I teach middle school world language, Mostly Spanish with a little French. In my 19 years of teaching, the first 9 were a mish-mash of textbook activities. I used Do Nows or Bellringers, some projects and other activities I thought would be fun. Sure, I had moments of genius, like the clothes game where kids race to put on ridiculous outfits or cooking a Spanish breakfast with the level 1 high school Spanish class. But, for the most part, it was dull and unmemorable. I even was talked into showing Dora the Explorer by a 7th grader. I’ll never make THAT mistake again (it’s made for 3 year olds and was extremely boring).
Over time I branched out to stronger styles of teaching. With the internet all of a sudden great practices were easily accessible. I follow teachers online who are experts in building community, achieving literacy and classroom management. There are now world language teaching practices that are research-based rather than Renaissance-based-but-unfortunately-not-actually-effective. But I won’t focus on all that in today’s post. Today is about ideas to build community and strengthen your class relationships. I have learned to use these in my language classes, but these can apply to any grade level or content area.
- Have a starting and ending ritual. I have kids greet me at the door in Spanish. They get a little one on one attention and I get to see how they are doing. It’s also a signal that now we are in Spanish class. At the end of class we thank each other for our hard work (in Spanish) and then push in chairs and line up. Routines are comforting. We all know what to expect. An extra routine I do is a whole class good morning and then asking calendar questions. I can incorporate personal events and birthdays on the calendar as well.
- Personalizing learning with questions about the students. Take the topic you’re learning about, perhaps a story or math problem about cell phones, and read it aloud. Stop at a part that you can turn into a personal question, and ask a student a connecting question. Ex.) In the story, Suzy works at a bakery and has to make 12 pies a day. Who in class likes to bake? Does anyone bake pies? or In this math problem Bob has three cell phones to pay for. Who in here has a cell phone? Who pays for your phone? The reason for personalized questions is the opportunities to learn about your students. When you ask about them, it sends the message they are cared for. It also makes a dull lesson much more engaging. Anytime you can engage the whole class problems decrease and learning increases. While routines are key, the brain also craves novelty. There is no topic it likes more than talking about oneself and ones friends. Teaching metaphors? Make them about the students! You’ll find out pretty quickly which students are okay with you using them for examples, even silly ones. And it will be memorable.
- Classroom Jobs, Elementary classes have been doing these for years. It makes sense. As a teacher, I should focus on teaching and management. I should not take on every little task between like turning lights on and off, passing out papers, plugging in iPads, handling all materials. If there is a way to have students do these jobs then have them do it! Increase their sense of ownership in the class. Give them a little power and feeling of importance. Now an otherwise bored student is invested. I have posters hanging on my walls for each class with students names listed and their job. Not everyone has a job, and no one has to have one. They can always resign. But they can’t swap out to a better one just because they want to. For ideas on what jobs to dole out, you can Google classroom jobs.
- Call and responses. There are many different ways to get your classes’ attention. You can ring a bell, count down from five, hold up a silent hand-signal, clap and have them clap back. I love to use call and responses in Spanish as it is my sneaky way of teaching them more language. And it is fun for the class and builds their self-esteem. Also, when a whole class responds as a group, you are building cohesion and community. I tend to teach new ones every month. I also stack them together, ensuring conversations end and students are listening to the teacher. You could use a whole school mascot call and response- building a sense of larger community and responsibility. Or incorporate world cultures, fun phrases or songs. The more fun the call and response, the more likely kids will buy into it, follow directions and achieve success.
- Brain breaks. When a class is rigorous, and students might struggle, brain breaks are a great way to keep kids from disengaging. First year language learners can expect to concentrate well for 10 minutes. Then it’s time for a brain break. This year I’ve achieved great success from prioritizing hand-jive brain breaks right from day 1. We take the time to line up in two rows, to teach respect for your partner and get used to working with different people. To not get discouraged by mistakes and keep trying it. To acknowledge if it feels awkward and be able to do it in the air and not touch hands if we’re uncomfortable. We also take the time to teach circle games as a longer brain break. I try to keep it light and introduce new ones from time to time. I also insist on participation unless a student has a learning difference that should be honored.
- Narrating the positive. When a class is transitioning and taking way too long to follow directions, narrating the positive is a great strategy. It emphasizes what students should be doing, rewards those that are and encourages those that aren’t to get in line. Ex) “Please take your seats and find your dictionary page. Joey has his dictionary page and is ready to go. Sara has hers out and is ready. Toby has his… etc.”
- Art projects that go with learning. This week I lost my voice. An art project was on the lesson plan and it helped save me from talking too much. Since we learned about the monarch migration last week, this week we made paper butterflies. It was a great combo of creativity, simplicity, originality and was easy to achieve success at. I made a point of gushing over the kids butterflies, being detailed in my praise. “Billy, can I show the class your butterfly? Such even lines it looks great. Class, check out his butterfly, doesn’t it look great?” “Felicia, I love the colors you chose. It is unique. No one else’s looks like yours.” “Timmy, you didn’t start your fan fold from the corner. But that’s okay, it still looks good. Your choices are to trim edges, or leave it the way it was, or redo that part.” “One cool design is to outline it in a dark color- just like Sally’s doing! It makes the wings stand out.” When I think back to my middle school experience, the only things I remember are the projects I made- take the time to do them.
- Positive Behavior Systems. Part of me dislikes rewarding kids for doing what they are expected to be doing. But in today’s society, it is a strategy that works. It builds the sense of team that can create excellent results. To get kids to listen, I hand out small tickets that have a matador on them saying “ole”. As I hand them to the student I say “Thank you for… raising your hand/being quiet while I’m speaking/following directions/etc.” If the class earns over x number of tickets at the end, they earn game time. Once classes develop the habit of listening, lots of learning can take place. The teacher can focus on teaching which can sometimes be a rare occurrence these days.
- Jokes. Jokes send the message that you enjoy teaching, you enjoy your students and you are inviting them to have some fun. You can google jokes about any topic. Don’t be discouraged if kids groan or complain. They might secretly love it and might repeat it later to a family member. I also think jokes get us thinking about language and increase our creativity. I googled jokes about PE and a British site came up. Here’s a PE joke: How do you service your pogo stick? Give it a spring clean. Of course consider your personality when telling jokes. If you don’t like it, the kids will pick up on that. If however you love bad jokes like I do, then the kids will pick up on your secret delight and be smiling inside.
Hope you are inspired to take time to build community in your class. It’s not wasted time, it’s time spent investing in your relationship with the class. It’s building credit with students that might come in handy later. Teachers, what activities do you do that work well in building community? Share in the comments below to spread the love!