The first days and weeks of school are so important as you and your students get to know each other. The first days of school are filled with mile-long to-do lists, paperwork, benchmarks, and more; but when you put all of that to the side and think about building a class community, you are truly setting the tone for the rest of the year. And when your students feel welcome in your classroom, they will feel ownership and connection to their learning.
Here are a few things you can do to build a class community at the beginning of the year…
1. Connect with your students before school begins
Connecting with your students will build a sense of classroom community before the year even begins.
Setting aside a little bit of time to send a short note, a postcard, or a quick phone call can leave a lasting impression. It lets students know that you are excited that they are in your class and about your summer. You can tell them a little about yourself and something that they can look forward to this school year.
Parents usually get all of the “official” paperwork in the mail from the school, but it is really fun for students to get some good old snail mail over the summer!
Seriously, they get SO excited if they have something that is addressed to JUST them. (When my oldest daughter got a letter from her teacher last year, the excitement was contagious!)
Writing on postcards can be time-consuming, so to save time print a quick note on 2×4 labels. First, easily type one short note, print it on a sheet of labels, stick the label on the postcards, sign them, and stick them in the mail!
You can also make your own postcards to send too. Use this free editable template and print on card stock. There is a full-page version included that you can use to mail too.
Before school even begins, your students will know a little about you and will be excited about the year ahead. Obviously, you're the coolest teacher ever that sent them mail!
I just love this classroom community-building idea!
I also saw a really great idea from my friend Alisha from Missing Tooth Grins. She records herself reading a book and then sends that to her students as a QR code that they can scan. Read this blog post to see how she creates the video and QR code. And this could also be something you could easily put on your postcard or letter home.
Students will be so excited to not only get mail from you before the first day of school but also SEE you and HEAR you read to them!
Check out a few books that I think would be perfect to read aloud for upper elementary students HERE.
2. Get to know student's names
You already know that students love to see their names in print…they love seeing their name in a math problem or in the read-aloud book. They let it be known that their name is found, that is for sure!
So when you are getting ready for the first day of school, student names should be something that you should consider.
“Research shows that students feel a stronger sense of community and belonging when they walk into the classroom on the first day of school and see their names in five different places.”
Five places around the room will help your students feel a sense of community! Isn't that amazing that something so simple can have such a big impact right from the beginning?
You can ask students their name, how to pronounce it, or a nickname they would like to be called can make a big impression on your students.
Some students may not go by their full name and may choose to be called something else. You want your kids to tell you what they'd like to be called. Make it clear, you don't want to call them by a nickname that only mom calls them…but what their friends and family call them every day!
So in the first few days of school, take some time to get to know your students a little better. “My Name is a Song” is a wonderful book to read about how names are so special and we should be proud of our names.
When you talk with students about what they like to be called, they may give you an alternative name; it can be as simple as changing “Jennifer” to “Jen.” (Which I would've loved when I was little, by the way, lol!)
This small thing will build trust so that when there IS actually a big thing, they know they may come to you.
3. Read aloud to build a class community
One of my favorite ways to build a class community where students feel safe, accepted, and welcomed is through reading aloud. There is so much magic in reading books with your students and the first days/weeks of school are a perfect time.
How does reading aloud help create a sense of community?
- Students are able to make deep and meaningful connections to the books that they read. They can connect to characters and situations. The beginning of the year is filled with so many emotions and connecting to characters in a book can help students deal with emotions.
- Picture books open up safe classroom discussions. When you are looking at situations through the eyes of the characters, it creates a safe place to discuss. “The Invisible Boy” is one of my favorite beginning-of-the-year read-aloud books because it is easy to relate to how Brian feels left out and the discussions about his feelings and how they are handled in the book are so relatable for students.
- Students are able to see themselves in a book. When you are sharing a variety of books that feature diverse characters, they are able to see characters that they can relate to and will feel welcomed into your classroom.
- You can increase interest in reading when you are sharing books, especially within the first days of school.
- Reading aloud allows students to feel part of the class and also allows them to practice sitting, listening, participating, and responding.
- Reading aloud allows students to reflect.
- Interactive read-aloud automatically enhances your classroom community through the conversations and prompts as you read the book.
You can check out some of my favorite books and activities that help to create a class community at the beginning of the year HERE.
And read more about why reading aloud is so important HERE.
4. Make personal connections with students
Making personal connections is so important in building a class community.
- You can have students complete an interest survey to get an idea of things they are interested in. Jot down a few notes on their survey or a class list. When it comes time to conference with that student, use that information to make a connection.
- Hold social meetings to let students talk and get to know each other. It helps to learn about them through their conversations.
- Don't be afraid to share your own stories, likes, dislikes, and worries.
- Have class meetings to get to know students.
- Set “office hours” where students can meet with you. Set a short amount of time where students are silently reading. If any students would like to meet with you, allow them that time.
- Provide students with positive feedback. Whether written in a notebook, a Google Doc, or 1:1…give students the recognition and feedback they're longing to hear.
5. Create a welcoming space
After a year of virtual meetings, hybrid learning, social distancing, and more; it is so important to create a welcome space for your students. Beginning-of-the-year practices will help to create a space where each of your students is ready and able to learn. A strong class community from the start will help you get through the tough year.
Best of luck to you this school year!