5 words to build classroom community

15 September 2016 / 1 comment

It is amazing how the words we use and the actions we take in the first moments of the first day can carry a lasting impression on our students both for better and for worse.  We can adapt the language we use in the classroom to convey a growth mindset  and we can change how we praise to be more effective.  Positive talk can be powerful and directly impact students' performance and behavior.

In that same vein, I have a quick tip for using an empowering community building phrase that will encourage independence, friendship, and kindness in the classroom.  Oh, and it is only 5 words...so you will have no problem implementing it in your classroom right now.

5 simple words to build classroom community:

"Can you help with that?"

Here is a common scenario in the classroom:  You have many students with all different needs - Carlos has a question, Ava can't find her notebook, and Claire needs help finding a book.  And this is usually in the first five minutes of the day!  Sure a strong routine and an organized classroom can cut-down on some of this. However, your students will legitimately need help a billion times each day and our job as teachers is to solve problems or guide students as they solve their own.

I suggest you pass the buck, so to speak.  Instead of addressing all needs on your own, turn to another student and say, "Can you help with that?"  It does not matter if that student is an expert in that topic, but by pulling this student into the solution, you are doing three essential things:

1. Empowering students

Both the newly appointed student helper and their helpee are now working together to solve the problem. This increases problem solving skills, communication, and independence.

2. Building community 

Students see themselves as teachers and helpers in the classroom.  Students feel comfortable both asking and giving help in a room that is set up to support that.

I can say we are a team until I'm blue in the face, but by encouraging students to actively help each other, I am making them into teammates.

3. Making students feel valued  

If every student is a go-to helper, students will feel respected and valued in your classroom.  When you ask a student to help, you are showing the student that you trust him or her.

How to use the 5 simple words to build classroom community

A few things to think about before using this simple 5 word phrase.  First of all, you are going to be tempted to always have the same few students help.  These students have probably been teacher's unofficial sidekicks their entire school career and have been really good at it.

Therefore, try to pick any student - let him or her rise to the occasion.  Sometimes this will result in the problem not being solved.  That is ok.  The most important part is that they tried and that they worked together.

Also, you can have students help even for tasks that help was not requested.  For example, maybe you notice a student's book bin is disorganized or he or she is having trouble zipping a backpack.  Appoint a quick helper!

You might need to be ok with some whispers during independent work time or students moving about occasionally.  Helping doesn't occur in a silent vacuum!

How can 5 simple words build classroom community?

The best part of these 5 words is after awhile, you won't need to say them as much.  In fact, if you encourage students to help each other from day 1, they will begin to do it unprompted!

I love when I ask students to turn to a page in their workbook and I see right away a bunch of them turning and helping their neighbor find the right page.  When it is time for math, I see a bunch of students hop up and get bins for each other.  And sometimes you will have student experts emerge organically. One of my students become the go-to organizer.  Other students would go to her directly for help or tips!

So start encouraging students to help each other by assigning a helper on the spot.  Turn "I can help you" into "Can you help with that?" and watch your classroom community grow!

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