By Liz Bergren
I saw a tweet recently that stated that the most important thing to do in the beginning of the school year is to establish rules and routines. Soon after that, someone replied asking about establishing relationships and rapport with your students. Then another tweet stated that classroom management comes down to three things: relationships, expectations, and consistency. Later I noticed this tweet from Tracey Nance Pendley (@2020GaTOTY):
Magic in my classroom means close relationships, learning engagements that make us laugh and spark curiosity, and anything that puts students and THEIR experiences at the center of instruction – role play, shared novels, creativity, & LOTS of silliness! https://t.co/p1tMZy1z9I
— Tracey Nance Pendley (@2020GaTOTY) August 1, 2019
As I continued to scroll through Twitter, I noticed post after post stating that relationships are the key to a well-managed and socially and academically successful classroom. Edutopia (@edutopia) also posted a video exploring the power of relationships in schools:
The video looks at brain science that shows that learning environments with strong long-term relationships between children and school adults and other students are pivotal to the learning process and create positive school culture. In the video, Dr. Pamela Cantor, the founder and senior science advisor for Turnaround for Children, states that closeness, consistency, and trust release oxytocin in the brain, which has positive effects on development. A school that prioritizes relationship building allows the child to experience “attunement and trust” that is strong enough to release oxytocin.
One of my favorite Brené Brown quotes only further solidifies the importance of building relationships with your students. From her famous talk at TEDxHouston, “The Power of Vulnerability,” she states, “Connection is why we’re here. It’s what gives us purpose and meaning to our lives. What we know is that connection, the ability to feel connected, is neurobiologically how we’re wired.”
As the beginning of the school year quickly approaches, it is crucial that we establish classroom norms that can contribute to a healthy and appropriate classroom culture. This post offers ideas and suggestions for engaging your students in the establishment of those norms and for helping you build relationships, manage less, and teach more.
Change Up Your Attendance Routine
A typical first day, first-thing-to-do in a classroom is to take attendance. Instead of the standard method of calling out names with kids saying “Here,” kick things off on the first day of school by including a game or question as part of taking attendance. Ask questions such as, “If you could switch places with someone for a day, who would it be and why?” “What is your favorite movie and why? Your favorite book?” It takes time to get to know your class, but by using little prompts, you’ll learn how they communicate as well as what their interests are. Some would argue that this takes too much time out of the lesson or class period, but these strategies can be crucial to allowing students space to express their individuality as well as to demonstrate to students that their presence and interests matter to you as their teacher.
Use an Inner Circle/Outer Circle Question Activity
Commit to knowing your students right from the start. Be sure to learn about their families and cultures. A fun first-day activity that is also culturally responsive is to kick off with an inner circle/outer circle question activity. The students form two circles: the inner circle faces the outer circle. Prior to the activity, create a list of open-ended discussion questions that they can talk about for about 30 seconds. Before each discussion, require students to greet their partners with a greeting that feels comfortable to them. I’ve suggested fist bumps, handshakes, waving, high fives, etc. This allows space for students to get to know each other better and perform a personal greeting that is conducive to their comfort level and culture.
Let Your Students Decide What Makes a Welcoming Classroom
It is important that students feel involved in their classroom learning communities. Establish classroom norms, rules, and guidelines that students are consistently held accountable to. Divide students into groups and provide each group with poster paper and markers. Have the groups discuss the top five important classroom behaviors that they feel are most conducive to a welcoming classroom environment. Place the posters around the room and use them as classroom behavior guides.
Give Students Space to Celebrate Their Individuality
Another important component to a culturally and linguistically responsive classroom is to provide students with opportunities to share their family traditions and cultures. Have them create “All About Me” projects or posters to celebrate their individuality. Be mindful of your own cultural behavior patterns regarding classroom management and discipline. Remember to practice vulnerability and authenticity in front of your students—you are human too!
Use Learning Stations and Games
Deliver your content using learning stations and games. These strategies help students develop social skills, learn to work together with various people, and make room for all types of learning differences. Include stations that involve creating a piece of art, solving a puzzle, reading an article together, or building something. Use media to create games for test review. Or ask students to create their own learning games and have the class play them together.
Combining different pedagogical approaches keeps things fresh and interesting. Teaching is an art and a complex practice, but when your foundation is the development of relationships, healthy social boundaries and expectations, and equitable disciplinary practices, you won’t feel the need to “manage” your classroom. You can do what you love—teach!
Liz Bergren is a former teacher with 15 years of classroom experience. In addition to being a teacher, she spent five years working for Park Nicollet’s Melrose Institute where she counseled and taught classes to patients who struggled with eating disorders. She has a B.A. in health and secondary education from the University of St. Thomas and an M.Ed. in family education from the University of Minnesota.
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