Using Words to Cultivate Classroom Community

Teach Better TeamBlog, Engage Better, Manage Better

In This Post:

  • The value of words to build classroom community.
  • One activity to cultivate a meaningful, positive classroom community.
  • The importance of keeping your classroom community strong.

Words are powerful. Powerful in the way they are strung together to say something, in the tone and demeanor in which they sound or look, and in the way they can make us and others feel.

In my classroom, room 228, you can find me using many of the following phrases with my kids to reinforce the power of words and build our classroom community.

“Be kind to yourself.”

“Your words matter.”

Think of how that sounded.”

You might have meant to say something else.”

This effort is to build, but even more so cultivate, the community in room 228.

The words you use hold weight. Use them positively. Click To Tweet

Student Experiences & Classroom Community

Classroom community is literally what will make or break a classroom. The vibe of the room determines the productivity of all those involved, which ultimately creates the experience.

I take students’ experiences in my room very seriously. Depending on the class section, I spend between 40,000 and 80,000 minutes per year with a group of students.

At most, that’s the equivalent of about 56 full 24-hour days with that group. When it’s laid out like that, I am in awe.

This total doesn’t even include the hallway, cafeteria, and other extra-curricular encounters. So, with that quick equation in mind, I can’t think of a more compelling reason to keep the classroom experience that I oversee as my main focus.

I know my role as an educator constantly shifts between teacher, facilitator, part-time counselor, cheerleader, and more, but no matter what, as the adult, I am definitely in charge of providing a promising experience for the kids who are in my class.

Cultivating Our Classroom Community

This year I teach three different sections of 7th grade ELA. For some specifics, we’re about halfway through 2nd quarter. And currently, the grind is real.

The honeymoon is over, and this is the time of year when everyone’s patience, drive, and productivity is tested. Mine included. My homeroom class also happens to be my 8th and 9th hour ELA block.

On some Mondays we meet for an hour in the morning for an SEL lesson. Today’s lesson was about goal setting. We often goal set in ELA, so I felt comfortable replacing this lesson with something I know we needed more. We needed to spend some time cultivating our learning community.

To best explain this process, I’ll walk through the conversation I had with my students before this activity. I hope that you will find a way to adapt this activity for your own group of students.

This is what worked for my 7th graders.

Me: “You each need a piece of paper, a clipboard, and something to write with. Help me arrange some chairs in a big circle for us.

Students: “Are we playing telephone or something?

I told them to be serious about what we were going to do. At the top of the paper, I had them put their first and last name. Then, I explained the task.

“So far this year I have enjoyed this class because of the energy, the challenge, and the way you work together. With that said, it’s becoming cliquey which does sometimes have its perks, but also can be a downfall of a community. This is an activity to help us collaborate better as an entire team. This is also practice in providing substantial positive affirmations for your peers.”

Students: “…”

I put on some music, and then told them to start with a paper in front of them.

“Look at the name at the top. Then Think, reflect, and provide an actual positive affirmation about your peer on the paper. Don’t sign your name. Avoid things like ‘you are nice,’ or ‘you seem cool.’ The words you use hold weight. Use them positively.

I turned on “Khalid Essentials” on Apple Music, and we started. In this class, there are 22 papers to go around. I told them that I have a paper with my name going around as well.

That means they would provide positive words for all of their classmates, me, and most importantly, themselves. Yes, it’s a bit awkward to start, and the experience brings some vulnerability to the surface. No matter what though, we keep writing.

The energy eventually shifts, and I almost always find myself with tears in my eyes because experiences like this with students are so rare. Teachers of writing know the feelings that come when writing alongside students.

After all of the papers have made their way back to the start, I allow everyone to look at their own paper silently for a few minutes. I collect them to see some of the words (and smile), then I pass them back later that day in ELA. What students do with these papers after the activity is up to them. Some put it in their locker, some take it home, and some throw it away. I don’t pay much attention to this part though because this activity is more about what you give than what you get.

This is single-handedly one of the most powerful experiences with students. Truthfully, I am excited to get back to learning after this activity because more often than not, collaboration, productivity, and general kindness towards each other improves. Honestly though, I’m not a miracle worker so if things don’t improve, I head back to the drawing board, reflect, and find another way to cultivate our community. Just moving on from this without any positive change is not an option from me.

The Importance of Classroom Community

Building the classroom community always pays off. Personally, I spend the first 3-5 days of each school year doing nothing else than getting to know each other. [Shout out to Joy Kirr for this big shift in my practice.] We don’t do any “real learning” until the foundation is laid because my personal opinion is that learning can’t happen without the community foundation. This activity we did today is a part of ensuring the community stays strong. All year.

Without saying the word identity, I am invested in providing ways for students to see themselves for exactly who they are, so that they are able to see their peers for exactly who they are. Some days this focus takes over the “content” that we have planned for the day, and honestly, I never see a problem with that. I am proud to have a role in helping kids become strong people, in addition to growing readers and writers.

Like me, I’m sure there’s something you do in your classroom that brings you joy while positively affecting your students’ lives. Whether it’s related to the content you teach, classroom community, or relationships with students, I hope you continue to do the things that keep your cup full. Because the reality is, your passion for what you do often becomes a part of your students’ passion, and that is certainly something to take seriously because… #kidsdeserveit !

[scroll down to keep reading]


Kendall Lawson is a 7th grade English Language Arts teacher at Kaneland Harter Middle School in Sugar Grove, Illinois. Over the past six years Kendall has worked to transform her classroom into a place where students can learn, excel, and grow at their own pace. Through this she has learned how critical it is to be a transparent, equitable, and authentic educator. She credits reflection, collaboration, and risk-taking as key components to help redefine her role as a Middle Level Educator.