Alyssa Pilarcik | August 2019

Creating Community from Day One

What do you think of when you are asked to create a mental image of a classroom?  For a lot of people, they still picture rows of desks with neatly organized papers on top.  Students sit quietly at their desks all facing the teacher with great posture and pleasing smiles. They raise their hands eager to answer each question.  After all, this is the typical image you see when you do an image search of a classroom. However, these days are gone as teachers are working to prepare their students for a collaborative world.

In my ideal classroom, it is loud.  Students are out of their seats. They are talking to each other and moving around the room.  They have various materials and resources and they are in control. My mental image of a classroom is what most people refer to as “organized chaos.”

I have learned that in order for this type of classroom to be most successful, students need to work together.

One of the most important things to me in my classroom is creating a sense of community.  Kate Kane, a headteacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts gives a great description of the importance of creating classroom community in her blog:

The key to teaching children social and emotional skills is creating a classroom culture built on community. Strong communities have members who have shared goals and experiences, who feel empowered to contribute, who trust in one another, and who feel understood and capable as individuals. These attributes enable teamwork, cooperation, a willingness to negotiate, and the ability to draw on one another’s skills.

Establishing and maintaining this type of classroom community takes time and consistency. But it’s important to remember that first impressions can help set the tone for the rest of the school year.  So let’s focus on some beginning of the year projects that you can use to start building community from day one.

Begin with a group project

This can be scary for both teachers and students right at the beginning of the year.  It is hard to place students together when you don’t know them well and they don’t know each other well yet.  Yet, is the keyword. Choose a project that will be fun and allow for student creativity in order for students to feel more comfortable with the students they are working with.  

The ideas I am including are written specifically for an art class. But, you can easily adapt them to work within any subject area. You can change the task from drawing to writing. Or you can simply change the topics and allow students to draw whatever it is they are learning about.

The Drawing Game

This is also referred to as “Exquisite Corpse” or “Exquisite Cadaver” and the resources for this project are endless.   As an art project, students begin by drawing an image (this can be from a prompt such as draw the head of something). Students then give their drawing to someone else and they draw the next part without looking at the first image (the prompt for this may be draw the body of an insect).  Students switch drawings again and draw the last part without looking at either of the previous images (a possible prompt may be draw the legs or tail of an animal). When finished, students open it up and see what creations were made by all the different images.

I take this project a step further by having students continuing to work in their groups to create a final artwork. Together they decide on which head, body, and legs/tail would look best (or maybe silliest) together.  They also think about other details they can add (clothes, props, accessories). Finally, they create a larger version of their creation.

This project can be adapted to be used in other subjects as well. You can change the prompts to fit a specific topic or make it open-ended.  Students can collaborate at the end to create a final story, poem, piece of music, dance, etc. They can also present or perform their final work to the class.

A Twist to the Telephone Game

This is another activity that you can adapt for any subject area.  Students should be put into groups of about 6 or 8 and each student will need a stack of paper equal to the number of students in the group.  Number the papers and keep number 1 on top.

All students write a phrase on their first paper.  You could leave it completely open-ended or you can have pre planned phrases related to specific topics that you pass out for students to use.  Once the phrase is written on paper number 1, students pass their stack to next person, leaving paper number 1 on top (this works best sitting in a circle).  The next person reads the phrase, places paper number 1 on the bottom of the stack, then draws an image on paper number 2 representing the phrase. Once finished, pass the stack leaving it in order.  This time students only see the drawing and have to write a phrase according to what they think the drawing is. This continues in this pattern until each stack passes through all group members.

An even number of group members works best in order to start with a phrase and end with a drawing.  Students end up with the stack they started with and look through to see how it progressed. They can then share the progression with the rest of the group.  If students play the game correctly (without peeking) the results usually turn out pretty funny. Students enjoy seeing their part of each sequence and how it developed into something completely new.

Unusual Combinations Project

For this project, it is best for students to work in groups of 3 or 4.  Each student begins by drawing a continuous line or random shape that is big enough to cover most of the paper.  They then switch their papers with someone else in their group who will then turn the line or shape into something.  Students switch again with someone new in their group who will add details and color the drawing.

When the drawings are complete, the group works together to determine how to include all of the new creations within one artwork.  Most likely they will be things that normally wouldn’t go together so the group has to be creative and work collaboratively to determine how to make it work.  

STEAM Challenges

Another great idea is to find or create a STEAM challenge for students.  Most of these challenges require students to work together to solve a problem.  A helpful tip is to turn the challenge into a friendly competition which helps students work better together because they love to win!

Keep it Going

Make it a point to talk about the idea of community to your students.  It is important to you, but you also want it to be important to the students.  The first thing I usually do on day one is to have students write their own definition of the word “teamwork”.  Throughout the first week, we focus on this word. We build on the definitions. We talk about what it means to be a good team player and collaborator and ultimately how that helps the success of a community.  Then we refer back to these definitions and keywords throughout the year. Why? So we can continuously remind ourselves that everyone is more successful when we all work together.

For more information and strategies about building community in your classroom, check out the links below.

Creating a Classroom Community

Student Feedback Strategy that Builds Community

Build A Classroom Community Through Singing

3 Ideas for Building Class Community Through the Arts

Bushido – The Start of a Stronger Classroom Community

To learn more about STEAM Education check out EducationCloset’s Designed to STEAM course.

About the Author

Alyssa Pilarcik has been a visual arts teacher in Frederick County Public Schools in Maryland since 2010 and lives with her husband and 2 sons. She holds a Master of Science in Instructional Technology, is a certified Arts Integration Specialist through The Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM, and is working toward her Educational Leadership Degree. Alyssa was nominated for teacher of the year for her county in 2018. She runs a choice-based classroom within a blended learning environment and has a strong passion to share her love of arts integration with educators and students everywhere.