Thursday, June 30, 2011

Community Building 101 With Mrs. Ripp

Ahhh community building exercises.  Those small sheets of paper that we all so vigorously collect whilst in college knowing that some day they will be our go-to's.  Some day they will lead us to a breakthrough in our classrooom.  Some day they will be corner stones of our community.  And yet, then they don't.  In fact, as I cleaned out my files at the end of the year, I found a lot of them shoved into a forgotten corner of my cabinet, crumpled, dusty, and very unused.  I guess I haven't needed them after all.

So welcome to community building 101 with your teacher, Mrs. Ripp.  A newish teacher that doesn't quite know what she is doing at all times but will happily share all of the ups and downs.  So first, how not to build community, from someone who has made all of these mistakes:
  • Pre-post your rules.  Nothing says "This is my classroom" like a beautifully laminated poster of all of your rules that have been hanging there for years.  Students certainly know who is the boss then and also that they are indeed just visitors in your room.  Way to set the tone from the first day.
  • Spend days on a constitution.  I like the Constitution, in fact, as a social studies lesson I think this would be marvelous.  But as a community builder, not so much.  Think of it through a kid's eyes:  days spent discussing the rules for the rest of they year and then pledging to uphold all 20 of them, umm not so much.  Oh and who is going to remember all of them, yikes!
  • Set clear boundaries.  The first year I labeled my classroom with teacher versus student stickers.  Oh yes, I was a label master, making sure the students knew exactly which cabinets, which supplies, and which areas they were allowed in.  I spent the rest of the year reminding them where not to go and I kept hammering in how something was "mine" - sounds like a 2 year old's behavior, not a teacher's.
  • Ice breakers.  I know people will disagree here, but I hate ice breakers, they are super awkward and make me feel very uncomfortable for a while until I can retreat back to my own comfort zone.  I have never made a connection through an icebreaker, sorry.  Instead, invest in something meaningful as a classroom like a connection map, or a kid made video tour of the classroom, or something that the kids can work together on.  If they can focus on the task rather than the connecting, community building will start to happen.
  • Tell the kids you will now be building a community.  I am all for setting goals and telling the kids about it, but this one better be left unsaid.  It's like telling someone you are trying to become their friend; that hyperfocus tends to make things weird.  Instead tell the kids what they will be doing, simple as that.
  • Have a million things planned.  Sometimes the best beginnings of a community comes from spending time together, but when you plan too much or have too much to do, that goes out the window.  So leave a little room for spontaneity, a little room for just hanging out (perhaps on the playground) and a little room for whatever the kids would like to do. 
    So what should you do?
    • Be yourself.  The kids will see right through any phoniness, so if you are a massive dork like I am, let it all shine through.  
    • Share your life.  I often have a video from Thea, my 2 year old daughter, or a funny story about her to start the day out with.  The kids really get to know me and my family and in turn open up about their lives as well.
    • Laugh a lot.  I love to laugh and I think kids are hilarious, if we just give them the time to speak.  
    • Start decorating the classroom.  I stress over and over that this is "Our classroom," so the kids get to make decorating choices as well as furniture setup decisions.  Every class learns differently and they can often set up a better environment than I can.
    • Start learning.  I love all of the learning that happens at school so we start right away with some curriculum, often the kids cannot wait to see what this new grade level will be about so why wait.  Of course, we balance it out with all the other great non-curricular activities.
    • Decide on expectations together.  I don't have classroom rules, I have expectations that are set with the students.  We take some time, and we always adjust them throughout the year, but in the end they need to be straight and to the point so the kids (and I) can remember them.  And no, they are not posted anywhere.
    • Give it time.   Great community does not happen on the first day of school but you do plant the seed that day.  So tend to it and nurture it, give it them time it deserves throughout the school year and highlight it from time to time.  I discuss with the students how great of a classroom we have which keeps it a priority and reminds of what we strive to be: a place where everyone feels like they belong and are safe.


    Sarah said...

    Gosh, I am guilty of some of the non community building points...I caught myself saying too many times this year: be careful with "my" markers. I really appreciate a lot of your points and while my situation is different (I am an EFL teacher so I only see my students twice a week and I teach the entire school - preschool to 5th grade - so the English room is shared by everyone) I think I can do a lot more to make my class more of a community space.

    Thanks for the all inspiration and motivation from a new reader!

    takefive said...

    Your comment that students should be responsible for decorating decisions along with you really hit me. I'm wondering if I couldn't implement that idea by having students in each hour take responsibility for an area or wall of the room....then they can spiff it as they see fit..change it when it needs changing, etc etc etc.

    Thanks for the nudge to think differently.

    Jackie H. said...

    Great post. I'm reading through Literacy Beginnings by Fountas/Pinnell this week. They talk A LOT about building community even in the prekindergarten class. It's so interesting to filter your classroom ideas through that lense of community. It makes some ideas that seem "really good" suddenly not seem so great. You do such a great job of reflecting on your teaching!


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