Community, while it may not be vital to an individual's success in school, fulfills basic human needs. The need for belongingness and the desire to identify with and be a part of a group are factors in human motivation.
When I was in high school, my dad got transferred with his job. That meant that we would be leaving Chattanooga, TN where I had grown up, and we would be moving to Birmingham, AL. It would happen during the summer between my sophomore and junior year in high school. I had questions about the new school where I would attend. Would I fit in? Would the other kids like me? Will I make close friends?
I feel lucky that I was an athlete. I already belonged to a community. I made friends quickly, had things in common with others, and worked with them towards a common goal.
What about kids who don't already belong to a community? What about students in a classroom? Do they automatically have things in common? Do they make community just by being in class together? I say no. And it's my belief that the teacher is vital to creating a community in a classroom.
What is community about?
Community is about empathy. It's about trying to put yourself in another's shoes, to listen to their point of view, and respect their journey.
Community is about participation. Community is not about being a wallflower. It's not about watching. It's about contributing, because all voices are valued and important.
Community is about authenticity. It's about being yourself and sharing that self with others. It's about not just "going along to get along," but about complimenting each other's strengths and weaknesses with your own.
Community is about trust. It's about a belief system that all people - despite and because of differences - are valuable and matter. Respect for others is one of the components necessary for trust.
How to build community in the classroom:
1. As the teacher, model, encourage, and expect supportive, respectful relationships. Avoid sarcasm. Don't allow students to make negative comments about each other. Use manners. Listen.
2. Provide opportunities for student input. Creating classroom rules together is one way to allow students to have a voice and have a shared product.
3. Provide opportunities for collaboration. Teach students how to work together, and emphasize ideal behaviors and beliefs of respect, trust, and empathy.
4. Provide opportunities for personal sharing. Share stories about yourself. Learn what's important to each student. One teacher I know had students to bring in an item from home that was important to them. The students had 20 seconds to share the item and explain why. (This was a precursor to writing persuasive essays.) Some of the students' stories brought the others to tears. Every story was an important contribution to the classroom community.
What did I leave out? What else is community about and how do we develop classroom community?