Reprinted here with permission.
Every school has a mission. Sometimes that mission is fairly unique to the individual school. Often, though, that mission is shared by all Jewish day schools. For example, all of us talk about academic excellence in both Judaic and General Studies. In order to achieve this, an important step is an ordered and well planned curriculum. This allows us to make sure that our students are progressing at every level in school. Without this, we are leaving academic excellence to chance.
Similarly, we all have certain social-emotional goals. We wish for our students to grow in to fine Jewish adults who care for others. We wish for them to be active members of the wider community, and to truly embody, “Love your neighbor as yourself”. In order to achieve this, we must also have a well planned program. Without this, we are leaving our social-emotional goals to chance.
Here are ten ideas to build a caring community in your classroom. Many of them are based on the work of Alfie Kohn as well as the Developmental Studies Center (I heartily recommend both of their web sites, at www.alfiekohn.org and www.devstu.org respectively.).
1) In the Summer, send the students who will enter your class a letter introducing yourself. Tell them a bit about your life (It’s good for them to see you are human, too.) and what they will be doing in class. Tell them how excited you are to have them in your class.
2) At the beginning of the year, DO NOT post on your wall the rules you expect to be followed. Instead, have a class meeting in which you discuss the ways everyone in the class community wants their class to function. What do we need to do to succeed (academically and socially)? Then, have the students make a “Ways We Want Our Class to Be” poster with accompanying pictures of positive behaviors. These pictures become a class art gallery for students to enjoy.
3) Continue having class meetings during the year. This should not just be for problem solving. It should also be to vote on issues, discuss concerns, or plan special trips or events. Students learn to become active, participating members in a community when they get to be active and participate!
4) If your school has a “back to school night” or an “open house”, don’t be the star of the show. Have a class meeting to decide how the members of your class community should present the class to their parents. This is a wonderful chance to reinforce learning, presentation skills and feelings that this is truly OUR class.
5) At the beginning of the year, DO NOT decorate the entire classroom. If it’s “our classroom”, have the children help you to decorate it in a way that will make them feel some ownership. Of course, you should feel free to hang in advance things that you need in order to teach (e.g.- maps, letter charts, etc.). If having your students do most of your decorating is a bit ambitious, have them at least take charge of a bulletin board.
6) Why should the class be “3A” or “5B” all year? Have your students decide on an appropriate name for the class.
7) Instead of arranging your class in rows (a seating arrangement which isolates children and focus all attention on the teacher), try a large semi-circle or cooperative learning pods of four.
8) It is an oft noted irony that while in “real life” people who work well with others are likely to be successful, in school they tend to be called “cheaters”. Try to do as much cooperative learning as possible. Remember that no matter whether your student will do as an adult, their success will likely be dependent on how well they work with colleagues. Thus, this is just one example where fostering the social goal of community building also focuses academic and professional goals.
9) Never, never yell at or belittle students in any way. Remember that children are human beings deserving of respect? If you have a bad day (and we all have bad days) and don’t treat people the way you would wish, be sure to apologize. Children learn a lot about teshuvah (repentance) when they see adults apologize to those they have wronged.
10) Set up opportunities for your class to work with other classes. For example, “reading buddies” or inter-class Chesed projects with children who are at least three grade levels older or younger is a valuable opportunity for both community building and learning.
There is no guarantee that any program will increase academic excellence while improving behavior. However, it is clear that students who feel part of a school community are more likely to learn in school and less likely to interfere with the progress of others. It is also clear that the interpersonal skills and menchlekeit we expect from our students will not simply happen. We must help them develop by building community.