Instilling a Sense of Belonging

My awesome Period 5 World History class

This society is broken. I mean, just look around…many people (adults and children) are feeling isolated and alone. Why is that? I don’t think we can solely blame the pandemic on this. Social media was already influencing how users perceived themselves as they compared their lives with others. As adults, you’d think that we have the skills to be able to separate fact from fiction–but not everyone has these skills. But this post isn’t about adults…it’s about children.

Having taught middle schoolers for the past 27 years, I can attest that the pressure to be perfect has only increased for these impressionable kids. They are looking at snapshots of a person’s life…comparing their reality with the fantasy. And no amount of talking is going to convince these kids that they need to only be concerned about their personal growth and achievements and not others’.

What is needed is a concerted effort by everyone to provide these impressionable kids with the skills necessary to look beyond the fiction and focus on what’s important–being a better version of themselves today than yesterday.

The first two administrators that I had as a young teacher pointed out that I was able to build a good rapport with my students. I used to think “thanks for the kudos!” but over time I gained a better understanding of why it’s so important to build rapport and relationships with my students.

Having taught in Title I schools for my entire career, I came across too many kids who:

  • Came from broken homes
  • Were being raised by a grandparent
  • Lived below the poverty line
  • Slept on a couch because they didn’t have bed
  • Shared a living space with their family in a garage-conversion
  • Did not have a warm breakfast
  • Lacked proper shoes or clothing for the weather
  • And the list goes on and on…

Yet, these kids showed up to school day in and day out.

So, what I made a goal for myself to greet each and every student who came through my door. Sometimes I stood at my door during the passing period so that I could chat with my kids outside; other times, I would walk around the room as the kids got settled in their desks and I would offer a compliment or ask them how they were doing. If I didn’t get a chance to touch base with a student before class started, I made a concerted effort during class to talk with them–sometimes it was class-related and other times I simply gave them a compliment or positive praise.

I can’t remember where I heard this…it was probably a TED Talk, but I recall an educator saying that it’s so important for teachers to greet their students because sometimes that’s the only positive interaction that child may have for the entire day.

And that thought makes me so sad.

But I can’t change their home life, and I cannot control what happens outside of my classroom. But I can control what happens inside my class–regardless if that’s a physical classroom or a virtual learning space.

One of the means that I used to build community was through the creation of a class photo in Pixton. In middle school, we don’t have class pictures–and it’s so easy for students to feel lost or alone in a school of 800 – 1200 kids. But being the competitive person that I am, I always try to instill in my students that our class period is THE BEST and that we’re a little family who takes care of each other. We begin with a class identity and then we work on a world history “family” identity that transcends class periods. I want kids to feel like they belong somewhere.

We begin developing our family identity through the creation of avatars that can be put together in a class photo. This is where Pixton is amazing. Students can choose different options to create an avatar that is personalized to how they are in reality or even their alter-ego. Then all I have to do is go through Pixton to create a class photo of all those avatars.

Take a look another look at a Pixton class photo of my incredible Period 1 World History class–notice how their individual personalities shine through the simple creation of an avatar.

My incredible Period 1 World History class

I used these class photos in our LMS and it served as the banner image in our Google Classroom as well. This way, students always saw that they were apart of something bigger than themselves.

If you haven’t tried Pixton yet, I encourage you to do so! It free (yay!) and it’s so easy to use. There are other features in Pixton that you and your students can use to support their learning, but for me, Pixton was the means to begin building a sense of belonging for my middle schoolers.

If you’re interested in learning more about how I build a sense of belonging with my students, please check out a workshop I am hosting through EdTechTeacher: Building Community in Your Classroom – SEL in Action. This three-day virtual workshop is July 11, 12, and 14. I hope to see you there!

And if you cannot make it, please don’t hesitate to reach out. I am happy to share the various things I used to help build a sense of belonging for my students.

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