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Building Community

By Wendy Hopf

One hundred energetic sixth graders greet me each day, and I need to be ready. As an English Language Arts teacher the actions I take in September and October are critical for setting the tone for a successful school year. In a nutshell, my practices reflect my beliefs:

”We are a community of learners who respect each other’s space, time, and learning and accept each other’s ideas. We trust that Ms. Hopf will guide us, but we are expected to work hard throughout the class period. We support each other, have fun while learning, and gain the rewards of learning for its own sake.”

To create the habits and attitudes I am striving for there are four practices I follow.

1. Create opportunities to build personal relationships with students.

I get to know my students as quickly as I can by learning their names, greeting them at the door, striking up private conversations, and revealing stories about myself, my family, and of course my golden retriever, Bowie. In the first week of school I assign “What’s in a name?” for homework. The answers to these questions reveal how students were named and any cultural significance their name may have. To my surprise one year I learned one of my students was named by the Dalai Lama. Now there’s a conversation starter.

2. Introduce the writing workshop model.

It is beneficial to establish the writing workshop/writer’s notebook routines of mini-lesson, quiet writing time, and sharing early in September. Not only do the students share their writing, but I share mine, too. Through modeling, students see that I take risks as a writer. I am not just a teacher of writing. I share my struggles as a writer and root the habit of open dialogue about my process of writing, so a climate of support becomes part of how we learn. Right from the start I create and maintain a class sharing chart to prevent any students from dominating our sharing time.

I use chapters from  Ralph Fletcher’s A Writer’s Notebook for my first writing mini-lessons and watch my students become eager writers and sharers. Together we read aloud from “Unforgettable Stories,” “Fierce Wonderings,” “Writing Small,” and “Mind Pictures” then try his suggestions that promise to “unlock the writer within.”  Soon, we are fondly calling the author Ralphie as the next mini-lesson begins. My students love the “Snatches of Talk” chapter as it gives them permission to eavesdrop, and I use their recorded conversations to teach dialogue writing, punctuation and tags. I find that we turn to Fletcher’s wonderful book again and again for writing advice.

3. Switch up seating, pairs, and groups early and often. 

Years ago, I had a fascinating educational methods class in which the professor modeled the methods by regularly rearranging the desks, partners, and groups to suit the lesson. The anticipation and element of surprise he created was very effective. This practice takes skill and energy, but it’s worth it. Offering varied seating, partners, and flexible groups in your lessons in September and October and throughout the year allows students to work with all of their classmates and creates opportunities for deeper learning. At the same time I use the varied

seating arrangements to set clear expectations for partner sharing, using a six inch voice, and to model what support looks and sounds like. I use many partner configurations to accomplish this:

  • Paired partners
  • Clock or compass partners (often based on a specific skill)
  • Shoulder partners
  • Seating students by rows across heterogeneously and rows down homogeneously by skill. This seating pattern allows for partners across, partners behind or groups of four with mixed abilities.

4.  Practice class routines early and often.

Students practice classroom routines and expectations that build trust and respect from day one. I use a timer to challenge students not to dawdle. A few of the important routines I stress are:

  • Routines to enter the classroom; get seated, review daily agenda and get materials out for the first agenda item.
  • Three Finger Rule: 1= I need help, 2= I need to sharpen my pencil, 3=I need to use bathroom or get a drink of water.  I like this method because it decreases disruptions to my teaching. Kids raise their finger and I shake my head yes or no depending on the current and upcoming instruction.
  • Routines to move chairs and tables for group work
  • Routines to hand in papers and homework
  • Dismissal routines; by row once all trash, pencils and materials are picked up.

Using these methods to build a community of learners who are connected, cooperative and supportive has proven worthwhile year after year.

How do you create a supportive classroom charged with energy and enthusiasm?  What methods do you use to build community?


Wendy Hopf profileMiddle School English Language Arts Teacher and Department Head for the School District of Springfield Township; PAWLP Fellow 1996 ; Passionate about Curriculum Clarity And Differentiation of Instruction; Currently developing a reading program for Adolescent  reluctant readers



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