It is Back to School season and teachers are always looking for novel ways to engage students in fun community building activities that will help students create meaningful connections in class. I teamed up with some awesome educators to help you add some ideas to your tool belt!
Who are my classmates?
Yaddy from Yaddy’s Room loves to get students up and moving around the room, so she has students participate in “Who are my classmates?”
In this kinesthetic activity, students respond to 15 prompts on the board and move either to the left or right side depending on how they feel about a topic. Students then discuss their views, and nominate someone to explain their perspective to the class. For teachers, this provides an early look into group dynamics: who is following a buddy? Who is speaking more often? Is there someone naturally helping the group along?
This fun activity can also provide a great opportunity to bond as a class over silly topics, like if water is wet or what social media platforms students prefer. If you are interested in checking out this activity, you can look at it here.
Getting to know her students is Samantha from Samantha in Secondary’s prime goal when starting the school year- not syllabus review and certainly not a list of rules and expectations. Creating a safe and supportive classroom culture always starts with relationships. Finding a fun and creative way to get to know each other is key!
Enter: the Enneagram. If you aren’t familiar, the Enneagram is a personality framework that can help people understand others and themselves. Samantha wrote about this topic for Angela Watson’s website, Truth for Teachers, which you can read about in depth here.
Using the Enneagram in your own classroom can be a fun, creative way to get to know each other. (You can also easily sneak in some reading and writing as well!) Learn about the Enneagram together and take a few moments to create a slideshow of each person’s number and traits. Then, share out as a class and learn about each other together. It’s engaging, personal, and all about relationships.
You can find Samantha’s pre-made resource in her shop right here. That way, you’re ready to implement the Enneagram in your classroom today with no prep work for you
And if you need more quick wins for the first day of school, Samantha has a full blog post for you here.
Battle of the Fruit Stands
Sharena at The Humble Bird Teacher believes that building community is an important part of a successful school year. As a result, she has students get to know each other through games or activities such as Would You Rather, Two Truths and a Lie, and Four Corners. However, a class favorite is Battle of the Fruit Stands. This game requires students to fill out a questionnaire about themselves. Once time is up for the questions, they collect their answers on the sheet and hand it to the teacher.
Each group battles each other by trying to remember their classmates’ responses from the questionnaire as the teacher randomly selects questions from a stack. All questions have a fruit attached to them with a certain amount of points that range from 5-20. After all questions have been answered, the team with the most points at their fruit stand wins the battle. However, they must beware because they might receive a fruit fly card that could ruin everything! This game, among others, is a great way to build community in your classroom! You can find Battle of the Fruit Stands here.
PostSecret to Create Safe Spaces
Building community at the beginning of the school year is a sure way to help students take risks throughout the year. As English teachers, we need our classrooms to be safe spaces where we support each other as writers, listen to each other as collaborators, and challenge interpretations as readers.
Krista, from @whimsyandrigor, gets her students to develop that bond by sharing a secret with another classroom miles away.
Remember that blog and book PostSecret by Frank Warren? Where anonymous people would write down a deep, dark secret on a postcard and mail it to Warren whereby he would publish it on his blog and, later, his book?
Well, that’s what Krista has her middle school students do with classrooms all over the country.
The process begins with a discussion on secrets, loneliness, and empathy. The students then do a gallery walk to look at secrets from Warren’s work and find a few that resonate. Next, they brainstorm secrets they can share anonymously that might help someone feel less alone.
(NOTE: Krista knows who writes what so in the event someone shares a secret that is potentially dangerous, she can get the help they need.)
Finally, the class creates collage-style postcards with their message and Krista seals them in an envelope and sends them to another classroom full of adolescents who are yearning for connection.
The community of learners is not only bonded when they create and send their postcards but also when they receive anonymous postcards from kids far away. The realization that my students in Kansas share the same insecurities as a kid in California brings them together in an unexpected and delightful way.
You can get everything you need to create this bonding experience for your students here. And Krista is always willing to be a penpal if you need a middle school classroom to share secrets with!
A Continuing Story
Molly at The Littlest Teacher believes that sometimes we teachers tend to overcomplicate things in our classroom. That’s why simple activities for any time of year are her favorite.
A fun, easy, and low-prep activity that Molly’s students loved was building a continuing story on a bulletin board.
There are lots of ways to build a continuing story. Here’s one way:
- Cut strips of colored paper in half longways (or have students do it!), enough for each student to have one.
- Pick out a handful of vocab words to incorporate in the activity (or use your current vocab list).
- Optional: pick a topic for the continuing story.
- During class, hand out the strips of paper, and provide the students the vocab words, but not definitions.
- Students must look up the definitions of the vocab words and select 2 or more of the words to incorporate in their story portion.
- Instruct students to write 1-2 sentences to contribute to the continuing story. Model how to construct the sentences so that they can fit anywhere in the story. They should either end or begin in an open-ended way. Examples: …and the monkey was never seen again. But the next day, because of…
- If time allows, have students work together to build their class’s story by stapling their strips of paper with their story fragments into the order they choose on the bulletin board.
- Optional: ask some students who enjoy art to create some illustrations for the story to add to the bulletin board.
This activity will give you time to work on something while the students work independently, will help students to let loose, get to know each other, and build classroom community, and also will fill a bulletin board or two for you, to save you some work! For more easy ELA middle school bulletin boards, check out these print-and-go kits.
Marshmallow Team Building
It sounds silly: a half a bag of marshmallows, and handful of toothpicks. Challenge students to build something and watch them go! This simple challenge has become a first day tradition in Amanda’s classroom and the benefits are exponentially powerful.
In Amanda’s course The First 10 Days (The Ultimate Back to School Toolkit), she describes the power of choosing your activities for each of those early days with careful purpose and intention. The marshmallow team building challenge is no exception. With a team building challenge, teachers set the tone for the year that the classroom community is student first, not teacher first. It sends the message that the course is about problem solving and working together, not about a teacher at the front being the all-knowing power in the room.
Have you ever tried using puzzles as a community building activity? Yes puzzles! A few years ago Carolyn from Middle School Cafe did this activity at a staff meeting which turned out to be a great get to know you activity with her students! Lets you see who your leaders are and gets your students working collaboratively.
Here’s a quick look at how to do this with your class:
- Pick up a puzzle (100 piece puzzle works great for classes around 30) and put it together. Once the puzzle is put together, flip it over so you can’t see the picture. Divide the puzzle into sections – one section equals one table group. For instance, if I have 6 table groups, Carolyn will create six sections on the back of the puzzle.
- Write the same number on each piece of the puzzle for each section. Carolyn usually uses non consecutive numbers causing students to have to think a little harder. Instead of 1,2,3…she might use 101, 203, 400 as her numbers. You can also color the pieces different colors, but students usually figure it out sooner.
- Once you have the sections on the back labeled (or colored), take apart the puzzle, mix up the pieces and divide the pieces and place into 6 ziploc bags (or however many sections you have).
- On the day of the activity, hand out one ziploc back to each group. Tell the students, it is their job to put the puzzle together. Students will immediately try to put the pieces together in their bag and realize they don’t fit together. Students will then have to figure out that they need to work with other table groups to group the pieces together. Once students figure this part out, Carolyn will direct students to separate the pieces and then each group will put together their section – without her intervention, it is easy for some students to sit back and let others do the work.
- Once each group has put together their section, the entire puzzle goes together easily!
This is a great activity that gets students thinking and collaborating! Carolyn plans a full class period to do this, but finds some classes take longer than others. She suggests getting one puzzle per class.
What better way to start the school year than to start a routine you can carry on throughout the school year? Community Circles help to set the tone of your classroom culture and are a kind of proactive circle in the practice of restorative justice.
At the start of the year, focus on fun. However, instead of just focusing on students’ interests or favorites, ask questions with easy entry points and build from there. These become community-building questions because you may laugh together and have some inside jokes to come back to throughout the year.
Here is one way you can use a few rounds to start on the surface and go a little deeper.
Round one: Name a movie.
Round two: Talk about a movie you heard that you’d want to watch/re-watch and why.
Round three: What movie title did you hear that you might like to be a part of and why? How might the movie go differently if you were in it?
The Human Knot
Olivia from Distinguished English has always wanted a safe and positive place for her students to have tough discussions, but before she introduced discussion stems to her students, they had a hard time fighting fair! She finally learned how important it is to introduce discussion stems early in the year and to help her students learn how to use them in a fun, non-threatening way.
Enter: the human knot.
To play the human knot game, have your students stand in a circle and reach out to grab the hand of someone across from them. Once everyone has grabbed a hand, the goal is to untangle the knot by working together as a team. As students are untangling the knot, they should be using respectful discussion stems such as, “Can you help me understand what you’re thinking?” or “I see your point, but I’m wondering if we could try _____.” By using these stems now, your students will be better equipped to have safe and positive academic discussions throughout the school year.
Read more about Olivia’s back-to-school games here!
Jamboard Meme Wars
As we all know and I’m sure remember, the COVID year (the shut down one) was ROUGH. For teachers everywhere who had to teach virtually out of nowhere, the trials and tribulations seemed endless. However, there were a lot of digital gems that came out of that teaching year, too. Simply Ana P’s favorite one was Jamboard, and she continues to use it today.
Ana’s favorite thing about Jamboard is its versatility – it can be assigned to students for note taking, fun icebreakers, group work, quick normative assessments, and the list goes on.
Using Jamboard helps students practice tech skills AND respectful collaboration practices, since many times they are all accessing the same slide at the same time. This is why Ana especially loves to use it at the beginning of the year – it allows her to get to know her students, introduce them to the classroom norms, and share some laughs with them.
One back-to-school activity Ana suggests for middle or high school students is Meme Wars. Who doesn’t love a good meme? And while the picture itself counts towards the hilarity factor, the *caption* is what truly makes it or breaks it. In this activity, Ana preloads a different meme (or basically, just a funny picture) onto each Jamboard slide. Then, she instructs students to add the funniest (while appropriate – make sure to emphasize this lol) captions they can, using the sticky note feature.
To help with active participation and deter inappropriateness, Ana also instructs students to add their initials to the captions they add. Each student should submit at least one caption, being mindful of others’ work, and at the end, the class can vote on their favorites. Patience is still a virtue though because kids, as I’m sure you know, will try to push the buttons and boundaries. On this particular platform, Ana suggests mainly ignoring and/or deleting anything that gets added that you do not approve of – unfortunately Jamboard does not show you exactly who did what, but you can see the times when something was changed/added. And if all else fails, when in doubt, close it out!
An example of a completed activity is shown in the image above. You can also snag one of Simply Ana P’s preloaded ones to use this year HERE 🙂
Building a strong classroom community at the start of a new school year is so important in creating a positive, inclusive, and safe environment for your students to learn and grow in. Katie from Mochas and Markbooks likes to set the tone from day one by including many opportunities for group work and collaboration.
One of Katie’s favorite ways to encourage community and collaboration are graffiti stations. Instead of whole class or individual brainstorming, graffiti stations require movement throughout the classroom, which encourages more communication and creativity.
Simply place large pieces of paper or chart paper around the room with markers at each station and let the knowledge flow.
Here are some fun ways to incorporate graffiti stations in your ELA classroom:
- As a pre-reading activity, place questions about the text on various sheets of paper and ask students to rotate through the pages adding any ideas and information they can think of.
- For a whole class novel essay or project, place different topics on pieces of paper and ask students to rotate and add different pieces of textual evidence for each. These can be posted after as a pool of information to draw from for all students.
- When learning about a new genre of writing, place different mentor texts at each station and ask students to graffiti what they notice about different aspects at each station – style, structure, tone, etc.
- When analyzing a poem, ask students to rotate through graffiti stations where they will write down various ideas related to the text. Each station could be dedicated to finding examples of different poetic devices for example.
- While reading a text, instead of creating sketch notes, students can stop at various points to add a sketch or doodle to one of the graffiti stations set up. Students can build upon the imagery and words of their classmates, creating richer ties to the learning.
Graffiti stations are appealing to students because they aren’t required to write long passages, and there isn’t a huge focus on their writing conventions or legibility of their penmanship. Students can just jot their ideas down and remain anonymous if they wish. Plus, walking around the classroom and building one each other’s ideas will share the learning amongst everyone and help all students to feel like a part of the conversation.
Any chance to offer poetry is the name of the game for Lesa from SmithTeaches9to12. To start the year introducing it early and then using it often is key! So in the opening days she likes to include collaborative poetry activities. This works well to get students working together and also taking some low risks with their learning too. Collaborative poetry means having students use an assigned title to write lines of poetry. This could work as a great way to review figurative language devices too at the start of the year – double duty!
Here’s how it breaks down as an activity – it could even be a station on one the opening days of class. There’s a big paper with the topic back to school written at the top. Then the instructions. It could be any variation on the following: Write a line of poetry that introduces your name, another that describes your feelings about the new school year, a line about what you’re looking for in the course, or a fact about yourself.
Here’s a free activity for a back-to-school print and digital collaborative poetry activity.
Remember to have fun & give your students opportunities to enjoy themselves too!