How can you create a powerful sense of community in your classroom? With the leisure of summer, we can ponder questions like this and plan ahead for next year.

With a strong foundation of togetherness and community, our students are more likely to want to come to school, take care of each other, take risks, and develop the social skills necessary for school and life. Of course, Morning Meeting and other similar structures are essential tools to help us develop a sense of community. But, when our classes feel as if they are in something together, facing a common obstacle, or sharing a common joy, community grows. Community arises from shared experiences, traditions, stories, and relationships, with people and creatures.

Last week, my dog Mudge—one of my “secret weapons” for building community in my classrooms—passed away at the age of 16½. Mudge brought all my students together. My very first class chose him out of a litter when he was a puppy and named him Mudge after the dog in Cynthia Rylant’s books, which we were reading at the time. My last class made cards for his birthday. All of my students heard stories about his many antics (like the time he ate a whole cake one of my student’s mothers had prepared for my colleague Gail while her husband had surgery), experienced his occasional visits to our classroom, and wrote him letters (to which he always responded!).

But even if you don’t have a 75-pound furry bundle of mischief whose adventures and mishaps are riveting to children, you can build community in your classroom by looking for and providing your class with other authentic shared experiences. Here are a few ideas:

  • Create special traditions or rituals. Feeling that their class gets to do something unique helps students form a bond. Some traditions my students enjoyed included “disco clean-up time” at the end of the day, occasionally having lunch in our classroom instead of the cafeteria, and doing the “parachute dance” at our school’s Grandparent’s Day.
  • Make learning fun and interesting. Learning something really interesting together can be a powerful community building experience. When a topic intrigues all students and they are learning about it together, they feel united in a sense of purposefulness. Try to take your curriculum and build that shared excitement and sense of adventure about some of your content topics.
  • Celebrate together. Read Byrd Baylor’s book I’m In Charge of Celebrations and then create a “book of celebration.” Add to the book frequently—when students lose teeth, when a math period goes well, when someone in the class passes a personal milestone. Celebrating together builds connectedness.
  • Do something memorable. On the first day of school, in connection with our ancient Egypt unit, I would often start the process of mummifying a chicken with my class. Your memorable event does not have to be so “out there”—the goal is just to build that group identity and bank of special memories.
  • Engage in a cause. One year my students took up tsunami relief in Indonesia as their mission. In lieu of birthday presents, children took donations, and our class tried to raise money in numerous other ways together. Feeling as if they were helping others made my students feel important and significant as a group.
  • Have a class pet! If you’re allowed to have them and can tolerate the living, breathing kind, pets can cement a classroom together quickly. Their adventures can provide fodder for classroom lore. Caring for them can be a powerful joint endeavor. Throw in a great, related read-aloud like The World According to Humphrey by Betty Birney, and you’ll be off and running. If, as was true for me at my school in California, you are not able to have live pets in the classroom, have a stuffed animal and make up some adventures for it, visit a website where you can follow an animal’s progress, or share stories of a pet you have at home.

Last week I heard from some of my former students as they heard of Mudge’s passing. They might not have remembered those fabulous math or reading lessons I taught, but each of them had a special Mudge memory to share. And, each, for a moment, remembered what it was like to be part of our special community during our year together.

What about you? How have you built community with your classes? And how are you planning on building community with your students next year?

Margaret Berry Wilson is the author of several books, including: The Language of Learning, Doing Science in Morning Meeting (co-authored with Lara Webb), Interactive Modeling, and Teasing, Tattling, Defiance & More.

Tags: Building Classroom Community