Last Thursday I had a parent meeting for the students that will be in my 4/5 class. We had set up this opportunity since my school has not had a combination class for a long time and therefore wanted all questions and concerns addressed before orientation day. It was a great turn out and a great night, something I wish anyone could do really before they start the school year. And although there were many great questions, the best one was, “What is your biggest concern?” My answer was “Building community.”
I am sure many would have thought I would have answered how to get through the curriculum or something of that nature but that does not worry me as much as building community does. And I am not alone with this concern. Every year, when we start a new year, we want the best class possible. We want our students to walk away from the year feeling that they belonged, that their teacher trusted them, respected them and that they had a genuine voice in the room. No longer is it my room, but ours. So community, that old catch phrase, is the one that keeps me awake.
Since we are a combination room, community has to be a major focus right away. Some students know each other and a lot do not. However, that is true for almost any class. Students tend to congregate with like-minded peers but often at the 4th grade level we start seeing some of the first shifts in friendships as students spread their wings a little and discover the world.
So how do I plan on building community, well let me count the ways….
One thing I am big on is language; language can destroy or build up. In this case being a combination room rather than split class says a lot about how I feel. We are a fusion, a combination, not something that is split off from the school, from other classes, other kids. My welcome back bulletin board says, “We are a Terrippic Combination” and a bag of Combo’s, one for each student, with their name on it, is stapled around the door. This is the first things students see; combination rather than split.
I hate ice breakers. They are awkward and contrived. Rather we need to create a common purpose and that purpose is to have an amazing learning experience together. So our first week activities reflect that. We will be creating a digital scavenger hunt through questions made up by the students, they will decide what is important to know and find in our room and then do a voicethread presentation on it. I will share my Animoto with them and invite them as a class to create one of our vision and class environment. Armed with cameras and ideas students will lead this as well. We will come up with filmed definitions of what student, classroom, and community means and share them on Wordia.
Students will come up with what they would like to be called when I do need to split according to grade level. I don’t want to continue calling them 4th and 5th graders, those words stick, whereas the birds and the dogs or something else does not remind them of their age difference. We will talk about ourselves, our families, our hopes, our worries. And then we will talk some more. Although curriculum is super important, these first days and weeks set the tone for the rest of the year.
So as I continue focusing on community, I wonder, what other teachers are doing? What works for you, what will you never do again? I have many small exercises as well that I will not bore you with, but what are the big things that leave students smiling, ready to learn?