words and photo Samantha Song illustration Rufina K. Park
At the beginning of each school year, my key priority as an educator is to create an inclusive and inviting classroom community. Children need to feel a sense of belonging and safety before they are comfortable enough to take risks and make mistakes in their learning, whether it is in front of their classmates or even their teacher. This inclusiveness is foundational to the possibility of joyful learning. If we as adults reflect on our collection of learning experiences, aren’t our most inspiring moments when we were happy to be present, felt encouraged and secure enough to attempt something novel and different?
Typically around two weeks into the start of the year, I lead an activity with the class called Hopes and Dreams. By identifying children’s hopes and dreams, we are building community in the classroom and a sense of togetherness by creating a shared purpose for the school year. This practice acknowledges each child’s voice and sets the stage for a positive and productive year of learning. I have also found that students’ insights during this activity illuminate my understanding of them as individuals.
I start by encouraging students to reflect on what they are wishing and dreaming for the school year, which they can then illustrate and put into writing. A hope and dream could be learning how to read, embarking on particular science projects, making new friends, and so much more. As the teacher, I too participate. These hopes and dreams are put on display somewhere in the classroom throughout the entire year to remind us all of what we are striving for, and what we can do each day to realize these aspirations.
The follow-up conversation, ideally the following day, is to have a class discussion around what kind of rules we should create so that the class can make each hope and dream come true. Students take the lead in brainstorming rules, even when as young as 6. They are often quite perceptive and able to identify what kind of boundaries should be in place so that everyone in the class can enjoy a safe, positive learning environment.
Naming hopes and dreams at the start of the year can get children invested in their learning and their classroom community. The classroom shouldn’t feel like the teacher’s classroom—it is a community space of learning, knowledge, and hopefully, joy for the children.
This activity and practice are foundational to the Responsive Classroom philosophy, which is grounded in community building, understanding students as individuals, and emphasizing social-emotional learning as much as academics. This approach to educating children started as a small gathering of public school educators whose ideas led to a laboratory school in Massachusetts, USA in 1981. Those initial ideas have since developed into a nationally recognized, research-based approach to K-8 instruction.
Children need to feel safe and included in the space where they spend most of their day, in what is essentially their second home. As an educator, I feel that this is one of my main responsibilities and it is a belief that is well integrated into my personal philosophies and played out in my daily practices.
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