Relationships Before Rigor: 15 Ways to Build Classroom Community and Celebrate Our Students in Person and Online

The title says it all. Relationships have to come before the rigor. It goes back to Maslows over Blooms. You have to think heart ❤️️ first before brain 🧠. In my seven years of teaching and learning from my fellow school and district colleagues as well as various professional learning experiences, I feel I have a wide variety of tools in my tool belt. Whether you are a brand new teacher this coming school year or want to get some fresh ideas, here are some that are go-to activities for me when it comes to building relationships and community in the classroom from the start.

Start with"Hello"

1. “Meet ’em at the door”

The first thing students should see before going into your class is you! Your smile, your warmth, your care. “Meet ’em at the door” is something my school site has committed to doing, especially at the start of the year but I try my very best to continue it on every day and every period all year. This is a wonderful way to have that 1-1 connection time with students right away. As they come in, have a “Do Now” or bellringer up on the projector so students know what they should be doing as you meet your students and then take attendance. Think of a “First Five” students might be able to do.

Digital Considerations:

  • Virtually introduce yourself with a door sign and video: Students might come to your door BEFORE the start of the school year like during registration. So, virtually meet ’em at the door by putting a fun sign that scans/links to a video of you! Consider using Flipgrid or another screencast tool, paste your video link into a free QR code generator. Plus, so many of us created Bitmoji classrooms/Bitmoji’s, so you can display it this way as well!
  • Fully virtual tips: As students are coming into the digital space, say each students’ individual name. Ask them to private chat you to say hello.
  • Name pronunciations and introductions: Use Flipgrid to have students pronounce their name. These can be with a video or audio-only if students are feeling camera shy. This way, you will know the correct pronunciation and name they wish to go by.

2. Name Tents

It might sound simple, but allowing students to write their name on a big piece of paper and then folding it and putting it up on their desk will help you, the teacher, start to have more of a visual aide. It can also be a great way start building identity and class community. You can use the real estate on the name tent to your benefit. Ask students to put low-risk facts in each corner (ex: top left – Elementary School, top right – a hobby, bottom left – favorite song or movie, bottom right – favorite food). A tip I also learned from a teacher in my credential program is to have a space inside the table tent to communicate with me for the first two weeks of school. I tell students they can ask me a question, tell me a concern (ex: I prefer to sit close to the board), or just have a conversation with me. I also ask them to give me an emoji of how their day is going. You can also give them a question of the day and have them respond in the tent. Here is a free template. I recommend printing on card stock so the tents stick up. This is also helpful because when students come in, you can have them do an individual task as you pass out their name tents. This can be a great way to connect 1-1 with students and learn their names.

Digital Considerations: I do feel there is great value in the paper tents, but digital options allow us to have more space and variety of sharing. You can use Google Slides, Jamboard, or Padlet and give one student a Slide/Jam/Sticky on a Padlet. Note: Jamboard is limited to 25 Jamboard slides per one whole Jamboard.

  1. Digital Name Tent Template
  2. Digital “All About Me” Pin Board with Google Slides
  3. Bitmoji Virtual Locker
  4. Padlet Virtual Name Tents
  5. As mentioned above, Flipgrid for students to introduce themselves. Tip #1: Give them some sentence frames to go off of and give them the video or audio option Tip #2: Students can use the share screen feature to discuss their name tents they made in 1, 2, or 3

Teacher tips for remembering names: Some tips that have worked for me memorizing 120+ names is to start early and use the association memory method. If you have the opportunity to get your class list before the first day of school with student pictures, you are lucky! Print that list and start memorizing right away. Try to remember names by connecting them with other people with the same/similar name or something else you can associate it with. Ex: A student Noelle I might think of Christmas to help me connect and remember.

3. Name Snake

It is essential we know our students’ names and they know each other’s names. The last thing you want is for a student to say, “Who is that?” when you refer to another student in your class.

The “name snake”: The name snake is where you start with one student saying their name (ex: Jonny), and then a student next to them repeating that first students’ name and then saying their own (ex: Jonny, Sophie). Then, a third student next to the second student says the first two names and then their own (ex: Jonny, Sophie, Silvia). This repeats until all students have had a turn. What I will say is if you have a student who is brand new to the school or just a little shyer, they can “skip” or the class can help if you feel like that is going to be more low risk, high comfort. You can also give students an opportunity to volunteer to be some of the last to go, which is obviously the hardest. My extroverts are always up for this challenge!

Digital Considerations: Students can record videos or audio recordings on Flipgrid. See Tip #2 above for ideas on virtual name tents. With Flipgrid, students can watch and/or listen to each other’s videos and reply back. Give sentence frames/scaffolds for this reply such as:

  • Hi _________. (Pronounce name correctly, re-watch/listen to video if needed)
  • I heard you say _________. (Repeat something back to classmate that they said)
  • Connection or celebration: I also __________. / I am excited ___________.

4. Pair Up and Square Up

After students make their name tents, have them pair up. An idea is to have them find their “Sole Mate,” which is someone with similar shoes as them. This is one of many tips I’ve learned from the amazing AVID Educators. Put a digital timer up for 3 minutes. I use for a digital timer as well as directions. Have one partner share first (you can scaffold and say the youngest, person with the darkest hair, etc. shares first or let them pick). Give three minutes for the first person to share. If there is extra time, tell the partner that was listening to repeat back the information as they will be sharing this with another pair soon. Give three more minutes for the second partner to share. Once enough time has been given to pairs, ask students to square up to create a group of four. Allow for each partner to teach the new pair about what they learned. This is a great strategy to build listening and speaking skills.

Digital Considerations: Breakout Rooms! First with pairs, then with quads. You may want to do self-select and have the pairs and quads picked out already. You can use to randomly generate your pairs and then put “pair 1 and pair 2 together.” Video support.

Pair Up then Square Up

5. Blanket Name Game

Oh, this is a fun one! All you’ll need is a big blanket that is not transparent and some space for students to sit on the floor. Divide the class into two groups and have them move on either side of the blanket. Have two volunteers hold a blanket up. Divide the class into two groups. Each group has someone volunteer to “go.” The blanket hides who is on each side. As soon as it comes down, the first person to correctly say the name gets a point! At the end of the time, the team with the most points wins. So fun. So many laughs. You’ll likely want to do the name snake prior to doing this so it builds on their knowledge.

Get Them Moving!

6. Four Corners

Four corners is a collaborative learning structure that can be used in a variety of ways. To start building class community, you can ask non-content related questions such as their favorite season, food, subject, etc. You can also relate this to your content if you see fit! For example, if you’re a 6th grade social studies teacher, explain all of the places they are going to learn about and give them the options to travel to Ancient Greece, Egypt, etc. and front load some things to expect in each place. If you feel like you have the community in place, feel free to allow students to speak up and say why they picked that corner.

Digital Considerations: You can use Jamboard to actually have students select a sticky note to put their name on it and then move that sticky into the corner. You can also use the grey space in Google Slides to have students move their names. You can also conduct a poll. Poll Everywhere is a free polling tool. Once students select their corner, open 4 breakout rooms and allow students to respond to the debrief questions or as a student from each corner to share out in the whole group.

  • Physical Four Corners in Google Slides – An example of how you can personalize slides, display the slides to the class, and have students physically move and then discuss in groups once they move to their corner
  • Virtual Four Corners in Google Jamboard (pictured above) – Make a copy and change to “anyone with the link can edit” (can keep this in your domain so you can see edit history). Say what each corner represents, even add to the template by adding a textbox. Students choose a sticky, double click, type their name, and move to the corner. You can use one Jam or multiple.
  • Virtual Four Corners in Google Slides – Make a copy and change to “anyone with the link can edit” (can keep this in your domain so you can see edit history). Use the Zoom out button to see the name “stickies” in the grey space. Allow students to choose a sticky, double click, type their name, and move to the corner. You can use one slide or multiple.

7. This or That/Would You Rather

This or That/Would You Rather is very similar to Four Corners as it asks students to choose between one or the other. You can again make this completely random questions like “Ruffles or Lays” or content-related. My AVID elective class did one on colleges. If in person, you can have students actually stand and move to a side of the room.

Digital Considerations: Similar to Four Corners above – see notes above for same implementation strategies just different templates

Would You Rather using grey space in Google Slides

8. The Skittles Game/Candy Conversations

Give students 5-7 skittles of various colors. You can have them in paper dixie cups when students enter to make it easier and faster. Then, project what you’d like each skittle to represent. You can do this at the beginning of the year as an ice-breaker with fun facts questions or even as a community builder as you ask empowerment questions about the class community. Some questions: Share one great memory, share a memory about a classmate that had a positive impact, share one thing you appreciate about your classmates, an academic goal for the remainder of the grading period, a personal goal in the next month. You can have students pair up and choose a skittle, speak to the prompt, and then play the music to transition and repeat until all skittles are gone!

Digital Considerations: D-Ice Breakers below works well as a modification if the candy is not available or if you’re concerned of food allergies

Free “Candy Conversations About Kindness” and editable Google Slides

9. D-Ice Breakers

D-Ice Breakers is similar to the skittles game, but instead of skittles you have a dice! You can have a physical dice or virtual using Each student takes a turn rolling and answers the question. The questions can be totally random and fun or content related!

Digital Considerations: This works great in breakout rooms with groups of 4-5! Use a tech tool like Padlet or a discussion board to gather ideas from your students! Padlet example

10. Mingle Bingo/Human Bingo

Create a bingo card with general questions on it. Some ideas: I have a dog, I’m an only child, I have traveled to another state, etc. Have students mingle around and get signatures from their peers on the bingo card. You can have students try to get bingo first, black out, or get to a lucky number.

Digital Considerations: You can put this into a Google Doc or even upload it into Kami for students to mark the text digitally as they add their classmates’ names. This works great in breakout rooms! If you can give breakout rooms 2 minutes each and put students in pairs or triads, find their match if they have any, and then continue the process as you open up new rooms. Or, if you have the option of students selecting their own room, you could give each room a column. Ex: “B” on the bingo board could be room 1. So anyone who needs to find someone for column “B” could move to room 1.

11. Line ’em up!

Pick an order in which students should line up – height, birthday, alphabetical by first or last name. Ask students to not speak as they line up. Challenge them with times as they go into different lines. You can do one line a day and see which one they did the fastest! You can do this as a class competition by dividing the class into two lines as well! Pictured below is an image from ClassroomScreen has SO many “widgets.” These are just a few.

Celebrate the class community

12. Collaborative Social Contract

Allowing students to have a say in their “Classroom Contract” or “Classroom Constitution” is key. You will have more student buy-in if you do this together and allow student voices to be heard and felt heard. This is much more effective than creating a set of rules yourself and giving them to your students. An idea for a classroom social contract brainstorm is to use chart paper and sticky notes or the technology mentioned below. You can create 4 charts. On the top, they can say something like “What do I need from my peers to be successful?” “What do I need from my teacher to be successful?” “What do I need from my family to be successful?” “What are core values we should uphold every day?” Then, students can be given four sticky notes and post their stickies on the chart paper. You can then read through them and come up with the top 5-8 agreements/themes you see. You can type and print these out on a paper/poster and students can all sign the bottom. This can be put in a special place in the classroom and referenced throughout the year.

Digital Considerations: Use Padlet using the shelf feature to allow students to type their responses. Gather ideas on a collaborative word cloud generator like AnswerGarden. Take a snip of the contract, put it in Google Drawing and allow students to type their signature. Or, put it in Kami and allow students to all edit and write their signatures. Put the contract somewhere in your LMS or on the home page for students to see every day. If students have an eBinder, they can put this in their eBinder on a “Classroom Community” page. Final tip: You can download all of the words or copy and paste them and add them to an AnswerGarden or a word cloud generator like

Virtual for 2020-2021 school year

13. Class Birthday Chart

Our students love to be celebrated. There are different ways to celebrate them and birthdays is something most students celebrate. However, before reading on, it’s important to note not ALL students do celebrate birthdays, so check out this article on “What to Do When a Student Doesn’t Celebrate Holidays“. Also, see the student survey linked below that asks when their birthday is and IF they celebrate it. Collect birthdays at the start of the year. You can do this a simple poster that is divided into twelve boxes or there are some you can purchase and hang on the wall. You can also consider the digital version below. At the start of each day, check to see if it’s a students birthday and have a celebration ready on your agenda page. For summer birthdays, consider having a summer birthday celebration at the end of the year. I had them a little card I made with my Bitmoji and a birthday pencil. It might not seem like much to you, but it will be everything to them in that moment and beyond.

Digital Consideration: Create a Birthday Padlet with 12 shelves, one shelf per month. Allow students to post their birthday as well as a favorite birthday memory or moment. Collect birthdays in a Google Form and move that into Google Sheets to easily sort the information. To be mindful to ask if students celebrate birthdays and holidays, you can add this question to your form, “Do you celebrate your birthday?” (yes, no question). “Do you celebrate holidays and, if so, what are some of the top holidays you celebrate?” (short answer). See if your LMS or grading system has a list of student birthdays you can download.

Birthday card you can fold, bulk print, and write in

14. Class Cultures and World Map

Celebrating our students’ cultures is part of their identity, and that matters to them. Consider having a world map in your classroom and allowing students to place a pin on where they are from and/or their heritage. In a US history class, this is really neat to do to see all of the places their families came from.

Digital Consideration: Padlet has a map feature and students can place a pin on the map as well as a caption to say who lived here and expand on the story. I loved how dynamic the map became and students loved to see pins next to theirs to connect with others who they might not have known they have similarities with. You can pull this map up throughout the year and celebrate cultures.

15. Physical and Virtual Celebrations

I love a good AVID clap. My students love that I love a good AVID clap because they get giggles watching me. Thanks to my AVID colleagues, I have a long list of AVID claps in my toolkit! I always used these in person, but it became more important than ever to celebrate students during distance learning. Here is a list of Celebrations and Affirmations that was compiled by AVID Staff Developers.

🌮 “Taco” about good work 🌮

🚀That was…🌎👽 Out of this world!

  🎯 Right on


🎸 Way to Rock

📸picture perfect📸

That answer was hot!🔥🔥🔥

🦅Way to soar…. 🦅

🦄 Way to be UNIque! 🦄

🏆🏆 Winner winner  🍗chicken dinner!

🦋 flies but you soar! All the way up!🎈

Digital Considerations: Have students bookmark the link above and celebrate in the chat or turn their cameras on and do a physical clap all together! Use the Chrome extension Confetti! Confetti all over… What else? It will have confetti “rain” all over your screen. So fun!!

Do you have any favorite community builders or resources that support some of the strategies mentioned? Share your ideas below!

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