During back to school time, there is always so much to do, but so little time to do it, and often some of the most important pieces of the back to school puzzle fall by the wayside, like taking time to build community.
Back to school time is like a puzzle. There are a bunch of pieces that need to be completed to get a full picture of how the rest of the year will look.
First you have the easy outside pieces of the puzzle. These are easy to place and often happen with little effort. The outside pieces of the puzzle are things like learning the names of your students, assessing skills, and going over classroom procedures.
Although it is great to get these parts in place, they inspire little excitement. The real excitement comes when you nail down the inner part of the puzzle. These pieces are a little more difficult to situate and figure out, but when you get one in place, enthusiasm builds, and it is hard to stop until the puzzle is complete and you can see the whole thing.
In this so called back to school puzzle, the outer pieces of the puzzle are the pieces dictated by the school, but the inner pieces are all the activities and projects the teacher chooses to do at the beginning of the year to inspire creativity and build community in their classroom.
One of my favorite parts of going back to school was getting the opportunity to start over. To make sure all of my students felt comfortable in their new space and were adequately prepared to take on the new year together.
And I truly mean together. In my classroom, we are a team, and I like to build back to school activities around the idea of becoming a team, or building community.
There are lots of ways to build community in the classroom, and this list includes some of my favorites.
#1| Create a Class Flag
Get a pillow case and some fabric markers or puffy paint and create a flag to hang outside your classroom, a symbol of the team that is being built there.
Start this project with some brainstorming. Ask students what is important to them or what they want to accomplish this year. Look at some examples of state flags or country flags to see how they were made. If they can wrap their minds around the idea of symbolism, let your students play around with what different colors mean. Collect their thoughts in a central location, and then ask them to draw some sample designs individually or in pairs. Once students have drawn their sample flags, go on a gallery walk as a class, and look at what everyone has created. Ask students to explain their choices and focus on giving positive feedback about their ideas and drawings. At the end of the gallery walk, ask students to create a list of the parts of other flags they loved, and then ask for volunteers to create the final drawing of the flag. This is an opportunity for the creative students to step up. Note: If they finalize the design on a piece of paper, take a picture and put it on your computer. Then project it onto the pillowcase. Students will be able to use the projection to outline their drawing.
Once students have created the flag, hang it up outside your room for all the world to see.
You can also use the flag you loaded onto your computer to add to student worksheets or assignments as a symbol of community throughout the year.
#2| Create a Class Handshake
Take some time to create a handshake as a class. This is something students can use with each other in greeting or they can do with you when they enter the room. The handshake can be simple or complicated, but take the time to practice it with every student in the class, and find time for students to do it daily.
Watch this YouTube video for inspiration. If you are intimidated by the thought of remembering a different handshake for each student, no worries! One class handshake is perfect for building community.
#3| Creating Playlists
The typical class day is created on routine, and creating a playlist of songs for different parts of the day can be a special way to help organize and energize your students.
Create a playlist of songs to play for routines like “time for math” or “get ready for lunch” or songs to play during indoor recess or during center time.
Make an extra effort to make sure students are represented. If you have students from a variety of cultures or who speak other languages, ask them for song ideas that are special to them and include those on the list.
#4| Start a Class Dance
At the beginning of the year a fun way to build community and get students acting silly is taking the time to pick a class song and start a class dance.
Create the dance one move at a time, and every couple of days or each week add a couple of moves. Practice the dance daily for a little exercise and class camaraderie.
One fun thing to do with the class dance would be to plan a flash mob during lunch before a break. The flash mob doesn’t have to be complicated, just plan a time to turn on your class song at recess or at lunch and ask the students to start dancing when they hear it. You can make it a much bigger deal or just let it be a surprise. Either way, the students will enjoy the novelty.
#5| Build Community through Theme Days
Theme days or dress-up days are a lot of fun. These days are an opportunity for students to show their creativity and be a little silly.
Take time at the beginning of the year to set some theme days as a group and put them on the calendar. If you want to take the theme days further, create little trophies for awards such as the “Most Realistic Costume” or the “Most Creative Interpretation,” or “Best Use of Found Objects” and then hand them out on the days following the themed dress-up days.
To promote equity, collect costume pieces throughout the year that students can pick through as they plan for dress up days. Make sure that every students has the opportunity to participate. Ask parents to donate items to the class ‘closet’ for students to use as they plan their looks.
Don’t be afraid to take the time to build community in those early days of the year. I know that sometimes these pieces of the puzzle are harder to plan and execute, but creative activities like the ones on this list will make the year special for your students. These five activities are designed to get to know your students, make them comfortable being silly in front of you and each other, and they are also a way to integrate culture and home lives into the classroom environment.
As you continue your preparations for back to school, don’t forget to encourage growth, build community, and inspire learning through your bulletin board designs as well. Check out this post I did all about my Growth Mindset Bulletin Board!