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Back to School: A Surefire Strategy for Building Classroom Community

Unlike many of the current posts and articles in educators' discussions these days, this post does not address anything related to technology or the CCSS. It addresses a topic of much greater importance -- the emotional environment of the classroom. Without an excellent, intentionally designed, emotional environment (one which builds authentic community in the classroom), the standards and the technologies are of little value. As Steven Covey and many others have said, "First things first!"

There are three facets of a classroom and school environment: 1) the physical environment, 2) the emotional environment, and, 3) the academic environment. Each facet must be intentionally designed and maintained throughout the school year. To establish a positive classroom climate, safe emotional environment, and to begin building community immediately requires deliberate, conscious planning and strategies.

Here's a specific classroom strategy which can be done at any time, but is especially powerful to do first thing on the first day of school -- and it's one you and your students will love!

"Take What You Need" Strategy

Gather your students into a circle. My preference (if it is possible) is to gather on a large rug. I always purchase a 12 by 18-foot piece of inexpensive carpet from a roll at Home Depot. If you don't have a rug, the floor will do, or just arrange desks into a circle.

Don't say anything, just take out a roll of toilet paper, tear off a length with about 10 squares, hand the roll of toilet paper to the student sitting next to you, and just say, "Take what you need."

Of course, the students will be surprised/shocked. But don't say anything. Let each student take as much or as little as they want, then pass it to the next student.

It's possible that one or two students won't take any because they aren't sure just what this is about. You can explain to them what you're doing. Say that for each square of toilet paper they have taken they will now share something about themselves with the class. This is a "getting to know you" activity.

No one is required to say anything. Demonstrate the type of information you'd like them to share by modeling -- you go first. I always give the students my first and last name; I am emphasizing that I am a person. So, for example, I may say . . .

[Tearing off Square 1]: My name is Anne Shaw (I do not say Mrs. Shaw).

[Tearing off Square 2]: I live in Austin, Texas.

[Tearing off Square 3]: I have three children, all grown, and five grandchildren, ages 4 to 13.

[Tearing off Square 4]: I love to cook (and eat!). I especially like enchiladas (and fried chicken and mashed potatoes).

[Tearing off Square 5]: I used to live in Pensacola, Florida, and my favorite thing about that (next to living near and spending time with two of my grandchildren) was watching the Blue Angels flying around every day!

[Tearing off Square 6]: My husband and I have traveled to Turkey, Malaysia, India, and Vietnam to work with educators! I brought home gorgeous saris for my daughter and my daughters-in-law.

[Tearing off Square 7]: During the past several years I have become very interested in environmental studies in education, from building sustainable school buildings (or living buildings) to school gardens.

The point of my modeling this first is to prevent everyone from saying the least amount of information possible and to get them to provide information that provides the rest of us with insight to who they really are -- really unique and specific information.

Usually, not only do we have one or two students who opt out, we usually also have one or two (I refer to them as the 'funny guys") who start rolling it out, and end up with a huge pile of toilet paper. This happens in workshops with teachers as well, and it's always a big laugh for everyone when I tell them that for each square they have to tell us something about themselves. In short, it's a lot of fun, and the best way I know to begin creating real community immediately.

After everyone has had their turn I explain to them that we are a team, a community, and that we are all there to support, teach and learn from each other. We build on this community every single day of the school year, first thing, every day.

Continue to Grow Community

We do not do the toilet paper every day, but usually on the second day of school the students who did not participate on Day One ask if we can do it again. We do, and then everyone is much more relaxed, sharing, and open. It only takes a few minutes, and it's worth every second.

Thereafter, we just have regular "rug talks" to start the day. Not everyone goes around the circle and says something every day. We just allow anyone who wishes to share something the chance to do so. Sometimes it is something like, "We had spaghetti at grandma's house last night." Or, "We went to the county fair last night." And sometimes it is quite serious.

One day in early spring I realized just how strong and profound our community was. A mother came to me before school; I was outside on playground duty. She had tears streaming down her face. Her ex-husband (the father of one of my students) had died during the night unexpectedly, due to an epileptic seizure. Of course they offered, and expected, that the little girl would stay home from school, but she insisted on being there with us. And when we began the day with our regular "rug talk" she asked me to tell the class what had happened. When I did, she let out this huge sob from deep inside her soul.

That was a powerful learning experience for all of us. We were a true community. In true communities of learners (including teachers) a support system is built in which we can share not only tragedies, but triumphs, and bits of joy or fun from daily life. And from within that context, the emotional environment, we are safe to take risks, to grow, and develop into our true selves. It's a great example of a specific philosophy I share with William Glasser, "Learning is serious, but that doesn't mean it has to be grim."

What strategies and approaches do you use for building classroom community? Please share in the comment section below.


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Jill Pettegrew's picture
Jill Pettegrew
Marriage Family Therapist Intern; Edutopia Consulting Editor

Another technique I use in groups is Gratitude Ball Toss.

Sit in a circle if possible.

The student who holds the ball says one thing in their life they are grateful for. They then toss the ball to someone else, who repeats what the previous just said (to keep them paying attention to the group), then states what they are grateful for, etc. (Example: Ashley, "I am grateful for my dog." Tosses to Zoe. Zoe says, "Ashley is grateful for her dog, and I am grateful that it's sunny today."

I found students (especially younger ones) would just repeat what someone else said, so before we started, I had them all stop to think of what they are grateful for.

If the group is small (5 or fewer), you can repeat this up to 3 times per person. With this, I would recommend having the students sit and write down their 3 things first, to keep things flowing.

Builds community, and shifts brain perspective to the positive things about their lives (SEL). For more on gratitude see:

Becky Fisher's picture
Becky Fisher
Education Consultant

This is a great activity, Anne. Thanks for sharing! I also love that you continue this type of emotional learning throughout the year. I always liked to reemphasize the importance of relationships and building a community.

Here's another activity to try:
Students interview each other and then share what they learned. You can pair up different students once a week or once a month, and do peer interviews and group shares. I always start each session with a whole group brainstorm. We come up with 5 or 6 interview questions like, "what's your favorite ice cream flavor" or "do you have any pets". I also allowed students to come up with one or two unique questions with their partner. It's a great way to get different students interacting, practice working in pairs, and sharing.

Ms Minaker's picture
Ms Minaker
6th, 7th & 8th grade Humanities teacher in Boston, MA area

I love this activity. I have always loved the activity 2 truths and a lie. Students love figuring out which is which and they learn about each other but it does not set the tone I am looking for in my class this year. This is much better!

Adam C Johnson's picture
Adam C Johnson
6th, 7th and 8th Grade Dual Language (Spanish/English) Math Teacher

My first year teaching was the most stressful time of my life. I was teaching at an extremely challenging middle school in the South Bronx where 75% of the teachers were in their first year. In addition to teaching math, I had been assigned to teach Spanish to four different classes, which I only saw twice a week. I had trouble building a strong class culture because I had so many students and was not able to develop continuity due to not having a lot of time together. I was not the only teacher struggling. The principal invited Anne Shaw to our school to help use create the learning culture that we were striving to build. She demonstrated the "take what you need" strategy with the teachers and it gave us the opportunity to get to know each other while making us smile and laugh, something that was not happening under stressful conditions. I came to school the next day with a pack of toilet paper. I carried out "take what you need" with my Spanish classes, encouraging them to use Spanish, of course, to share something about themselves. It was a hit! The kids were engaged and it gave them a meaningful opportunity to use their Spanish. The strategy helped us build a strong community. Four years later, I am still teaching at the same school in the South Bronx and I always begin the school year with the "take what you need" strategy. Thank you Anne!

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Community Manager at Edutopia

There's a variation called 2 Truths and a Wish. In some ways it's not as much fun as the original version, but it can reveal some interesting aspirations.

Harmeet Kaur's picture

Its wonderful activity. I am taking life skill activities and your activities are helping me a lot.

kserven's picture
Kinder teacher CA

I know how important community building is...as I am usually the child's first teacher. About half of my class may have gone to pre-school. I think this tp activity is terrific...but I need to modify for kinders. They are not all proficient about social norms so I can get one kiddo who will talk for a very long time, and many who will not speak at all. The tp will get them very, very silly. How do I do this with modifications?

kserven's picture
Kinder teacher CA

I may try this modification for my kinder class. Thanks!

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