Building Community From the First Day

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Language acquisition occurs within the community that is created in our classrooms.  My first goal is to foster that community for my students.

What are the best ways to do this? This week I’ve been thinking about my classes from last year. Some of the classes had a stronger sense of community than others. I’ve been wondering why. How can I help create that sense of community for new classes this year? Here are some of the ways to inspire community in your classroom.

I truly believe that it has to start from the first day and that is has less to do with talking about community and more to do with being a community. I can model it and create a structure for it. And students will follow my lead. I wrote about the implicit contract that sets the expectations for the year, being a community needs to be a part of that contract.

The questions are now: what makes a strong community and what do I do to create it?

Students bond when they can play together and laugh together. So, providing opportunities for play will foster community. Playing games those first few days is important. The games need to be appropriate for their language level in order to stay in the target language, but that doesn’t mean Novice-Lows can’t play. There are plenty that can be done with very little to no language at all. Therefore, one of the first things I will do is create a list of games for that first week.

The circle structure is key in community building. It allows for all students to be seen. No one can hide behind a desk, textbook or computer. This can be scary because students can feel vulnerable. But, eventually it will be clear that each person is an important and equal part of that circle. We can all see everyone else, and we can hear and speak to everyone else. The circle structure is a powerful tool in creating a sense of community that wasn’t possible in desks and chairs. So, keeping my circle close is one of my highest priorities that first week. To do this, I will use techniques like elbow to elbow, foot to foot, escape/trap (a finger grabbing game), shuffle forward, jump forward etc. as we move in and out of the circle structure.

That leads me to the topic of touching. Yes, touching. Students will feel connected as a community when they are physically connected.  Of course, this will not work for everyone and therefore you need to read your students’ level of comfort. But, I do recommend including physical contact in your class, even if only gradually. One simple thing to start with is greeting students with a high-five, then have them high-five others.

Members of a community must also be known well by other members in that community. Think to the communities you have in your life. The strongest ones are the ones in which you can be yourself and you feel like people “get you”. Students need to feel known, heard, and valued. We get to talk about our students mostly because they are the source of my curriculum, they drive our conversations. We get to talk about them and what matters to them. It begins with me taking an interest in each and every student, and spreads through the circle as we make connections with one another and everyone begins to get to know everyone else.

Finally, I’ll mention that community is built when we do some tough stuff together. We are going to feel frustrated, make mistakes, and the learning is going to feel messy. I will model risk taking, dealing with frustration, making mistakes, and learning so that they will follow. For example, I step out of my comfort zone immediately, by being silly and a bit dramatic. I also try to acknowledge and laugh at my mistakes as they happen. The more we do these tough things together, the stronger our community will feel.

As I write this, I’m considering how to bring these ideas to life in two weeks. What thoughts have you had while reading? What else do you think is necessary for community building?

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