Setting a Foundation for a Strong Classroom Community: Belonging Themed Lessons

We all know that the beginning of the year is THE time to set out your expectations for students. 

Developing a classroom climate where students understand that it is their responsibility to help me create an environment where everyone feels like they belong is one of the most important goals I have on my to-do list for the first week of school. It's my job to get it out in the open right away: I expect everyone to extend kindness to one another.

Belonging-themed lessons for your first day of school.JPG

Where to Start?

As I get ready for the beginning of the year, I always gather a stack of "tried and true" picturebooks that I plan to read aloud to my students throughout the first few weeks of school.

I've strategically chosen each picturebook and identified an intentional goal for each read aloud--belonging, kindness, perseverance, using manners, feeling comfortable with being yourself, and so on.

Most of the picturebooks in my stack will help me introduce the morning meeting concepts that I will address more deeply after the first few weeks of school. (

B2S Bonus Tip: It's a great idea to have a stack of picturebooks ready for any down-time you may end up with during the first week of school. Plan to over-plan!!)

The lesson I am describing for you today will happen during my "classroom meeting" (also known as morning meeting, but it's not always possible to have them in the morning so I have adapted the term "classroom meeting"). As part of my master schedule, I have set aside 15-20 minutes for a morning meeting; however during the first two weeks of school, my classroom meeting lessons tend to be longer because it is the beginning of the year and I am trying to set a strong foundation and get to know my students.

Note: Links to the suggested read alouds in this post are affiliate links. This means that I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Read my full disclosure here.

For the belonging lesson I am outlining for you today, I suggest setting aside at least an hour or breaking it into multiple sessions.

How do I Begin to Set the Expectation for Kindness and Belonging on the first day of school?

Big Al by Andrew Clements is my go-to read aloud for my Belonging focus on the first day of school. Big Al is the ugliest fish in the sea but he is also one of the nicest. He tries many things to fit in, often changing himself to look more like the other fish, but nothing works. His size and look just scares all the other fish away. When a fisherman's net captures many of the fish, Big Al saves the day and proves what a great friend he can be.

Now, if you were to ask me what one picturebook I would recommend to a class that is having trouble including everyone and treating one another with respect, I would quickly hand you Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson; however, we are talking about the first day of school and along with my belonging goal, my other critical goal is ensuring that all students have a positive experience with literature each and every day.

Big Al is fun to read aloud. It is the kind of story all children love to gather around. The illustrations are beautiful and fun to look at, so encourage your students to pay attention to the pictures as you read. To be honest,

Big Al is just one of MANY books I will read to my class to help them learn to accept and include one another.

Preparing for your Classroom Belonging Discussion:

1) Prior to the lesson, prepare student journal pages. You will need to print pages 6-8 for your first day's lesson, but note the extension activities included in the free belonging theme set that you can use in a few weeks to go deeper with the theme of belonging. Take a look at the prompts on pg 8. You may want to make anchor charts for recording student responses during your discussion time.

2) At the start of your lesson: Introduce Big Al by Andrew Clements. Ask if anyone has read the story before. (If so, say, "Oh, you are so lucky you get to hear this one again!")

Discuss what is happening in the story as you read along. But, during our first few read alouds together, I try not to interrupt too much because I want students to have the opportunity to just enjoy the story.

3) At the end of the story, (or as you see fit throughout) ask students how they think it felt to be Big Al. What did he want most? If students do not say, "He wanted to belong," I would go ahead and introduce the word “belonging” yourself.

Yes, he wanted to have a sense of belonging.

Why do you think the other fish did not accept Big Al?

Does this happen in real life or just in the ocean? ;)

Why was having a friend so important to Big Al?

{Side Note: Later in the year, I go deeper with Big Al and the theme of belonging. After reading a number of belonging-themed read alouds, I want students to notice that stories about belonging often have a character who is different from the others and does not fit in. After trying to fit in in lots of different ways, almost always changing him/herself to try to be like the others, the character somehow saves the day and immediately attains a sense of belonging. There are some issues here that we should be critical about: 1) when characters change themselves to be like others, they rarely seem happy when they aren't getting to act like their true self and 2) it is rarely possible for a child to "save the day" in order to fit in. These ideas are much deeper than I want to get into for the first day of school, but I want you to know that this story and theme offers lots of opportunities for more critical reading and deeper discussions.}

4) Introduce students to the idea of community.

I explain that we are going to be creating a classroom community where everyone feels that they belong and that they can be themselves.

No student in our classroom (or our school) should feel like a "Big Al."

I define a classroom community as "a feeling of fellowship with others who have developed common attitudes, interests, and goals."

I quickly state a few common interests and goals we have--we all attend the same school and have a community through our experiences together, we are attending school to learn new things, and we all have the desire to spend our time at school feeling good about ourselves and each other. I go on to define belonging as "a feeling of closeness and that you fit into a group." It is important that in our classroom community, we all feel that we belong to this group. We may not always get along, but we need to give one another chances and we need to be kind rather than pushing people away.

5) (I recommend breaking the lesson here and having your follow-up conversations/deep dive on the following day). The following steps help you take this experience from "just another fun read aloud" to really setting the foundation and expectation for extending a sense of belonging to others.

 The read aloud simply set the tone for your discussion.

Have students respond to the discussion questions on journal page 8 to brainstorm some times when students felt a sense of belonging, times when someone may not feel that they belong, and ways that students can make sure others feel included. If you have time, you can let students create an illustration to represent "belonging." I will record these ideas on chart paper so that we can refer to them throughout the year.

6) Next, I have students complete the student self-assessment.

Students rate themselves on two statements: How good am I at helping others feel that they belong? and How strong is my sense of belonging?

Since it's the beginning of the year, students may try to make a good impression. After such a sweet story and a warm classroom discussion, they will most likely rate themselves higher than they should.

Encourage students to think about last year, think about all their classmates and if they had any difficulty with making sure others felt that they belong. After rating themselves, students should set a "belonging goal" and identify strategies for working on this goal. {You will also discuss ideas when you bring students back together}.

7) Close up the meeting by having students share their belonging goals.

Come back to these throughout the week to see how students feel they are personally belonging and extending a sense of belonging to others. Of course, keep an eye on interactions to see how you can continue to encourage a sense of belonging and plan to read aloud additional books related to belonging, kindness, and compassion throughout the year{see my Handful of Beginning of Year Read Alouds document for some suggested read alouds}.


FREE Belonging Themed Journal Materials


ARE YOU INTERESTED IN LEARNING MORE ABOUT MORNING MEETINGS? What about Morning Meeting Professional Development that you can WATCH and learn in your PJ's?

Want to learn more about what the professional development is all about and what you will learn in the 5-day training? Head to this Morning Meeting Professional Development blog post where I've laid out all of the details for you!