Getting to know you…Building Classroom Community

By Amber Villa-Zang, Rubicon International

How one teacher uses an opening activity to break the ice with her students on the 1st day of class while building classroom community!

When students walk into your class at the beginning of the year they all have the same basic questions: Will l like this class? Will I like this teacher?

The bell rings and they file in, skeptical, curious, suspicious…who is this teacher? Will I love her, hate her, will he inspire me, bore me, and how much homework are we talking about?

As teachers, we all have our ice breakers and name games to kick off the year. How do we do more than just break the ice within the first day or two and use our first interaction with kids to begin the awesome work of getting to know who our students are and what they need as learners? How do we use our first interaction to begin building classroom community while creating a spark and sense of excitement that hooks kids and guides them into the curriculum?

Sarabeth Leitch is a veteran High School English teacher who is well aware of the importance of building a strong classroom community. Her goal is to create a safe learning environment that lets kids take risks, express themselves, and push themselves in order to grow academically, as well as emotionally and socially.

But how do you do that?

Sarabeth asked herself the same question as she began the year in September with her 9th graders. “After spending most of the night staring up at my ceiling and thinking, “Am I ready for tomorrow?”, I was blessed with one classroom activity on the first day of school that showed me I was”.

Her strategy was to flip the “who are you” question on its head and harness the observations students make about her when they first walk into her room and use it as a hook.

The Prompt
We will start by defining: “infer”: to derive by reasoning; conclude or judge from premises or evidence. Now you will begin to make your own predictions about who you think I am as a teacher or what this class will be like based on artifacts you see around the room. Pick an object from around the classroom that you think describes me both as a person and as an educator. Write about what assumptions you can make from the environment.

The beauty of the prompt is it put students in the driver’s seat. Instead of sitting back and listening to Sarabeth talk about herself or listening passively as other students talk about themselves, they actively got up, walked around the room and made their own impressions.

For Sarabeth the results were awesome. “It only took a crew of teenagers 93 minutes to infer what I would hope they would from my space and presence about who I want to be for them. Now I have nine months to prove it to be true. It’s a lot of pressure–but the good kind. Their words have inspired me to reflect and evolve. I am eager for Day 2!”

Sarabeth used this opening activity as a spring board into teaching the novel Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, a fantastic young adult novel about a freshman girl navigating a suburban high school’s nuanced clique, eccentric teachers, and harsh social codes. In the novel, the narrator spends a great deal of time assessing people and making judgments (both accurate and inaccurate) based on the observations she makes of her surroundings.

Sarabeth managed to do a number of things with this activity.

  1. She opened herself up to her students and gave them permission to analyze and make predictions about her class based on what they saw (always a brave move with 9th graders). In doing this, she empowered them to use their voices and illustrated that her class was a safe space where they are allowed speak up and say what they think.
  2. Gave students hands on experience with a vocabulary word.
  3. Introduced a major theme of the novel they are about to start while also giving students a direct connection to what the narrator experiences as she starts school.

The energy and enthusiasm of the students is palpable. They are excited about Sarabeth as teacher and eager to see what the class holds for them as they embark on their year together. They also know that this is a class where they will have a chance to be active, take risks and explore who they are. Setting up that expectation  is a giant step towards creating the type of atmosphere that allows students to really go deep, share their questions and thoughts, and to really challenge themselves and their peers to question their assumptions about the world and what they learn.

It’s fair to say Sarabeth did more than just “break the ice” with this activity. She warmed the water, and her kids are ready to dive in!

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