You probably have heard the buzzword "community" within education before. You may have even been asked, within an interview, "How do you build a classroom community?" This word floats around a lot, but what does it actually look like? How do you foster a community among diverse learners, students, and people? What do you do when your community is struggling? How do you combat negativity or toxicity in your community? How do you model a community to your students?
These are just a few questions I know I have had before. To be honest, there's not a quick fix or one solution for each classroom. I have six classes/day and each of them looks completely different than the others. In this post, I hope you find some "answers" to these big questions regarding the community I try to foster in our classroom.
community (n): a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals. This definition encompasses what community looks like for my students and me. Let's break this definition down and answer some of those questions from above.
What is a community and how do you define it with your students? Most middle and high school students have a baseline understanding of community. However, some of their communities are not always the healthiest "fellowship" with others. The people students spend time with when they are outside of school might not necessarily be the people I would suggest they spend their time with. I think this can be the most difficult part of defining a community with students.
They might feel close to those people, even if they don't necessarily make the best choices when they're in "fellowship" with those people. I try to ask specific questions about who they spend time with and what are those people doing to lift them up? For example, if my students spend time with friends who are making poor choices, bringing them down, being negative, and causing drama then their idea of a healthy community is going to look different than mine.
Students do not always know the type of community they should have surrounding them. Many students, were often raised in an environment that led to this learned behavior. It is not that they do not desire a different type of community, they just do not know what it looks like because it is foreign to them. Ask them tough questions about what their relationships are doing for them. Are they bringing them down or lifting them up? I guarantee this will help them understand the difference between the community you want for them versus what they might think is best.
Once your students have a grasp on what community should look like, it will be easier for them to foster that environment in the classroom.
Practically, what steps should be taken to begin building a community? There can be an overwhelming amount of rules, goals, guidelines, or agreements that we, as educators, throw at students to create a community. We can have rules like, "If you say something mean to someone, you need to say two nice things." Or phrases like, "No put-downs." I'm not against any of these concepts, but my point is sometimes they overcomplicated the classroom.
To be honest, I do not have the energy to always keep up with a bunch of rules. But what I try to foster is a safe environment. I would say this is a pillar of my teaching philosophy. Students should always feel safe. Their ideas, thoughts, beliefs, values, questions, and struggles should be safe in my classroom. No one should ever feel like they are being condemned for having differing perspectives from anyone in the classroom, including myself. I also want my students to physically feel safe too. I do not tolerate any type of name-calling, bullying, fighting, etc. I will stop any lesson, or activity, for the sake of a student's safety.
I have tried really hard to make the physical appearance of my room inviting and safe. It warms my heart when students say they love being in my room because of how it feels. It's not about a Pinterest-worthy anything, it's all about the feeling the room gives them.
A great place to start is to focus on one word to help center your community. In our classroom, our focus word is safety. Whether they realize that it is our word or not, I hope they can feel that. Pick a word to help you center your community around. Maybe your word is hope, love, kindness, family, and make that word the pillar of everything else you do.
What do you do when your community is struggling?
There will be struggles. There will be students who do not "get along" with others or anyone for that matter. But that does not mean they have to overtake the community. I never want students to feel isolated or not a part of things. I want each student to participate, whatever that looks like for them, and feel like they have a sense of belonging in our room. I want them to take ownership of their learning and time in my classes. But all of those things don't always happen and that is completely ok. It's not always sunshine and rainbows.
Here are a few ideas of ways to combat a struggling community.
1. Find a way to serve together. I have a blog post entitled, "Service Projects for Students" entirely devoted to service projects for students. Getting the focus off of "me, myself, and I" can often bring students together in unexpected ways.
2. Do some team-building activities. I don't like to force kids to do things they don't like, but depending on the circumstance I might be a little forceful. It's ok for students to get out of their comfort zones and try new things. They might even, dare I say, enjoy themselves if they give it a try.
3. Create something together. Maybe it's a bulletin board, some art for the classroom, or gifts for teachers in the building. Have a common goal and working toward it with others will help build community.
4. Get to know each other better. There are tons of resources floating around that enable students to get to know each other. Before I get on a soapbox about cell phones, I'll leave you with this thought, students need time to socialize in person and face-to-face. It's called a conversation people, have one!
5. Pair students with people they wouldn't normally work with. Ok, I don't ever want to be the teacher that creates group work, and then Freida freeloader slacks off and does nothing. But there are times when it is ok for students to be with people they don't normally interact with. They might even make a new friend.
6. Bring in a guest speaker to talk about what community means to them. Most people I have ever asked to come into my classroom say yes. Plus, what an awesome opportunity to plug students into a healthy environment. There are some incredible organizations that would be thrilled to meet your students.
7. Find a local (or not so local) school to be pen pals/Skype buddies with. Technology can be our friend if we use it wisely. Find a group of other students (younger or older) for your students to interact with. Have them ask each other questions and get to know each other better.
I promise you if you do any one of these things, your community will not only stop struggling but will flourish and thrive.
I wanted to include a resource I created to help build classroom community. You can easily implement this idea with your students of nearly any grade level and subject.
This resource includes two options both paper and digital. This "Friday Shout-Out" product is a great way for students to encourage one another and build classroom community. It is also a way to encourage positive behavior. Essentially, students give a weekly shout-out to their peers for ways they were encouraging, helpful, kind, and loving throughout the week. On the form, there is an option for them to select whether they would like to read the shout-out or have you read it. This would allow for them to stay anonymous or not feel embarrassed with what they wrote.
Within the resource, I also included large titles on separate pages. I thought you could easily turn this into a small bulletin board area or classroom decoration. If you are wanting to keep your classroom digital, there is a link to an editable Google Form within the resource. Students can submit the form each week via the Google Form. Below is a small preview of what the digital version looks like.
I hope this helped spark some ideas regarding how to focus on building classroom community. It is one of the most vital parts of education. If you don't have a community, what do you have? I want my students to have real "fellowship" with each other, as they work toward the same goals within our classroom.
I'll leave you with this quote.
"Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success."--Ford
With love and lots of coffee, Amy (Coffee Stained Lesson) ☕