14 Ways to Cultivate Classroom Chemistry

The Intangibles of a Celebrated Classroom

It’s only September and I’m already thinking June. Not because I’m counting down days or because I wish summer were already here; I’m thinking about May because I want to be one of those teachers who breezes into a lunch conversation and says, “I’m really going to miss this class. They are such a special group.” Sometimes we get lucky, there’s just this natural chemistry that happens when a certain group of students auspiciously find each other in a classroom. Other times a group will bond over an experience – a shared victory or a great loss. But most of time, this “chemistry” isn’t handed to us, it’s something we have to go out and create.

Welcome to my classroom

And create we do. We cultivate relationships, we create routines, we investigate how to create communities from our classrooms. In fact, if classroom community were my Pinterest board, here’s what you would see:

  • All of us learning each others’ names
  • Students being grouped with classmates they might not seek out on their own and then being asked to learn something new about them
  • Pictures of student work posted around the classroom
  • Photographs of students used to organize students into groups
  • A class poem that we wrote together on the first day of school
  • Or our class webpage where students can find blog posts of our work in class and photographs of their contributions

Classroom Welcome MirrorThere’s no doubt that the membership, the trust, the sense of self that comes from being part of a classroom community keeps kids in school and keeps them engaged.
While creating communities takes time and patience, its more elusive partner, “culture,” may be even more challenging to unearth. While fueled by a strong community, culture requires us to delve into creating shared values, beliefs and attitudes about learning. In our room, we call these dispositions and realizing them starts by elevating us all to the status of learner.

Building culture is an ongoing process for me. I learned early in my career that building classroom culture varies from year to year and depends entirely on the mindset of the students who walk into the room. This means that I have tried and am always trying new approaches. This year is no exception. If you walked into our classroom you’d see and hear the ways I’m purposefully building culture:

  • You would hear “we” more than “me” or “you”
  • You would see my desk in the back of the classroom
  • You would pause on your way through the door to look in a mirror while reading the phrase “Today, see yourself_____________.” Right now it projects “See yourself building confidence.”
  • You would overhear us talk about learning more than about tasks or grades
  • You would be drawn to the “pizza pan poetry” that reminds us we’re always immersed in language
  • You would snicker while I geek out giving a book talk on this unique collection of children’s poems I just found
  • You would notice the curious mantra, “Tell me what your brain is doing right now.”
  • You would see the language of our learning dispositions on the wall, always reminding us of our real purpose

Pizza Pan Poetry

I like to think that community is our sense of belonging and culture ensures the value of what we belong to. So however we go about it, these “strategies” create that “know it when you see it” community and that “love it when you live it” culture.

After all, when Community and Culture take their rightful places in the desks of our classrooms, we can look forward to a June when we didn’t just finish a school year, but put learning in its rightful place: their heads and our shared ideals.

Sarah Brown Wessling is a high school English teacher in Johnston, Iowa. She is the 2010 National Teacher of the Year and is the Teacher Laureate for Teaching Channel. Connect with Sarah on Twitter – @SarahWessling.

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