Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Importance of Creating Community

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? 

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  1. What a crazy coincidence. Ten seconds before you sent this out my daughter was coming to me for advice on how to handle and deal with being left out. She is 9, but at 9 that can mean the world to a child. Your advice for educators is great. I do not think she is left out much and when she is, it is from things that she doesn't want to do anyway. This led to a conversation about peer pressure and making good choices. It even led to a brief discussion on peer pressure with drugs, alcohol and yes sex. She blushed when I mentioned that, but she is growing up quickly and I feel it is my role to help prepare her for this difficult world she will be navigating..

    1. It's amazing that we have those kinds of conversations with kids at young ages. I think you're doing the right thing by a brief discussion on the hard topics. Our messages to kids should be clear and in their best interests. Thanks for reading!

  2. When our students leave, they remember the relationships more than the lessons. Community building is vital. Thanks for your practical steps we can use to insure we are building a cohesive classroom community that serves our students well.

    1. So true, Greg. Kids remember the people, whether it's teachers, staff, or fellow classmates. It's so important that kids are not just sitting beside another student without really getting to know them.

  3. Jennifer,
    Thank you for the post. I truly think that the foundation of education is relationships and we develop relationships through community in our classrooms. I was watching "Dead Poet's Society" last night and this made me think of how they developed their community with a common goal, but also had everyone make their individual contributions. Once that community has been established, then true learning can occur.

    1. Your comment makes me want to go back and watch the movie, Jon. A common goal is not the "norm" in classrooms, but it definitely can be done. It's up to us to find a way. Thanks for your comment.

  4. Just like any other relationship, the sense of community, belonging, trust, and authenticity has to be established and constantly reviewed. It's not just something that happens the first month of school and then you're good to go for the year. Reviewing expectations for communication and trust and modeling that every day has to be in the background of our thinking all the time. I agree that it's an essential part of the classroom if any true learning is going to take place.