Introduction to Community-Building Activities in the Classroom

High school and college students usually attend classes lasting between forty and ninety minutes. They may take four to eight classes, each with a different teacher or instructor, and often there are different students in each class. Students may not know each other's names. These factors can prevent a sense of community from developing. If students are dehumanized by an educational system which treats them like numbers or a product, they will in turn dehumanize themselves and others. Increases in violence, theft, vandalism, cheating, peer cruelty, gangs, harassment, and prejudice, may be contributed to by a lack of positive community. When students know each other's names and see each other as human beings, they can start showing: empathy, kindness, caring, helpfulness, cooperation, compassion, loyalty, tolerance, respect and patience. A positive classroom community can help meet their need for love and a sense of belonging. A positive classroom community gives students an opportunity to experience the pleasure and excitement of interacting with peers over academic material. The safer they feel, the more they are willing to take risks, speak up about what is important to them, and even confront each other in a positive way.

Lev Vygotsky and Jean Piaget both linked learning to the social environment. The best learning takes place in a positive social environment. It is time to take the principles of Circle Time and Morning Meeting as means of building community and a positive social environment into high school and college classes. Froebel saw the circle as a symbol of unity and designed Circle Time. "Responsive Classroom" (Northeast Foundation, Greenfield MA) brought these circle times into elementary schools and called them Morning Meeting. Morning meeting, as described by Responsive Classroom, has distinct components. During the Greeting each student is spoken to by name in a welcoming and friendly way. During Sharing students tell about events or experiences in their lives, building a bridge between the classroom and the rest of their world. It may include information about campus or school events as well as community or world news. This is followed by a Group Activity where everyone participates in an interactive way, to foster a sense of unity and togetherness. The final segment is News and Announcements, sometimes called Housekeeping Details. In the Responsive Classroom these announcements are written on a chart called the Class Message. This message is posted near the entrance. Students are expected to read it upon arrival.

Our Goals

1. Students know each other.

2. Students respect, affirm and care about each other.

3. Students feel membership in and responsibility to the group.

Before Class
1. A motto is written on the board or printed in large letters on a piece of paper and posted. This is a famous saying intended to inspire or initiate reflective thought.
2. A class outline stating the topics of the day is written on the chalkboard. This keeps everyone focused. A daily schedule is posted on a wall chart. The schedule lists parts of the class routine: joke, reading or story, news, greeting or community-building activity, small group, topic of the day, reflection, closing.
3. A message is written on chart paper, a chalkboard or wipe off board, and posted near the entrance. The message includes homework or assignments due that day.
4. Background music is playing softly (instrumental only). Students may bring Compact Discs or cassettes to share with the class.
5. Students pick up their folders which have corrected assignments and notes from the teacher in them, then go to their chosen seats.

Beginning of Class
Class Begins (Exactly on time: we need every minute!)

1. Two or three jokes from a joke book or internet (1 minute)
2. Reflective reading such as a poem or short story (1-3 minutes)
3. News/announcements: Student news. Assignments (3-5 minutes)
4. Greeting or Community-building Activity (3-5 minutes)
5. Small group collaborative activity based on curriculum (8-10 minutes)
6. Topic of the day: Usually a traditional lecture by the instructor using an advanced organizer or outline (15-50 minutes)
7. Reflective writing (3-5 minutes)
8. Closing (1 minute)


The purpose of jokes is to begin with humor. Students learn better when they have had a good laugh. It relaxes them from the stresses of school life. William Glasser says that having fun is a fundamental human need, that if teachers do not provide for humor, students will take it where they can get it, sometimes at the teacher's expense. Typically the class clown is good at joke telling, and by getting positive attention at the beginning of the class, can move on to more productive behavior. Some ages and cultures like jokes better than others. Jokes may come from a joke book, the humor section of a bookstore or electronic mail.
Reflective Reading

Have a file of poems and short, profound, well-written readings. These readings, whether prose or poetry, are usually related to the topic of the day. During a reflective reading, students are asked to sit in a meditative manner without moving. This is difficult for Americans. It takes a kind of discipline which we are not used to, and have to work at.
Short Story

The story-form is a fundamental structure within the brain, and a powerful teaching tool. Many students learn best from stories. Too often we get caught up in teaching concepts and principles, leaving out the rich value of the story approach to education. We educators should see ourselves as the storytellers of our culture, passing along the lore of our tribe to the next generation. This story may be a fable, anecdote, children's picture book, a vignette, or a short story from a book such as Chicken soup for the soul, Book of virtues, Call to character, Moral compass or Stories from the heart. Choose stories related to subject matter whenever possible.
News and Announcements

Students are often involved in sports, plays, and other special activities. This is the time for them to invite their fellow classmates to these events. Support school and college events! Sometimes students write details on the chalkboard or hand out notices. They are invited to share other parts of their lives with each other.

Share community and world events as well, so that the connection between the classroom and rest of the world is made.

Homework can be reviewed. Assignments are explained and questions answered regarding class expectations for particular projects. Long range projects need to be addressed frequently: "Let's go around the room and each person report on your project what you have done and problems you are having."


Each student is welcomed by name. It is amazing how students change their affect after the greeting. There is usually a little embarrassment the first time, but as it becomes a habit, they are able to participate with poise and true warmth. The greeting needs to be structured. Some teachers are able to stand at the door and greet students as they enter. My students come at different times and I have only a few minutes to set up, so standing at the door does not work for me. One or two students could sign up to be greeters. However, you can include the greeting as part of classroom routine. For example, say, "Please turn to the person beside you, find out that personís name, shake hands and say, Hi, (name), I'm glad you are here." (demonstrate this) That person responds, "Thank you, (name)." Sometimes we wave, but students need to be comfortable with good touches, one of the "languages of love." Why focus on inappropriate touches such as fights and sexual abuse, and ignore healthy needs for appropriate touching? Adolescents and young adults need appropriate, asexual physical contact and affection from teachers, parents and peers.

Community-building Activities

These are activities where students can interact with each other in fun and educational ways. Whenever possible, activities are related to the topic of the day. As students get to know each other, they build friendships. Friendships can lead to meaningful exchange among students and positive peer influence to make good choices and live a healthy lifestyle. "Bad companions corrupt good morals" and good companions strengthen good morals. Everyone needs a friend. Community-building activities can also strengthen perspective-taking and empathy among students. As they interact, they begin to see things from another person's point of view. This helps them understand each other and feel each other's feelings. Schools are ideal places for bringing students with different backgrounds together in a positive way. Public schools should be microcosms of society. Where else but in school will they interact and build friendships with people of such diversity? They enjoy getting to know each other and interacting over scholarly material. One student wrote that it spills over into social life. I hope they will continue their discussions in the cafeteria and at the dinner table.

Small Group Collaborative Activity

This activity is structured so that students are working together independent of the instructor. They monitor each other, share responsibilities and assume leadership roles. Sometimes they discuss their reading or homework. Usually guiding questions or directions are written on the board.


Students tend to sit next to someone they know. This provides security for them on the first day. It can lead to cliques and socializing. If students seem to be off task, write on the chalkboard, "Sit next to someone you have not sat beside before." Or, "Form a small group with people you have not worked with before."


One of our responsibilities as teachers and instructors is to impart knowledge to our students and teach them specific skills. I am a firm believer in the good old-fashioned lecture method, complete with outline, illustrations or examples from their lives and ours. Students are seeking new information and will not be satisfied with activities alone. They come to class wanting to learn and wanting us to teach. Part of teaching is delivering course content in an organized, interesting and clear way, cueing students to important concepts, highlighting or calling attention to information which helps them process new ideas. Direct teaching through lecture or demonstration may take anywhere between five and fifty minutes. However, we know attention spans usually last for around ten minutes, so a lecture longer than that is broken into ten minute segments with student participation in between. Through participation, students process the information received in the lecture. Lecture must be paired with active learning. Community-building and collaborative activities are often interspersed through the lecture rather than all at the beginning.

For the last three to five minutes of class time each student writes a few sentences on an index card and dates it. Students summarize what they learned, make suggestions and comments, ask questions, share personal information they do not want to talk about in class, vent frustrations, give constructive criticism, or write their opinions. Ask them to write what they liked and did not like about the class. These reflections are helpful in planning the next class. They let the teacher know what each student is thinking, and they provide material for helping improve the next presentation by tailoring it to their needs. Students stack the cards on a corner of the teacher's desk as they leave the classroom. The teacher responds in writing on each card and returns it at the next class. These cards help document attendance and class participation. On the rare occasions when we run out of time and skip this, I feel deprived. The more years I have used this technique, the more I depend on it.


Plan to end class with a formal closing such as a spoken blessing, something recited in unison, a song or special handshake. It may be that the joke and news will be reserved for the end of class.


When classes meet twice a week for seventy-five minutes, these elements can be included at each class. However, they could be divided:

Tuesday Thursday
joke reflective reading
story greeting
community-building small group activity
news and announcements reflective writing

Classes that meet every day for short periods of time may include only one or two items each day.

    Monday: greeting, motto;

    Tuesday: joke, news;

    Wednesday: reflective reading, news and announcements;

    Thursday: story, small group activity; Friday: community-building activity, reflection on week.

NOTE: After a couple of months, students can take over each of the tasks. A sign-up sheet is passed around. On it is a list of jobs, including that of moderator, time keeper and substitute. The moderator leads the class, calling on other students for their contributions and thanking them afterwards. The substitute fills in for students who are absent. The time keeper makes sure class starts and ends on time.


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