Creating a Homeroom Community

A MiddleWeb Blog

two_teachers-nobord-210At the beginning of the school year, I approached my principals Paul and Miriam and asked if I could have a homeroom.

A teammate had been ill the previous year, and I thought it might make the transition back to school easier for her. She wouldn’t need to deal with all of the paperwork (report cards, schedules, daily attendance, passing out fundraising handouts, etc.).

I had been a homeroom teacher years ago when our school was first built, and I loved the connectedness with a variety of kids that I wouldn’t normally work with. (I had a specific group of students on IEPs in my self-contained classes.)

The principals both liked the idea and also gave homerooms to some of the other teachers who hadn’t been homeroom teachers in a while. I have 23 students in my homeroom, including five kids on IEPs who are in inclusion classrooms with me, and one who is in a self-contained classroom with another special education teacher.

For those of you who are currently homeroom teachers, or have been in the past, you know that having a homeroom can be a lot of work and responsibility: taking attendance each day, collecting signed report cards and quarterly mid-term reports, making sure students listen to the morning announcements, etc.

But here’s what I love: having a homeroom can also be an opportunity to bond with kids you might not normally see during the day, a chance to make connections with students in a less formal situation.

A homeroom community

I decided that as a homeroom teacher this year, my first goal for the kids and for me would be to Create A Community. On our first day together – one of the most important, stressful and exciting days for kids (and for us!) – I began to establish routines, provide emotional support (I teach 6th grade so this is the huge transition year from elementary school), teach the kids how to do a combination lock, understand their schedules, review our school’s rules and policies in the student handbook, make sure we all know where the restrooms are located and how to find other classes.

I wanted to inspire my students on that first day and took a fantastic idea from my dear friend Cindi Rigsbee, a North Carolina Teacher of the Year and author of Finding Mrs. Warnecke. Cindi, a middle school teacher herself, played the song Unwritten by Natasha Beddingfield for her new students.

Live your life with arms wide open
Today is, where your book begins
The rest is still unwritten

I decided to dedicate the song to them, my homeroom students, to have a wonderful first day of middle school. As they exited our classroom, I had a brainstorm: what if every week I dedicated a song to them a la Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 Long Distance Dedications? (If you happen to be a baby boomer, you probably remember listening on Sunday mornings).

The following week was It’s Always a Good Time by Owl City and Carly Rae Jepsen. I thought that could be our homeroom theme song (I explained what a theme song was since some of them didn’t know!). Then, the best thing happened – my students asked me if they could choose the dedication song each week. How cool are my homeroom students?!

Sometimes the songs are typical sweet and goofy kid songs taken from the radio, and sometimes the songs make me cry: Brittany Nicole’s Gold, for example. I wrote the words on the board: ”You’re worth more than gold.”

I’m really, really lucky this year: our district doesn’t block YouTube and I have an LCD projector, so we watch a video of the latest selection together as they get ready for their week.

These are some of my homeroom students during Patriots’ Day when our state’s football team was in the championships. Our school encouraged all the kids to dress up to show their support.

These are some of my homeroom students during Patriots’ Day when our state’s football team was in the championships. Our school encouraged all the kids to dress up to show their support.

 What I’ve learned from my homeroom

When we have time on Monday afternoons and Friday mornings, I let the students share. On Fridays we talk about our plans for the weekend or the upcoming holidays, vacation. On Mondays, we find out how were their weekends, the school dance Friday night, etc. Sometimes we just talk.

I learn so much from these kids. One day I asked them to raise their hands if they spoke another language besides English at home. Three-fourths of them raised their hands. This segued into talk of their family’s heritage, culture, whether they could remember their homelands and missed them. Me, learning about them as people, individuals.

One student, Anthony, shared about his dad’s Middle Eastern restaurant being awarded 3 and 1/2 stars for their food. I got very excited! Do they make falafel and hummus? Of course! Anthony helps out after school, and the next day a package was on my desk with, you guessed it, the best falafel and tahini sauce I’ve ever had.

Laur-GangnamWhen my students share their songs, sometimes I learn about the latest trends, what’s popular with kids (I don’t have kids myself, except my three fur-kids). Valuable information for a middle school teacher.

My students taught me about Gangnam Style and actually taught me the dance. In this blurry picture (I’m moving fast!), I’m wearing my Christmas Tree hat and ornament sweater before our break for the winter holidays.

My awesome student assistants

As homeroom teachers know, there’s a long checklist to accomplish each morning: take attendance, collect fundraiser money, keep track of field trip permission slips, answer the classroom telephone (my phone rings A LOT!), check off signed report cards, and so forth.

I soon realized my students could help me and become my assistants! I have a long table with bar type chairs that I bought (as a floor model) at the local Mill Store. My attendance assistants have a list of everyone in our homeroom and check off the names of kids for me who are absent or present. I then take this list and enter it into our electronic attendance program. It saves me a lot of time in the morning, because the kids can tell me orally who is absent. I have two students who do this, and a third is the back up if one of them is absent.

It’s a big deal to sit at the front table in those big chairs. If you have enough responsible kids you can rotate this job and have the experienced assistants train the newbies (make sure you handpick responsible kids!).

For other kids who want to be assistants I’ve come up with the rotating job of answering the phone: “Ms. Wasserman’s room, may I help you?” and taking a message if I am assisting a student or otherwise involved. (I keep a magnetic mini white board and marker next to the phone for this purpose).

I also have handout assistants who pass out all the fundraiser forms, field trip permission slips, picture forms, etc. It saves me time at the end of the day. The kids sign up on my classroom calendar for each month, and we keep a list for the current month on our board. They even come up with jobs for themselves: date changer, weekly dedication song list writer, “reminder” (reminding kids to put up chairs, etc.), and substitute coordinator (helping the substitute when I’m absent and sharing what happened when I return).

People tell me having a homeroom is a lot of work, but you know what? It really isn’t if you give kids the responsibility of helping you, which gives you time to have a little fun.

Laurie Wasserman

Laurie Wasserman is a National Board Certified 6th-grade special needs teacher in Medford, Massachusetts. She has been teaching for 32 years, has written articles for Education Week, Teacher Magazine and Education World, all about her love of working with kids who “learn differently.” She is also a co-author of the 2011 book Teaching 2030: What We Must Do for Our Students and Public Schools Now and in the Future. Laurie is a member of the Boston Writing Project, and Teacher Leaders Network, as well as a new teacher mentor.

26 Responses

  1. Pete Post says:

    Laurie, I am so excited to have found this website and your blog. My name is Dr. Pete Post and I teach special education at Trinity Christian College (after having taught 1 wonderful year of 5th grade and another 30 quick years teaching high school students with special needs). I am hoping that I can share your blog as an inspiration to my teachers in training and also with my masters level teachers that are seeking certification in special education. I find your blog to be very upbeat and inspirational – and hope that you will share that with your own students. As I read this entry I was reminded of the power of music as I used to create vocabulary tests that had music breaks featuring music from my 45rpm records (Beach Boys, Beatles, Sonny & Cher) and I once created a history unit based on the songs of Johnny Horton (Battle of New Orleans, Sink the Bismarck, Johnny Reb and even Comanche – the only horse to survive Custer’s Last Stand).
    Your sense of creating a “team” in homeroom is very powerful. As I teach about including students with low incidence disabilities in our schools it is so essential to make them a part of the team. One year my class created a Nutrition Football Game with a grant from the Illinois Nutrition Education Training program and our primary spokesperson to the company that put together our magnetic gameboard was CJ – who could not speak at all (due to cerebral palsy) but used technology and his eyes to make sure he got our team message across.
    This week I want my masters level students to take a look at your blog and comment on what they are seeing here as well. I trust that you will continue to feel affirmed

    • Wow Pete, thank-you, thank-you, thank-you for your kind words! I have just returned from a middle school conference right near you in Providence, and loved reading your thoughts. Please share my blog with your teachers in training as well as your master level teachers. I feel collaboration is one of the best ways teachers and teachers to be can give one another support and validation.
      I loved the mental image of you playing those old 45’s (of which I still have two huge plastic cases full including some of your fans), and how cool are you creating a history unit with music?! I had never thought to use music for vocabulary or history, so you’ve just shared something fun with all of us here at MiddleWeb.
      Your story about the Nutrition Football Game and making a difference in CJ’s life touched me deeply. He will never forget you.
      I know you must be, as we say in Boston, “wicked” busy, but if you could at some point, share your game and vocabulary units as a guest writer, I know John Norton and Susan Curtis, who are our editors, would enjoy it, as well as our readers.
      Many thanks for taking the time to write; you’ve made my day.
      Laurie

      • Pete Post says:

        Laurie,
        Thanks for your reply and providing such a wonderful venue for my students. Each year Trinity has an interim semester in January that lasts two weeks and I have used that to create academic sports games and field trips (Little Red Schoolhouse, Brookfield Zoo) with my students. I’d love to pass along a science football game that we created plus a short dvd to show how the game is played. Could you give me an address to which to send this?

        • Pete, I am so touched and honored to see all these responses from your interns. Thank-you for sharing your science football game, my partner Suznna and I will have so much fun! Here is my address:
          Laurie Wasserman
          Andrews Middle School
          3000 Mystic Valley Parkway
          Medford, MA 02155

  2. Vince Lucca says:

    Hello,

    My name is Vince Lucca and I am in the aforementioned Dr. Post class at Trinity Christian College. I think what you have done in your homeroom is a great thing. Too many times students feel like school is boring and hard work. You have managed to create an atmosphere of respect and knowledge by taking interest in your students and what they like. They get to talk about themselves (who doesn’t) and you get to learn not only about them individually but also them as a group. As we teachers get older, it becomes more difficult to stay in touch with what is going on in our students’ lives.

    Empowering your students to be responsible and complete tasks in class is only helping to prepare them for life as they get older. Teaching responsiblity and respect for oneself and others will only translate positively in the future. Making activities and schooling fun should help motivate students to come to school ready to work and learn. And using music to help build that comraderie in your room is a great trick for all teachers to incorporate. If students play a part in the design of the class/lesson, they will be more engaged and usually get more out it.

    Keep up the good work Laurie!

    • Thank-you so much, Vince, for writing. I have to admit, I’m still a middle school student inside. I try to have fun and motivate them whenever I can. “Junior High”, as it was called in my day, was very difficult for me. I was very shy and self-conscious, hiding behind books, but always dreamed of being a teacher. I am touched by my students’ lives daily; some of them amaze me with all that they have experienced in such a short time.
      thank-you for your kindness.
      Laurie

  3. April Grant says:

    Hi Laurie,

    My name is April Grant and I am a student of Dr. Post’s as well. I have been teaching at the middle school level for seven years. I teach 7th grade science. I loved reading your blog and the excitement in your writing! It brings me back to the days when we had an advisory period at the start of the day and the connectedness I had with my homeroom students. Our school replaced our advisory period with a study period that seems more like a ‘do your homework from yesterday period’. Our former advisory period was used for teaching social skills and character education, in which all homerooms taught the same concepts. This was really great in the way that all 7th grade students were working on the same skills and able to practice them throughout the day. I miss those days and it seems like our overall student behavior has been on a decline ever since. Next year I plan to dig out that curriculum and see how my coworkers feel about going back to teaching those concepts. Even with out full cooperation, I feel it is something I need to resume doing for my students and me. I miss that connectedness. I think kids are missing that too, now that electronic connectedness has seemed to take over the lives of many humans.

    Thank you for your inspiring post. Your words have rekindled my spirit! Now I must brush up on my Gangnum Style!

    • April,
      Thank-you so much for your comments and so happy I’ve rekindled your spirit. I love 7th grade science! I had a colleague years ago who had the kids made edible models of plant and animal cells using things like jello and it was very cool.
      Years ago we had an advisor/advisee program and it saved a LOT of at risk kids. so sorry to read it’s been replaced with a study period…. :( I have athought: what if you treated it like an advisor/advisee program anyway? Most science teachers are really strong in math since kids need math to solve speed/distance/ problems. Maybe you could focus each class with a skill the kids are needing practice. Maybe check with your colleagues about upcoming tests, projects, etc and focus the class on how to plan ahead, etc.
      Maybe you could even have the kids teach you a dance step each week?!
      Laurie

  4. Paula Parker says:

    Greetings,

    My name is Paula Parker and I am in the special education program at Trinity Christian College in Dr. Pete Post’s class. The thought of thinking about someone else’s time of transitioning and pitching the idea in support of helping a teammate shows what an inspiring teacher you are. While reading your blog, your dedication to collaborating with colleagues and students is a wonderful trait.

    The idea of implementing music as part of building a community in the homeroom class sounds like fun! I teach 5th grade and I have 6 students with an IEP and 5 students in tier 1 of the RTI. I also use music as part of the morning start to help students learn multiplications. I turn on the CD player with a multiplication rap by Mrs. D’s class to help students learn their multiplication in a fun way. Although, I stick to one area of engaging students with multiplication (in which I think is vital at this stage and with this group of students), I definitely will have to branch out with other creative academics learning tools:).

    This blog was inspiring! Thanks for sharing.

    • Hi Paula,
      What lovely comments you’ve written; I am so happy I’ve inspired you.. I love the idea of rapping to multiplication facts. Maybe you could share the link for other teachers who have kids who struggle with their facts? My 6th grade students sure could use the practice as well. Math is so skill based and kids love making connections to music. do you know about Flocabulary? I just learned about it this year and it has some really cool raps about math, science and ELA.
      thank-you for taking the time to write,
      Laurie

  5. Laura Ridgley says:

    Thanks to Dr. Post for directing us to this great website and blog. I am a 7th grade resource teacher. My homeroom consists of the students on my case load. Although homeroom is only 20 minutes long and in my school is supposed to be used for SSR (Silent Sustained Reading but in my room tends to be last minute forgotten homework), I am still grateful to have it. It has allowed me to build a connection with my students outside of the classroom where I co-teach their core classes. I love the ideas Laurie Wasserman shares, especially using music to inspire her students. Thank you

    • Hi Laura, Having your students on your caseload can be such a nice opportunity to do things “outside the box” and connect with kids in a different way. I too taught my students reading when I had a “small group” of 12-20 kids. I set my room up like a Starbucks tucked inside a Barnes and Noble with hot chocolate in the winter and lemonade in the hot weather. I found most of my students loved being read to and I would use this time to put on relaxation music. the kids even brought in cookies to share. Sometimes they were on carpet squares on the floor and I would suggest books for them to read (thank goodness for library book sales and parent donations!!)
      thank-you again for taking the time to write.
      Laurie

  6. Dan Matt says:

    Hello,

    My name is Dan Matt and as I’m sure you can guess by now, I am also a student of Dr. Post’s. I think your emphasis on the team approach and building a community in the classroom is great. I can remember back to my own grammar school experience and I always had the most fun, and seemed to learn the most in the classrooms that built a team environment. I think what you are doing is not only engaging and interesting, but very worthwhile to the students, as well. You are teaching them life skills that they will take with them well beyond your classroom (acceptance, cooperation, diversity, etc.).

    In my current position we have a homeroom for thirty minutes each day before lunch. These are students with emotional and behavioral disorders, so getting them to open up and work together has not always been easy. Yet, between the work the teacher, myself, and the social worker have done we have built a great community environment in which the students feel safe and actually help each other with problems. The experience has been absolutely wonderful and I think it is very similar to what you are doing. I would like to take your approach to incorporating music in the classroom and try to use it myself. I think music is a great tool for the classroom and it’s wonderful that you use it to inspire your students and have them reflect. Great job.

    Thank you,

    Dan

    • Dan, Many thanks for reading our blog and your very kind words. How incredibly wonderful that you have such a supportive team for your students who are often so fragile. I am so glad you had such a positive experience from when you were a student that you can bring into your students’ lives, and share your mutual love of music.
      One of my favorite authors, Louanne Johnson, (the teacher in the movie, “Dangerous Minds”) wrote a book about working with students like you teach, that may be helpful to you. My favorite is “Teaching OUtside the Box: How to Grab Your Students by their Brains.” If it no longer in print, the other is “Two Parts Textbook: One Part Love.”
      When I first became a public school teacher I worked with students similar to yours, it broke my heart hearing their stories, but I learned so much from them.
      All the best to you,
      Laurie

  7. Katie says:

    Hi, my name is Katie. Just like everyone else that posted so far, I am a student of Dr. Post’s too. I really enjoyed reading your blog and hearing about how you incorporated music into your homeroom. I was an 8th grade student teacher last year and I too had a homeroom. I really enjoyed the kids in my homeroom because I was very connected with them. I had a small group for homeroom, which gave me a chance to really get to know my students and have some really great conversations. I think that it is critical for students to have an opportunity during the day to connect with their peers and teacher. Students can learn so many social skills through these class discussions. Thanks again for this inspiring blog, and I look forward to your future blogs!

    • Hi Katie,
      So glad you are enjoying our blog and that you had such a nice experience being a homeroom teachers. It is so nice when you have a small homeroom; you can really connect with kids and you become the adult they can go to if they help with school, homework, etc. Years ago we all had homerooms of about 12 students and it was so nice.
      thank-you for your kind words,
      Laurie

  8. Barb Wolterink says:

    Hi Laurie,

    My name is Barb Wolterink, and I am a student of Dr. Post’s as well. I enjoyed reading about how you get to know each of your students personally through open communication. Getting to know each student on a personal level is what makes inspiring teachers such as yourself. I teach preschoolers, but many of your ideas are similar to what my team of teachers does every day. We play music as the students arrive in the classroom. We have a designated time for music and singing, but we also throw it in at various times during the day. When we children are getting restless, I turn on an active CD song and we move our bodies! We have special times when we ask the children about things going on in their lives…at morning circle time and at snacktime…but we can’t stop them from sharing stories with us anytime and anywhere. Their parents would be amazed at what we know!

    As far as teaching responsibilities, we start them out young. We have lots of helpers…flag holders, weather reporters, snack helpers, and line leaders. Just this morning I asked a girl who arrives early if she would set out the playdough for the kids. I smiled when I saw small playdough rollers shoved in each ball of playdough around the table. One of our students benefits by doing extra jobs for us when we notice he is aggravating the other children. All of our students are responsible for picking up the toys and throwing their napkins and cups away after snack. I don’t believe it’s ever too early to teach responsibility. I’m sure the teachers in later grades appreciate it! Thanks for sharing your success story!

    • Laurie Wasserman says:

      Barb,
      Thanks for your sweet story about those little cutie pies we get in the future. On behalf of all upper grade teachers I thank-you for teaching them to help out and be thoughtful of others. those life lessons are invaluable, and it sounds like music is a great motivator. (I admit your image of play dough reminds me how much I love it still, especially when we let older students use it in science. I think they remember fondly teachers like yourself)
      thank-you for reading our blog, and your kind words.
      Laurie

  9. Michele Kintz says:

    Good Morning!

    I can so relate to so much of what you have stated! I love my middle school students and the abilities that they have. Having that community, we all work together feeling is vital to getting through every year together. When we had units, we would have our immediate family feeling (homeroom) and the extended family (unit). When everyone feels a part of something you are truly able to accomplish so much more! I really enjoyed that you brought music into the classroom. I have always found that when your students can see you as a human, someone that likes the same things that you do, they perform better because of the common interests that you have. I appreciate you for continuing to change the lives of children, but also for sharing your experiences so others can begin to find ways that they can do the same!

    • Laurie Wasserman says:

      Michael,
      I am so glad you can relate to what I have shared. Middle School is so much hard work and joy; it’s always nice to hear from fellow middle school teachers who love what they do. There is nothing better than working with students in a community of family that we as teachers create. Music is such a part of all of our lives, and I learn so much about my students from their favorite artists and their songs.
      Thank you so much for your thoughtful words and reading our blog.
      Laurie

  10. Dennis Brumirski says:

    Hello! Continuing the pattern of Trinity Christian College Grad School students invading your blog, my name is Dennis Brumirski and I too am a member of Dr. Post’s class. Where do you find the time to keep up with all of this. Your shared thoughts are very impressive and insightful. Congrats to you for doing what we all sometimes struggle with. You appear to have taken an assignment that was given to you based on your profession, that others in the field too often view as just “part of the job” or something that can be “phoned in” and made it into something very impactful.

    I have very little experience in the middle school setting, but based on my daily exposure to ninth graders, I can only imagine that the time you have taken to give these students an opportunity to express themselves and share their thoughts has created a wonderful environment where they feel comfortable. This type of setting must do wonders to create opporutnities for these students to forge lasting relationships with each other and with you. Thanks for sharing.

    • Laurie Wasserman says:

      Dennis,
      Thank you so much for writing; I love being a part of Dr. Post’s class and “meeting” all of you.
      I have to admit time management is very difficult for me, as you can tell by how long it took me to write back. Last week was a tough one here in Boston, and it was difficult to do anything but worry and watch the news. The young woman Krystle Campbell who was killed, went to the first middle school I taught in, and I was her brother’s teacher as well….

      Thank-you for your caring and thoughtful responses; I admit there is nothing better for a teacher than to have someone come back as say, “Remember me?” and it’s a former student all grown up and sharing a story from when they were our student. If each of us touches one life and helps a young person feel hope where they may not have any, to have one person tell them, “I love you, I care about you,” then it’s worth all the tough days.
      thank-you for writing.
      Laurie

  11. Bill Scott says:

    Laurie,
    Sorry I am late to the parade, but I am also a student of Dr. Post’s. Reading your blog was wonderful. I bet the students can’t believe that there are “fun” teachers out there. It sounds like the students have a very good time in your homeroom since they are all involved in the daily workings of the class. I do not teach middle school, I am in the high school setting but I do think that the same principles of placing the students in charge of a resource classroom could be implemented. In fact, I just learned that I will be tasked with helping build a new self-contained classroom at our school mostly for the emotionally disturbed students that need more support. After reading your blog I think that I will use some of your ideas to empower these students and give them a sense of ownership of our classroom that we will be sharing. It seems like a long way until we get to August, but I know it will be right around the corner so I will post an update once we get there to let you know how some of your ideas are working in my classroom and how the kids are feeling about being part of the daily doings of the classroom. I am saving your site in my favorites right now.
    It sounds like you have a great group of kids. Keep up the good work!!
    Bill Scott

    • Bill,
      thank-you so much for your lovely comments and please pass the word to all of your classmates how wonderful the activities are that you all created and shared. My students will enjoy them this week after we finish our standardized testing. Please keep in touch about ideas you may need for your resource classroom. I think having the luxury of these next few months will be wonderful to set things up. My motto has always been to have fun while I teach. If I’m enjoying what we’re doing, the kids will too,.I am so happy to hear my ideas will help you and your students. when I was first teaching public school I taught high school students similar to the ones you will we working with. If you have time, check out any of Louanne Johnson’s books; she taught high school kids with social and emotional difficulties and gave me some wonderful ideas. All the best with your new class, and thanks so much for writing.
      Laurie

  12. kimberley read says:

    Hi Laurie .Thank you so much for your post. I am a special ed teacher who will have her own homeroom for the first time this year and very nervous. I am great with small groups and 1-1 strategies, individualizing etc. but nervous about all the logistics of homeroom and managing 25 students all at once. I will definitely use your idea about the songs. Do you have a list of the top 10 songs as I could have something to get started with ? My students also like lots of school inappropriate music so always afraid to open the door too much. Any other top 10 ideas you have for me? Thank you again so much. Kimberley Read

  13. Hi Kimberly, thank-YOU for your comments! Congrats on your first year as a homeroom teacher; you will really enjoy it!

    Here are some of my favorite songs that I used for inspiration:
    1) Britt Nicole’s “Gold”
    2) Owl City and Carly Rae Jeppson’s, “It’s Always a Good Time”
    3)Andy Grammer’s “Keep Your Head Up”
    4/5) Katy Perry’s “Firework” and “Roar”
    6) Natasha Beddingfield’s “Unwritten”
    7) KT Tunstall’s “Suddenly I See”

    I made sure the kids gave me the song and artist ahead of time to avoid inappropriate songs. I would watch the video all the way through before it was allowed to be shared. Also the kids helped me to find “clean versions” of songs that could have a great theme but some inappropriate words/language.

    One activity that is a great way for kids to know one another is to pair them up (I NEVER let kids pair themselves up, there’s always a few kids who have no one to pair up with and feel terrible!). They each get a card and have to write the person’s name; one cool thing about them (they speak another language, they can tap dance, artichokes are their fav food) and then they introduce them to the group. It takes maybe a half hour and so very worth it!

    As I think of new activities for you, I’ll add them here.
    Best of luck to you, Kimberly!

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