When you join Grade 4 you join a community, and every community is unique.
In the past, my class has been called A, B, even C! But those letters don’t mean anything to anyone actually in that room. They don’t reflect who we are, what we love, what makes us unique and what brings us together as a team. The students have no pride, ownership or identity attached to those names. So I decided to explore alternatives.
Three summers ago, while reading about class culture and identity, I stumbled upon a fifth grade class in America called the Pixelpaws. Their teacher, Tony Vincent, had the idea to craft a class brand to build community within the group. So, with a seed planted in my mind, I carried out some more research and redesigned the first week of lessons that year to focus our effort on co-creating our class brand.
What started as a couple of lessons soon took over the first two weeks of the year. We spent time getting to know each other, our shared interests and what makes our group unique. From there we developed a brand name for our group that represented our shared interests and laid the groundwork for our class community. This process has now become my preferred start to the year.
The first step in forming our brand is to get to know each other as individuals. We all create an “All about me” slide with pictures and words to express our interests and what makes each of us unique. Each student then presents their slide and takes questions from their peers. This is a fantastic way for me to get to know each child and gauge their confidence in presenting.
While they are sharing, I am hard at work writing down keywords. So every time someone shows a picture of or the word “dog”, I write that down. By the end of the presentations, we have a word cloud formed. I find this visual representation of the most common keywords from everyone’s presentations very helpful with the next stage of the process.
Next, I hand it over to the class. They work independently or in groups and brainstorm ideas for the brand name. The only criteria is that it must try to include two of the biggest themes from the word cloud, as these reflect the interests most people share, but it does not need to be the exact word. For example if “dog” was the most common word, they could explore dog theme words such as paw or pup.
This year, after several days and many rounds of voting, we refined and finally agreed on our class name: The Pixelpets, incorporating a shared love of video games and animals. Last year we were the Cakepups and the year before we were the Chocodiles.
We then explored famous logo designs and students noticed that simplicity and a connection to the name were key. They set about designing and creating, with some students bringing in ideas they had worked on at home over the weekend! Everyone was buzzing. Once again, several rounds of democratic voting ensued and a final design, incorporating elements of a few designs, was voted the winner, and the artist completed the final piece.
It would have been easy for me to decide on a theme for the class, Mrs Dunn’s dinosaurs, or Dunn’s dogs. However, it’s important to me that students take ownership of their space, they feel attached and involved in the running of the class, and they develop a shared set of beliefs for what it means to be a member of the class.
The class name represents our class identity. We see the benefits of this every day, as our shared understanding of our identity influences our approach to learning, our interactions and our enjoyment of school. This community is reflected in our routines too as student responsibility and voice is vital to the running of the class. For example, the students run their own end of day meeting and award themselves marbles as part of their reflection process, and anyone can ring the bell to stop the class and share at any point during a lesson or remind us to transition to the next lesson. Empowering students to lead is fundamental to the way my class runs, and having this community identity and expectation is a significant part of that.
I’m very excited to share some new additions this year. First, we have developed a chant that is aligned to our class agreement. The students read through their agreement and pulled out the main points. We brainstormed and decided on “Try your best. Show respect!” The students shout this every time someone says “Pixelpets”, so it has become a consistent, daily reminder of our key values. This year I will also be turning the class logo into a memento they can keep. It will be laser cut by The Foundry into a pendant that they can choose as a reward for being recognised as a Pixelpet Superstar; someone who embodies our class agreement.
Many of the benefits that I have observed are supported by educational research. Indeed, work by Chris Watkins of the University of London Institute of Education (Watkins, 2005)* highlights the following positive outcomes of a strong classroom community:
- As students’ sense of community increases, participation increases.
- Classrooms which operate as communities encourage children to take an active role in classroom governance.
- In classrooms which operate as a community of learners, participants come to learn from each other and to help each other learn.
- In classrooms where a sense of community is built, difference is not viewed as a problem and greater diversity of people and contributions is embraced.
- In classrooms which operate as a learning community, responsibility for and control of knowledge becomes shared.
- In classrooms which operate as a learning community, shared metacognition develops about the process of learning.
That’s what the experts think, but what about the students?
When I asked The Pixelpets what they liked about having a class name and why it’s important, they said “it’s fun” and “if we’re just called 4A it’s boring.” They said “it’s a combined name of things we like. It’s who we are.” There was a strong feeling that they “want people to call us a special name because none of the other classes has our name. It represents us.” Finally, one student stated that “it’s important because we’re a special group so you need to remember why we’re special”. And they’re right. Each class I teach is special and unique, and that should be celebrated.
For me, the best part of this start to the year is the opportunity to get to know the students really well and support the development of a shared vision for the year. Armed with this understanding of who they are, what they like, what they think and why, and what we as a community want to be, I am ready to provide each of them with the support they need on their learning journey in Grade 4.
* Watkins, Chris (2005) London Review of Education Vol. 3, No. 1, March 2005, pp. 47–64 ISSN 1474-8460 (print)/ISSN 1474-8479 (online)/05/010047–18 © 2005 Institute of Education, University of London DOI: 10.1080/14748460500036276 Classrooms as learning communities: a review of research. Chris Watkins