It’s the time of year when I find myself dreaming of school each night, but this year instead of energizing thoughts of fresh faces and sharpened pencils, my dreams are anxious ones, troubled by struggling to keep kids apart, computer programs that won’t operate, and children chewing their masks into soggy chinstraps.
Among the many things Covid-19 has stolen from us is the ability for the approximately 3.7 million teachers across the county to plan for the beginning of school. What would normally be one of the most enjoyable times of year for a teacher (Anything is possible! This will be the perfect class of eager, dedicated learners!) is instead being spent in debates between politicians, parents, and the general public with no clear right answer.
So, how can teachers find a bit of calm in this storm? How can we make plans when so much is up in the air and un-plannable? We do what we’ve always done – we think of our students first. Our students are coming, one way or the other. If we are nervous and anxious about this year, our students are much more so. They’re likely concerned about the same things as always – Will my teacher be nice? Will the work be too hard? But they’re also probably afraid of how school will be different, whether Covid guidelines will keep them from making friends, and how to negotiate this new version of school. Some will carry with them fears of catching the virus and spreading it to loved ones while others are dealing with the ongoing economic impact to their families. It’s our job to allay those fears as much as we can, and build a supportive community in our classroom, even if it’s a virtual space.
According to Dr. Mark Wilson, teachers and students who had strong, trusting relationships made an easier transition last spring to distance learning. Strong relationships build trust, and when teachers and students trust each other, much more can be asked of each. And we know this year will be asking a lot of all of us.
So, here are some ways I worked to build classroom community and trust at the beginning of each school year, with ideas on how to adjust to a digital format if that’s how school begins in your area:
- I like to help students, even young ones, understand that fair does not always mean equal. Along with sharing this image, I try to bring it closer to home by asking students to interview their guardians to find out the age at which they began to walk (in months), said their first word (in months), and lost their first tooth (in years). We then graph this information, which could easily be accomplished on software such as Kahoot (by creating answer choices with age ranges) or Microsoft Excel. We then have a conversation about how everyone grows differently and reaches milestones at different times. Similarly, not everyone will learn to read or multiply or shoot a basketball at the same exact time. Therefore, my job as a teacher is to meet you exactly where you are and give you just what you need. My teaching will look different for different students, and that’s ok.
- A classroom agreement is a great alternative to a set of rules. I like to read “The Kingdom with No Rules, No Laws, and No King” by Norman Stiles. After discussing how this applies to our classroom, we would create an agreement written in positive language (e.g. We agree to behave in ways that allow our friends to learn). An agreement with several broad, short statements tends to be most effective. If you are meeting with students via video conference this might be done best in groups of 5-7 rather than whole group to allow everyone to participate, then compile and narrow them down as a whole class.
- I also like to start the year by sending the message to students that our community values problem-solving and out-of-the-box thinking, that mistakes are interesting and worth examining, so I like to put students into problem-solving situations fairly quickly. 3-Act Tasks are a great way to do this in math and could be adjusted to a video conference format. To celebrate problem-solving in literacy I love Jon Scieszka’s book Baloney (Henry P.) in which Henry explains why he’s late to class using alien terms that require careful use of context clues. I read the story to students without showing the pictures, then give partners this printout and ask them to work together to problem-solve the underlined words (if your classroom is digital or you teach younger children the class could work collaboratively with the teacher scribing, perhaps on a shorter section). After sharing our guesses as a group, we finish by listening to the story again with pictures. It’s important that during these problem-solving activities you encourage divergent thinking and praise risk-taking. Repeatedly asking, “What makes you say that?” can help kids begin to adopt a metacognitive stance.
- Personal goal setting can be extremely powerful for students, even our youngest learners. Adapt this goal setting form for specific content areas or for certain timespans (e.g. quarterly goals).
If you’re finding yourself in a funk (like I am) because it’s hard to find your place in this weird Covid world, spend some time thinking about the students who are on their way to your classroom community. Whether they arrive by bus or by internet videoconference, they’re coming, and it will benefit them and you to plan some community-building exercises to put everyone at ease.
What are some ways you plan to build community in your classroom? Share in the comments below