In a positive learning environment, students lift one another up and create an atmosphere where it is the norm to take risks, ask questions, make mistakes, and learn collaboratively. In order to set the stage for this type of environment, students not only need a good relationship with their teacher, they need to feel connected to their peers.
But building peer-to-peer relationships can be challenging in high school, where many students engage only with their core friend group or keep to themselves. Plus, in the aftermath of the pandemic, some students find being around their peers more stressful than working online.
Since I sometimes have classes of more than 30 students, circle times and individual check-ins aren’t always feasible. That’s why I came up with different strategies to intentionally build student connections, five of which I’ll share with you here.
A Daily Question on a Whiteboard
Post a question in a visible place, and invite students from all periods to write a response as soon as they enter class, building on peers’ written comments from earlier in the day.
I use this strategy to greet my students at the door, where I welcome them and remind them to answer the question. I tend to start off with questions about lighter topics, such as softball, but as students become more comfortable with me and each other, I’ll ask deeper ones (see below for examples).
Students always have the option to pass, but I’ve found that if it’s a good question, students will look forward to answering and reading their peers’ responses. As much as possible, I refrain from saying anything about the answers. Instead, I ask one student to read their top three, sharing what resonates for them.
This activity allows the whiteboard to become a student space. I set it up, but learners take ownership over their engagement. As the year unfolds, they even come up with prompt questions on their own.
The following are some examples of daily questions I’ve used:
- Would you rather be the youngest, middle, or oldest sibling?
- Which emoji best describes your current mood?
- Draw a sea creature.
- Draw a plant that represents you.
- Name one person you can rely on in school.
- What does it mean to be a good friend?
These are examples of student-generated questions:
- What colors would you assign the four cores: ELA, math, science, and history?
- What’s the last (appropriate) text you sent, no context?
- Your most-played song of 2022?
- Which school lunch option is top-tier?
- 100 French fries or 100 Hot Pockets?
Walk and Talk
Another relationship-building strategy, “Walk and Talk,” invites students to connect with two peers and answer questions geared toward social connection before engaging with curricular content.
The first person a student connects with should be someone whom they feel comfortable with and speak to often, and the second person should be someone with whom they rarely interact.
At first, I give a lower-stakes personal question, such as, “What was the last thing you watched on YouTube?” The second question I ask relates to our class, usually “What did we do last class?” or “Based on the agenda, what do you think we will be doing today?”
As the year goes on, students tend to group up and ask if they can talk in groups of four—proof that relationship building really is at play. This is a good way to have students review what was done in the last class and prepare them for what’s coming next.
It can be especially helpful to structure a relationship-building activity at the beginning of the year, when new students enter the class, or when students return from school breaks. Tiered mini-interviews involve small, teacher-selected groups of students who engage in the following steps.
First, give students a worksheet that asks them to categorize how well they feel they know their peers using four tiers: (1) Peers I’m comfortable with, (2) peers I know but don’t speak with often, (3) peers for whom I only know first names, and (4) peers whose names I don’t know.
With the last tier, students don’t write down names; instead, they seek out those students and introduce themselves. This portion of the activity can be modified as students get to know each other better; however, each year, I’ve found that it’s common for several students to not know many of their peers’ first names, so instead of a traditional interview where students are randomly assigned or pick their partners, I find it helpful to be intentional about asking students to seek out classmates with whom to build new relationships.
Digital quizzes are an engaging way to start a class when students return from a school break or need a pause from curricular content before a review or final. The goal here is to create questions that most of the students would be able to answer correctly.
Creating digital quizzes does take time at first, because they comprise a question related to each student in the class, but they’re always a worthy endeavor. They are also a self-check, because they allow me to check my knowledge of each student and to follow up with learners whom I realize I don’t know much about.
In these quizzes, I mainly format questions as true or false that are related to something that should be general knowledge about the student—for example, “Mahina has a twin” or “Kose is in the Arts and Communications Academy.”
As I learn more about students and we build rapport, I occasionally slip in class jokes, a question about myself, and more nuanced questions, which show how well we know each other.
Many free online quiz websites allow you to make the quiz live so that students can see their scores in real time, adding a bit of energy and competition to this classroom strategy.
Memorizing first and last names
At the start of the year, we can all use a bit of support as we learn students’ first and last names. An activity that I find very beneficial, especially for students who are in ninth and 10th grades, invites learners to start by memorizing the names of everyone at their table.
Together, they practice writing each other’s names and saying them aloud in the first few days of class. Then, we slowly expand to the whole group. By the end of the quarter, I have everyone stand in a circle and say or write their peers’ names. Because students often memorize the order of names and not the faces that go with them, as the year progresses, I mix up the tables and have students memorize new first and last names.
This activity helps us all learn how to properly pronounce and spell the names of everyone in class. I don’t do this activity every year, but I’ve noticed that when I skip it, there’s less of a class bond.
Positive Peer Relationships Support Student Performance
Positive peer relationships, such as those fostered using the activities above, engender a sense of belonging and a culture of excellence. They also allow students space to feel seen and heard, which impacts student performance. Being intentional about building relational capacity throughout the school year doesn’t take much effort but reaps many benefits in and beyond the classroom.