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How I build a Classroom Community on Day One (and you can, too!)

Updated: Jul 27, 2022

I dropped the boring syllabus and classroom policy review years ago. Let's admit it: kids block out half of the blah, blah, blah on day one. Your syllabus is best learned through doing. Sprinkle the important stuff throughout the first weeks. Introduce homework policies when kids do homework for the first time, and they'll better remember it anyway.

Instead of syllabus and policy review, I spend the first days of school engaging my students in building THEIR classroom community. I am a part of it, but it's not MINE. There's a big difference.

Here's how I do it and why it's important:

1. Start with an experiment.

I give my students this paragraph from a 1972 schema study by Bransford and Johnson:

The procedure is actually quite simple. First you arrange things into different groups. Of course one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities, that is the next step; otherwise you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo things. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many. In the short run this may not seem important, but complications can easily arise. A mistake can be expensive as well. At first the whole procedure will seem complicated. Soon, however, it will just become another facet of life. It is difficult to foresee any end to the necessity for this task in the immediate future, but then one can never tell. After the procedure is completed one arranges the materials into different groups again. Then they can be put into their appropriate places. Eventually they will be used once more, and the whole cycle will then have to be repeated. However, that is a part of life.

The first time my students read the paragraph, I give them zero information. I simply ask all of my students to read it once. Then, I hide the paragraph and ask students to tell me what they read. Very few students can do it and the ones who try don't do a very good job.

I then show my students the same paragraph a second time and tell them that the passage is about doing laundry. I give my kids 60 seconds to reread the paragraph once. Then, I hide it again and ask students to tell me what they just read. My students' hands fly in the air. Most students can tell me very specific details about sorting and making mistakes that can be costly. Why is it so easy to read and understand the passage the second time around?

The students have tapped into their laundry schema. They have prior knowledge and have connected to it.

This short experiment catches my kids' attention and gets them engaged off the bat. It also leads to amazing discussions about reading complex text. We all struggled the first time. We all grew better the second time. We can understand the complex text; we often need strategy, multiple attempts to read, and sometimes additional information. The key is that although reading can be a struggle, with the right tools, we can do hard things.

2. Get kids talking, moving, and working together.

After our little experiment, I give my kids five sentence starters to finish on sticky notes. My kids finish the following sentences:

  1. By the end of the school year, I will…

  2. I will learn and grow from this failure…

  3. I will strengthen my brain by…

  4. My strengths are… I will use my strengths to empower others by…

  5. A teacher who supports my learning will...

On day one, students are thinking about what they want to accomplish on day 180. They are thinking about their own strengths and how they can use them in our class. They are seeing that failure is the key to success. They are telling me how I can support their learning. After 18 years of teaching, one thing I know is consistent: kids learn in different ways and need me to support them in unique ways. Knowing how I can support them on day one is key.

After writing their answers, students place their sticky notes on posters with matching numbers. Then, we count off in five groups. Students are assigned to work with their group at one of the numbered posters. There, they synthesize their classmates answers, think about how they can support their classmates in their learning journey, and then present their findings to the class.

On the first day of school, I am doing very little talking. Students are doing the work of learning. Students are thinking about how they can support each other. Students are building the community of the classroom.

Listening to the conversations that take place around my classroom every year confirms for me that I will never review my syllabus on the first day of school again. Instead of me telling my students how they will behave and what my expectations are, my students are building meaningful expectations of their own behavior together--as a community of learners.

3. Let students make the classroom their own.

After my students' rich conversations, they end class by decorating classroom banner pieces that reflect on our conversations over the course of the first two days. The banner pieces hang in our classroom all year long reminding us where we started on day one and where we wanted to end on day 180.

The classroom is not mine alone; it is a shared community space, and I love giving my students the chance to make it their own as we start the school year.

Have an amazing start to the school year. Build community with your kids. Encourage and motivate them on day one by giving them a voice and showing them that their learning and growth will be the priority this school year.

I've developed my Building Community lessons through the years. You can find the materials to implement this exact lesson, including a step by step PowerPoint, posters, and classroom banner here.

I wish you the best school year with your students! Enjoy!

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