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Beyond Box-Checking | Hooray for Monday

August 15, 2022

By Aleta Margolis, Founder and President, Center for Inspired Teaching

Hooray for Monday is a weekly blog filled with questions, ideas, reflections, and actions we can all take to remodel the school experience for students.

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the hooray for monday logo: a rising yellow sun over the words Hooray For Monday in yellow font, which are above the Inspired Teaching logo

An Inspired Teacher is a relationship builder, who establishes a genuine, positive relationship with every student. As teachers and school leaders, we know the importance of investing time upfront in building relationships with our students, and in encouraging them to build relationships with one another. Research shows that, for students of all ages, spending the first few weeks of school building a learning community pays off all year long – in terms of academic achievement and social and emotional wellbeing, for students and for teachers.

A list outline of Inspired Teacher traits, outlining the capabilities for teaching students respectful discourse

We know this. However, we have so much to get through in a school year, especially this school year, as we strive to make up for the missed in-person learning of the past few years. So it can be easy to find ourselves in box-checking mode, racing through a series of “community building” activities, without much thought or intention.

At this point, you may already have planned the what of community building – the name games, the brainstorming activities, the opportunities to decorate the classroom together, and more. Check!

This is important stuff. We should be planning the what of community building.

But we need to give the how equal time.

At Inspired Teaching, we believe a thoughtful teacher can use any activity to teach any skill. Your goal shapes the way you teach an activity, and it shapes the skills and content students learn.

The 2022-2023 cover of the Making School Worth It toolkit for parents and teachers

For instance…Profile Pages is a simple activity in which each student (and teacher!) in a class creates a sheet – on construction paper or in a virtual space – that includes a photo and some basic information about that person.

This simple activity can serve a wide range of goals, such as:

  • To teach students one another’s names (encourage students to memorize one fact about each classmate)

  • To create a sense of belonging in the classroom by enabling students to claim the space (invite each student to put their poster on the wall in a place where they want it to be seen)

  • To spark student interest in geography (include a question about where each student’s grandparents were born, or where each student would like to travel, etc.)

  • To create a class reading list (include a question about a favorite book/book you’ve wanted to read, but haven’t read yet; encourage students to ask one another about the books they listed)

  • To prime students for a study of history (include a question about a historical figure you’d love to meet; invite students to ask one another about why they chose this person)

  • To strengthen students’ comfort and skill in public speaking (invite students to talk about any of the items on their sheet – in pairs, in small groups, in front of the whole class)

  • And much more…

If we are intentional in engaging our students in community-building activities, the learning will be richer.

To get beyond box checking, engage with your students from a place of curiosity. Ask yourself what you want to accomplish in the first days and weeks of school. Challenge yourself to make your answer more specific than “building a positive classroom community.” Here are some questions to consider:

  • What do I want to learn about my students – as individuals, as a group?

  • What do I want my students to learn about me?

  • What can I learn about each person’s aspirations and contributions?

  • What is something each of my students finds fascinating?

  • What makes my kids laugh?

These simple and focused questions can help you engage fully alongside your students. They can help you to be fully present as you and your students build community.

As you plan the what of community building this fall (and see below for some great activities to try), remember to focus on the how as well. And even if you use some activities you’ve done many times before, remember, this is the first time you are engaging in this activity with this particular group of students. So be present. Listen authentically. Engage your curiosity, and invite students to engage theirs.

That’s a lovely way to start a year of learning together.

Relationship Building Activities

This document includes descriptions of several “getting to know you” activities we recently shared with teachers in the August Inspired Teaching Institute. With the exception of music for two of the activities, they require no materials but most would benefit from open space big enough for your students to gather in a circle.

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