Thursday, July 10, 2014

Building Community in the Math Class

It's hard to believe that summer is already half way over.  That means 4 weeks until I return for inservice days, during which I will be both a participant and a leader.  This realization (along with an 8 hour drive from Southern CA to Northern CA) has got me thinking about those first days of school.  I always look forward to the community building and the get to know you activities during the first week of school.  Now that I avidly read blogs, I also look forward to learning some new ideas for the first days of school.  And I thought I would share one of my own.

I don't remember where I got this idea, but it has been a success over the years.  Each year I make some changes, with the goal being to learn as much as possible about my students.  The choice board linked above is from 2011 (more recent versions are on school server).  Initially I asked each student to turn in one or more assignments, but I found that I couldn't go through all of the submissions in a reasonable amount of time.  I also used to offer a choice for students to turn in a burned CD with favorite songs, but then I found myself with 30 CD's to listen to.  So now I ask for one or two assignments from each student, and I allow them to turn in products that have been created for other classes as well.

Below is a quick summary of choices that have been helpful, and those that I would change.

1 page letter:  This choice continues to be a great get-to-know-you option.  I learn so many valuable things about students through a letter.  A letter can tell me what a student values (family, religion, sports, activity), as well as how they feel about school and how they prefer to learn.  A letter is also a popular option amongst students that have special needs.

Sumopaint:  Free online paint software with some fun tools (try the symmetry tool).  This option lets me know who my artists are, and I end up with wall decor!

Biopoem. Powerpoint, Movie, and Collage:  Great options that let me learn about student interests and values.  Students have often done these assignments for other classes, and so they can turn in the same one without having the recreate the wheel, which is definitely appreciated.  These also look great on the walls.

List of 5 favorite songs:  As I mentioned before, don't ask for a burned CD because you will get 30 of them.  A list of favorite songs lets you know who your music fans are, and then you also get to learn who has the best taste in music (classic rock of course!).  As a person that has been out of high school for 10+ years, I also appreciate the update in mainsteam music.

Online bookmarks and smartphone apps:  I will definitely update this option.  In 2011 I was finishing up a 2 week tech training and I was curious to know how many of my students were already using online bookmarks like Diigo.  I didn't learn much from this option.  A top ten apps list also didn't help me learn about students as much as I would like (too general).  If I were to rewrite the choice board for this year I might include an option about favorite TV, movies, or games.  I would also include an option for students to tell me about their favorite community service or leadership activities.  I am always so impressed by student resumes when I write letters of recommendation, and I can't believe that I didn't know how involved in the community some students were prior to me writing the letter.

So why is this type of activity helpful in building classroom community? Mostly it is helpful because it sends a message to students that you care about their interests.  You learn more about them, and so the beginning and end of class interactions are more genuine and interesting.  The more students feel connected to the teacher and the class, the more likely they are to be engaged in learning activities. It also is a big help later on in the year when a student is struggling.  Pull out those assignments and learn more about that student.  Sit the student in the front of the class so you can spend a minute or so each day talking to the student. This can be a great first step in getting a student back on track.

What will you do during the first week of school to build community in your class?  Please share!

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