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Building Community in your Science Classroom

One of the keys to good classroom management is to have a positive and powerful community among the students and teacher built from the start. It takes a village to make your class work effectively. Your village is your students. Building community is not tough. It requires and attention to important details and three key steps.

Step one is to develop rituals that build ownership in your class. Elementary teachers are masters at this. If you have trouble and are a secondary teacher, find an elementary teacher and have them help. I use lists and jobs. There is a bulletin board online and in my face to face room that has every student’s name and a mail pouch. The pouch is a simple envelope glued to a piece of poster board. I had to minimize space with 130 + kids in my face to face classes one year. I have a few students write names on all of the envelopes at the start of the year. I could as easily have each student write their name on an envelope and then attach it to the board. These mail pouches serve as a daily check place for graded papers, task cards and to do lists.

Step two is to develop ownership. This involves shared tasks. At the start of the year I make up 2 color coded task cards for each of the jobs that need to be done each day or week. This includes handing out lab materials, collecting papers, erasing the white board, writing in the class journal, and a host of others that come up. I have two of these cards and each Monday I put them in two of the mail pouches. These students then know what their job is for the week and by the end of the year they can recognize their job by the color of card that is in their pouch. Everyone chips in and does these jobs rotating throughout the year.

For students that need a bit of help getting organized I will write a “to do” list and place it in their mail pouch. I do not do this each week. I just do this when a student needs a bit of a push to get back on track. Sometimes lab partners will make up to do lists (I keep a pouch with lots of copies of blanks) for their labs and put them in the mail pouches to remind them what is coming due or where they left off.

These little rituals are helpful as they give the student ownership rights and help them take responsibility for their own learning. I know, you are probably thinking of that one or two students who will not respond to these rituals. I do it for the other 29 who will and deal with the reluctant learners separately. When they do respond and a habit develops it is magic.

Step three is to celebrate the journey. The class journal is an important part of the rituals. Here we record the work we did that day, any new words and definitions added to the word wall, and any funny or interesting things that happened. The kids who graduated over 15 years ago often ask for these journals for class reunions. The happy and the sad stories are priceless. Once, when a student had died in a tragic car accident the class wanted to devote an entire page in the journal to things this student had done to make school a better place. It can help with catharsis.

We also record the wisdom of the week. At the end of the week I ask the student who was given the task of recording in the journal for that week to select the one thing they learned that week in class that they want to remember as long as they can. It surprisingly is often a science tidbit and frequently something funny that happened in class. We do go through some of these at the end of the year to celebrate our journey.

The kids need to know what to do the minute they come into the door of the classroom. That is key. This routine gives the structure to the day and helps the teacher set the expectations. My kids who have low structure to their family lives crave structure. So, we follow the same routine each day. When they walk in the door I greet each student, they check their mail pouch and then take their seat. I check roll quickly and give them the key concept for the day (the big idea in science) and the work we are doing is on the whiteboard. If we move to the lab we do that then. If I am giving a mini lecture burst or holding a post lab discussion or some other large group event we move right to that. At the end of the class I always give a 2 minute warning (5 minutes if we have any lab clean up). Then, the last 1 minute of the class is “listen to information” time. I always have something to say about the lab, tomorrow’s due assignment. There is no talking the last minute…just listening (even if you are putting away lab materials you are to listen). I often give the last minute time to a student with an important announcement. They know that this is time to give any important information.

We still celebrate birthdays with simple computer cards, sign sympathy cards for losses and celebrate special achievements as a group. We find some unique ways to celebrate without interfering with the flow of the lessons. The key here is that content and learning is why we are here but without recognizing the unique contributions each one of us brings to the learning experience the learning is not as effective. 

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