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12 Community Builders to Start the Year

back to school

The start of the academic year is so invigorating. One of my colleagues likes to call this time the “honeymoon” period because everything is fresh and new, including the connections we form with others. In these first weeks of school, community builders are doubly important as teachers work to build meaningful relationships with students. The twelve ideas below help to move the process along as everyone gets to know one another, but they can also be implemented no matter what time of year it happens to be. There is always a place in classrooms for making connections!

  1. My Name. Names are personal, and they usually have a backstory. In this activity, students take about 5-10 minutes to reflect on any aspect of their names. Then, they share their thoughts with the class, either in pairs or in larger groupings. For teachers, this is a great activity to do in the first days when we are learning names because it increases mindfulness around what students like to be called. 
  2. The Game of Life. In this activity, students make connections between their own experiences and a board game (or any other game works, too) to describe their lives. For example, I might say that my workday looks a lot like Jenga because I pile up so many things to do that they threaten to topple, or some kids might compare their school experience to a game of soccer because they have goals to achieve. No matter what games everyone chooses to talk about, this activity encourages deeper conversations about who we are and how we see ourselves.
  3. Special Places. To complete this activity, students create a rough drawing or description of a place that holds meaning to them. Then, they can either share their creations in smaller groups (which is a lower-risk way to approach the activity) or share an aspect of what they created with the class. Sometimes, students even have special places in common like the kitchen at home, which helps people who do not know one another well yet to find common ground.
  4. Spirit Animal. What animal to we connect to the most, and why? In this classic and much-beloved activity, kids share which animals have characteristics that resonate the most with who they are and provide any details that can help. By homing in on specific traits that the animals possess that they themselves connect to, students will learn more about themselves and one another. They might also wish to be given other options, like selecting a spirit flower or similar. That provides added choice, which is usually a welcome aspect of any class activity. 
  5. Biggest Pet Peeves. We all get annoyed by quite a lot of things, so why not share some of them? When students are invited to make a list of their pet peeves, watch the ideas flow. They will have more than enough to say, and when it’s time to share, many will continue to add to their own lists as what their classmates share inspires them. After all, what is more annoying than running out of toilet paper at a crucial moment?
  6. Stranger Things. Not everything that happens in life can be easily explained. While this activity requires some active recall, students are asked to think of a time when something happened that did not make a whole lot of sense, or that was unusual. Not everyone will be able to think of something, but the process of brainstorming and sharing just a few anecdotes can be a lot of fun.
  7. Photo Share. This community builder gives teachers an opportunity to let students use their phones, which should be met with appreciation. To do the photo share, students select an image either from their camera roll or from the web (appropriate, of course) that they connect to for some important reason. Once everyone has an image selected, they share their picks either in small groups or with the whole class. To level up this activity, students might be asked to write a short narrative about the image.
  8. Desert Island. What we value says so much about us. In this activity, students list five items they would take with them if they knew they would be stranded on a desert island for any length of time. By limiting the number of possessions they can bring with them, everyone in the room is forced to make tough theoretical decisions and prioritize thoughtfully. The conversations that flow from this process are often highly engaging and enthusiastic.
  9. Three Adjectives. When students apply to jobs or to college, application questions may ask them to list adjectives that best describe who they are. To get ahead of the thinking curve, encouraging everyone to brainstorm some of the most fitting adjectives for themselves (or to help others, provided the process is collaborative and positive) not only helps with awareness of all members of the classroom community; it also provides a stellar opportunity for increasing the complexity of vocabulary usage. 
  10. One Thing. If we could change just one thing about the world, what would it be? This question forces students to think about all the differences they would like to see over their lifetimes and asks them to narrow that focus to the most pressing issue, whether it be global or local. A lot of the “one thing” items people pick will be revealing and provide fodder for rich discourse.
  11. Pick a Sense! We may have five senses (or six, depending on who we ask), but which one would we be most loath to live without? In other words, which sense is the most valuable, or the least indispensable? As students grapple with what seems like an impossible choice, discussion is encouraged as a natural byproduct of the process. 
  12. Most Important Thing to Know. If we could tell a new acquaintance just one thing about ourselves, what would it be? In this community builder, students do exactly that. This is a process that best fits the first couple of weeks of school, though it can also work at other times to reveal possibly hidden truths about the people we think we know better. Whether kids share a tendency to eat fries every single day or someone confides the fact that nobody can tell if they are smiling behind a face mask, the whole class will enjoy this opportunity to learn more about everyone around them.

All the community builders above are enriched when the teacher participates as well, which helps to create a shared sense of classroom community. As students return, taking the time to get to know our classes is one of the strongest trust-building moves we can make. Even doing one of these activities each week for the first three months of school can help send the clear message to students that we care about their learning, and that we are partners in their journey to be seen as valued members of the class. 

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam Plotinsky is an instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has taught and led for more than 20 years. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less and Lead Like a Teacher. She is also a National Board-Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be reached at or via Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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