Most teachers I talk to agree that we need to create strong communities in our classroom. Now a few teachers do claim that relationships in the classroom don’t matter much, and that we should focus on the content of the class. However, even they concede that creating community helps with classroom management and that creating a sense of belonging is not a bad thing. However, we also know that helping students get to know each other is a slippery thing. While some students love a good icebreaker where they share a fact about themselves, others are reticent. Being forced to share too much personal information may drive them away from the group in fact. I know a teacher who started classes with a hula-hoop activity. A lot of students loved the chance to play and be silly in class. Others felt that the activity was a sign the teacher wasn’t serious about academics. So how do you bring your students together and make them feel like a community? Having put out a book of icebreakers and getting to know you activities, I get a lot of feedback about conditions for an activity to break the ice in class and build rapport. And my big a-ha moment came when I realized I didn’t want to just break the ice. I didn’t want kids to just talk to each other. And I didn’t want to just have students feel kind of good about coming to my class because I’m a nice guy and the other students are pretty nice, or at least polite with each other. I wanted to create community.
So what’s the difference between a classroom where everyone follows the rules and the teacher is a good guy, and a classroom with a sense of community? It may sound like a cop-out to say that you know a community when you see it. However, it’s really my way of saying that there is no one definitive set of criteria. Here are some of the things I’ve seen in classrooms where the students feel there is a strong sense of community and rapport.
- students asking each other for help
- open and meaningful discussions between teachers and students
- students enforcing the rules themselves
- students listening and agreeing or disagreeing respectfully
- tasks done with a sense of interest, not resignation
- students trying, and sometimes failing, to use new language items
You can see that the signs of a community can also be illustrations of the benefits. In a strong community, you see students taking risks with language, which is a benefit to creating community.
Conditions for Creating Community
So what are the four conditions for creating community in your classroom?
- A clear and meaningful task
- Freedom to make decisions about how to accomplish that task
- The need to work together as a team
- The risk of failure
A clear and meaningful task
Students have to want to work on the task for the task to truly bring them together as a team. The task cannot be busy work. Make sure your students understand why you are having them do the activity. Is it to learn a new skill? Or practice a set of vocabulary? Or to become familiar with a particular tool or technique? Ensure that the goal is desirable to the students, that the activities align with the goal, and that they understand how the task meets that goal. For students to be able to work together on a task, the task also needs be clear. hey need to know exactly what the task is. All parameters, expectations, and objectives should be clearly spelled out. They can’t throw themselves into work if they feel that there’s some information they don’t have or they aren’t totally sure whether they are on task or not.
Freedom to make decisions
While the parameters of the task should be clear, there also needs to be room for students to think about how they will accomplish the task. If the students are doing routine tasks that require few decisions, or if there’s only one right way to do the task, there’s no need for the students to really work together. In a complex task with multiple paths to success, individual students will find a place where they shine, whether it be a talent for a particular aspect of the task or leadership and facilitation skills. They will rely on each other to complete the work and be forced to find ways to work together and get along. They will practice teamwork skills without realizing it because they are being forced to make decisions and support each other at every turn.
The need to work together as a team
This brings me to the next condition. For an activity to create community, it has to be one that students cannot do alone. If one or two students take over and dominate the process, there will be little chance of building a community. Instead, the task should be carefully designed so that every member of the group is needed. There are a number of ways to do this. You can design tasks that rely on students’ individual talents. You ensure each student has one part of the information required to complete the task. Jigsaw activities and information gaps are great ways to do that. Or make the task complex enough that they really need all hands on deck.
The risk of failure
Finally, there has to be a chance that the team will fail. If there’s no risk, there’s no sense of urgency to the task. Now, a risk of failure doesn’t necessarily mean that students will get a 0 if they don’t do a good job. Grades are one way to create a sense of risk, but so it a time-limit, or clear criteria for success. You can also design the task to create a sense of authentic failure. Role plays are a nice way to do this. In a role play, students have to convey information and often do a real-world task. If they cannot communicate effectively, they will fail. Why is failure important? Well, it’s a motivator because no one likes to fail. It also makes the task meaningful. Arguably, any task that students cannot fail to do is empty busy work. Finally, fear of failure creates a sense of urgency. Urgency is a kind of glue that keeps students working together.
What do you think? What conditions make for a good community building activity? How are you creating community in your classroom?
Hat tip to this great article that helped clarify a lot of my thoughts on this topic.