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Building a sense of community in your middle school classroom

June 27, 2019 34 Comments

Building a sense of community in your middle school classroom

June 27, 2019 34 Comments

instagram and instant bonding

How an Instagram of four stuffed animals warmed the hearts of even my toughest 8th graders.

Instagram image of the class pets

The introductions

Mix one quirky English teacher and a long New England winter, and you get CLASS PETS. I can’t pinpoint the moment the idea came to me, but I vividly remember my husband’s reaction as I started ordering stuffed animals from Amazon. “Stuffed animals, for your 8th graders?” But my students are rarely surprised by my antics, and I knew they would be on board. Strengthening relationships among the various cliques in middle school is hard, but possible. Building a sense of community in my classroom is essential because when students feel like they belong, they learn!

It all started with Flat Stanley

I remember when my son was in the 2nd grade, and we received Flat Stanley in the mail from my nephew in Florida. For those of you who don’t know Flat Stanley, it’s a children’s book about a boy who is flattened by a bulletin board, and finds being flat brings endless possibilities. Our assignment was to show Flat Stanley around our Rhode Island town and take pictures of his adventures. When Stanley returned to Florida, he had been on a hayride in a pumpkin patch and out to dinner at our favorite Chinese restaurant. I hoped this cute childhood project would translate to my 13-year-old students. My mind began to race with all the adventures our class pets could go on with my 105 students!

social media as the hook

When it comes to social media, I’m what my students call “old school”. I use Facebook to keep in touch with family and childhood friends, but that’s about it. And as my students love to point out, only “old” people use Facebook. I knew Instagram would be the perfect place to share our photos, so I’d need to learn how to use it. Even though my knowledge of Instagram was sparse, I could take a good photo and use filters… so the pets had their first photo shoot.

our friends needed names

The students arrived Monday morning to the plush faces of the Class Pets. I explained that wherever they took the pets, if they sent me pictures of their adventures, I’d post them to our Instagram page. For safety reasons, the only rule was there couldn’t be any people in any of the pictures. But before the pets could leave school on their first adventures, they needed names. I sent the students a Google form (attached for you to make your own) with pictures of each pet and they began listing possible names. When the votes were tallied, these were the names selected.

Instagram image of the pets

Aidan was named after a favorite student on the team who was lovingly called The Goat. Flash was the perfect name for the sloth as we were studying irony, and Bubbles and Sprinkles rounded out the foursome. I didn’t know the ins and outs of Instagram; however, I stood in front of 105 young adults who did! They taught me how to swipe up, left, and right, as well as post Instagram Stories.

new england sports fans

My students began bringing the pets to all of their sporting events. They became mascots for every soccer, softball, basketball, and hockey team, and even their teammates from other schools began following the pets on Instagram. Each of the pets was invited to a Super Bowl Party and cheered on Tom Brady and The Patriots as they won their 6th Super Bowl.

discovering something new

The pets made the rounds participating in the students’ hobbies from playing chess to drama club to learning the violin, drums, and piano. They learned to play cards, cook, and do ballet. And on one especially cold night, Bubbles was given a sweater just his size. As the pets learned how to play Minecraft and Fortnite, the conversations among the different groups of gamers began. Which was better: PS4, XBOX or PC? Before I knew it, they were exchanging gamer tags to play together after school.

showing their creativity

I knew my students were imaginative, but I wasn’t prepared for the student who was doing her homework on The American Revolution to have Bubbles battle the Red Coats. Bubbles was an immediate favorite as students used his tusk to play ping pong, fence, and sing along to “The Narwhal Song”.

the unexpected

Each week I saw the followers on Instagram grow as the pets made their way into the lives of my students. The pets attended birthday parties, movies, and the theater, but I was not expecting the students’ parents and siblings to follow as well. One morning a student left Flash in the car, and her mother brought him to her job as a financial planner… and sent me pictures to post. Another week I got an email from a parent asking if Flash could come home with her son that weekend because they had a lot of fun activities planned for St. Joseph’s Day. This little community far exceeded the walls of Room 210.

#bringbubbleshome

Instagram image of the narwhal

The pets traveled all over the country from vacations to Kentucky and Florida to soccer tournaments in New Hampshire and Cape Cod. They even accompanied the returning RI State Science Olympiad Team to nationals in Cornell, NY. So, it was not a surprise when one went missing, but it warmed my heart to see the students sharing an assortment of hashtags about Bubbles disappearance.

Come spring, a new friend came to town. He was Gothic in nature, and the students decided on the name Midnight. Thankfully, Bubbles was found under a student’s bed by their cleaning lady. What I thought would be a fun weekend activity began to work its way into my class. Students began grabbing the pets during a test or a particularly tough day. They would even face the pets towards the TV during a movie so they could watch too. I feared the pets might only appeal to the girls on my team, but it was the boys who showed the most heart. As the year came to a close, I had to decide what to do with the pets. Although I posted the pictures to my Instagram page, these were not my pets.

finding new homes

In the end, the pets were adopted by deserving students. The final Instagram post read:

The pets belong to the class of 2023, so it’s only right that they follow you to the high school. If you think you can give one of the pets a good home, send me a message with the pet you would like to adopt, and why you think you can give it a good home.

The applications were as sweet as their tender hearts. “I think my home would be a good home for Bubbles because she will always be busy with my little sister, and she will always be loved unconditionally.” Another application read, “I believe I could provide Flash a good home because I have many stuffed animals he can become friends with, and everyone in my house will enjoy Flash very much.”

sense of community

To say the students had fun with the Class Pets is an understatement. And as teachers know, kids learn better when they’re having fun. Middle school is a turbulent time for most teenagers, and they are craving a place where they belong. When students share their love of Dungeons and Dragons and old school New Kids on the Block, it’s because they feel comfortable being themselves. When students feel safe, they are more willing to take chances: raising their hands, sharing their ideas, reading a new book, writing a poem, DREAMING BIG. Community happens when you feel like people see you, hear you, and accept you for your unique ideas and quirky ways. I feel that in my classroom everyday, and so I know more silly and creative ideas lie ahead. Years from now, my students may not remember the correct use of a semicolon or how to correctly cite in MLA format, but as the old adage goes, they’ll remember how they felt in my classroom. And in my book, that’s a success!

everything To get you started with your own class pets!

Letter to Parents

The Letter to Parents is completely editable so you can make it your own. You can decide how best you want the pictures sent to you be it school email or DM on Instagram . . . or both.

Naming the Pets

Naming the Pets is a Google Form that will make it easier for you to have the students name the pets. Simply swap the pictures and you are ready to go.

Request for Adoption

Request for Adoption is also a Google Form that will make it easier for you when the school year ends, and the pets are adopted by your students. Again, swap the picture and you are ready to go.

#classpetconnections

Due to the warm response of my blog post, I created a hashtag for teachers where we can share our favorite pet photos with fellow teachers around the world. When you post your photos on Instagram, use the #classpetconnections so we can see all the big and small adventures in which the pets embark. Happy Trails!

activities for your students and class pets

If you are incorporating Class Pets into your classroom, theseΒ 12 MONTHLY ACTIVITIESΒ are for you. These engaging activities help the students express themselves in new and creative ways.

Building Community from the first day of school

My BACK TO SCHOOL product helps you set the tone for your classroom with lessons on respect and goals. It is also filled with activities that will help the students get to know you, help you get to know the students, and more importantly, help the students get to know each other. Most are EDITABLE so you can make them your own!

more Creative and Quirky Lessons for your class

Below are some fun lessons for your middle school English classroom. My students love games and competitions. It’s amazing what they’ll do for a Jolly Rancher.

Homophones Detective and Pasta Punctuation Dialogue

Pinterest PIN of the Pets

Robin Lee

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34 Comments

  • Kelly July 1, 2019 at 9:20 am

    Love the idea! Where did you buy your classroom pets?

    • Robin Lee July 2, 2019 at 2:41 pm

      Hi Kelly,
      I got them on Amazon; however, I didn’t realize that they came in different sizes. I would make sure you get the small ones that are 15cm. I hope you have fun with them.
      Robin Lee πŸ™‚

  • Melissa Barlit June 30, 2019 at 10:08 pm

    This is amazing. Building that community in your classroom is so important. Thank you for a great idea. Also, your students are so lucky to have you. You care so much about them and provide such a safe, loving environment..

    • Robin Lee July 2, 2019 at 2:42 pm

      Hi Melissa,
      Thank you so much for your kind words!
      Be well,
      Robin Lee πŸ™‚

  • Samantha Burian June 29, 2019 at 2:49 pm

    I would also love copies of your letters. This is amazing and I am getting a tough group of 4th graders that could use some unity this year. I love this idea. Thank you for sharing.

    • Robin Lee June 30, 2019 at 6:51 pm

      I added them to the bottom of the blog post πŸ™‚ They will save to your Google Drive.
      Robin Lee πŸ™‚

  • Alyson Paice June 29, 2019 at 8:10 am

    Is the Instagram account private? Do you post the pictures or do your students? How did you introduce it? Thanks, great idea.

    • Robin Lee June 29, 2019 at 2:40 pm

      The Instagram account is not private because it only has pictures of stuffed animals, but when there are random people who follow it, I still block them. Thankfully, it wasn’t an issue. I post ALL the pictures to ensure there are no faces or names used- just pets. I introduced it mid January with a picture of the 4 pets and a caption that read “What is Mrs. Behringer up to now? You’ll find out on Monday morning.” I will be adding a Parent Letter and Request for Adoption form to the blog later tonight, so feel free to check back and download them. And keep me posted with how it goes for you and your students.
      Be well,
      Robin πŸ™‚

  • Beth June 29, 2019 at 8:03 am

    This was awesome and brought me to tears! How can I adapt this to a high school library?

    • Robin Lee June 29, 2019 at 2:51 pm

      Oh Beth, they’ll eat it up. They are so creative and truly out of adventures: from art, music, theater, driving, prom, traveling abroad. I can imagine what they’ll do πŸ™‚ And you can have them name them after their favorite authors or characters, and designate a reading nook in the library for the kids to read with them. But you have to keep me posted because it will be amazing!!!
      Be well,
      Robin Lee πŸ™‚

  • Sara June 29, 2019 at 7:18 am

    Would you recommend starting this at the beginning of the year? Or in January like you did?

    • Robin Lee June 29, 2019 at 3:04 pm

      Good question, Sara. I introduced them mid-January to break up the winter doldrums, and I wonder if the novelty would’ve worn out had I started in September. I do think it’s a great beginning of year activity as well! Let me know what you decide.
      Be well,
      Robin πŸ™‚

  • BJ Crenshaw June 29, 2019 at 12:59 am

    Hi Robin,
    I love this idea. I have actually been looking for ideas to create more parent involvement.
    Did you make an Instagram account for each animal? Or did you just create one class account for students to post pictures?

    • Robin Lee June 29, 2019 at 3:06 pm

      Hi BJ,
      There was one Instagram account for all the pets. I called it Class Pets, and they sent me the pictures and I posted them. Feel free to check it out. I just used my name: mrsbehringer
      Be well,
      Robin Lee πŸ™‚

  • Heather June 28, 2019 at 8:24 pm

    Did all of your students have phones? I teach 4th and I know quite a few don’t have phones to take pictures with. Maybe parents send them?

    • Robin Lee June 29, 2019 at 3:07 pm

      Hi Heather,
      Thanks for your interest. All of my students did not have phones, but because they were at home, they took the pics with their parents phone and emailed them to me. It worked out fine.
      Be well,
      Robin Lee πŸ™‚

  • Lauren Dow June 28, 2019 at 8:01 pm

    I love this idea! I think I want to try this with my 5th grade students this year. How did the students send pictures to you?

    • Robin Lee June 29, 2019 at 3:17 pm

      Hi Lauren,
      At first they emailed them to my school email and then they showed me how to DM on Instagram and that was easier. Let me know if you have any more questions.
      Be well,
      Robin Lee πŸ™‚

  • Becky Vodek June 28, 2019 at 6:51 pm

    I did pet rocks this past year with fifth graders. We adopted our rocks, painted, weighed, and measured them. They had to make them a shelter at home and we had a “day care” at school. Each month they had a required activity and then optional fun ones. We had special rock days at school too where we flashlight read or did math with our rocks. It was great!

    • Robin Lee June 29, 2019 at 3:19 pm

      THAT is the cutest thing ever, Becky. You should start a hashtag with that and share their pictures. TOO cute… and affordable!
      Robin Lee πŸ™‚

  • Pam Foster June 28, 2019 at 2:54 pm

    Any chance you have a letter that you sent home to the parents explaining the Class Pets?

    • Robin Lee June 28, 2019 at 3:03 pm

      No, but if you give me a day I can make one πŸ™‚ I was also going to make a “Request for Adoption” form and I’ll post them both to the blog tomorrow. Thanks for your interest, Pam!
      Be well,
      Robin Lee

      • Pam Foster June 28, 2019 at 4:22 pm

        THANK YOU THANK YOU — I love this idea. My 4th graders will go love it too.

        • Robin Lee June 29, 2019 at 3:20 pm

          Oh, Pam. Keep me posted with how it goes.
          Robin Lee πŸ™‚

      • Mindy June 28, 2019 at 4:39 pm

        I love this idea and want to try it. I’ve been teaching 1st, 2nd and 3rd grade for the past 12 years, but I’m teaching 5th and 6th this year. I know how important building relationships are and it will be my priority.

        • Robin Lee June 29, 2019 at 3:23 pm

          Mindy,
          5th and 6th graders will have fun with it. The kids are so creative πŸ™‚
          Have fun!
          Robin Lee πŸ™‚

  • Bridget June 28, 2019 at 1:33 pm

    I love this!! I’m definitely doing this with my middle schoolers! What was your Instagram name? I’m trying to come up with a catchy one!

    • Robin Lee June 29, 2019 at 3:21 pm

      Hi Bridget,
      I just used my name so the kids could easily find it: mrsbehringer
      Have fun!
      Robin Lee πŸ™‚

  • Victoria cerbin June 28, 2019 at 11:31 am

    I love this! How did it work for having multiples classes? Did you buy a total of four animals? I’m just wondering how to make it work with 130 students.

    • Robin Lee June 28, 2019 at 1:01 pm

      Hi Victoria,
      I had 4 pets (and Midnight made 5) for my 105 students and it was plenty! I have 4 classes, but our middle school has teams, so the pets were for all 105 students. If I had classes in a more traditional junior high setting, I probably would have done 1 pet for class, but it requires more thought as far as posting the pictures. Have fun and let me know if you decide to try it.
      Be well,
      Robin Lee πŸ™‚

  • Beth June 28, 2019 at 11:27 am

    How did you decide who would take the pets home? I have 100 students! I think I would need more than four pets?

    • Robin Lee June 28, 2019 at 12:57 pm

      Hi Beth,
      The kids would ask me ahead of time if they had a special event or vacation, and I’d make a mental note… and usually forget This year I’m making a β€œPets Social Calendar” and the kids can sign up. It was pretty much β€œon the fly” Because we had the pets from January to June, there was plenty of time for all 105 of my students to take them home. Have fun and let me know how it goes πŸ™‚
      Be well,
      Robin Lee

  • Ken Walsh June 27, 2019 at 2:51 pm

    I absolutely love this, it literally brought me to tears. Learning is about so much more than what’s between the covers of the textbooks. I remember the teachers that taught me to challenge my boundaries and open my heart, and I am so proud that you will always be one of the teachers they remember. They are lucky to have you, and the world is a better place because you’re in it…

    • Robin Lee June 28, 2019 at 1:01 pm

      Thanks for your endless support in all that I do πŸ™‚

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    If you want to feel like a rock star, teach middle school! I'd love to share a snippet of what I've learned in my 20+ years of teaching... and what made me a finalist for Rhode Island Teacher of the Year. Read More

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