Tangrams: Building Community from Day 1

How do we build a learning community with our students from the first day?

As I move into Advanced American Literature/College Composition, this question has kept me up at night. Up until this year, I’ve taught General English 10, one that is benignly neglected by administrators and parents alike. Zombie Survival for two weeks? Sure, as long as no one goes to the office. Persepolis for a month? You bet; just make sure that their state mandated test scores are high enough. You get the picture.

As a newly christened college composition teacher, I have been told that I must foster a learning environment that is formal. Students should know from day one that I am an expert. But serious and dry on day 1?

I recently attended a Social Justice seminar, that looked at the importance of stories to create meaning and build community. I want my new grade level and new students to know that I value them as individuals and that I find their stories just as interesting as my students in previous years. The seminar discussed the use of mosaics, made up of broken pieces, as a representation of the importance respecting each individual difference. I had planned to create mosaic pieces out of construction paper and task the students with the creation of a classroom mosaic, with students writing their names on one side and something that symbolizes them on the other. But 28 pieces of a mosaic would be difficult to piece together, especially with torn pieces of paper.

Enter the tangram. As they walk into class, each student will receive a randomly assigned geometric shape, precut out of construction paper. The colors of the paper will serve several purposes. One, it will indicate their Classcraft team. Two, it will indicate their reading groups. Three, it will be the group with which they will create their tangram.

The Tangram Day 1 Activity

  1. On one side of their paper, they will write their preferred name and last name.
  2. On the other side, they will draw a picture or write a word that symbolizes them and that they are happy to share with another student.
  3. Students will get together in color groups
  4. They will pair with another student in their group to share their info, and then report out to the class their partner’s information.
  5. Then the groups will receive some poster board and will be tasked with creating a tangram to represent their group.
  6. They’ll glue the pieces down, with the symbol hidden on the backs of the pieces.
  7. The next day, I’ll explain the significance of geometric shapes not only in Native American culture but also in Islamic culture. I’ll explain the symbolism of mosaics as honoring the sharp edges of each piece, and that not all pieces in a mosaic need be the same to be important.
  8. Each group will share the significance of their tangram.

I hope that this activity will help students get to know each other, and helps me begin to create their learning communities.