Starting a Classroom Community

Several colleagues requested more information on my two-day community building exercises for my courses. The information below is for the first two days of any course I teach.

Information on variations is included in brackets. This design is for fifty-minute courses, so a course that meets less often needs tweaking to this schedule; however, all of these exercises are interchangeable. I do recommend that you make certain to hold the syllabus discussion for the second class day.

Day One

5 minutes: Provide course information to students (including my name, course number and title, section number, room number) and ask students to check their schedule to make certain they are in the correct class. While students are checking their schedule, I distribute one 3×5 index card to each student.

5 minutes: I ask the students to fill in the following information on the index card (each piece of information on a separate line):

  1. Legal name, first and last, on the left; the name they respond to on the right. (This makes referencing names  quicker while I am trying to learn their names)
  2. An email address they actually check
  3. A method of communication for last minute announcements. (For this one, I explain that I want a way to send an announcement about class, such as a change of location, 10 minutes before class and have them get the announcement in time. In most cases, my students give me a cell number and I create a group for a blast text.)
  4. Major and minor
  5. Last book they read, movie they watched, CD they listened to. (I like to give variety here so there is no shaming for not specific tastes. [This question can be changed to fit a theme for your course or other information you want to ask students to share. The same applies to #6.]
  6. One unique hobby or trait

20 minutes: I collect the index cards and gather the students together in a large group (when I can, we bring our chairs together to form a circle in the classroom). I spend the next 20 minutes doing nothing but getting to know the students, and I rely on the index cards. I use only the preferred name* and take about 2-3 minutes (depending on class size) to talk to each student, making certain to mention their major and minor, but trying more to engage them in conversation about their book/movie/CD preference and their hobbies. After I’ve discussed each of the students, I give them the same information for myself, including the last book/movie/CD and my own unique hobby.

*I use only the student’s preferred name at this point because I am trying to get to know the students, not complete administrative names. Thus, I need to know a student’s name is Jake, not Jake Adams. I find that this preferred name only format also helps to make the setting more informal, which becomes important for our circle discussions throughout the semester.

10 minutes: This time is devoted to me discussing my teaching philosophy and the general structure of the course. It is important that my students understand that the classroom will be a safe space for learning and inquiry more relaxed than some of their other courses, but it is also important for them to understand that I expect them to respect and collaborate with their peers throughout the semester. I stress the amount of time we will spend in the circle discussing the homework or concerns about an assignment, and I emphasize that they will spend as much time in small groups as we will in the circle. I also stress the importance of coming to class prepared with homework and workshop materials, and with this stress, I tell them they will read the syllabus for homework and write down any questions they want to ask. I explain that I will email it to the address they provided on the index card, so they need to check that email in time to prepare. (This also gets them into the habit of going to their email regularly for assignments.)

5-10 minutes: I task students, during these last 10 minutes of the class period, with meeting and exchanging contact information with two other classmates. While they mingle, I check the names on the index cards with the names on my roster and make certain that everybody who filled out a card is on the roster.

Day Two

10 minutes: I begin class by showing the students how many of their names and/or traits I recall from the previous class. Then, I challenge one of the students (I ask for volunteers) to see if s/he can recall more names than I did, and I allow two other students to each volunteer two names.

20-30 minutes: I ask the students to break into groups of 3-4 (depending on the number of students; my aim is to have at least 4 groups). Then I begin the syllabus discussion. This portion of class takes place in two parts:

  1. Group scavenger hunt– I ask students to find the answers to questions I pose about key parts of the syllabus. I base questions on the areas that I want to emphasize, including number of permitted absences, late work policy, my office hours, and how peer groups work. We discuss these answers when a group gets the correct answer and refers other groups to the appropriate page.
  2. Syllabus Q&A–I ask students to bring out their questions, and give the groups a few minutes to compile a master list for their group and then I answer each of the questions they have regarding the syllabus.

5 minutes: I wrap up by telling the students their homework for the day, reminding them to check their email (even if I am not emailing them), and then I  tell them they will want to choose peer groups in the next class, so come in and sit with the group they want to work with for the semester (though they are usually doing this already, it does give a few the option to move to another group the following class if they are just not clicking with their current group).

5-10 minutes: I task students with meeting and exchanging contact information with two more classmates. This way, they leave this class period with the contact information for four classmates who may or may not be in their peer groups. Some students end up, by the time they are exchanging contact information with their peer group, with up to 6 different classmates they can contact if they miss class.