Classroom Community: It’s never too late!

It’s been a little too easy to get frustrated about things I’m not seeing in my classroom this year that I’ve seen before. One of those things is the kind of collaboration happening in our class community. This frustration comes at no fault to my students but from my own being rusty at modeling and providing opportunities for meaningful teamwork.

However, on a recent student survey, I got some really great information: my students were craving COMPETITION amongst themselves.  I know that competition sounds counterintuitive to building community, but hear me out. By providing students with some low stakes friendly competition, they have more opportunities to talk, collaborate, and cheer each other on! Here’s what my mid-year “reset” of my classroom community looked like.

Team Points

First, I set up a quick chart on the whiteboard for team points. My students were already grouped in three sections of the room, I just started to call them teams and gave them team numbers. *I should’ve also had them work together to come up with some team names!*

I told them that they were going to work towards earning the most amount of points. At the end of each day, the team with the most points gets dismissed first, and at the end of two weeks, the team with most points gets to choose something from a previously established “Scholar Store.” It has stickers, mechanical pencils, Dollar Spot erasers (I miss those!) markers, pens, and sometimes snacks like Hi Chews, if I haven’t eaten all of them. It’s a modest little drawer store, but it is a can be a nice reward for students.

You don’t actually have to have your little store or prizes up and running when you start team points, but you do need an idea of what the reward will be when you start–they’ll ask! Airpods/headphones have become such a norm for my students to want to use, it can also be an extra privilege you can add for the team in the lead.

Mini Challenges

Student attempts to draw a flower while the whiteboard is on their head! Their team has to help them out!

Once I had my team point section of the board set up, we had one full day of fun for these mini challenges. These small tasks consisted of things such as:

* Spot the Difference

* Memory Games

* Partner Drawing

* Whiteboard drawing on top of your head

Yes, this sounds like a day of fun and games. It is meant to be! While students are having fun, they’re also practicing collaboration and team work skills–think beginning of the year type of work. These mini-challenges allowed us to go over what collaboration and teamwork looks like both before and after their mini challenges. By refocusing on the expected outcomes while performing a less cognitively demanding task than an academically rigorous task, there was more student buy in. 

The opportunity to play and participate in these mini challenges was a healthy and helpful reminder for both me and my students that they are capable of productively working together while also encouraging each other.

Make Connections to Content

After discussion about controversial topics, student attempts to draw a representation of the crisis in Ukraine.

This part was a little harder, but this is just as important! Try using the structures of some of the mini games and challenges from step two to weave in some concepts! This helps bridge the collaboration skills to the content. For example, when we were playing our mini-challenges, students had to help coach another student draw a picture while the whiteboard was on top of their head. To make it relevant to our focus on argumentative writing, I asked students to draw a controversial topic using this same strategy. I saw quite a range, from the crisis in Ukraine and how the U.S. should handle it, to whether pineapple belongs on pizza or not. The best part was, the conversations were authentic, and all showed that students understood controversies and later claims & counterclaims. For the memory game, I would put 12 random pictures on screen and tell them to work together to recall them in order, to tie it in to our content, I’d include what they would include their argumentative letter. This definitely took a little more creativity on my end, but making the connections between the collaboration and teamwork skills before helped students to be more willing to open up to more cognitively demanding tasks. 

From here, it is important to continue to re-visit norms and expectations, reinforce those team points for that competition, and engage students in deeper conversations. In some of my classes, this looked like asking them to actually share their ideas on different topics based on evidence from text. 

I know that playing these kinds of games with students is not a new concept, but maybe you’re like I was: suddenly wondering what happened to your classroom culture. I’ve been distracted by so many things this school year, I know things didn’t just one day change–it’s been a process, but I just didn’t notice it as soon as I would’ve like to. Whatever the case may be, if you needed a little sign to remind you that culture is always evolving, and that includes your classroom culture, here it is. =) Go have fun with your students!

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