In second grade, we teach that a community is a group of people who live, work, and play together. Quite often, once this definition has been explored within the first few introductory lessons of my Communities Unit, one or more children exclaim, “Hey, then we are a community!”And how right they are!
Given those quaint parameters—“live, work, and play together”—how do teachers of our earliest learners build that community within their classrooms?
Let us be honest here. School is our children’s lives. When I think back to kindergarten, first, or second grade, I remember that school and home were my life, and I made no separation of the two in my mind. This is why when I think of our students as living in the classroom, I keep in mind the saying “Maslow before Bloom.” Building a community starts with caring for one another’s basic needs. As kids come into the classroom each morning, I take note of who looks happy or sad, who seems hungry, who doesn’t have a snack on their desk. I’m sure I’m not the only teacher who has a snack stash in the closet! It’s important to address each child’s basic needs right away so that they have the best possible start no matter the situation from which they are coming each day. Littlest Learners come to school with their whole worlds on their minds—and you are an essential part of making that world a happy, safe place to be.
We work the whole time! That is our classroom motto. The operative word in our motto is “we.” Building community means capitalizing on the children’s sense of “we” within the classroom. That is why “we” is a major part of our learning in several ways.
Classroom management involves a “we” mentality. When we discuss our rules or expectations in the beginning of the year, I am sure to include the students in discussions about how the expectations affect us as a class and the “why” behind whatever we choose to put on our classroom expectation chart. Whether you use rules, a vision, expectations, or something else, explaining the “we” behind every part of your chart—how it affects our class as a whole and each student individually—helps students to know it’s not just about the individual, but about the collective group.
Learning and assessment are prime opportunities to build community. At this age, children are brilliant! They have few boundaries and their thinking is wide open. Encourage children to ask questions during every lesson. Say, “What questions do you have?” instead of “Are there any questions?” be sure to include every voice in an anchor chart—by picking sticks out of a bag or some other way to keep track—to show students that their voices matter. Review student work (anonymously) as a class to analyze and determine strengths and needs. Post student work as a class on a bulletin board to show that effort is valued as part of the collective “we,” Work toward goals together that could also be rewards, such as a dance party for reading a certain number of minutes or everyone turning in their homework on time for the week. And finally, celebrate both individual accomplishments like becoming a “Facts Master” and class accomplishment like “2,000 Minutes Achieved” on your math website.
Children learn through play. They connect through play. They thrive through play! Don’t forget to play!
Play is a healthy part of children’s brain development. It is how they connect to each other, learn to engage with others socially, and most importantly, get the chance to laugh out loud. There are many, many ways to play in a classroom! You could play educational games or simply good old-fashioned classroom games. In these times of COVID-19, having no-contact games is essential, so here are a few:
“Hot Seat”: For this vocabulary game, a child sits in front of the class, you hold up a vocabulary word behind them, and the class gives them clues to the word until they guess it.
Charades: This is a great game for teaching verbs or emotions.
Simon Says: This classic game is great for teaching kids to tune in to directions.
Freeze Dance: Turn on the music and DANCE! Turn off the music and freeze.
Draw a Monster: You describe a monster, and the kids draw it. This is great for adjectives and following directions. When you are done, look to see how similar everyone’s drawings are!
Building a culture of community among our earliest learners means helping them to understand how they fit in as a piece of the puzzle that is your classroom. We give our littlest learners a community by providing safe space where their needs are met, by helping them use their voice to learn and lift other learning, and by connecting to their classmates through play and laughter.
Katie Ferguson is a wife, sister, aunt, and teacher. She spent most of her life growing up in Schenectady and proudly graduated from Mont Pleasant High School in 1992. Her college of choice was SUNY Oneonta, where she graduated Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education. Upon returning to Schenectady, Katie attended Sage Graduate School to achieve her Masters of Science in Education, became certified in Special Education, and began her career doing what she loves most- working with children.
Katie has had a passion for teaching since she joined Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Magnet School of Math, Science, Technology, and Invention as a first grade teacher in 1998. She was awarded the Red Apple Quality of Life Award in 1998 and 1999. In 2003-2004 Katie’s class participated in more than ten videoconferences with museums and institutes across the country such as the Buffalo Zoo and The Ocean Institute in California through Project VIEW. Her work with videoconferencing was highlighted in an excerpt in Teaching K-8, the Daily Gazette, and in a case study by the Evaluation Consortium at the University at Albany.
In 2007, Katie joined the Jessie T. Zoller Elementary School as a 2nd grade teacher. In May, 2010, Katie was awarded Teacher of the Year by the Schenectady City School District, which led to her being selected as the 2012 New York State Teacher of the Year. In February of 2013 she was named an NEA Pearson Global Learning Fellow and received the California Casualty Award for Excellence. Katie is a proud member of Delta Kappa Gamma and was recognized as the Delta Kappa Woman of Distinction in 2015.
Katie has also had the privilege of collaborating with teachers from around New York State. She was a member of the Commissioner’s Advisory Council from 2012 until 2017. She is currently a member of the New York State Teacher of the Year Council as well as the Professional Standards and Practices Board with New York State Education Department. Katie is National Board Certified as an Early Childhood Generalist.
In addition to teaching, Katie enjoys spending time at home with her husband, two cuddly cats, and five sugar gliders. In her spare time she loves to read, turn old chairs into hand-painted treasures, and volunteer with a local kitten foster organization.