3 ways to help nurture inclusive, collaborative learning spaces in elementary grades

Back when I was a first-grade teacher, I used learning centers during small-group reading instruction. While I met with a small group, the rest of the class worked at different centers set up around the classroom. I needed a way to transition between learning centers and wanted to come up with something fun. I decided to use the song “Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley, so students knew that when they heard it, it was time to clean up and either get ready to move to the next center or come work with me.

The song became something all the kids would get excited about, and they’d sing it and dance around while they cleaned up, helping each other. My students also turned it into a challenge to clean up before the end of the song so they could spend more time singing and dancing around. Using the song was something small, but it fostered a sense of fun while encouraging my students to work together.

Nurturing a collaborative learning environment helps build student agency. When students feel included, they feel a sense of empowerment. Done well, collaborative learning fosters that by ensuring that all voices are heard, all students are engaged, and all students feel they are in control of how their contributions make a difference to the group.

Here are three things educators can consider to help foster a culture of inclusivity and collaboration in their classroom.

1. Examine established routines and processes

What are your classroom routines and processes? Are there ways to make them more consistent? More clear? More fun? Think about routines you can establish in your classroom that will help students collaborate. Get to know what excites or interests your students and incorporate those ideas somehow.

Routines make students feel safe because they let them know what to expect. Established routines free up students’ brain space for learning because they take the guesswork out of knowing what to do, and when. Established routines also allow students to work together as a classroom community.

Nurturing a collaborative learning environment helps build student agency.

There are lots of routines and processes teachers can use to nurture collaboration. Here are just a few.

Pair or group students thoughtfully for activities

Make sure to change things up and allow students a chance to work with different peers. Be mindful that those children who never get picked or are perceived as difficult to work with are included by creating the groups and pairs yourself.

One way to help students feel involved in the process is to ask students on Mondays to write on a sticky note who they want to work with that week. Notice who is left off and create groups with that in mind. Also make sure that the children who always work well with others don’t always have to work with more difficult students.

Create norms for working in pairs and groups as a class. This way your students will be invested in those norms and can hold each other accountable. Role-play different situations that may arise and how to resolve conflicts.

Make sure the routines you establish work for all students

What works for one or some may not work for all. Be mindful of the needs of multilingual learners. For example, allow for translanguaging to ensure students can access the knowledge they need but not get bogged down when they can’t find the words in English to express themselves.

Also think about your students with special needs and what will ensure they are included and can collaborate with their peers. For example, give directions in multiple ways—textually, auditorily, pictorially—to ensure all students understand what is expected. Accessibility frees students up to collaborate fully and shows them they are part of your classroom community. Often, it’s just little adjustments that make a world of difference.

Give all students a voice in class discussions

Don’t just call on the students who you know will be able to answer. Give all students a chance to answer.

When children are on the cusp of understanding, instead of helping them yourself, allow them to “phone a friend” so they can work together. Coach students on how to give help, not just by providing answers but also by asking questions or giving hints. Similarly, make sure to give all students opportunities to lead small-group and whole-group discussions. Some students will always jump at the chance to do so, while others might want to but lack confidence. Set expectations for these discussions and encourage students to help their peers. This will help cultivate a safe space to take risks and create a community that trusts each other.

2. Create a safe space

Creating a space where your students feel safe is essential to nurturing inclusion and collaboration. If students know they can be vulnerable and take risks without fear of teasing or other negative repercussions, they will be able to focus more on learning. A trusting classroom community will help everyone work better together.

Here are a few ideas for making your classroom a safe space for learning and collaboration.

Share positive messages every day

I recently attended a webinar in which two teachers shared ideas for creating an inclusive classroom space. One idea I really liked was providing sticky notes to students so they can capture positive messages about their peers throughout the day. They should have one positive message per sticky note. You can collect the notes at the end of the day and hand them out. (If you are concerned some students may be left out, set up pairings to ensure all students are included.)

Consider having a theme for each day of the week. For example, on Mondays, the theme can be kindness. Students share how peers showed kindness that day. On Tuesdays, the theme can be collaboration. Ask students to share how classmates collaborated well that day. And so on.

Multilingual learners should be encouraged to write their messages in the language they feel most comfortable with. Don’t worry if the recipient doesn’t read the language it was written in. Kids are resourceful! Plus, getting a message in another language gives them another chance to work together to understand.

All these little ideas can really add up to something big.

Collecting and sharing these affirming messages creates community and a space where your students can feel seen and understood by their peers. It fosters a safe space to collaborate and contributes to students’ sense of agency because they know their contributions to the group matter.

Consider the physical space

The arrangement of desks or tables can make a big difference in fostering collaboration. Desks in rows may make partner work easier, but consider if it will work well for small groups.

Set up a cozy corner or area with rugs, pillows, and cushions that can serve multiple purposes: a quiet reading space and a place where partners and small groups can gather. Be sure to consider students with special needs. Can a student on crutches or in a wheelchair navigate the space with ease? Making sure the room is set up so all students feel comfortable contributes to feeling safe and may make it easier for them to collaborate.

3. Choose and use materials that foster collaboration

The materials you use in your classroom can help create a classroom community and help students learn to collaborate. In addition, how you ask students to engage with each other about the materials and how you provide access to them can foster collaboration and help students feel included.

Here are a few things to try.

Select materials that help students see themselves in what they read

The reading material in your classroom should show students windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors so they can see their own lived experiences in what they read but also learn about experiences that are different from their own.

Reading material should honor students’ funds of knowledge and cultural backgrounds. Foster an environment for students to share materials from their home cultures and communities. It makes students feel included when they see themselves in what they read. If they feel included, they will likely find it easier to collaborate with peers.

Create opportunities for students to discuss and hear multiple perspectives on a text, too. When students have a window into the lived experiences of others and can safely discuss their perspectives with each other, it helps them understand one another. These conversations require setting up specific expectations and modeling how to have respectful conversations. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has some really helpful tips for having respectful conversations in the classroom.

Ensure all materials are accessible to all students

Make sure the materials students need regular access to are stored within their reach. One way to do this is for table groups to share a common set of supplies. Sharing materials also provides a great opportunity to take turns, which is essential to collaboration. Make sure the students with special needs have access to assistive technology devices and anything else they need to participate in the group. Again, think about whether the physical space is a barrier to collaboration.

Small changes are big

There are so many ways to foster and nurture an inclusive, collaborative learning space in your classroom—one that gives all your students agency. I have shared just a handful here, but all these little ideas can really add up to something big.

Many thanks to my colleagues Natalie Contreras, content specialist, and Teresa Krastel, Spanish solution lead, for their contributions to this blog post.

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