Friday, April 1, 2016

Top 5 Tips For Creating Classroom Community

I've been teaching for 4 years, all of which have been third grade.    Although I have only been teaching for 4 years, I feel like I've been doing it forever.  I got my start teaching in a rural village in Alaska, have experience charter school teaching, and now an urban school district in Indiana. Despite all these experiences all having their own rewards and challenges, one thing I've learned to be true.



SOAPBOX MOMENT:
A classroom cannot and will not be successful if you don't invest the time into creating a classroom community.  It sets the precedence for just about everything that happens in that room.  Especially if you want to have your students work together.  Student collaboration begins with a strong classroom culture.  It begins on day 1, when the teacher begins the school year with the mindset that the classroom is a community of learners and not just a performer with a captive audience.  I start every year telling the kids that this year is one to not just make friends and learn, but it's one spent becoming family and getting smarter.  From day 1, the students need to feel supported and safe to be themselves before they can be expected to work with others.  


TOP 5 TIPS

#1: Classroom Layout/Set Up
Because I'm obsessed with  a big fan of Debbie Diller, you should check out her book Spaces and Places.
I may or may not have actually met her and had her sign my book when I was a junior in college!  #starstruck
The biggest thing you can take away from reading her book is you have to be intentional when you set up your classroom.  Ask yourself these questions... "Do you want to be the center of their attention?  Do you want them to be able to talk to one another and collaberate?"  Once you've figured out the answers to these questions, start setting up your room so it allows for what you want/expect.

I have two go to set ups when I'm preparing my classrooms.   Pods and the U.

Let's start with Pods first.
PROS:  It's one of my favorite set ups! Pods allow students to work with partners naturally.  You can easily just say, "Get with your shoulder partner!" or "Talk to your nose partner!"  When the lesson plan calls for students to work together in groups, they're already there.  It also creates a community because you can easily reward positive behavior for each of the groups using table points.  
CONS:  There is possibility for distractions.  If you're not careful with your seating plan and/or not strong with your classroom management then groups can get loud and off-task pretty easily as they are next to and across from one another.  Also you need to make sure you're not always teaching in the front of the classroom with this set up.  The back groups will feel left out of the action and might get off task.  
Helpful Hints: Set up the groups using academic background information to spread out High, Medium, Low students.  My school district gives the classroom teacher their students abilities within the first two weeks of school which helps me put these pods together. 

Then there's The U.
PROS:  This set up is used so much in the adult world to allow for collaberation! The U still allows for collaboration naturally.  If you double up the outside rows You can easily just say, "Get with your shoulder partner!" or "Talk to your nose partner!" The U also can be helpful when splitting the class into a half for whole group games or debates. Take notice in the picture it is really great if you do activities like "SCOOT" or "AROUND THE WORLD"because the movement is natural between the seats.  Last but not least, most of the time their attention will be at the front of the classroom because of the set up, so if you're a front of the room teacher this works well.  
CONS:  There is possibility for distractions.  If you're not careful with your seating plan and/or not strong with your classroom management then groups can get loud and off-task pretty easily as they are next to and across from one another.  If you're a roaming teacher it can be hard to get to students without going around the whole room.
Helpful Hints: Set up the classroom expectations that when you want undivided attention they have to scoot away from their desks.  Keep engagement high so that they're more excited in learning than talking to all their friends. 

#2: Controlled Noise
"You want me to WHAT???"
Lots of teachers really have difficulty with student collaboration because of the noise levels that accompany it.  But, the benefits of student collaboration WAY out weigh the drawback of noise in the room.  If you ask me if the students are talking about their learning then true learning is happeneing.  That being said, the noise must be constructive and controlled.   They can't be talking about their favorite tv show or what they want for lunch.  It's gotta be about the objective and lesson at hand. You're probably asking yourself, "HOW THE HECK DO YOU DO THAT?" and that's where modeling, practice, and feedback come in.  

Post sound levels around the room!
Visuals and expectations in the classroom are EVERYTHING.  The first 2 weeks of my school year should be spent teaching the students voice levels and what good collaboration looks like.  They need to be taught what group work sounds and looks like.  I LOVED the sign from Tricia Lyday.  Easy way to incorporate this in your classroom is to write on the board what kind of talk you want to hear.  Or if you have a similar poster take clothespin or magnet and move it when the voice level needs to change.  Another important part of student collaboration is that students need to be taught how to give constructive feedback and how to be good conversationalists.   Recently my class incorporated marshmallows and conversation.  I gave them a list of topics and they took turns using the marshmallows as talking chips.  Super engaging and fun.  They even self monitored when they interrupted by giving away one of their marshmallows.

#3:  Jobs/Expectations
If you were paying attention to #2, you might have noticed I talked a lot about modeling and feedback.  once students are competent you need to make it an expectation in the classroom.  Easy ways to do that is have jobs for each of your students to help with monitoring their collaboration.  In a group activity require a talking police, recorder, reporter, and leader.  In a partnership require the students to give out the feedback based on the work their partner produces. (Example:  If your partner got it right give them a high-five and tell them specifically what they did well.  If they got it wrong give them ways to improve.)  So much meta-cognition happens when students are helping one another.  And they're super engaged!

#4:  Put It in Your Lesson
Student collaboration doesn't happen unless you plan for it.  I'm serious!  Allow for these opportunities in your classroom by writing it in your lesson plans.  If you teach using the gradual release (I Do, We Do, You Do method) this will be an easy tranistion and can be put in your We Do part of the lesson.

Quick Tip:  After you've taught the concept allow students to work with a partner to practice the skill before they do it independently.  Or give the groups a task they need complete to practice the lesson's objective.  If you can get the kids motivated, you can get them to do anything.  When trying to get students in elementary to work with groups, you have to make sure the task is something the students can all get excited about because that may be the initial push they need to work with other peers.  In years past this was done by creating opportunities for competition or games.

Grouping Ideas:  In my classroom we have different ways of creating groups such as putting ketchup and mustard  partners together.  They will then receive a handout split into two sides. One person solves a problem on their side first while the other watches and gives feedback.  Then they switch.  During this time you're circulating, giving feedback, and receiving formative data about their skill levels.
Handout Modified from
http://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/3-Digit-Addition-Work-Mat-1172184
#5: Tech Engagement:
Put an iPad in front a kid you can pretty much guarantee they're going to love whatever you tell them to do.  But if you put an task that involves a partner and an iPad, you've got real engagement and fun stuff happening.  One of the big ways I make student collaboration happen is by having my students use QR codes on task cards.  I require that they solve the task/problem with their partner and check their work by scanning the code.  They then have to check their work and give each other feedback.  You can incorporate other activities like having them create a group presentation while recording one another.
Activity found:  http://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Subtraction-Across-Zeroes-28-Task-Cards-with-QR-Codes-for-Self-Checking-929257
WHEW!  That was a long list of ways I make student collaboration happen in my classroom.  What about you?  I LOVE hearing new ways to make learning engaging and collaborative.  Leave a comment below.

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