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Student Engagement

Back to School: A Surefire Strategy for Building Classroom Community

Blogger Anne Shaw highlights a fun, beginning-of-the-year strategy that includes a roll of toilet paper.

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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frances rice's picture

Hi! I'm a kindergarten teacher too! What was the modification? I am very interested as I'd like to do this with my students the first few days.

Mrs. Jurica's picture
Mrs. Jurica
5th grade social studies teacher from New Braunfels, Texas

As a mother of two kids in the special ed spectrum, I am always looking for activities that remind my students that we all have different needs. I am absolutely going to use this activity this year with my students and then take the opportunity to bridge to the idea that, just like everyone took different amounts of TP, everyone in the room will need different amounts of assistance at some time of the year in different subjects, maybe math, reading, history, or even their behavior. I try to tell them that my number one goal is making sure that everyone gets what they truly need to be successful. Sometimes this may feel uncomfortable, because sometimes things that feel a little difficult are where we can grow the most. Sometimes it may look unfair (like when a student notices an accommodated or modified assignment of a friend) but I promise them that I will make sure everyone gets what they need, but that doesn't mean that everyone is going to get exactly the same! Fair isn't equal, because equal isn't fair!

Pam Martin's picture

I do a variation of 2 truths and a lie in which we say 2 truths and a lie about our summer activities. This works for me because my students stay in my class from year to year.

Teri's picture

I teach HS Math. It is a subject not everyone loves. I try very hard to make sure all students feel confident and calm during discussion and especially during assessment time. The first assignment for them is to find an inspirational quote that will trigger confidence each time they see it. They must put is on a large card stock sheet as well as a book mark size. We call these 'Random Bits of Inspiration' and they are available for students to keep on their desks whenever they feel they need a lift. The large stocks are immediately placed on the walls in the room. The book marks are given to them at the beginning of every formative assessment to sit on their desk as inspiration. I continue setting the mood each test/quiz day by donning the same "Quiz Day Shirt", which is a bold paisley blouse I wear over my usual garb. Believe me if I forget, the quiz/test doesn't start until I'm wearing it. =) Before we pass out the exams, all are required to wish there neighbors "Good Luck". To help those who get distracted during testing, no one is allowed to move when they are finished with the test. They quietly raise their hand and I pick it up for them. This has really helped students who have trouble staying focused for an extended time. I am always very excited to see the transformation each year as nervous test takers become calm and score better each time. The team spirit created is thrilling.

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

Great Lesson that can be even greater without the use of toilet paper. I just feel that being wasteful is the bycatch of building community. Using yarn is a great idea because you can rewind the ball and use it for other activities. You could use plastic gold coins or other trinkets that can be reused for other games. I inherited my classroom from a veteran teacher who collected random things for math manipulatives. I have a box of old keys that can be used for this activity. Each key unlocks a fact about each student.

KHill's picture

I teach high school English. From what I could glean in your article, it seems that you teach younger students. I think this activity sounds fun and engaging, but is it too "young" for 9th graders? I would love to use it soon if you have evidence of it being effective with older students also.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

When I taught 9-12th grade English, building classroom community was trickier because adolescents are so uncomfortable with sharing. I found that a lot of my kids did better if I had them engage around the content with a side of get-to-know-you. So that meant that, early on, we did things like vocabulary review in partners that changed every 2 minutes, with a names quiz right after. I also took role on the first day using a last-name silent line up. The kids had to line up in alphabetical order by last name, without speaking. Then we went down the line and they told me their first and last names. (Bonus- I got to hear them pronounce their own names before I tried to do it AND I avoided using a much-hated given name rather than a long-used nickname.) The biggest thing with older kids, I think, is insisting that they use each other's names, using their names yourself, and getting them engaged in work together as soon and as often as possible- nothing builds community like meaningful work.

Sue M-V's picture

For a first meeting with new high school students (aged 16) I give them a little form to fill in in the morning. They don't question this, but fill in details of their email address, cellphone number, what they may be allergic to, favourite food, colour & music, contact details for parents, and finally one interesting fact about themselves. I explain that this fact should be something that is not at all private, but which the others are unlikely to know about them.

I have a 2-column template for this, and during a break, I fill it in with the interesting facts next to an empty space for a name, and the instruction to "find someone who ..." After the break, everyone must go around and talk to each other person one at a time, until they have filled in all the gaps.

Then we can repeat the information in some way, or ask for further explanations, etc. The next day I usually bake something as a treat (yes, I do have a few recipes that contain no gluten, lactose, eggs or nuts!). They get quite chatty while this is being enjoyed.

A great advantage of this is that I now have a little bank of useful information about each student, and can always get in touch with them or their parents if I need to, make sure any food they are given (e.g. on trips) is appropriate, and so on.

eglasner's picture

I also teach Math! To add to this, I'm going to start each class this year with 4 or 5 positive affirmations which I'll say aloud and have students repeat. It sets a positive tone every single day.

Renu Gill's picture

A great way to build our class community. I will use this activity in the fall. I also like the idea of connecting it to the different amount of assistance required. Thank you. Renu

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