your role as the conveyor of knowledge and maximize the resources around you that will allow students to own their own learning.
With time, reflection, and persistence on your part, your classroom community will be founded on empowering students. This not only allows students to shine but to thrive.
Before implementing an end-of-the-day routine, students were casually waving bye to me and bopping out the door. I was left in dismay. How could we spend a purposeful day together only to have students leave with the ding of a bell? This type of classroom culture didn’t sit well with me.
I started to implement an afternoon reflection and it quickly became my favorite time of the day. I would once again invite my students to return to their circle and I would pose two questions: How do you know you learned? What will you do differently tomorrow? The students took turns sharing their responses to one or both questions. With time, I added background music to the circle and even started to lower the lights. Afternoon reflection became a way for us to process our day, feel thankful for one another, and end our time together in a cohesive manner.
If you decide to implement an afternoon reflection, be sure to schedule time for it each day. The afternoon reflection is only as meaningful as the time you allow for it. If you are able to commit to the afternoon reflection, you will soon find it makes a large, positive impact on the relationships in your class.
So now what?
As you prepare to welcome students into your classroom community, rededicate yourself to creating a purposeful classroom culture. Review the tips above another time, and then again, until you begin to internalize them. Notice they are not listed in order of importance, but in chronological order.
Start at the top and work your way through until you get to the end, and remember to enjoy the students that bring your classroom to life!