By Tricia Halonen, Behavior Coach/Dean of Students at Rowe Middle School

Whether this is your first or last year, I challenge you to think about how you are going to build a positive and empowered community before you even look at a standard or open any teaching materials.

If you are like me, the first weeks of school are all about getting to know your new students. I do the typical icebreakers, the get to know you activities, the how was your summer talks and even some goal-setting. But over the last decade, I began taking another approach to building classroom community by mapping it out. I created a scope and sequence for what my goals were for our community and outlined, very intentionally, how we were going to get there.

Building Classroom Community

We know that a caring, strong, and positive classroom supports cooperative learning and benefits our students by:

  • Increasing active engagement
  • Engaging different learning styles
  • Allowing natural differentiation to occur
  • Ensuring access for all students
  • Having systems of accountability in place and accessible

I decided to really focus on creating an environment in which my students experienced class-building activities, team-building activities, cooperative learning activities, and group work activities, all the while keeping in mind where my students were at in groups and as a class. In the midst of the activities I was constantly watching and tracking the stage of group development and adapting activities to support growth.

My ultimate goal as a classroom teacher is to be able to get out of my students’ way and let them drive. But, I need a process, structures, and protocols in place to guide them that direction.

Team-Building Activities vs. Class-Building Activities

The first step in my process of building classroom community in a cooperative learning environment is to create situations in class during which students are having fun and engaging in an activity that is non-academic and easy for everyone to access. Team-building (small groups) and class-building (entire class) help build an environment where students feel safe and are a part of the classroom community.

This is Maslow’s first level of need, and in a classroom with students coming from many different experiences and varied levels of trauma, safety is my number one priority. I can see that my students are starting to feel safe when they are willing to take small risks, voice their different opinions, share their experiences, and laugh. Then, I start moving the class into group work and, most importantly, cooperative learning.

Not only are we bringing in real world context to our classrooms, but our students are taking real world issues and problems and working to solve them and developing solutions applicable to the world or community around themThis is the future of learning. 

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Cooperative Learning vs. Group Work

Cooperative learning and group work have two different goals and achieve two different results. With group work, the goal is to complete the task. Individuals are not held accountable for their work. As a teacher, this is a task you want completed quickly and does not need the team to work together to accomplish the goal.

Instead, with cooperative learning activities, the goal is for each individual to be accountable to their learning and for the learning of the group. Cooperative learning can be challenging for group members. When students need to rely on each other for completion of a task the learning and/or success is directly dependent on how the team works together. This makes the activity higher stakes so teams need to identify roles, responsibilities, and protocols as structures to be successful.

Protocols gave me the ability to structure cooperative activities so that all students were held accountable for their work in the group and all students have both a voice and a choice.

Follow-Up Reflections

This is a journey that for some classes takes months to master, while for others it may only take a few short weeks. As you think about the your classroom and where you want to go with your students, and if creating a caring and supportive classroom community is at the top of your list, I encourage you to reflect on the following questions:

  • How do you build community in your class?
  • How could this also apply to your professional learning teams?
  • What do you want to remember as you begin?
  • Did this blog challenge your thinking or give you a new idea?
  • What do you want to learn more about?

Next, learn how to design authentic learning experiences that connect the classroom to the real-world.Contributing Author:

Tricia Halonen has worked in many sectors of education from private schools, public schools, and charter schools. She has worn the hats of a middle school science teacher, an instructional coach, a STEM coordinator, a Dean of Students, and an Assistant Principal. Through these varied experiences she has been able to craft her philosophy around education and support student growth.

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