George Lucas Educational Foundation
Collaborative Learning

Building Communities in the Classroom

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“Learning best occurs through social participation” Wenger (2009).

Middle school age students face many social and emotional challenges through this pre-adolescent stage.  Teacher’s face the challenges of keeping students engaged in a lesson in order to get students to become  “active” learners.  Why do we want students to participate?  Because, that is the best indicator of whether or not they are paying attention. Technology has played a role in helping to increase participation, through Kahoot, plickers or Google forms, all students can be involved at the same time.  Yes, students are participating through the use of all this great technology, but are they active participants?  

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There are two types of levels of engagement, participants and active participants.  A participant will respond to questions being asked in an individual context.  An active participant will answer questions asked of them, but also feel part of the conversation and be in-tune with the comments of their peers.

We want all our students to be active participants in the classroom.  Building communities in the classroom is key to accomplishing this.  Teachers build communities to promote collaboration and build relationship that foster a positive and productive working experience.  The same concept applies to students.  My experiences in the past 11 years of teaching have taught me that you have to go beyond a welcoming environment in the classroom and calm nature to really build a community.  Here are some helpful tips to start building a community within your classroom.

Team Building Strategies

Remember the ice-breaker games that you played when you started a new job and your supervisor wanted you to get to know the other new staff?  You had fun playing them and you met new people, surprisingly, building relationships through a short activity.  These games are not just meant for adults.  Start the year off with team building activities.  I had my students team -up to see who could build the highest tower out of playdough and straws.  The students had fun and learned to work with one another.  This fosters collaboration at the very beginning.  Don’t stop after one team building activity.  Every few weeks incorporate another activity.

Team building will set up students for success when working as partners or in groups.  Peer learning, cooperative learning, reciprocal learning, whatever you may call it- this is a skill that needs to be developed.

Students Take the Lead

Let’s face it, teachers are a little controlling.  Can you blame us?  There is this huge responsibility on our shoulders to have students meet high expectations and that accountability causes us to want to control most aspects of student learning in our classroom.  The whole concept of “student’s taking ownership” is important because it forces students to be involved in their learning.  After all, they are the ones graduating to the next grade and as a teacher you won’t be following along.

Don’t be afraid to let your students explain and show their answers up at the board, even if it takes extra time.   Students can build confidence with public speaking, explain their thought process better and collaborate by listening to their peers.  Project Based Learning (PBL) activities are a great method to encourage peer learning and fosters many important skills such as working as a team, question and discussion techniques, and creative thinking.  Welcome debates in the classroom, it really does build critical thinking.

We have all heard the phrase “a student lead class”.  Think about what that would look like.  What I envision is a class where the motivation and drive to explore and learn is student motivated, a “growth mindset”(Dweck, 2010).  This will foster building a stronger community of collaborative learners in the classroom.

Teacher Collaboration

Finally the best way to build communities in the classroom is to start with the teachers in a school.  Whether the community is a cross-curricular team or content specific, it is important to have a functioning team.  Similar to the students you receive, you do not get to hand pick your team members.  The effort we make to get to know our students on a personal level provides us with a good understanding of their likes and dislikes.  As teachers we should make an effort with our colleagues too.  This allows for teachers to have a better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of their team members and utilizes the strengths in a beneficial and productive way.

Reflection

As students and teachers start to feel a sense of belonging to a community they can build upon their roles in the classroom. It is human nature to want to feel accepted and that acceptance can lead to confidence and willingness to participate and work as a team.  Often teachers focus on the needs of students on an individual level, which is great, because we want to make sure each student understands the content to the best of their ability. While we individualize lessons and provide one to one instruction as much as possible, we are also enabling the growth of our classroom community.  Building a community within the classroom, sets the tone and encourages students to be active members of their own learning.  There are many ways to strengthen the social ties in the classroom.  Take time to build relationships with your students and have them build them with each other.  The benefits for your students will far surpass the one year you have had working with them.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we've preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer's own.