“Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.” ― Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
Every teacher has been there. August rolls around and we Google “Icebreakers for the classroom” delete. “How to start the school year right” delete, delete. “Tips for creating community in a classroom.” And given this last year plus a few months you probably added “during online school” to one of those.
I am by no means an expert in secondary education, and believe me, I’ve bombed a few of the first week’ ideas I’ve had, but something I’ve learned is that if you want to create community in your classroom in the first week of school, tell your students that. At the start of the new school year, say that you want to create a community where everyone feels like they belong.
Reread that quote at the beginning of this article again. If there is ever a time when we want community and to find a place where we are safe and belong, it's when you’re a teenager. Maybe even the thought of it is bringing back some warm or possibly painful memories for you. Remember your students are knee-deep in the struggle of fitting in vs. belonging. When do they feel like they need to change themselves to fit in? Where are places when they can just be themselves and feel welcomed? You get to decide which space your classroom will be.
After reading another one of Brene Brown’s books, Dare to Lead, I found a poster on her website that teachers can download for free that reads “Be here. Be you. Belong. This classroom belongs to us all.” I even decided that this poster was too small and made a banner that lined the front of my room. Ever since I have taken the first week to explain what it means and what it looks like in practice.
Ask your students ‘when is a time when you felt like you had to change yourself because you wanted to fit in?’ and there will be no shortage of answers maybe from a few years ago or just yesterday, again they’re in the middle of this as teenagers.
Then ask ‘what does belonging feel like? How is it different from the experiences of fitting in?’ And you’ll hear stories of acceptance, joy, and safety.
Give students the opportunity to talk about these experiences either in partners or small groups and then share out. What is important is that they hear from one another what belonging feels like before your class as a whole commits to creating a space of belonging. When students feel accepted for who they are and free from judgement they are more likely to engage in discussion, raise their hand and dialogue with their peers. Bottomline, they are more likely to problem solve, create, and work together if they feel like they belong.
If this sounds like a hard conversation to have in the first week, especially if you’re teaching Algebra or AP Chemistry, I promise it is worth it in the end no matter what you teach. Maybe don’t do it on the first day but if by that first Friday everyone has heard what fitting in and belonging feels like from their peers, they have heard you outline that you want your their classroom to be a place of belonging, and finally ask each person to commit themselves to creating an accepting, joyfilled and safe place to learn, you have already created a classroom community.
Be honest. Tell students that you want everyone to contribute to a community of belonging. That this matters to you.
Ask: What does belonging vs. fitting in feel like? Make sure responses are heard by everyone.
Move from these feelings to behaviors and expectations so that it is clear what everyone must and must not do to keep the sense of belonging.
Want Deeper Icebreaker Questions for Middle School and High School Students? Try These:
When was a time where you felt comfortable just being yourself? What did it feel like?
Why do you think people struggle to find belonging?
When is a time when you changed yourself to fit in? Looking back would you do anything differently?
What can you do to create a sense of belonging in this class? What are things you can avoid doing that might crush a sense of belonging?