Everything that happens in a classroom is a direct result of the time and energy that a teacher puts in to build a safe and caring environment. The classroom is a microcosm of the larger school community, and it can mirror that school community or it can be in contrast to it. Teachers who hope to foster a love of learning, productivity, and a sense of caring in their students know that the foundation for this is in the type of community they create in their classroom.
Jeremy Bentham said: "It is vain to talk of the interest of the community, without understanding what is the interest of the individual." A teacher who understands the importance of building that sense of community knows this is true. Students will not feel a sense of worth or importance if the teacher does not know who they are: what are their strengths and weaknesses, their likes and dislikes, their hopes and fears. Following are some activities that can help a teacher get to know his/her students:
1) Million Words Assignment: This assignment involves giving homework to parents, which makes it a winner in the eyes of most students. Parents are asked to write, in a million words or less, all about their child. This activity not only allows teachers to get to know their students, it opens the lines of communication with parents in a positive way. Most parents love nothing more than to talk about their children. For the few instances that this assignment is met with parental resistance, it can be offered to aunts, uncles, grandparents, siblings, or previous teachers.
2) Star Activity: Each student receives a star cut-out. They put their name or a picture of themselves in the center. The teacher can decide on a prompt for each point; for example: # of siblings, favorite genre of book or music, last/first movie seen, favorite color, season, food, etc. After filling out their stars, the students can do Mix-Freeze-Grouping to find commonalities. Another option is to have one student start by reading their points and then one-by-one having students connect to each other's points to create a physical web. This web creation could also be done by pinning the stars to a bulletin board and connecting common points. Language arts teachers have the added benefit of using any information gleaned from the stars to help direct students to books which they might find interesting.
3) Two truths and a lie: In this activity from Spencer Kagan, also called Find the Fib, students think of facts about themselves that their teacher and classmates wouldn't know. On an index card they record 2 facts and then make up something that could be true but is not. Students then share their 3 statements and the class has to guess which is the fib. This activity can also be great for language arts teachers to help students see the stories in their lives for writing. A variation for sharing is to have students turn in the cards and the teacher reads the statements. The class has to first decide to whom the statements belong and then which one is the fib.
4) Whip around: This is a quick activity in which one person (the teacher or a student) gives a prompt (such as: What is the furthest you've been from home?) and then each student in turn quickly gives their answer. It is another activity that can be useful for mining the stories in their lives.
5) Good new, bad news, any news: This activity can be a quick way to have a "morning meeting." Students are encouraged to share something in the way of news in their lives. Because middle school students love to talk and mostly about themselves, teachers who use this activity usually limit it to once a week. A variation is to ask students to respond in the form of a simile or metaphor. For example: My weekend was a whirlwind because we visited family in three cities in two days and my Aunt Lucy got married.
These are just five simple activities to get you started on getting to know your students. Having a full tool box for community building and then using it throughout the year will ensure your classrom community will become and remain one where students feel safe and accepted. Please feel free to share in the comments any tried and true activities you use in your own classroom. And stay tuned for Part 2 in Building Community: Giving Students a Voice.