Wednesday, August 2, 2023

Create Belonging

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

When did you last feel a strong sense of belonging? What helps you feel like you belong? Students say a lot about what helps them feel like they belong. Many of my former students say they feel a sense of belonging when folks: 

  • smile at them and say hello
  • know their names and say them correctly
  • ask them a question about themselves or my experiences
  • remember something about them and bring it up later 
  • work purposefully with them and others
  • laugh or joke with them 

Building relationships that establish this sense of belonging takes time. If there is one teaching move I have never regretted it is taking time in the first few weeks of school to build relationships and community with students and families. 

Students, all leaners, children or adults, are important. As important persons they have affective needs that must be met. In order for learners to invest in and take ownership of their learning, their need to belong must be met. 

A few favorite verbs come to mind when I think about starting a new school year with leaners: 

  • Listen
  • Ask
  • Learn
  • Respond 
  • Reflect
  • Collaborate 
  • Share

I begin the work of listening and learning learners' names with name tents at each color themed table. I organize students into color groups (red, orange, yellow etc.) and then eventually into larger "rainbow" groups. This routine begins with name tents and "shape your thinking" signs for the classroom.

The shape signs hang over each table group. They become a routine we can use to respond to different media or ideas throughout the year. The name tents are a visual reminder for everyone in the room:  students, teachers, substitutes, visitors. We make a habit of keeping them all year and using them when needed. You can see in these two from last year's initial "orange" table that students also wrote quick interests in the four corners: 

  • a favorite movie
  • a favorite song
  • their mother tongue
  • where they've lived
The name tents serve as quick, visible reminders I can listen to, learn from and and respond to. To extend them, have parents jot a note of encouragement on the inside if they come for back to school night.

I also listen by reading what students write on surveys or sentence completions. Several posts from the past show iterations of sentence completions I've used with high schoolers:

Building Community August 2022

Unsettled Meet Grace August 2017

Spot On 2015

I put sentence completions on desks for learners to see as they come in. Learners can start right when they arrive or wait until the session begins. It gives them something to do and many high school students have said it helps take away a bit of the awkward some of them feel coming into a new space with new people. 

As a teacher, I  learn about students and I can begin to assess what they know about sentence structures, books, writing and school. I collect the writing that first day after and that first afternoon/evening I respond to them by the next class. 

How can you turn class sets around so quickly?

  • read the responses quickly
  • aim for 2-3 minutes response writing (set a timer if you need one)
  • respond with quick agreements and praise
  • ask a question
  • offer a study suggestion or book recommendation

Could we do them digitally? Yes, and yet there is something fantastic about staying away from screens in our first few days together. Responding does take time. That time varies depending on my focus and, of course, how many students I have. After I respond, I scan the sets before I return them and I keep them in a class "notebook" in my GoodNotes5. That way I can revisit what students said and reconnect to their initial interests if I notice they need that. Sometimes on a progress tracker Google sheet or in my teaching journal I note students initial strengths and possible needs. I ask myself:

  • Who spontaneously uses capitalization and end punctuation?
  • Which students were able to navigate using the appositive phrase? 
  • Which love reading? Which students hate it? What topics are they interested in? 
  • What do they do after school?

I love learning about and connecting with a new group of leaners. Wishing all of my educator friends a wonderful first week of school!

Quick links to additional activities: 

Photo Slides and Story Sharing

Would You Rather Questions: Sit or Stand

Warm Welcome Questions  

Would You Rather 2: Pear Deck

Human Boggle  

Record Sixty Second Selfies (see Singapore American School's series for question ideas)

Use Action for Happiness' Monthly Calendar as conversation starters or inclusion activities

Check out Playworks or Playmeo for fantastic group games 

Coming soon, how do you use what you learn about  learners? 


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