4 Ways to Build Classroom Community and Connect with Students
Marine Freibrun is a mom, former elementary and middle school teacher, and blogger. She lives in Idaho with her husband and two sons.
As my school’s Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) site coach, I know the impact of creating a comfortable and safe classroom environment based on positive relationships with students. Connecting with your students in meaningful ways plays an essential role in their success in school and beyond.
As it happens, many educators—including Linda Martin, a 4th grade teacher and former technology integration specialist in New Jersey—were able to build strong personal connections with students during the past year despite physical distance and a screen between them! Though it defies logic, being apart actually drew Linda and her students closer than ever before. She developed new routines and activities to accommodate remote teaching that enabled her to get to know and understand each of her students. She gave them pathways to meaningfully connect with each other, too. Given the success of these new community-building routines, Linda plans to incorporate them into her classroom as students return to in-person learning.
Linda and I discussed four favorites to inspire fellow teachers, whether learning is remote, hybrid, or back in the classroom:
1. Morning Meetings
Linda’s morning meetings came together almost accidentally. School didn’t start until 8:30, but she always opened an optional virtual meeting room at 8:05. She’d play calming music, inviting students to eat their breakfast together and get ready for the day ahead. As word spread, more and more students joined in.
Starting the school day with music and social connection is a great way to help students ease back into their return to the classroom this fall. If your school allows it, you can provide (or ask students to bring) a healthy morning snack to enjoy during this time. If you want to add more structure, prompt a discussion with a fun, thought-provoking question that you can return to at the end of the day as students get ready to go home. Here are some examples:
- If you could have any superpower what would it be and why?
- If you could travel to the mountains or the beach, which would you choose and why?
- What are you most grateful for and why?
- Explain why people are lucky to know you.
2. 1:1 Sessions
Developing an authentic relationship with every student is a key ingredient to building a classroom community. Linda creates and sustains positive relationships by setting up regular 1:1 sessions with her students. She described how teaching in a virtual setting reminded her to slow down and take time to ensure her students were set up for success. While the rest of the class was in their weekly writing workshop period, she’d invite students, one at a time, to a virtual breakout room. She’d check on how things were going for them emotionally and socially, and informally assess the need for any academic support.
She plans to continue meeting with students individually while the rest of the class works independently. To prepare for individual meetings and make the most of their time together, Linda recommends inviting students to complete a social-emotional check-in sheet.
3. Lunch Bunch
“Lunch bunch” is always a hit! At lunch time, Linda’s students assembled in a virtual meeting room, where they ate together, chatted about their day, played games, and just enjoyed each other’s company.
Lunch bunch can easily transition to an in-person format. Even before remote learning, I hosted a weekly lunchtime book club in my own classroom. I’d purchase copies of an inexpensive book for each student who wanted to attend and they’d spend the time reading and discussing it. The book club themed lunch bunch became so popular that students from other teachers’ classrooms started joining us!
During the pandemic, Linda turned to podcasts to help build community and keep kids engaged in virtual learning. As a class, they would listen to a podcast called “Six Minutes,” a 205 episode story that has many twists and turns. Her students discussed what they thought would happen next, which sparked interesting conversations. They were so excited to listen to the next episode that these sessions eventually turned into marathons! Teachers can also address content standards by engaging students in academic conversations using key vocabulary from podcast episodes.
Virtual school was at times challenging for both teachers and students. However, the experience sparked fresh ideas and surprisingly powerful new avenues to connect in ways that can be seamlessly integrated wherever learning takes place.