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Creating Classroom Values: A Messy Way to Build a Community of Care

Posted by admin on Jul 13, 2023 11:35:36 AM

In this Stenhouse Summer Series blog post, Jessica DiBeneditto writes about how to create class values that build a community of care that centers students and their freedom within the classroom.  


It’s a new year, full of opportunities. Opportunities for connections, learning, challenges, triumphs, mistakes, repairs, and celebrations. Every August, my mind reels as I wonder about everything this new school year will bring, a mix of nerves and excitement of the unknown. The one thing I know for sure is that our classroom community will be defined and determined by the people who fill the space. The uncertainty at the beginning feels uncomfortable and daunting. I remind myself that this is how it should be; the work of learning begins each year by building a class community with the students at the center.


There are many different ways to build a class community. I’m going to share one way that I tried this past year because of how it transformed our class community. I was inspired by our school doing the same thing with our staff during the pandemic and also the book Troublemakers by Carla Shalaby. This year, our class generated a list and description of four values to represent how we wanted to feel as a class. I know I wanted to build a “community of care” that centers students and their freedom, so instead of co-creating a set of class rules, we created a list of values that expressed how we want our classroom to feel and used those values to guide our community during the rest of the year.


During the first week of school, the process of generating our class values took about 30 minutes each day. We did this alongside other community building work that helped us learn more about each other and what to expect in sixth grade.

Day One: Identifying Individual Values and Feelings

The first day started with a very simple question on an anchor chart: “As a class, how do we want to feel this year in school?” After giving a few moments for quiet think time, each student jotted down one word on a sticky note about how they want to feel when they are in our classroom. Students placed their sticky notes on the anchor chart and read through everyone’s responses. 


Day Two: Noticing and Naming Trends

The next day we read over the sticky notes and identified trends, repeated words, and ideas that only one person wrote down and resonated with other students. We clustered common ideas together and chose names for each cluster. These became known as the “Big Ideas.” Some of the Big Ideas that emerged included: safe, energetic, confident, focused, comfortable/calm, happy, welcomed, creative. Right away, students couldn’t help but notice some conflicting ideas.

One student asked, “How can our class be energetic and calm at the same time?”

“Hmm . . . that’s an interesting wondering.” I replied, waiting to see if anyone else might have some insight into this puzzle.

Another student chimed in and said, “Well, maybe sometimes it’s calm and sometimes it’s energetic.”

A third student offered “Or some people are calm and some people are energetic.”

“It sounds like we’re noticing that there may be different, and even opposite, ways that people might want to feel in our class. That’s pretty typical since we know that people have different preferences. I wonder how we’ll find a way to create a class that has space for all of that.”

I plant a seed, knowing that while we are attempting to identify and create shared values for our class community, there are also going to be diverse individual needs that we will learn to navigate. 

Day Three: Selecting Our Community Values

Our goal for the third day was to select our top values to prioritize. This doesn’t mean that the other values disappear, but it does help us focus on what is most important to our class. Each student wrote their top three, in order of preference, on a sticky note. After tallying the responses, we had our initial values: safe, happy, comfortable/calm, and confident. Before finalizing the priority values, I asked the class, “Do these values capture how we want to feel? Do we want to make any changes?” Students discussed their thoughts with a turn and talk partner before we talked as a whole class.

A student suggested “Welcomed was only one point behind confident. We could take confident out and use welcomed instead.”

There were some murmurs of agreement.

“Well, do some of the other values we have also include feeling welcomed? Like if you feel welcomed, you probably already feel safe,” comes a reply from a different part of the room.

“And happy.”

In the end, they decided to keep the top four values based on the tallies.

Day Four: Defining the Values for Our Community

Our next step was to give everyone an opportunity to share what each of these values means to them. For this step, we wrote each value on an anchor chart, placed the charts around the room, and used a Chalk Talk structure so students could all respond. During this time, they wrote their thoughts, wonderings, hopes, and ideas for how they wanted to bring these values to life in our room. 

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Day Five: The Work is Messy

Finally, we had a whole class conversation around the final posters.

“It seems like some people think of feeling safe as physically safe. So they wrote things like ‘walk’ and ‘don’t run.’ Other people wrote about feeling safe from judgement and being included by people,” a student noticed.

I prompt, “It’s interesting to see how differently a word like safe can be interpreted. What does this make you think about how we interact with each other in the class?”

“We have to think about things like what is physically safe and what is emotionally safe,” the same student replied.

“This helps us see that there are more perspectives about the idea of being safe than we might have expected. Sometimes one person’s idea of something is different than our own. It’s helpful to be aware of that as we spend our year together.”

Through this conversation we start to learn that community is complex because individuals are different from each other. We learn there isn’t necessarily only one way or a right way for our classroom to function. Navigating the individual wants and needs while respecting the wants and needs of the community is the work of everyone in the classroom. It’s messy, especially when we share the power among each person in the room.


Our class values take the place of rules, and we used our values posters to help us navigate community issues as they arose. When we had conflicts, instead of referring to a broken rule, we talked about what was in alignment with our value of feeling “safe, happy, comfortable/calm, and confident” along with actions we could take to move forward in an intentional way. After long breaks or at the start of a new quarter we would reflect on the status of our class.

The values became an important part of our curriculum as the year progressed. During a unit on critical literacy, we analyzed the physical space of our classroom for power and marginalization. The students then redesigned the entire space using our class values to guide their decision making. The students moved furniture, created new desk arrangements, and even relocated my workspace so they could center our classroom library. This allowed our classroom to be aligned with what we valued, ensuring that our space was a more complete reflection of our community.

What I found through this process was that the values and beliefs shared by students created an understanding about our community that was complex, nuanced, and grounded in care and mutual respect. We were able to use these values as a touch point around our individual needs, responsibility to the larger group, decision making, and problem solving.


I absolutely love being a teacher, working alongside students and my colleagues. And the love I have for the work and the people is often in tension with the knowledge that schools are part of a system of oppression. As a teacher who is a white woman, I strive to be intentional about taking steps away from that oppressive system and centering the humanity and value of the children and adults who make up our schools. It is easy for me to fall back into status quo behavior and thinking that are damaging to students such as prioritizing rules, looking for quick and easy solutions to challenging behaviors, wanting to maintain control through compliance in a very busy and demanding environment. And the cost of this status quo behavior and thinking are often felt by groups that are most marginalized and harmed by schools. I am grateful to countless educators who shaped my beliefs and have helped cultivate my imagination. They taught me that one step I can make in response to controlling, compliance-driven, punitive, and exclusionary practices is building inclusive, affirming, culturally-sustaining, community of care in my classroom that is built around the students themselves. Creating class values helped me shift closer to that vision. I can’t wait to try it again and see what this next year brings. 

About the Author

Jessica PhotoJessica DiBeneditto started her career as a piano teacher and librarian before finding a passion for teaching 6th graders. She loves this particular age because of their blend of hope, cynicism, and humor that they bring to all they do. She focuses her work in the classroom on learning ways to share power with students to build and belong in a diverse community of care and learning. Jessica lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and three children. You can connect with her on Twitter @DibenedittoMrs.