Every year that I walk into a classroom, I have the same goal: build our class into warm, welcoming community that functions like a great, big extended family. The goal is to take 20 to 30 people who might not know each other, who might not have a single thing in common, and who might not always get along, and bring them together in a way that they look forward to being together, support and encourage one another and help each other through the learning process. It might be a lofty goal, but it’s an important one that helps to create an overall safe and effective learning environment. Here are some of my favorite tried and true activities to help build community in the classroom.
There are some things we do in class every.single.day that help to build the classroom community! No, I’m not talking about taking attendance or getting lunch count, although I HAVE heard of some teachers adding a fun little twist to these daily tasks (like singing it) and that could become a tradition.
Here, I’m focusing on special activities that make students feel welcome and like they are part of something bigger than themselves. Having spent years working in an International Baccalaureate (IB) School, it was always a goal of mine that students see that there is so much more beyond the walls of their home, school, city, state, and country. Building this type of community is one small way of doing just that.
Every day, I greet my students at the door to our classroom. I know the mornings are busy, but this is top priority for me as students enter.
I want them to know that I am happy they are there and welcome them in with a smile. Most days we give each other a warm handshake, some days we high-five, some days we fist bump and others we use silly voices. But my most favorite way to greet my students is with a “secret handshake” that has become popular on social media over the years. A few years ago, I started coming up with a special way to do this. Sometimes I create the movement (it’s not just a handshake – that would be too boring) and other years we create it as a class.
You can use it when students arrive in the morning, when they leave for the day, or any time you need a moment of connection during the day. It’s ours and it becomes a special form of communication just for us.
Want to create your own secret class greeting? I’d suggest keeping it short, like 2 or 3 simple motions, no more than about 5 seconds, and have fun with it. Sure, you might look silly, but at least you’ll look silly together.
I know that social media has popularized each student have their own personal secret handshake, but I have never done that, primarily because I have the coordination of a donkey (?? are donkeys uncoordinated? That just felt like the right analogy to me in the moment) and it would take me all year to memorize 30 separate handshakes.
Now, before you stop me and tell me that Morning Meeting is only for primary grades, hear me out. Morning meeting can be a very valuable and special time for older kids too! I will never have a classroom where I don’t incorporate some form of morning meeting every day.
You don’t have to review the calendar or sing a song every morning (although kids of all ages LOVES a good song, whether or not they will admit it upfront). Instead, make it an important part of the day that helps everyone get on the same page.
I have a HUGE post all about Morning Meeting HERE, but here are a few suggestions of things you could do to make morning meeting a community building time in your classroom.
- Review the schedule for the day and help everyone mentally prepare for the day ahead. This is especially helpful if you have any schedule changes that need to be discussed.
- I always let a few people share each day. In the lower grades, I would have students sign up to share, but in the upper grades, I was able to make it more flexible and allow children to raise their hands to share whatever is on their mind.
- This Day in History is a fun way to learn some fun historical facts while focusing on the day. You’d be surprised at how quickly the kids begin to anticipate it.
- It is during morning meeting that we share our reflections on the Quote of the Day from Think it Through. We usually do this on Friday. I have students share out what they think the quote means, and it always ends up in a beautiful discussion. This is a great time to reinforce growth mindset principles, dig into character traits or connect our daily lives with important people from history.
- Word of the Day is a great way to build student vocabulary in less than a minute. Share the word and the definition then write it on the board so the kids see it all day long. Have a special class cheer or small reward for any student who can use the word correctly during the day.
- Have a quick write journal that gets your students writing for about 5 minutes every morning. Use a writing prompt that will lead to class discussion, or just have a discussion based on the prompt. Limit the writing time and then have a time of sharing or discussion. Writing prompts that focus on emotions, character traits and encouraging classmates is a great way to build community.
Now you don’t have to do all of these at one time. Choose one or two you like best and do them every day. If you like many of the ideas, choose a different one for each day of the week and develop a weekly morning meeting routine.
Daily Praise & Reflection
At the end of each day, I like to have a time of daily praise or reflection. Sometimes it’s me giving praise to the students and other times it is peer praise. What’s great about this is that depending on the time available it could be a super-fast 30 seconds of praise or it could fill 5 minutes. It’s a great way to build up students, acknowledge their effort and to let them know that you notice the little things. One of the things that I am very intentional about with praise is focusing on the action, the character trait or the skill that was shown, and I teach my students to do the same. In my room we don’t typically focus on praising appearance, clothes or possessions.
Although I don’t have a set list that I follow or an order for giving praise, I do make sure that every student receives public praise. Not only does it go a long way in building the teacher/student relationship, but it also helps to reinforce positive choices. Find the positive, reinforce it, and watch as your students repeat it day after day. I have watched students who have struggled with poor classroom behavior or self-esteem have dramatic improvements because of Daily Praise.
I also love hearing my students reflect on their day’s work. Sometimes instead of Daily Praise, we also do a daily reflection. We talk about the best parts of the day (doesn’t HAVE to be academic in nature), and we even reflect on some parts of the day that didn’t go as well as they could have.
Special Occasion Class Traditions
I also like to incorporate some class traditions on special occasions too. These might only happen occasionally during the year, or they might be a once a year event that students experience together. Oftentimes, these are the traditions that kids may even already know about before they come into my classroom because they’ve heard about them through the grapevine!
Mini Room Transformations
I am a huge proponent of mini room transformations when you can apply them to specific skills you are teaching. They most often coincide with my math and reading projects, but we also do a Book Tasting several times throughout the year. At the beginning of the year, I always transform my room into a little detective zone for our Place Value Detective Project. It’s super basic– I just hang up some caution tape, purchase magnifying glasses at Oriental Trading, and get a stamp pad for students to fingerprint their papers when they finish each section. I do this for several different units (or anytime I can apply it to academics), and it has become a tradition in my classroom that students rave about! It does NOT need to be over the top to be engaging and meaningful!
This is a pretty personal tradition, and you have to find one that works really well for your class, your students, and your classroom management style. I have done a variety of different reward systems, but students seem to gravitate toward a “ticket” system most often. They can earn tickets as “gotchas” for literally ANYTHING positive. They can’t lose them. The best part is that at the end of the week or at random (they especially love when I randomly pick up the ticket tub), I pull a few tickets out of the jar and they can choose a small prize. SMALL is key. They are usually pencils, cool markers and pens, little doodads, etc. I ask for donations at the beginning of the year and then collect things on sale as I see them.
Big Kid Show and Tell
Kids love show and tell…ESPECIALLY the big kids. They love sharing things about themselves and their lives. Building relationships happens when we share and get to know each other at a deeper level. So although I know the rigorous demands on your time, I also know that there is a great benefit to show and tell. I usually try to incorporate show and tell into morning meeting, but here are a few extra ideas about how I connect show and tell to the learning standards so that we can meet both a community building and academic goals:
- Use show and tell to meet the speaking and listening standards
- Have a themed show and tell that is connected to something you are learning about
- Have a written show and tell where students bring in a picture of themselves with the show and tell item and then write about it
I try to have a different sharing topic once a month for morning meeting, but there are times when we skip a month, and I DO let students choose their own sharing during morning meeting, too. Here are a few themed show and tell topics to get you started:
- This week we are learning about different types of angles. Bring in a show and tell item that has at least 1 obtuse angle, 1 acute angle and 1 right angle. Yep – all three angles in one item! You will have 1 minute to tell about the item and identify the angles.
- This month we are focusing on the character trait of bravery. Bring in a picture or an item and share about a time you witnessed bravery or you yourself were brave.
- In science, we just learned about Sir Isaac Newton and his laws of motion. This month’s show and tell will focus on things that move. Bring in an item or a picture of a moving object and be ready to tell us what Sir Isaac Newton would have to say about it. No living things may be brought to class – bring a picture instead!
With some creative thinking, Show and Tell can be used to not only support your standards, but also to get your students applying and analyzing their learning and connecting it to real, everyday life.
Have you ever had a great teaching idea on the spur of the moment? That’s how Throwback Thursday started. You see, it was a Thursday afternoon after a long week of test prep and I found myself staring at the glazed-over eyes of my students. I knew I couldn’t just keep going, so I started thinking of something to do to take a break. Then I remembered the social media post I saw that morning – a Throwback Thursday image of my friend and her family. Before I realized what I was really saying, I excitedly announced “It’s time for Throwback Thursday!”
My students looked up at me a little confused and so I explained that I was going to set a timer and for the next 5 minutes we were going to share some of our class favorite days, activities, memories and stories from the year. Hands started shooting up all over the room and for the next 5 minutes we re-lived some of our greatest moments. There was energy in the room as we laughed and remembered together. It was just what we needed to break up our day.
The next Thursday a student asked, aren’t we going to do Throwback Thursday? When the class cheered I knew it would become a weekly or almost weekly class tradition.
Stand Up Comedians
If you’ve spent much time in an upper grades classroom, you know how much kids LOVE to share and tell jokes! I encouraged my students to collect jokes, and when we had a few extra minutes, we’d have STAND UP time! It can take as little as 2 minutes out of your day, and students love, love, love it. File this under Brain Break ideas, too!
Most Friday mornings, I would bring my class outside for a quick 10-15 minute game. You could always tie this into your classroom management system, but I rarely took this away because it was such a special time for us. There are so many easy games to play (Captain’s Coming is a favorite), and over time they get GIDDY with excitement when they arrive on Friday mornings.
I strongly suggest that you find a way that you’d like to document your year in pictures and reflections. My first year teaching, I did something called “Reel Reflections” and took pictures each month to print out. On the last day of the month, we would talk about ALL the things we did and learned that month, and I would type them out and hang them next to the pictures. It stayed up all year, and was so fun to see all of our learning! I wish I had a picture of it, because it was such a great display.
A few years ago, I put up an Instagram bulletin board that I would change out monthly with different pictures. Students absolutely loved this. I kept all the pictures from each month and gave them out at the end of the year. It was the best walk down memory lane at the end of the year and keep smiling faces on the walls all year! (Tip: I hung up pictures of my family at the beginning of the year so students could get to know me and my family.)
Have you ever put together a time capsule at the beginning of the year to be opened on the last day of school? It’s pretty fun! I take a class picture, we all write down our hopes and dreams, and I print out some local news articles. It’s always amazing to look back and see how much changes in a year.
Remember Throwback Thursday? You see that wasn’t an activity I had on the lesson plans and it wasn’t even on the schedule. In fact, it wasn’t even in my head until that very moment. I share that to encourage you that not all community-building activities have to be thought out. In fact, some of the best start with a spontaneous thing that happens in class. It might start with an inside joke that only your class gets or maybe it’s an activity or way of your learning that your class really enjoys. It could be anything as long as you make it yours!
Be intentional about building community in the classroom, but also be flexible. An activity that was loved in previous years might be a flop and new activities, like Throwback Thursday, might be born. Each class has its own personality that will come out in its own unique ways. Go with it, have fun with it, and watch your group of random people become a family.
Pin It and Come Back!
If you are anything like me you vaguely remember a classroom idea but have no idea where you saw it. I started pinning ideas that I wanted to use in my classroom on my Pinterest boards. Now I go to Pinterest and can quickly and easily get back to my favorite classroom ideas and activities. So, pin this now so you can come back later for more classroom community building ideas.
How Do You Build Community in the Classroom?