How important is building middle school community? Here’s a story of two radically different school years. First is my first year teaching eighth grade. My. Students. Hated. Me. Everything I tried to teach them was met with brash defiance. Kids would constantly refuse to do any work in my class or accept any consequences for behavior. I remember one week being excited that ten homework assignments were turned in—out of 120 students! Then there was the time one of my students leapt out of his seat, grabbed the American flag hanging in my room, and ran circles around the classroom, screaming at the top of his lungs. This sums up my welcome to eighth grade.
The next school year, students loved being in my classroom. They respected me and rose to the high expectations I placed on them. Students consistently turned in completed homework . I loved being at school every day. The difference? This second year, we eighth grade teachers banded together to create a middle school community in which all students felt a deep sense of belonging.
Human Hungry Hippos. Kids covering each other’s faces with shaving cream and seeing how many cheese balls they can stick to cheeks, chins, and foreheads. Students using toilet paper to turn other students into snowmen. Popular boys publicly practicing their best “pickup lines” without realizing they are part of a hilarious practical joke. All during the school day. This is the forming of a rock-solid middle school community.
I have become convinced that one of the greatest sources of adolescent misbehavior is the feeling of not belonging. Everyone (teens especially!) has an innate need to feel that he or she belongs to something bigger than his- or herself. With this need unmet, defiant and disruptive behaviors often emerge—the inner child crying out to be noticed, accepted, and valued.
I believe that teachers can combat a majority of the disruptive behaviors that drive us to our wits’ end by creating a robust middle school community that students can feel part of. This turns school into a type of refuge that kids enjoy coming to, regardless of what life at home is like. If they enjoy being at school, they have little incentive to act up! Since my grade level began focusing on building middle school community, we have seen noticeable results. Students have become more respectful, they have been putting more effort into their work, and a general feeling of joy has begun to permeate all aspects of our day. Here’s how we create our middle school community:
- Homeroom Identity
First, each homeroom creates an identity together. We spend significant time at the beginning of the year developing this identity through selecting a symbol or mascot, coming up with cheers, creating banners, and engaging in fun team-building activities. Each year, our grade level has each homeroom choose a superhero to represent it. This is something that students can quickly become pretty passionate about! The first year we started this, my homeroom chose Hulk. I will forever have fond memories of the Hulk Squad: the giant Hulk fist we created to display at our assemblies, the Hulk “piggy bank” we used to collect pennies for Penny Wars (and then smashed!), the cheers we came up with together and shouted with intense passion, and of course the “brick wall” we created out of shoe boxes to burst through at our end of year assembly! These are the stories students (and teachers!) hang on to for years to come.
- Daily Competition
Homerooms earn points each day based on exemplary behavior and progress in class. At our school, homerooms generally stay together in each of their core classes. We use a very simple rubric based on teamwork and effort in which homerooms can earn one, two, or three points per core class. At the close of each class, teachers review with the students whether they earned points or not. If your homerooms do not stay together through the day, you might allow individuals to earn points for their homerooms for exemplary performance (think Harry Potter!) The only thing we do with points is announce the top three homerooms at the end of each month. This is often the only necessary incentive to motivate students to earnestly strive to earn them.
- Monthly Assemblies
Our middle school community hinges on our monthly Superhero assemblies, which students eagerly look forward to. Homerooms proudly display their banners, emphatically shout their cheers, and compete wildly in wacky games together. If these assemblies are done well, homeroom identities are even more firmly established, students work even harder each day to earn points, and, ultimately, an entire grade level identity emerges. The assembly should be planned in great detail so things move quickly and crisply. Each assembly should have some kind of crazy game that students would never expect to see in school (see third paragraph). We like to start each year with Human Hungry Hippos: a plethora of balloons in the middle of the room, each homeroom represented by a hippo belly-down on a skateboard holding a plastic bin and a driver holding his legs, all competing to collect the most balloons! We also give out certificates to selected individuals for achievement, effort, and character. The assembly concludes by announcing which homeroom earned the most points for that month—and wild cheering from the victors!
- Homeroom Incentives
At different times throughout the year, morale seems low and it feels our middle school community needs an extra shot in the arm. Disrespect and indifference is higher than usual and threatens to sabotage what we’ve been building all year. This is when we give the homerooms an extra incentive to band together and stop being so grumpy. For example, we might issue a homeroom challenge on Monday that the homeroom with the most points by Friday gets an extra twenty minutes to go outside and play a game together. I don’t say extra recess here because a game gives community a double bolster. Not only do students begin working harder together all week to earn points, but the winners get to strengthen their community all the more by playing some silly game together (last year, my homeroom LOVED playing Shark and Minnows—eighth graders!!) I remember tingles going down my spine during one of my homeroom’s earned game times as I watched two of my roughest, coolest, don’t-mess-with-me boys running with wide grins across the Shark and Minnows field, being chased by two of my nerdier students, and everyone else gleefully cheering. This is when you know community is working!
- Teacher Buy-In
None of this, of course, is possible without all teachers 100% behind it. Middle-schoolers are obsessively self-conscious and scared to death of standing out. When the teachers are all in, encouraging kids to stop taking themselves so seriously and be a little crazy, the students will slowly start to follow suit. Most likely, at first it’s the teachers coming up with the class cheers and rallying the students together. But after a month or two, the kids start taking ownership. Each homeroom teacher should be equipping class leaders to begin taking charge in different aspects of the community until reaching the point of being entirely student led.
Truth be told, it’s a lot of work up front to build a rock-solid middle school community. But the rewards far exceed the labor. Once you’ve established the community, the sky is the limit for what you can achieve with your students! Do you have experience building middle school community? What have you found to work?