Thursday, 17 May 2012

Building a Classroom Community: Some Things I Have Learned

I am a firm believer that underlying an engaging and effective learning environment is a well fostered, compassionate, and caring community. Community is not something that happens in a school or a classroom by accident or happenstance. It takes careful guidance, modeling, reinforcement, and resilience in the face of frustration. I teach grade 6 & 7 students in a highly diverse inner-city setting, and community-building has been at the core of my practice for five years now. Only now am I truly appreciating the results of our efforts as I prepare to step away from this school to a new context in a new district.

I would like to share a few of the lessons I have learned about building a classroom community:

  • Meet face to face often (at least once a week, when things are working well, more frequently when things are rough or when starting the year).
When I begin the school year, all of the desks are still piled against one of the walls and the chairs are in a circle, so that we can meet face-to-face. We will spend much of the first few days together playing games, talking, processing, and setting expectations (mine and the students'). This is an exciting time, as the grade seven students have become the class elders, and the grade six students appear nervous and shy, especially in the face of a classroom configuration which is quite alien to them. Over the course of the first two weeks we will work in pairs and fours, frequently switching with whom we work so that we have a chance to interact with everyone at some point. The early goal is for everyone to get to know everyone—to not have a 'stranger' in the room. These first two weeks set the tone for the whole school year and are critical to building what will become a caring and inclusive classroom setting. I cannot overstate the importance of the work done in these early days.

Class meetings become regular weekly events as the year progresses. However, as issues arise throughout the year that require dialogue and discussion, we will meet more often as need be.

Two of my go-to resources are TRIBES Learning Communities by Jeanne Gibbs, and Creating Caring Classrooms by Kathleen Gould Lundy and Larry Swartz.

  • Give students a high degree of ownership over the classroom and how it will operate.
For me, one of the easiest ways to undermine the students' ownership of the learning environment is to define the class in terms of myself. We define our group as 'Division 1' and we live in 'Room 13'. I have a strong distaste for the terms 'Mr. Varner's class', or 'Mr.Varner's room', or generally any definition that puts me in the fore.

After that, we define together how the space will be used, where certain things will go in the classroom, how we will sit, and how we will interact. We discuss what has been enjoyable about a classroom for them in the past, and what has been the opposite. We use that discussion to come up with informal guideline for how we will interact and share the space. Most of the guidelines we come up with are carried-forward from the previous year, as the grade seven students will talk about what they liked last year as grade six students in the same class.

  • Trust the process and get out of the students' way.
Building a strong community takes careful monitoring and ongoing attention. However, many of the minor interpersonal issues that arise throughout the year between students can be solved by the students themselves. As I see issues or disputes occur, I will ask if it is a problem they can solve, or if it needs assistance from me to solve—my parameters for staying out of the way being that the problem can be resolved to a mutually agreeable solution, and that no harm will be done. Of course, if I feel that these parameters cannot be met, or if I sense that there is a power imbalance between students, then I will intervene. It has been my experience that middle-grade students, when they know that interpersonal problem-solving is an expectation, and are encouraged to do so, are generally very fair and reasonable with one another.

  • Encourage and reward pro-social behaviour.
We work on the negative stuff. But what really works is noticing and appreciating the positive stuff. We set aside time in many of our class meetings to share a positive thing that someone has done for us over the past week. When we begin this, many students will thank their friends for things, as is to be expected. But as the students come together as a group and they feel a greater sense of inclusion, then the distance that many are willing to acknowledge appreciation often grows. And as the students acknowledge their appreciation further, so too they begin to commit acts of kindness to those not so close. When it gains traction, it becomes a beautiful feedback loop.

  • Actively discuss and promote inclusion with students—normalize.
I have always thought of Kermit the Frog as one of the great role models for leadership in education. Is there a better role model for leading inclusion and diversity than he? I'm not sure there is. Leading the Muppets is much like being a classroom teacher. We have to accept each individual for who s/he is, including all of his or her abilities, quirks, challenges, and idiosyncrasies. We have help students find their strengths, then build them up for who they are. I aim to have the students learn to know one another, because through knowing, we begin to accept each other as individuals. By building inclusion, actively pursuing it as a class goal, we also normalize diversity as a way of life. I am duly impressed with how my class is able to gel throughout the year.

  • Process, process, process.
Talk, talk, talk. James Briton said "talk is the ocean on which all learning floats". Through our class meetings I aim to get students talking about and processing their experiences in class, both academic and social. Processing, meta-cognition, reflection, sharing experiences and stories. These are critical to having the community gel. As students talk and probe and question and share, their understanding of themselves and others grows. They become better aware of their actions in social contexts, of how they learn, and of who they are. These things, as I see it, lead in turn to students being better able to self-regulate their own emotional states, and to better understand and empathize with the emotional states of their classmates. This takes focussed effort on my part to stay out of the way, to keep my talk to a minimum, and aim to only facilitate discussions. Somewhere in the year I hope to be able to observe the class meeting from the outside, and have them student led.

  • Trust in and consult with the experience of the other adults in the room (particularly Educational Assistants).
The most valuable asset in my repertoire of resources has been the amazing Educational Assistants with whom I have shared space over the past few years. These are child-development experts who have come to their understanding of kids and their needs through the best teacher of all: lived experience. I find myself frequently consulting and debriefing my own choices and experiences in class with these invaluable colleagues. We have had our hands full over the years, but the resilience, patience, guidance, and humour of these folk has been instrumental to building up the community that exists at the end of the hall. Know your strengths and build your capacity; having skilled and dedicated individuals on board is critical.

  • Model mistake making, especially how to apologize and make amends.
I am as fallible as they come—I make mistakes. When I do, I own up to them publicly and make amends in the best ways that I know how. I am unafraid of mistakes, because I know that they are opportunities for me to learn, and for me to model to students how to make a mistake and correct it. I have found that because I model humility, that it becomes a part of the culture in the classroom over time.

  • Fall in love with combined grade classes; keep students for more than one year (especially the ones who are tough to teach or who demonstrate challenging behaviour).
I have taught with a colleague at the 6/7 level for five years, and we both agree that it is better for students to have the same teacher for two years. We have each kept our students through two years, and this has had a huge impact on the way that our classrooms develop their sense of community. Because students stay, and new students arrive, we live with a sense of renewal each September, but this is ballasted by a strong sense of culture and continuity. The new grade sevens are eager to share and model the ways of our class with the new grade six students. There is a stability and a fluidity that emerge each September as we renew, reinvent, and share the ways of the class. I hope in the coming years to be able to work in three year groupings, because of the success I have experienced with two years.

This is some of the trajectory I have built up over the years here. My belief in the power of community is strengthened each year as I better understand my role in creating and sustaining a robust learning environment. The most important teachers in this are the students, as they show me what works and what needs adjusting and attention. 

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