There are many things to understand about teaching when you first begin your career, and even more..
The practice of building a classroom community is more than just about connecting with your learners. Ultimately it's about providing them with a sense of belonging and support.
Community building begins on the first day in class and extends through the year. If you do it right, you'll even instil selfless values that will have them extending the community spirit into different areas of their lives well beyond their formative years.
Community comes from the Latin communitatem, which essentially means "fellowship." When you're part of something like this, you know it.
It's in the smiles and words of the people you share it with and in the collective ideas that grow and maintain it. You feel it every day all around you, and it brings you peace and security.
Perhaps you can recall a time in your childhood where knowing your neighbours were quite common, and regular visitors were the norm.
Maybe you can remember a class or course you loved where everything between your peers and your teacher just "clicked."
You may even have been part of a particular group of friends that made you feel safe and unique, a group that remained together for a long time (and perhaps still does).
That's what community is all about.
The keywords that define community are support, belonging, and safety. So, with all this in mind, what's a great way to begin building a classroom community with your learners?
It begins with one simple but meaningful exercise: the classic "check-in."
Using the Check-in for Building Classroom Community
Check-ins have been used in domestic and professional settings, well, since forever. So it's not a new idea, but it is an effective one for unification through communication.
The act of checking in keeps people connected, lets opinions be heard, and helps to solve problems and disputes. When it's adopted as a regular practice, it brings people together as nothing else can.
Community essentially means "fellowship." When you're part of something like that, you know it.
Educator Alex Shevrin Venet talks about her own experiences with the "rose and thorn" activity in this Edutopia article:"In this quick activity, students participate by sharing roses—something positive going on for a student that day—and thorns, which are negative, or at least less than positive. Students can choose their level of vulnerability: A rose can simply be 'the weather is nice today.' A low-stakes thorn might be 'I feel tired.' Yet many students choose to share more personal items: 'My rose is that even though I'm stressed out, I got all my homework done' or 'My thorn is that my dog is sick and I'm really worried about her.'
Alex quickly points out that she also participates in this with her students by sharing things herself. It succeeds in building a classroom community by letting learners know that the teacher also gets stressed.
In other words, it's a way of saying, "Everybody's human here.""Going around the classroom, each student states one rose and one thorn. I share mine too. The whole process takes five minutes or less. Yet though this fast activity may seem simple, the rose and thorn check-in is an essential part of my classroom community-building."
The Benefits of Checking In
Here are some of the benefits of using check-ins that Alex feels contribute to building classroom community:
- Her learners come to realize that every voice matters.
- They develop an awareness of others' emotions and how to respond to them.
- It increases their comfort with vulnerability.
Using check-ins in your classroom has other advantages, too. For one thing, they can fine-tune learners' communication skills and boost their self-confidence.
Another thing check-ins are suitable for is improving productivity because students that are confident communicators can perform better. They also teach students to give feedback when you allow them to respond constructively and empathetically to what is shared.
The act of checking in keeps people connected, lets opinions be heard, and helps to solve problems and disputes.
So how do you facilitate check-ins in your class when using them for building the classroom community? Here are a few suggestions to get you started.
- Keep a sense of order: make sure everyone gets a turn to share, but not randomly or all at once.
- Let everyone be heard: no matter how many students are there, everyone should get a turn.
- Listen actively: give the student full attention and let them share fully. You may have a time limit for each turn, so make sure to establish it before sharing begins.
- Weather the storm: students may decide to get a little more personal than you expected. Ensure they know that if anything they want to share is too sensitive, they can always see you after class or at another private time.
- Welcome responses: if other learners have anything to add, allow them to share it briefly.
- Keep things proactive: the idea when building classroom community is to nurture a feeling of support for one another.
- Get students' feedback and suggestions: ask them how they feel the check-ins benefit everyone and how they could be even better.
As for the components of check-ins, you can choose from any number of questions or prompts to guide you. Below are suggestions you can add to your check-ins as you see fit.
- Name one thing happening in your life right now that is positive.
- Name one thing happening in your life right now that is negative.
- In our work in class so far, what do you feel best about?
- What is one thing you're struggling with in class?
- Share a question you have about something.
- Name one thing that brings you energy and joy.
- What's one new and exciting thing you've been thinking about lately?
- State something you're very grateful for.
- What do you want to accomplish for yourself today? For someone else?
- What has changed for you since our last check-in?
Don't Forget to Check Out
In addition to the regular practice of checking in, you could also add in a checkout. The two go hand in hand if you want learners to end the day feeling happy with something positive to share with their parents each day.
A themed example of a checkout could also be Roses & Thorns. For instance, a rose might be something they learned that they enjoyed or participating in an activity they were excited about. A thorn might be a concern, a problem, an unanswered question, or something a learner remains confused about.
If any thorns come up during your check out, you can address them before the kids leave for the day. Otherwise, if the issue is broader or more involved, you can schedule a time to work on it together.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in 2018 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.
Originally published Dec 19, 2018, updated Dec 3, 2021