Book review: Classroom Community Builders

I’ve just received a copy of the latest book from Alphabet Publishing. Walton Burns is following up last year’s ’50 Activities for the First Day of School’ with a new cookbook of ideas for building a classroom community.

Burns states this book is a natural continuation to his previous offering, which was a compendium of icebreaking activities. Having considered the role of icebreakers more, he reflects that these types of activity aren’t always used effectively in lessons. Many icebreakers encourage teamwork, and are best used when they are a) relevant to the content of the class, and b) give learners the feeling of accomplishment. With this in mind, he offers a range of activities that go beyond simple rapport builders – aiming instead to build a culture of collaboration and community from day one.

The book is organised in four sections:

  • Set Your Expectations
  • Working Together
  • Getting To Know You
  • Getting to Know Your Teacher

Set Your Expectations offers 11 activities related to setting classroom ground rules for learning and communication. Tasks require group work skills and aim to help establish good classroom behaviour. This is a great ‘go to’ section for the start of term, and I found some good reminders here to keep activities purposeful when it comes to exploring a syllabus. An example of this with a ‘Book Field Trip’ task. The normal coursebook introduction tasks we use at our centre are simply scanning challenges, where students find facts from the book. The simple tweaks in Burns’ idea (encouraging personal responses, predicting content) make the task far more engaging. Reading this section has prompted me to refine some of my start of term tasks – I think I’ve got in a bit too much of a routine with them!

The Working Together section includes a set of 30 or so tasks involving groupwork or collaboration. Many of these are tried and tested ‘TEFLY’ tasks (alibi, jigsaw reading, twenty questions, Pictionary) that can often be found in other TEFL cookbooks. That’s not to say that the book isn’t useful – Burns manages to describe these tasks concisely and also adds some of his own ideas, such as a couple of nice roleplay tasks (with complete resources) and a great Follow the Directions activity that is bound to work well with my young learners. Plus, it’s always good to have a new take on familiar activities like Desert Island Survival – it keeps it fresh for the teacher too.

The bulk of the most useful activities are in the first two sections, but there are also a couple of more substantial getting to know you tasks (like a class survey). The book finishes with a couple of lists on how to build a classroom community and grouping students effectively.

Pros

Here are a few good things about the book:

  • It includes some photocopiable materials. You can access bigger versions of these on the Alphabet Publishing website, which is useful as I’d prefer to edit and grade some of the language
  • A fair few activities are low prep/no-prep
  • Assuming you are using the book with younger learners, a lot of tasks develop the whole child rather than simply focus on language. I guess you’d expect that from a book of this kind!
  • The activities suit (or can be adapted to suit) a range of levels and ages
  • Simple and consistent layout

Cons

  • I guess if you’ve been teaching a while then you’ll be familiar with many activities – but then the target audience would be less experienced teachers anyway.
  • A bit of colour in the print version would make it better, especially for the photocopiable resources. Still, that’s a big ask for a small publishing company, who probably don’t have much of a budget after shipping a copy of the book to me in Thailand! (Seriously, I can’t believe the cost…!)

My favourite activity…

The ‘Different Thoughts’ activity at the start of Working Together. It’s great for helping students to appreciate the different ways of approaching a task. This task could be a springboard for helping students reflect on their own approach(es) to studying.

Who should buy this book?

It’s ideal for those fresh of an initial teacher training course like the CELTA. I used a fair few of the tasks mentioned during my time on the EPIK scheme in South Korea – so if you’re doing something similar then this would be a very handy resource. At $1.99 for the ebook it’s a bargain – this may actually be the best option for purchase as the book includes links to online material.

For experienced teachers, books like this are always a good refresher. You never know, you might surprise yourself by finding useful tweaks to existing ideas.

You can pre-order Classroom Community Builders on the Alphabet Publishing website: ebook $1.99, print version $15.

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