Building Community in Your Secondary Classes
The difference between finding a place to live and finding a home is the community around it. It’s so important to find others with the same lifestyle as you. Yet, as they get older, we teach students to drift from place to place without a second thought. They drift from class to class, school to work, friend to friend. Mostly because we know it will be common as adults. Drifting from work to home to bed; at the store from aisle to aisle, trying to get around everyone; moving from town to town to accommodate finances.
They get so used to being uprooted every hour or so that they detach themselves from the world around them. It makes it easier to deal with the constant change. No one, of any age, likes that. This only adds onto their self-esteem and social problems as they try to find somewhere they belong.
In elementary classes, building community is one of the main focuses. The teachers work to prepare kiddos to be functioning citizens in a community who depends on one another. Then, they enter middle school and we let them know that society doesn’t care. As long as you are providing your share, we don’t care what you do. Pretty ironic when the teachers tell them constantly that we care for them. That they need to be positive figures and work in the community. No wonder they don’t listen to us!
With so many standards and curriculum content to teach, where do we find the time to really come together with our classes? As secondary teachers, how can we build community when they move constantly and we have no time?
To me, relationships are the number one thing that will affect a student’s academic success. If they are having more negative relationships than positive, they will more likely fail than others. While we can’t control other people’s feelings, we can at least make the kids feel like we care. That in our rooms, they are someone and exist in this wider community. That they are welcome and they have a place that only they can inhabit. I focus on this every year and that’s the first thing they all mention was their favorite part of the class. They weren’t just students, they weren’t just # period…they were neighbors, family, friends. And, I was the elder–not president, not representative.
Here’s how I did it.
1. Talk to Everyone in the “Community” Daily
When you have 150 kids a day, it’s hard to remember their names, let alone talking to each of them. However, you don’t really have to speak to them extensively to make a difference. At least 50% of students are content with flying under the radar. This can be because they want to, or because they’ve been ignored. Even the student who doesn’t want to be noticed eventually responds to you when you talk to them daily. Try this:
- Ask them a question specifically.
- “James, what do you think? Give me your wisdom.”
- Ask them how they’re coming along on their work.
- Call them out on a bad behavior (humorously).
- “Peter, Jill, flirt on your own time. Get quiet and finish your work.”
- Give them a compliment.
- “Look at you matchin’ and stylin’!”
2. Have Phrases Unique to the “Community”
Just like clubs, if you have unique phrases that only other students who’ve had you know, the kids love it. They feel like they have esoteric knowledge they can share with an “elite class”. It can be as simple as:
- “Have a beautiful day” EVERY time they leave.
- Start ups.
- “Alright Ladies and Gentlemen”
- “Ready? Yah? Yah? Go.”
- Repetitive explanations and phrases.
- “What are we doing today?” “Stuff.”
- “Because: awesome.”
- “How to life 101, Kid.”
- “Don’t die, it’s not good for you.”
- “Do not question me!”
- Repetitive questions.
- “Is there a reason?”
- “On what planet is that okay?”
- “Do I want to know?”
3. Give the Respect You Expect from the “Community”
While you want to establish a hierarchy and let students know you are the superior, you want them to know they are still important. We all want respect as human beings and kids deserve it, too.
- Look at them directly when they speak.
- Acknowledge their presence.
- Use the same titles you expect.
- Mr.; Ms.; Sir; Ma’am
- Help them pick things up.
- Ask them to do the “adult things” they see you do.
Related Article — “Classroom Investments for Learning and Lovable Spaces”
4. Praise Them in Front of the “Community”
Some kids have anxiety when you acknowledge them aloud. However, if you do it in a non-isolating way, they learn to love and appreciate it. Don’t make them feel like they are different from others, but instead, different like others.
- “If you want to cheat, cheat off of people like Janice and Eduardo.”
- “I want to be like Matty and Tyler when I grow up!”
- “Kadin and Erica set the awesome standard for the rest of you. Blame them.”
5. Share Non-Teacher You with the “Community”
There are some boundaries that must be kept. However, depending on what you know of your kids, some boundaries can be blurred. To best know a student, you have to know them as a person. The same goes for you. You don’t have to divulge anything personal, but you can let them know you do have a life.
- Tell them your little kids’ accomplishments for them to celebrate when they did it.
- “My little one started kindergarten yesterday!”
- Tell them about your vacations.
- “Of all the places I chose to go without kids, I went to Disneyland. It was amazing.”
- Show them “appropriate pictures”.
- “Look at me! I was so cute when I was 6! What happened?!”
6. Have Inside Jokes with the “Community”
Just like the common phrases, the kids feel like they have this esoteric knowledge when you have inside jokes with them. You can have it with the whole class, a small group, or even one kiddo. Even if they seem embarrassed about it at first, they come to love it when they see you keep it as a secret with only them. As sketchy as it may seem, it’s actually pretty innocent. It just taps into childhood memories and habits.
- Call them out on something socially.
- “I know you guys want to get married, but get jobs first.”
- Adult themes from the class content.
- “Santa Claus is a prostitute. No, he’s the pimp!” (myths and legends unit) “You guys better not be ope’ing any laps. I don’t care how much Saint seducing gold is offered!” (Romeo and Juliet unit)
- “What happens in ___’s room stays in ___’s room.”
7. Have a “Community” Board
If you haven’t noticed, kids love posting stuff for others to see. You don’t say…? It’s true. That’s why, if you have a white or chalk board for them to write on in class, they immediately take advantage. And, they’re willing to provide the materials if they get to use it. As long as you set rules, I’ve rarely even had the privilege abused. And, it’s not a distraction.
- “Why we’re awesome” board.
- The kids can post why they or someone they know is awesome.
- Content board.
- Allow the kids to share their favorite sayings from the unit. “Atticisms” “Shakespearean Pick-Up lines”
- Art Show.
- Challenge board.
- Crossword, Sudoku, riddles, equations
Because I took the time to know my kids, they took the time to make me proud.
They would look to one another for help; felt comfortable working together; wanted to know one another; wanted to know me. They were positive, awake, engaged. It really does make all the difference.
Classroom community is not just for the elementary classroom. Don’t forget it in yours.
How do you try and build community beyond the first week activities? Did any of these work for you? Is it even necessary to build community in a secondary classroom?
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