Back when I used to teach 5th grade, my teacher friends at my school would always say, “Your kids are like little Hamiltons.” Guilty as charged. Inevitably, my classes tended to take on many of my traits. They loved dance music, they were highly competitive as a class, they were grammar snobs, they enjoyed creating content-relevant lyrics for popular songs, and they didn’t take themselves too seriously. I attribute this, first and foremost, to the relationships I strived to build with each of my kiddos.
When I would get a roster of kids every year, I looked at it the way I did as a summer camp counselor. Every summer while I was in college, I worked as a summer camp counselor at 4H camps across South Carolina, and at academic camps on campus at Clemson University. Leading a group of summer campers is such an amazing responsibility because as the counselor, so much of campers’ enjoyment at camp depends on the counselor. Waking up, setting shower schedules, enabling friendships and culture in the bunk, getting to meals, dealing with homesickness, maintaining continual activity, staying on top of meds, mandating bedtime: it’s all part of truly being EVERYTHING for that set of campers for the entirety of their stay. This is how teachers should approach their new students at the beginning of each year. Sure, there won’t be showers and bedtime, but every little thing that students experience from 8:00 am to 2:30 pm is in the hands of the teacher. Shouldn’t a child be able to assess their class and be certain “Who We Are?”
So in creating a yearly army of 9- and 10-year old Hamiltons, there were a few things that consistently helped us create an understanding of who we were. In the long run, this camaraderie and community ultimately led to high levels of engagement, few behavior problems, and ultimately an appreciation of learning that resulted in impressive student growth. Here are 6 things teachers can utilize to create a healthy, engaging classroom culture.
Identity | Point blank, the term “Mr. Parks’s Class” is lame. Obviously, the class belongs to Mr. Parks; it’s under the instruction of Mr. Parks; Mr. Parks is leading the class. What’s more fun and creates more sense of community is a full-on name or mascot. My class went by “Team Parks”, because we saw ourselves as a team, and strived to look out for one another as such. There’s an easy name for your group—drop “Team” in front of your last name and run with it. There are other options, however, that are even more fun. My friend Amber calls her class “The Golden Arches” because her last name is McDonald. Her teammate, Kristin is going with “Pulido’s Amigos”, which is a nod to her Mexican last name. Carli, my friend moving from 5th grade in one school to 4th in another, is taking her class name, “The Brew Crew”, with her; her last name is Brewer. Let’s not forget alliteration though. My friend, Kristin Horvath always went with the name, “Horvath’s Heroes”. Just the same, my friend Katy Freemon’s class is lovingly known as “The Freemon Frogs”. Just a little creativity with a class name makes for more than a cute sign outside the classroom door—it creates an identity that students can be excited to claim.
Events | When I come in contact with parents and students from my last 5th grade class, none of them ever bring up specific lessons. They do, however, often bring up Dance Party Friday. This was a weekly event that my students enjoyed. Every day, during morning work and independent practice time, we listened to soft, easy, popular music. This, too, was something that made us us. But every Friday morning while kids entered the room and got started on their morning work, the music was much like the music featured in this blog. Of course, there was an understanding that the music was a privilege and could only be played if students could perform their tasks without distraction, and all of the music had kid-friendly lyrics (I personally can’t handle Kidz Bop—I am in full support of unadulterated, profanity free original tracks). But this was something special for our class that made them look forward to Fridays. Sure, it stemmed from something I was personally passionate about, but there are many interests we have as teachers that we can use to engage and excite our kids. As a teacher, using your personal gifts and interests to create special events in your classroom creates something special for your students.
Cheers | In my time as an IC, I experienced many classes that had cheers for various occasions: when a classmate got a correct answer, when the class claimed victory in a schoolwide competition, or when there was some other reason to celebrate. I missed out on incorporating many of these as a classroom teacher, but we did have an understood celebration for discovering good grades when Monday Folders were distributed. Just about all kids love to exclaim “Yussssssss” when they see grades they are proud of. It’s about the same amount of kids that don’t want to hear it when they receive an unpleasant grade. That’s why we enacted “silent fist pumps”. It’s basically the same movement that goes along with the celebratory “Yussssssss”, only it’s a little more exaggerated because there’s no vocal sound that accompanies it. Think of sticking your fist up in the air, then dramatically pulling it back by your side under your armpit—that’s the “silent fist pump”. It’s getting your celebration on so no one else can hear it.
Language | Just how certain ethnicities of people find commonality due to the language they speak, classrooms can too. This is even seen in families. Here’s an example: when talking to a family member about a person, and you can remember the person’s name, sometimes you might call them what’s her face or what’s her name. Depending on your family, you might say whachmicallit or doohickey when talking about an item that you can’t recall the name of (my mom would sometimes say doomaflocky). These mean the same thing, but the terms used are often dependent upon the language in one’s community. In my 4th grade class, I used to get a kick how my kids coined the term “wurff” to stand for early finisher activities. This is because my early finisher activities were listed as Wrap-Ups (a hands-on math fact practice tool), read, Flashmaster (an electronic math device) or flash cards. Other teachers or kids would have no idea what they were talking about, but we knew, because it was a word in our family vocabulary. In one 5th grade class, my students got on a tare of saying “That sucks” all the time. I don’t claim to be too old fashioned, but I just don’t like kids saying that—it sounds inappropriate. So I told my kids about an episode of the cartoon show Recess, where the teacher made the kids come up with another word to use in place of expletives. The word happened to be “womps”, so my class adopted it and would exclaim, “That womps” to express their distaste. It meant something to us, nothing to anyone else, but it served as part of our classroom lexicon.
Inside Jokes | One of my 5th grade classes asked to have a class pet. I wasn’t really sure of this at the time, so I did not agree. Being the creative kids that they were, they decided we would have an invisible class pet—a chinchilla, to be exact. They named him Jackie Chanchilla, or Jackie Chan for short. Of course I went along with it. Kids would come up to me on Friday afternoons and ask if they could take Jackie home for the weekend, and I would either agree or tell them that he was going home with someone else. This erupted into playful arguments between students where they would bicker about why the other shouldn’t babysit Jackie for the weekend. Jackie evolved into a little clip art character that I would place in the footer of 2-sided worksheets: “Jackie says, ‘Don’t forget to turn the page!’” Jackie was a special friend that reminded us not to take ourselves too seriously… I wonder who he went home with that last day of school?
Non-verbal Communication | I have seen this done amazingly in so many ways. Having these types of signals is not only great for classroom management, but similarly to language, it develops a way to communicate that is almost like a secret code within a classroom. In my room, 2 fingers meant “May I visit the pencil sharpener?” Three fingers, or a sign language W meant water, and a sign language R meant restroom. More than anything, it was great for me because I didn’t have to interrupt instructional time with having a verbal exchange; I could just acknowledge the student and let them do what they needed to do. One teacher I knew had the best way to allow his students to go to the bathroom. In fact, he didn’t even have to know they were going. He had a stuffed turtle that sat on a bookshelf in the room. When kids had to go to the bathroom, they’d simply retrieve the turtle from the bookshelf, and place it in their chair. They’d go to the restroom quietly, and put he turtle back when they returned. It limited the amount of kids that could go to the restroom at a time, and it also allowed kids the freedom to go without creating any disturbance in the room.
Reminiscing on some of the ways my classes were truly their own tribes makes me laugh and smile. These are some of the things I cherish as a teacher—building a community that is inclusive and values learning. It made me proud to know that my students each had a special place in my room each year, and together they all understood, collectively, who they were.