An engaging, strong learning community helps ignite a spark for lifelong learning. Watching the movies “Spare Parts” and “October Sky” are inspirational for many teachers because they highlight the amazing growth and intellectual curiosity possible with an engaged, positive learning community.
Members of a strong learning community who feel safe and valued are likely to have enough confidence to participate, collaborate, explore new ideas, and persevere with challenging work. However, even in the best of times, uniting individuals into a team of learners means integrating bonding activities throughout your lessons. These activities foster a sense of belonging to the classroom learning community.
Of course, creating a supportive and enthusiastic class culture during the instability from Covid-19 requires more planning than usual. Quarantines negatively affect attendance and interrupt the flow. Stress impacts interpersonal interactions and behavior. Divisions from broader society may trickle down into classroom interactions.
Additionally, some students are adjusting to the traditional classroom after working from home. Many teachers echo the sentiments of this middle school teacher who remarked, “my seventh graders this year act more like sixth graders of previous years.”
- Help Students Integrate and Adjust
Students who learned at home last year missed many shared bonding experiences. Try these ideas to include returning students into an existing learning community.
Help classmates get to know each other with introductory activities. Students will feel more comfortable engaging in academic conversations knowing each other’s names and feeling a connection. “Two Lies and a Truth” invites everyone to tell fun stories and facts about themselves. “Four Corners” is another great activity to help students find commonalities.
Adapt fun end-of-the-year activities to the beginning of the year by changing the focus from a learning review to a preview of learning. These lively, memorable learning activities give students events to talk about outside the classroom.
A friend makes a new environment much less stressful. Pair new students with a friendly peer to help navigate the school cafeteria and other social situations.
Learn about students’ educational backgrounds to make sure everyone knows how different systems work. For example, students who did not have virtual instruction last year may not be as familiar with EdTech tools that are second nature to other students. You can assign tech mentors to students who want them.
- Prepare for Virtual Community Building
Switching between face-to-face instruction to remote requires many adjustments with different norms, hours, and responsibilities. Anything you can do to build unity and consistency between the two modalities will make the transitions less stressful. You might want to supplement your in-person community-building activities with ones that also work virtually to prepare for the possibility of remote or hybrid instruction.
Incorporating simple traditions creates a sense of belonging and unites everyone in the goal of learning. For example, start the session with a quick warm-up activity that engages everyone. Some group warm-up activities that work in both modalities are online quiz games, polls, and brainteasers. Likewise, close with an interactive chant, song, or phrase. You can choose something as simple as saying, “Now, go learn something fun!” and students replying, “Off we go!”
- Maintain Relationships with Absent Students and Welcome them Back
Including quarantining students in classroom activities whenever possible reminds everyone that absent students are valued community members. EdTech tools such as video-conferencing and digital whiteboards allow all learners to participate from any location with an internet connection. Reading aloud is a favorite activity for sharing virtually, and even high school students gain value from it.
Acknowledge students who have been absent for more than a few days and celebrate their return. Having everyone sign a card or banner only takes 5 minutes, yet it goes a long way towards strengthening bonds. Such gestures reassure students that people remember them and care about their well-being.
Missing a lot of information is stressful. Ask face-to-face students to write changes and events in a “while you were out” binder. The binder could include details such as schedule changes, new rules, and essential vocabulary. Recording this information serves a dual purpose. It empowers in-person community members to help quarantined students in a meaningful way and reduces returning students’ anxiety about missing details.
- Teach Communication Skills
Effective communication is a pillar to participating in any community. That is why reading, writing, listening, and speaking are standards included in every subject. Group work provides many valuable opportunities to teach communication skills. Collaborating and cooperating help students connect on a deeper level.
Part of effective communication includes knowing how to disagree respectfully and value various perspectives. Show students that those different opinions need not disrupt relationships and class harmony. Show them the power of listening and responding calmly. They might try, “I see where you are coming from, and yet I still disagree because …”
- Support Mental and Emotional Health
The emotional temperature of a class permeates every aspect of the learning community. Academic and social pressures make school stressful for many students. Provide a few minutes for students to journal, do a wellness check-in, or use mindfulness apps.
Students experiencing intense emotions will need avenues to express themselves appropriately. The early warning system in edInsight from the Harris Education Solutions’ ecosystem helps alert potential trouble spots for individual learners. Please refer students in crisis to an administrator or mental health professional.
We are Stronger Together
At Harris Education Solutions, we commend educators’ remarkable resilience for building learning communities throughout disruptions from the pandemic. Some of these ideas will help develop a learning community in different situations too. Other events that require extra effort to promote a positive learning culture include:
- welcoming a large influx of international newcomers
- rebuilding after a severe weather event or other trauma
- adapting to a changing financial landscape
Whatever your situation, we are here to partner with you every step of the way.