With the return of in-person learning, this school year has presented me with plenty of challenges. One of the biggest has been building community. After being away for so long, helping students identify with and feel connected to the classroom again is important work.
As the first semester ends, I want to reflect on some of the ways I’ve welcomed students back and worked to rebuild a classroom community. Instructional routines have contributed, but most of my community-building has non-academic roots. Some of my approaches are playful and unplanned. Others are more intentional and thought out. Methodologies or origins aside, the end goal is to humanize the classroom and foster a sense of belonging and connectedness for everyone — myself included. They make teaching and learning sustainable during these erratic times.
First, there are my rocks, my essentials. These are the routines I’ve relied on year after year. I don’t see myself doing away with them anytime soon.
- Friday Letters. The top dawg. I’ve been receiving and writing letters to students for 8 years now. More than just checking in, we co-author stories, explore new languages, play games, and do just about everything else through our weekly letters.
- Token of appreciation. This is a warm-hearted routine that gets better as the school year passes. Staff at my school even have a token now. We pass it at every faculty meeting.
- Burn Five Minutes. A daily routine that I cherish. I never quite know where it’ll take us until we arrive there — and this is precisely why I love it. It’s our window to worlds both inner and outer.
- Co-generative Dialogues. Critical conversations with students that directly impact how our classroom functions. They position me as a learner from my students and are a highlight of my week, every week.
- Handshakes. A new favorite. So far this year I’ve created 30 distinct handshakes with 28 different students. We’re now performing them mostly contactless due to Covid, but the camaraderie that comes along with them never fades.
My other community builders are unique to this school year and even unique to a particular class period. There’s no way I could capture them all here, as so many small moments chip in and do their part — but here are a few standouts. They’re mostly the result of an unexpected or random moment that I picked up and followed into the unknown. Localized and reflections the relations I have with my students, they may not exist beyond this year (or even next month) because my classes will no doubt evolve and find new ways of bonding.
- Whisper World. Whisper world is a fictional place that my 7th period class travels to whenever there is noticeable silence in the room. In whisper world, whispers are the only way we are allowed to speak to one another. It’s silly and funny and was born one random day when I realized that it was so quiet in the class that I could whisper my direct instruction. I whispered for the rest of the class and we got a kick out of it. A couple weeks later it happened again. It was so unique and different that I formalized it with a name. Now, anytime it gets unusally quiet, I’ll whisper something and the class knows exactly where we’re headed. Whisper World!
- Fruit Names. Back on Friday, January 7, New York City was hit with a fast-moving snowstorm. In my ninth period that day, I had a staggering 4 kids in my class (normally there’s around 20). Feeling urge to spend class time differently, instead of doing math, I asked: Which fruit best represents you and why? I heard all sorts of interesting things that day, but the best part happened the next day when we decided that the fruit we chose would become our official “Fruit Name.” For the kids who weren’t present for the original talk, we spent a few minutes on Monday choosing their fruits. In our class, each person’s Fruit Name is interchangeable with their real name. We have a Coconut, Banana, Mango 1, Mango 2, Papaya, Apple, Pear, and plenty of others. A visiting colleague even played along and made his name Acorn. Ha!
- Post-it wall. Back in November, a student in my fifth period class wrote “Write how you feel” on a small whiteboard and passed it around the room during the lesson. It was unplanned, unsolicitated, and completely warmed my heart. I spoke to her after class and we decided to turn it into a daily routine. Every day (or almost every day) she writes a question on a Post-it note and passes it around the room while we’re working. The questions range simple (What is your favorite show?) to heavy (What is your biggest fear?) to optimistic (What’s somthing you’re good at?) and they’re different each day. After we all respond, she sticks it on a wall we dedicated to the Post-its. The collection is growing by the day — it’s wonderful.
- “Gotta Catch it.” (This one has no real name yet.) This is my latest antic and perhaps the most fun. It involves me saying someone’s name at random during class and then throwing a Kooshball at them (they have to catch it). It’s mainly just random people at random times, but I am strategic at times too. It’s kind of like when someone throws something at you and says, “Think fast!” I do it a few times per class, if I remember. It has turned into a fun challenge. Some classes have started a +/- system where we count how many catches/drops we have throughout the week.
- Math penpals. Covid has prevented this charming idea from becoming a routine, but it’s special because the community it fosters extends beyond our classroom. Our hand-written letters bound us to another math class that is halfway across the country. The excitement of writing and receiving our math-themed letters is unlike anything I’ve done as a teacher.