For those first weeks of school in September, most teachers are doing a lot of classroom community building activities. I teach ESL to 5th, 6th , and 7th graders at the moment. In September, my walls are full of world maps where students mark their home countries, pages from all-about-me-books, and the results of lots of collaborative team-building activities. We all know that icebreakers and community builders create a friendly and safe learning environment. They help students bond and make friends, as well as alleviating that “new” feeling students get. And it’s also a great way for me to learn about my student’s interests and home lives. That way I can adapt the class to my students’ lives.
But what about after that first week or so? How many of us go back and give students a structured time in class to reconnect and reshare? It’s easy to get caught up in the rollercoaster rush that is teaching, but here are a few reasons why it’s worth taking time to revisit getting-to-know-you activities. And the beginning of the second term is a great time to do it. Even if your classes have started up again, it’s not too late to check in with students and reinforce that strong classroom community. Here’s a few reasons why I do mid-year community building (in fact I do it year round) and some of my favorite activities for it.
Changing life situations
Our students’ lives change. Even though winter break seems all too short, a lot can happen. Students get presents that can launch a new hobby, a new way of seeing themselves. They see cousins and uncles and aunts that they don’t normally see. They may go to new places and try new activities. At a time when students are starting to shape their own identities, even seemingly small changes can feel dramatic. And of course at any time, students may experience real dramatic events—they may move house or a parent may lose a job. When my dog passed away in sixth grade, I was pretty devastated and I appreciated the teacher publicly telling me how sorry she was.
Now, we know that students will share their new presents and adventures and insights with their favorite teacher and their friends. But it’s also nice to give them a chance to share with the class, to process how it changes their identity, and find out that others are going through similar changes.
An activity I like to do to check in is the 3-2-1 Introduction. Have students write 3 things that are new in their lives, 2 things that have stayed the same, and 1 thing they are looking forward to in the near future. Then, have them share their sentences with a partner. Finally, have each student share one thing about themselves and one thing about their partner with the class. Of course, it’s easy to adapt this activity by changing the categories of things students share.
Along with changing lives come changing interests. I remember a well-read student who was crazy about John Grisham for three months before discovering Stephen King. Well that led him to horror movies where he discovered John Carpenter. Since I like to tailor my lessons to my students’ interests, it’s nice to let them share those interests. You can use the 3-2-1 Introduction, I discussed above with students sharing 3 things they like to do, 2 things they don’t like, and 1 dream job.
Another great activity is a variation of Who Wrote That? Have students write two hobbies or interests on a piece of paper. Collect the papers, mix them up, and hand out two random slips to the students. The students’ job is to find the person who wrote each paper. To do this, they must ask questions such as, “Do you like reading?” or “Who’s your favorite author?” Then have each student report back to the class one thing they learned about a classmate.
School is a microcosm of society and often the volume is turned up to 11. The kid who bullied you in December is your lab partner in January. Your best friend went skiing for the holidays while you stayed home and now you don’t know how to deal with this feeling of jealousy. Without letting students spread gossip or snipe at each other, it’s nice to acknowledge that relationships and friendships do matter.
You want students to know that, regardless of social dynamics, they have to work together as a class. They don’t have to be best friends with everyone, but they do need to be helpful and respectful. Activities where students work together toward the same goal are great ways to practice putting aside social dynamics in class. Have your students do a group project like following a plan to build something out of Legos following a plan or solving a complicated mystery.
Changing needs and goals
Finally, especially as an ESL teacher, I like to do needs evaluations in the first week of class or so. It helps me shape my class to give my students the skills they need. Even outside ESL class, in a new semester students are taking new classes or the focus of the class changes. My 6th graders have life science all year, but in the second semester, the focus shifts to human life and biology. In other classes, students do more practical hands-on stuff in the second semester, having spent the first semester mostly studying. That means students are using new skill sets and knowledge bases. Students who excelled in October may struggle in February. It’s useful to check in and see how student needs have changed.
A great easy evaluation that can be done any time in the year is an Often, Sometimes, Rarely Evaluation. Have students draw 3 columns on a piece of paper. At the top, have them write Often, Sometimes, and Rarely. Now have them write various things they do in English (or ways they use math, or times they need calming techniques, or whatever it is that you are teaching) in the appropriate columns. You can even have them indicate the really important tasks with a big star.
Have them share their evaluations in a small group, looking for similarities or differences. They can then report to the class what their members need to do most in class. Obviously, make sure that you collect and keep these evaluations. Pay attention to the class needs and also how individual students’ needs change over time.
I hope this article has convinced you to keep doing community builders mid-year and year round. Our students, like all human beings, are works in progress. We need to work continuously to build and maintain strong, respectful learning communities in our classrooms.
Walton Burns is a teacher and award-winning materials writer from Connecticut who began his career teaching in the Peace Corps in the South Pacific. Since then, he has taught around the world. As a writer, he has been on the author team of two textbooks and written lesson plans and activities for private language schools. Check out his book of icebreakers and classroom community builders, 50 Activities for the First Day of School, and his Teachers Pay Teachers store.