Creating Community All Day Long

For Middle Level

Because the community-building structures I have been using with my advisory students have been so successful, I have decided to bring advisory principles and practices to the rest of my classes. Although I know I can't take the time to run full length meetings in every class, I want to build close-knit, friendly, positive learning communities in all of my classes, all day long.

At first, doing anything "all day long" may sound like a lot of work, but I have been able to do it this year by thinking of advisory not as a separate entity, but as an integral part of the whole day. I have embarked on this journey believing that success depends upon:

  • building strong, positive relationships with and among students
  • involving students in planning and reflecting on their learning
  • establishing classroom routines that support community

In a community-centered classroom students are engaged learners and thoughtful participants in a social group. They feel accepted, respected, and valued. I believe all of these positive experiences enhance self-esteem and learning.

The details... Periods 2, 3, 4, and beyond
As soon as students arrive at the start of a class period, I give the signal for silence. Next, we greet each other in one of many ways. Sometimes we use the Circle Greeting, during which two students shake hands, greet each other using first names, and pass the greeting around the classroom; the "audience"-those not greeting at a given moment-watches. This is followed by the reading of a "class letter," a message which keeps students informed of important classroom information and asks relevant academic questions that often lead to brief class discussions such as, "What book have you enjoyed reading lately?" The class letter is written on chart paper and placed on an easel so it can be read as students enter the room. Markers are nearby, so students may record their responses on the chart paper. This process takes five to seven minutes.

Building positive relationships with teacher language
Of course, these "all day long" advisory principles and practices don't go very far if we teachers aren't doing all we can to forge positive relationships with each and every student. This is no easy task! I've learned to use language that is careful in tone (stays neutral) and is specific and descriptive, to help build a foundation for vital, healthy relationships.

Another relationship-builder: I try to express genuine interest in each of my students. I make a point of having quick conversations "at the margins," if you will, about family members, pets, soccer teams, hobbies, etc. I also express genuine interest in students by listening to them attentively when they speak - thus, I model the kind of listening behavior that I want students to practice. When they are finished speaking, I respond to them in a positive manner, sometimes share a related experience, or invite more dialogue. Middle school students are acutely aware of who listens to them and who doesn't, and many have a need to be the center of attention.

As I try to stay positive and upbeat and encourage them as much as possible, I've noticed that the students in my classes are more respectful, more functional, and more engaged.

Building community with routines
Being well organized and providing students with structures and routines that help them understand what's expected of them also contributes to the classroom community. In my language arts classroom, I have taken to posting a "skeleton" period plan for each day of the week on the wall. In addition to the class letter as they enter the room, I've taught my students to read this daily plan. Consequently, my students have started to make constructive suggestions regarding our daily plans, and I pay attention to student ideas for making our daily or weekly structure better.

For example, one student recently suggested we move our writers' workshop from Thursday to Wednesday. With this change, he reasoned, students could finish their writing on Wednesday night and devote Thursday night to studying for their weekly vocabulary quiz on Friday. I discussed the idea with all of my classes, then made the change. All of my students felt empowered and shared a strong sense of acknowledgment, affirmation, purpose, and community. I've found when students are involved in decision-making, positive outcomes occur, and positive outcomes greatly enhance classroom community.

Building community through reflection
Getting students into the habit of reflection-and carving out time at the end of each class period for them to do so-is another important aspect of the community-centered classroom. It is another avenue students can use to participate in classroom decisions. Each Friday, my students complete a weekly reflection sheet that asks them to indicate:

  • a "learning highlight" for the week, with a brief explanation
  • something to be improved, and a suggestion for how it might be improved
  • something they would like me to know

Their answers give me important insight into their perceptions. Reflections also send a message to students that their teacher is interested in and cares about their opinions.

Building community through social interaction
Assigning small-group and partner work on a regular basis and in different ways has also helped me to build community in all my classes. When students learn to work positively with all members of the classroom (not just friends), this sends a strong, important community message: we value and work with everyone. When students work cooperatively with each other to complete an academic task, they connect and share the experience and the accomplishment.

We end every class with an acknowledgment, such as the Alligator Clap (extending arms out straight and opening and closing them as if alligator jaws). On a volunteer basis, anyone who wishes to acknowledge or thank anyone else for an act of kindness, piece of insight shared, lighthearted moment, etc., may publicly thank that person, explain why he's thanking her, and lead the entire class in a simultaneous clap. Acknowledgment provides a tangible expression that we have enjoyed our time together. It is the final community-building activity of the period, and sends students on their way with a feeling of belonging and a sense of accomplishment. Students return to class the next day eager to participate in their classroom community.

Snapshots of academic and behavioral benefits
I had a number of students, some of whom had been struggling in other classes, show dramatic improvement in my classroom. Jake was one such student. He experienced a turbulent sixth grade year. He started 7th grade poorly, but quickly turned around in my community classroom. I looped with Jake's class, so I also have him in 8th grade. Through a community classroom connection, Jake established a positive relationship with his classmates and with me. He became an engaged learner, which was a new experience for him. His behavioral outbursts were greatly diminished. He commented that he "never did so much school work before." Jake has had no behavioral outbursts in my classroom this year, where he is now working on improving his grades.

Allen, another of my students, advocated for himself to be placed in my eighth grade community classroom. At the time that he entered the program, he had been permanently removed from three of his core classes. He was suspended continuously. After entering the community classroom, he became an engaged learner, passed all his subjects, and was infrequently disciplined by school administrators. He was never disciplined in my classroom because his behavior was outstanding.

Conclusions and further work to be done
My students are engaged, empowered participants in a supportive classroom community this year, thanks to the implementation of advisory principles and best practices all day long. I still need to work on engaging some of my most challenging students, and I'm planning for that next level of community-building in my classroom. I am excited about the positive social and academic results I observe in my students, and I look forward to their continued growth as our classroom community continues to flourish.

Cathy-Ann Chapman teaches eighth grade Language Arts at Greenfield Middle School in Greenfield MA.

This article first appeared in the Origins' publication Developmental Designs: A Middle School Newsletter, Winter 2009