I love the above video “Have A Seat-Make A Friend”, from Soul Pancake. No matter what type of teaching system we are in, be it self contained, team teaching, or departmentalized, creating a community of learners is one of the most important things we can do. Research has shown again and again that students will not open themselves up to learning, or contributing to the learning community, unless they feel safe, respected, and valued.
Building relationships is the key to our work with students, and we strive to help support strong student-to-student relationships as well. As I continue to think about the importance of students feeling connected to the school community (recent post is here), I wanted to share five simple ideas for building and sustaining an authentic classroom community:
1. Celebrate Uniqueness.
Each student brings unique perspectives and ideas to our classrooms. By getting to know our students, and what intrinsically drives them, we can highlight their individual strengths and perspectives.
I will sometimes ask my students what things are on their bucket list; it’s a great way I’ve found to not only learn about them, but a good way for them to make connections with other kids. We often watch Kid President videos, and through these we have some great conversations which help to build one very important thing: how each of our unique selves are striving for the same common ground. This is a powerful way to model a love of diversity. By posing questions, inviting unique ideas and asking simple “How do you see it?” questions, we open the door for students to feel valued for who they are, individually.
2. Value Mistakes.
The closing of a lesson is a great opportunity to showcase mistakes as valuable learning tools. Often I purposely bring a mistake to our closing sessions. I will ask students to share a mistake they made, and how they worked through it. I identify these instances during the work period and plan them into the closing, so that I am not just highlighting those who got something right, but those who hit a snag! If the mistake hasn’t been worked out, often times that opens the door to rich discussions and collaboration around that mistake. Priceless! This is a simple way to put power behind the words and authentically show the value of mistakes as an important part of the learning process. Being transparent and owning my own mistakes is also a great way to do this. I share mistakes often and freely!
3. Honor Student Voice.
We are wise to give students a voice that matters in our instructional design and assessment processes. Allowing for a variety of ways to show learning is one way to give students a voice in their own learning. Another way is to solicit feedback from students on our own practices. I recently did this here and it was a great learning experience for me! It also solidified to students that their voice mattered, not only by giving me this feedback, but watching me make adjustments based on what I learned from them. Differentiation and allowing for student choice are further ways we can honor student voice in our classrooms. Finally, providing multiple opportunities for students to give feedback to one another builds trust, and trust is a key for a flourishing community. Students celebrate, push, question, and honor each other through each interaction they have. I recently came across this tool from @teachheath and I think it is really useful for strengthening student dialogue (and building a trusting environment):
4. Identify Experts.
We all have students who excel in different areas; set them up as experts! Our schools are full of students waiting to be dubbed the go-to for all things math, or writing, or football, or technology, or good reads, or….you get the idea. Not only does this allow them to experience the joy of helping others, it also pushes their own thinking. When we can teach someone else, we truly own the learning. Championing our students’ gifts and setting up our classrooms so that those gifts are sought after is a great way to help create an inspiring classroom community. It is also a powerful way to build collaboration within the community; removing me from “knowledge keeper” status and allowing students to truly learn with and through each other. My teaching has taken on greater depth as I have handed over the “expert” hat to my kids, and after all- I am no expert! I enjoy the freedom of being able to listen and learn from them. Maria Montesorri said, “The children are now working as if I did not exist”. I strive for that every day, because the learning is better and the community is stronger when we are all learning from one another.
5. Scaffold Learning.
None of us is ever going to be completely able in all experiences. We continue learning all our life, and don’t we scaffold for ourselves all the time? I know when I am making a new dish, or creating a piece of Mixed Media Art, I am always seeking input and feedback from those around me. I also need scaffolding, such as the recipe, or a picture next to it which is even better! I consult my artist friends for help on something I am trying to create, such as a textured background, and some of my earlier pieces took a great deal of scaffolding. When we honor the learning and maintain the integrity of the lesson, while scaffolding our students’ steps on their mastery journey, we set each other up for successes. And success builds success. By carefully scaffolding to their strengths and needs, we have engaged each student in that lesson. Day after day, this helps build an environment that supports risk-taking and nurtures feelings of being safe, understood, and included.
Creating a community is perhaps the most important thing we can do, not only to support and drive student achievement, but to support the social and emotional needs of the whole child. But let’s don’t stop there! We can also use these same ideas as we build our staff communities.
What ideas do you have for building a classroom and/or school community? I’d love to hear your thoughts!