Creating Community in Your Classroom: 4 Conditions

4 Conditions for Creating Community in the Classroom

Most teachers I talk to agree that we need to create strong communities in our classroom. Now a few teachers do claim that relationships in the classroom don’t matter much, and that we should focus on the content of the class. However, even they concede that creating community helps with classroom management and that creating a sense of belonging is not a bad thing.

However, we also know that helping students get to know each other is a slippery thing. While some students love a good icebreaker where they share a fact about themselves, others are reticent. Being forced to share too much personal information may drive them away from the group in fact. I know a teacher who started classes with a hula-hoop activity. A lot of students loved the chance to play and be silly in class. Others felt that the activity was a sign the teacher wasn’t serious about academics. So how do you bring your students together and make them feel like a community?

Having put out a book of icebreakers and getting to know you activities, I get a lot of feedback about conditions for an activity to break the ice in class and build rapport. And my big a-ha moment came when I realized I didn’t want to just break the ice. I didn’t want kids to just talk to each other. And I didn’t want to just have students feel kind of good about coming to my class because I’m a nice guy and the other students are pretty nice, or at least polite with each other. I wanted to create community.

Creating Community

So what’s the difference between a classroom where everyone follows the rules and the teacher is a good guy, and a classroom with a sense of community? It may sound like a cop-out to say that you know a community when you see it. However, it’s really my way of saying that there is no one definitive set of criteria. Here are some of the things I’ve seen in classrooms where the students feel there is a strong sense of community and rapport.

  • students asking each other for help
  • open and meaningful discussions between teachers and students
  • students enforcing the rules themselves
  • students listening and agreeing or disagreeing respectfully
  • tasks done with a sense of interest, not resignation
  • students trying, and sometimes failing, to use new language items

You can see that the signs of a community can also be illustrations of the benefits. In a strong community, you see students taking risks with language, which is a benefit to creating community.

Conditions for Creating Community

So what are the four conditions for creating community in your classroom?

  1. A clear and meaningful task
  2. Freedom to make decisions about how to accomplish that task
  3. The need to work together as a team
  4. The risk of failure

A clear and meaningful task

Students have to want to work on the task for the task to truly bring them together as a team. The task cannot be busy work. Make sure your students understand why you are having them do the activity. Is it to learn a new skill? Or practice a set of vocabulary? Or to become familiar with a particular tool or technique? Ensure that the goal is desirable to the students, that the activities align with the goal, and that they understand how the task meets that goal.

For students to be able to work together on a task, the task also needs be clear. hey need to know exactly what the task is. All parameters, expectations, and objectives should be clearly spelled out. They can’t throw themselves into work if they feel that there’s some information they don’t have or they aren’t totally sure whether they are on task or not.

Freedom to make decisions

While the parameters of the task should be clear, there also needs to be room for students to think about how they will accomplish the task. If the students are doing routine tasks that require few decisions, or if there’s only one right way to do the task, there’s no need for the students to really work together. In a complex task with multiple paths to success, individual students will find a place where they shine, whether it be a talent for a particular aspect of the task or leadership and facilitation skills. They will rely on each other  to complete the work and be forced to find ways to work together and get along. They will practice teamwork skills without realizing it because they are being forced to make decisions and support each other at every turn.

The need to work together as a team

This brings me to the next condition. For an activity to create community, it has to be one that students cannot do alone. If one or two students take over and dominate the process, there will be little chance of building a community. Instead, the task should be carefully designed so that every member of the group is needed. There are a number of ways to do this. You can design tasks that rely on students’ individual talents. You ensure each student has one part of the information required to complete the task. Jigsaw activities and information gaps are great ways to do that. Or make the task complex enough that they really need all hands on deck.

The risk of failure

Finally, there has to be a chance that the team will fail. If there’s no risk, there’s no sense of urgency to the task. Now, a risk of failure doesn’t necessarily mean that students will get a 0 if they don’t do a good job. Grades are one way to create a sense of risk, but so it a time-limit, or clear criteria for success. You can also design the task to create a sense of authentic failure. Role plays are a nice way to do this. In a role play, students have to convey information and often do a real-world task. If they cannot communicate effectively, they will fail.

Why is failure important? Well, it’s a motivator because no one likes to fail. It also makes the task meaningful. Arguably, any task that students cannot fail to do is empty busy work. Finally, fear of failure creates a sense of urgency. Urgency is a kind of glue that keeps students working together.


What do you think? What conditions make for a good community building activity? How are you creating community in your classroom?

Hat tip to this great article that helped clarify a lot of my thoughts on this topic.

Originally posted on the Alphabet Publishing Blog

Thanksgiving Lesson Plans and Activities

Thanksgiving Lesson Plans and Activities are always a fun way to teach American culture. But Thanksgiving lessons also raise timeless themes such as gratitude, types of food, and how we celebrate holidays in general. Plus, it’s nice to pop in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving sometimes and have some fun! So here’s some links to some of my most popular Thanksgiving activities and lesson plans.

Thanksgiving Day Lesson Plans and Activities for ESL, EFL, ELA Classes on Teachers Pay TeachersThanksgiving Lesson Plans and Activities


  •  A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving lesson plan is another great activity. The video does a great job of introducing the pilgrims and the Native Americans and the first thanksgiving. It also depicts the religious side of this holiday and the turkey and mashed potatoes. Even the football game is mentioned! You can also have fun introducing the Peanuts characters and running gags. Linus’ blanket, Sally’s crush on Linus, and Lucy always pulling away that football all are here.  There are a number of comprehension questions for students to answer as they watch. There’s also a guide for teachers that breaks the movie into scenes. For each scene, there’s some key vocabulary, major themes, and a summary of the action. You can use it to break the viewing into parts. Or to pre-teach some vocab you think students might need to know. Or ask students to make their own outline of the video and then compare it to your outline.
  • The Missing Mashed Potatoes. This is a clue by clue critical thinking mystery puzzle with a Thanksgiving theme. Maybe you had a favorite dish that you only ate on holidays. And everybody fought to get more than anyone else. In my family, it was the mashed potatoes. That’s what led me to write this mystery where students have to follow the clues to figure out who ate all the mashed potatoes!
  • Looking for a quick warm-up for your Thanksgiving Lesson Plans and Activities? The Thanksgiving Word Association Brainstorm is exactly what it sounds like: A worksheet that asks students to name 5 things they associate with Thanksgiving. It’s a simple activity, but powerful. You can elicit vocabulary, use their answers as discussion prompts, discover misunderstandings your students have, create a word cloud, or ask students to share the reasons for their associations!
  • Word Processing Skills Thanksgiving Day Edition is a fun activity that teaches students basic word processing skills. Students are given a text and rules on how to manipulate that text. In the process, they uncover a mystery message. This one is all about thankfulness! Tired of students that don’t know how to copy-and-paste? Want to make sure they know how to format in 12-point Times New Roman? Try this fun activity out.

FoodThanksgiving Lesson Plans and Activities

  • The Food and Holidays Lesson Plan gives students a chance to talk about their national food, then gives you a chance to discuss Thanksgiving and the traditional foods we eat on that holiday. Finally students get talk about their special holiday meals. It’s a great way to approach Thanksgiving with international students. They may not know a lot about this primarily American holiday, but they do know how to talk about food. It’s also a topic that is accessible to advanced, intermediate and beginner students.
  • One part of the Food and Holidays Lesson Plan is the food and adjectives worksheet. In fact, I’ve designed it in two different ways:  a Food and Adjectives Chart where students fill in words to describe tastes, ways of cooking, ways to describe food.
  • For less advanced students, there’s also a Food Adjectives Cloze Worksheet that gives some more support in the form of sample vocabulary and sentence frames. Students can also graduate from this scaffolded version to the more open Food and Adjectives Chart.

Halloween Logic Puzzle: Light as a Feather

Halloween Logic Puzzle: Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board


Light as a Feather Stiff as a Board is the my first logic puzzle. While thinking of some fun Halloween-themed activities, the party game Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board came to me naturally. What’s more creepy or mysterious than a game where you sit in the dark, tell the story of someone’s death, and then lift them with only your finger? However, rather than a normal clue by clue mystery game, this one evolved into a Halloween Logic Puzzle. It seemed only natural as I imagined the scenario. Everyone is in costume. It’s pitch-black. The police need to figure out who is who before they can say who the mystery is.

What’s a Logic Puzzle?

A logic puzzle, or logic grid puzzle, is a kind of critical thinking activity where students must use clues to match people with facts about them. In this Halloween logic puzzle, students must figure out which costume each person was wearing and where they are sitting. Often it helps to draw a grid to solve this kind of logic puzzle, and I’ve included one with this fun classroom activity.

Why do a Logic Puzzle?

Although this isn’t a typical clue by clue mystery, the benefits still hold. As with all clue by clue mysteries, students are given the situation to analyze. They are then given the clue cards, one at a time. In pairs or small groups, students analyze each clue to try to decide if it’s relevant or irrelevant. They also analyze it to figure out how it helps solve the mystery. It’s a great way for students to practice critical thinking skills. Solving a mystery means evaluating evidence, synthesizing information from different clues, and telling truth from lie and fact from opinion. (Check out my post on Why short mysteries make awesome critical thinking activities for more and a list of all my clue by clue activities). Continue reading “Halloween Logic Puzzle: Light as a Feather”

Halloween Mystery Activity: The Candy Thief

The Halloween Mystery Activity: The Candy Thief is the first clue by clue I wrote with a holiday theme, namely Halloween. It’s also the first one  targeted to younger learners. While trick or treating, a boy is knocked over and his candy stolen. His three friends were wearing costumes so they didn’t see much. But, one of them is lying about what they know.  Can your students find the lie and figure out which one was an accomplice to the robbery?

While the mystery may be aimed at younger learners, the benefits of a clue by clue are clear. As with all clue by clue mysteries, students are given the situation to analyze. They are then given the clue cards, one at a time. In pairs or small groups, students analyze each clue to try to decide if it’s relevant or irrelevant. They also analyze it to figure out how it helps solve the mystery. It’s a great way for students to practice critical thinking skills. Solving a mystery means evaluating evidence, synthesizing information from different clues, and telling truth from lie and fact from opinion. (Check out my post on Why short mysteries make awesome critical thinking activities for more and a list of all my clue by clue activities). Continue reading “Halloween Mystery Activity: The Candy Thief”

Halloween Lesson Plans and Activities for ELA/ESL/EFL

Halloween Lesson Plans and Activities for ELA, EFL and ESL studentsAre you looking for Halloween Lesson Plans and Activities for ELA/ESL/EFL? Here’s a collection of my best-sellers, as well as some new critical thinking mystery games with a Halloween theme. I now keep all my lesson plans on Teachers Pay Teachers, so the links go directly to that site.

Introducing Halloween Lesson Plans and Activities

  • It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown Lesson Plan A complete lesson plan with a warmer, guide to the video, a vocabulary list and activities, comprehension and discussion questions, and ideas for extension activities. I love using Charlie Brown movies to introduce holidays to my international students. It’s also amazing how much they already know about the holidays. Unlike other Charlie Brown films, It’s a Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown doesn’t have much of a moral lesson, but there’s an underlying theme of naive faith and childhood stories that you can get students talking about. It’s also a fun, funny movie to bring a little holiday spirit into the classroom.
  • Halloween True or False My go-to lesson to introduce Halloween to EFL and ESL students. Students are presented with a series of Halloween traditions and have to figure out or research which are real and which are not. This activity lends itself to lots of discussion and can be turned into a webquest easily. Teach research skills and good Internet habits along with your Halloween fun!
  • “This is Halloween” Lyrics Gap-Fill Use the popular Tim Burton song from The Nightmare Before Christmas to introduce Halloween and have some fun. Obviously, this makes for a good listening lesson.
  • My Comprehensive, Highly Adaptable Halloween Lesson Plan which covers a lot of territory from reading scary stories to reviewing Halloween vocabulary to the Halloween True or False lesson. So it’s bits and pieces of things, including some of the other ideas you see here.

Halloween Lesson Plans and Activities for Writing

  • The Movie of Death: This lesson plan uses the genre method of writing to help students analyze a scary story. After reading an example scary story, they look for the key features that make it scary using a worksheet. Then they are ready to write a scary story of their own. The sample story is as silly as the title suggests, so students won’t be too scared by it. But my students come up with some creepy ideas when I do this one with them!
  • Halloween Process Essay If you’re teaching the process essay, here’s a way to give it a Halloween flair. Students assemble and then read an essay on how to make a mask. You can even make masks with them in class if you want.
  • Scary Story Writing Prompts to inspire students to write or tell a story. You can also use them for chain stories.

Critical Thinking Lesson Plans for Halloween

  • The Candy Thief Halloween Mystery Someone stole a bag of candy from a trick-or-treater. There were three witnesses but one of them is lying. Can your students follow the clues and figure out who did it? This lesson is one of my best-selling, critically teacher-acclaimed clue by clue lessons, targeted for a slightly younger audience. It’s a great critical thinking and discussion activity. This version is in PDF so you can download and print it. There’s also a  PowerPoint version to display in class.
  • Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board A creepy Halloween murder mystery. Who stabbed the victim in the dark while they were playing the popular Halloween game. This one takes the form of a logic puzzle. Can your students use the clues to match the name to the costume and seating position? And then figure out Whodunit?

Reading Activities for Halloween

  • Scary Stories adapted for intermediate students. These are short urban-legend-style scary stories each only a couple of paragraphs long. Have students read them and then retell them, act them out, or illustrate them.

And if you like the clue by clue mysteries like The Candy Thief and Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board, you can find links to the others on this post about Clue by Clue Critical Thinking Activities. You can also visit the Halloween section of my Teachers Pay Teachers store.

What are your favorite Halloween Lesson Plans and Activities? If you’ve used any of mine in the classroom, please leave a comment and let me know how it went.

Clue by Clue Mysteries: Critical Thinking Activities

What are Clue by Clues

Clue by Clues are fun mystery games I came up with to share my love of solving mysteries with my classes. They also are perfect critical thinking activities! Clue by Clues make great warm-up activities, fillers, or time killers for those last minutes of class and early finishers.

Students work in small groups to solve a puzzle or mystery The catch is that they are given each clue one at a time. This slows down the mystery solving process, meaning students spend more time discussing each clue and revising their theories. And that means more time using critical thinking skills. It also means more talk time as students discuss the importance of each clue and reevaluate their previous ideas. And of course, try to persuade others of their point of view.

Each Clue by Clue Activity is available to download and print. Inside you’ll find an introduction to the mystery for students to read, clue cards to distribute to students, hints to help them along, a full solution, and some follow-up discussion questions to extend the lesson. Each activity comes with complete teacher notes on how to use it.

Why Clue by Clues?

Research shows that a good critical thinking activity is one where students evaluate a range of facts and opinions (Moore and Parker, 1986), combine ideas in various ways (Smith, Ward and Finke, 1995), use complex thinking patterns (Feldman, 1997),  and express or defend their opinions with evidence (Lipman, 1988).

Continue reading “Clue by Clue Mysteries: Critical Thinking Activities”

Setting the Tone on Day One (and Keeping it Going)

Do-nows are one of my most important go-to teaching tools. They aren’t suitable for every lesson in every classroom in the world. But when they do work, they solve one of the biggest problems a teacher can face: How to get students to transition smoothly into class time.

The Problem

When I first started teaching, I did a lot of one-to-one tutoring. So my first time teaching a big class took some adjusting. I got to class ten minutes early, and students started shuffling in shortly thereafter. As they came in, they threw down their bags on their desks and started congregating in the back to chat. Some students sat down, but leaned sideways in their desks to talk across the aisle. A few students would come in to cries of, “Hey, Peter. What’s going on?” A handful of students would come in, settle into their seats, getting out books and pencils. But as class hadn’t quite started yet, the quickly got bored and started playing on their cellphones or doodling.

When it came time to start class, no one was looking up at me and there was quite a bit of background noise. After trying to talk over it several times with no result, I ended up turning out the lights. That quieted them down, but it was hardly a permanent solution.

The Solution: Do-Nows

Instead of letting students get distracted in all that dead time before class, give them a focus as soon as they walk into class. That’s what a do-now (or bell ringer) is: an activity students do as they walk in the door. It sets the tone for the class–this is a place where we work. There’s a nice story here that suggests that do-nows are particularly effective on the first day of school because they set the tone for the whole school year.

What Makes a Good Do-Now?

They Do it on Their Own

In order for students to be able to do a do-now as they walk in, it needs to be a clear task that students can do with no input from the teacher. That means the directions should be available and obvious, whether it be on the board or on a handout. They shouldn’t need to check their answers with you from part one in order to go on to part two, either. A do-now is something they can do on their own, while you are getting ready for class. (I gather these are sometimes called teacherless tasks (And Rachel Roberts has a rather nice post up on what makes a good teacherless task).

One great way to make sure students grasp the task without teacher input is to have a limited set of kinds of Do-Now activities. In my classroom, if students walk into class and see a proverb on the board, they know that their job is to interpret the meaning and decide if they agree or disagree. If they see a word cloud, they know they must guess the connection or the theme of the class.

BoredGirlFBBeing able to do it on their own also means that they shouldn’t need any additional materials. Everything they need should be readily available to them. A student can’t do something now, if they are waiting on something you give them, or even waiting for a partner to arrive. Ideally, they shouldn’t need anything more than a pen and perhaps a handout that you leave in a conspicious location. Since do-nows are a sort of warm-up activity, you don’t want students spending 10 minutes finding a book on the bookshelf or collecting objects around the room or looking up a lot of information on a website. You also don’t want to give students an excuse not to do the activity, so make sure they have everything they need.

Real Work, Just Faster

Doing it on their own also means that the activity is leveled to the students. It shouldn’t be too hard for the student to need assistance, but not too easy to be boring. And there should be a clear time limit. I like a good do-now that takes 10 minutes, with the possibility of an extension. My rule of thumb is 5 minutes before class time and 5 minutes into class.

A good do-now shouldn’t be busy work. It should relate to the theme of the class. Some teachers use class activities or test questions as do-nows. As an English teacher, I like using a do-now that is a bit more fun and engaging than a typical grammar activity, for example.  But my do-nows always have students working with the English language. It shouldn’t be meaningless fun. Students shouldn’t feel that they have wasted their time.

In fact, some teachers argue that a do-now should result in written output which is assessed by the teacher. Otherwise, students will not take it seriously. I don’t necessarily agree that every time you start class, you need an activity that requires an output and a grade. But there should definitely be some result that is a t the very least discussed openly in class.schoolgirlwithbook800x600

The Perfect Do-Now

My go-to do-now is a proverb or quotation on the board. As I mentioned, students can then figure out what it means and decide if they agree or not. Then we discuss it briefly. I then try to link the proverb to the theme of the class.

Other great follow-ups include:

  • Translate the proverb into your language
  • Think of a proverb from your culture that is similar.
  • Think of a story that proves or disproves the proverb
  • Since proverbs often contain an idiom or metaphor or some nonstandard grammar, we can talk about that language feature and try to use it elsewhere.

If you’re looking for a collection of quick and easy do-nows, check out my book, On the Board. It’s full of 200 proverbs, brain-teasers, riddles, puzzles, and jokes that make perfect fast, no-prep do-nows for your classroom!

And share your ideas for do-nows in the comments.

Cross-posted on the Alphabet Publishing blog