Following on from my last post about cultivating belonging in the classroom, I’d like to share a few more simple ways that teachers can help students feel a greater connection to the school. When a student feels accepted for who they are, is treated with respect, and feels supported by their peers and other members of the school community, they will feel a sense of inclusion. This is particularly important for children and young people who come from backgrounds that may be different from the majority of students in the school.
Identity-Affirming Classroom Environment
Students spend a lot of time in the classroom, so it is important that the implicit messages that they internalize from the physical or virtual environment of the classroom are positive. Creating identity-affirming posters and images can be a step in this direction.
1. Create a mosaic of students’ faces.
Ask students to provide a photo of themselves. Use these images to create a fun mosaic to display in the class. You could do this with printed photos or use digital photos to create shaped collages using one of the many online tools available.
2. Allocate an individual space for each student to create a pictorial display of who they are.
Each week, ask students to share one picture on a theme. For example, one week they may bring a picture to show an activity they enjoy doing. The next week, you could ask them to share a photo of their favourite food. Over time, this space would grow to show a visual identity of each student. If a few minutes of class time is allocated to talking about the new pictures, or inviting students to observe each other’s collages, it can help foster a greater understanding of each other and build stronger peer connections.
3. Ask your students to name their top three favourite songs.
Locate these and create a playlist that you could play as students arrive, or during a break in the lesson. Students will enjoy hearing their songs, and if there is a range of music and languages represented, it helps to support the diversity of students in the class.
A critical aspect of developing a sense of belonging to school is the connection students feel to their peers. Students need to feel that they are part of the classroom community with valuable contributions to make. Team-building activities are a great way to help establish this and teach students to work together, communicate effectively, think creatively, build trust, and have fun during the process. The following three activities can be used effectively with any age group of students.
4. Try the marshmallow challenge.
The marshmallow challenge requires teams to work under time pressure to create the tallest structure out of 20 sticks of dry spaghetti, a yard of tape, a yard of string, and a single marshmallow. If this is new to you, check out the detailed instructions here. You may also enjoy watching Tom Wujec’s TED Talk about what kinds of teams succeed in accomplishing this task.
5. Try the cup stacking activity.
Another great team-building activity that involves construction is the cup stacking activity. Here, teams work with six paper cups, a piece of string for each member in the group, and a rubber band. Their task is to use the string and rubber band to stack the cups into a pyramid (three at the bottom, two in the middle and one on top), but without touching the cups. See here for an illustrated example.
6. Have students categorize and explain.
Create a tray with 20 different items (e.g., a pencil, a button, a bottle cap, a leaf, a watch). Alternatively, you could also create a document with images of 20 different items to display on your screen. Students work in evenly sized teams to classify the items into four categories. For example, they may decide to place watch, tie, and goggles under “things you wear.” The categories are completely up to them, and students may need to think creatively to come up with four categories that make sense. When the time is up, or when all groups have classified the items, have each team present their categories and explain the rationale for their classification.
At the end of each team-building activity, spend some time for reflection, encouraging students to think about (and perhaps discuss in their groups), how each individual contributed to the activity, what worked well, and how things could be improved the next time.
Every student has the right to feel a sense of belonging to school. For this to be most effective, schools should create a culture of belonging through a whole-school approach. But, even without such a holistic approach, teachers can use activities such as those outlined above to make student experiences more positive.