-Peter Johnson, Middle School Language Arts and Social Studies Teacher
At PNA, we focus heavily on building a healthy academic community at the beginning of every year, but why do we take the time to do this?
Why is building community crucial to a healthy classroom culture?
A healthy classroom community creates a solid foundation for academic performance, character development, and soft skill development (communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking).
How do we build community within the PNA middle school?
Maintaining a positive and healthy classroom community requires diligence on the part of the teacher throughout the year. The investment of time in community building activities, particularly at the beginning of the year, provides significant benefits for students. The work we do at the beginning of the year sets the stage for what will come.
We started the year with “getting to know you” activities, including icebreakers, a personal interview activity, and other activities that mix the kids up. The intention is to not just familiarize students with each other, but to bond them together as a cohesive community.
Show and tell may have a connotation with younger children, but sharing a part of yourself with others in a community we belong to is healthy for all of us. For our first show and tell opportunity in language arts class, students are sharing one experience that they had this summer, and they are encouraged to bring photos and/or an object related to that experience. After this first round of show and tell, students will be encouraged to share any personal experience or special item that is important to them. This not only provides an additional opportunity for kids to practice public speaking, but it allows students to get to know each other in a rich and meaningful way.
We have set aside the last couple of hours on Friday afternoons for special activities. We are calling this activity time Fun Friday, and it may include everything from team building activities, to outdoor activities, to field trips, to guest speakers. At the beginning of the year, we plan to focus on team building activities and group initiatives; however, we plan to continue doing these types of activities periodically throughout the year to maintain a healthy culture. These are designed to promote collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking, and community cohesion.
How do students gain a sense of ownership in the classroom community?
We provide students with opportunities to become invested in the classroom community. This can include giving students voice and choice in academic projects, involving them in rule formation, and giving them a slice of power in the management of the middle school space.
Students collaboratively sorted the middle school library into categories of their own choosing.
Classroom student jobs are a powerful way to help students feel a sense of ownership of the whole middle school space. A week ago in language arts, middle school students applied for student jobs based on their interests, personality, and previous chore experience. Through their application, they had to convince me that they are the best candidate for the job. Although we haven’t officially started classroom jobs, a few students have already taken their jobs to heart and are performing some of their job’s responsibilities without ever being asked to do so. That is what ownership looks like!
How does building community affect student academic performance?
Students in a positive classroom community exhibit a greater willingness to take academic risks. This translates into more creativity and innovation, as well as less inhibited critical thinking and problem solving. Students in a healthy classroom community are less apt to make poor behavior choices. This is for several reasons, but a reduction in behavior issues may be attributable to a change in focus from primarily acting out of concern for oneself to primarily acting out of concern for others in the classroom community. How great would it be to have a classroom where kids take healthy risks, and where children know they have champions, not just in their teachers, but in their fellow classmates. That is our goal!