Building Classroom Culture, Part 1: Smiles and Frowns

Monte Syrie

by | 09.12.19

Monte Syrie is a teacher in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @MonteSyrie.

My biggest back-to-school priority is building community with my students. I’m purposeful about it, because I believe that every class, every day, should start with connection. So in the first week of school, we start an activity I call “smiles and frowns.” I introduce it by saying, “We’ll learn a lot of important things this year, but of all the things we’re going to learn, there’s nothing more important than the people in the room. So we’ll begin by learning them.”

The nuts and bolts are simple: Each of us shares something positive or something that’s not so positive – a smile or a frown. I even have a “smiles and frowns” song. I’m a huge Mr. Rogers fan, so it’s modeled after his song “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, and I wear a Mr. Rogers-style sweater when I sing:

It’s a beautiful day for smiles and frowns,
Won’t you share your ups and downs?
Won’t you share,
We all care,
Won’t you share your story?

At first, kids find it a little awkward, but then, they start singing along with me. I start every class like this, even on test days. I also make it clear – and for any teacher who might like to try this activity, I think this is so important – that every kid always has the right to pass. I don’t want their compliance; I want their commitment, and they can’t feel committed if they don’t feel comfortable. Some kids do pass – last year, I had a couple of kids who passed every day – but because the listening component is as important as the sharing component, they’re happy to pass and listen. You might worry that the perpetual passers hate the activity, but in my experience, they still find it valuable. I even pass some days, to honor my passers.

And whether they pass, I still get to say their names. That’s one of the cool things about “smiles and frowns”: I say every kid’s name, every day. That might not sound like a big deal, but I can think of years when I didn’t have a reason to say each of my students’ names each day, and it’s important for all of us to hear our names spoken. It makes us feel like we’re members of a community.

When I’m out, the kids start class by singing the song on their own, and I’m so proud of them for doing that. It shows they’re really committed to reconnecting with each other on a daily basis. My whole practice is built on creating a classroom culture that my students will want to commit to.

Two of my students from last year started an Instagram group over the summer, and they continued to do “smiles and frowns” with their classmates every day. Seeing them carry their sense of community beyond my classroom – what could be more wonderful?

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