Building Community

There are so many things I want to achieve this year with my students. I have ideas swirling around in my head so much so that I wake up at 5:30 am on a Saturday morning and climb out of bed to write.

One of the many changes I have made to my teaching this year is the idea of  explicitly focusing on building community in the classroom. Building relationships and making connections has always been a priority for me but somehow it has occurred without the explicit teaching. I know that I connect with some students better than others but it is not about my connections alone that I need to work on but the trust built within the entire classroom community.

This year I decided as part of my diploma program work to develop a field study which will focus  on community building. I recognize the importance of building relationships and even though it tends to happen quite naturally for most teachers when you spend 6 hours a day with your students, I realized that I was not creating an environment where all students were willing to take risks in their learning. Some grew in leaps and bounds, but not at all. A huge task to get everyone there – yes, but is it worth the effort – absolutely.

My field study is centred on the question, How can I create a sense of community where students take risks in their learning, sharing their thoughts openly and feel safe to work with any of their peers in the class?

Through my research around community building I realized that I needed to focus on highlighting the individual child first. That if we don’t recognize that we are all unique with special qualities we will not be able to come together and build solid relationships. Our mantra for the year is, ‘Together we are better!’

To focus on individuality the students have been working on assignments where they can think more deeply of who they are. All of my students are creating an Animoto similar to many I have seen on twitter where through text and images they can share with the class, and the world, what makes them special. Students are also creating a visual collage, once again using images such as photographs, magazine pictures, and images they have created, to highlight their personalities. One of the students suggested that we make one  very large class collage; great idea! Once each individual collage is completed we will be putting them all together around the classroom door. “Together we are better!”

Finally, the students will be completing two written pieces, an I Am poem and a memoir. These will be shared with the class, part of an identity day, and some will choose to add these to their websites. Once again, the focus is for all of us to see the differences and also the similarities we have as a group. I am looking to see if students will connect with others that they would not have done otherwise.

To develop community  I decided to try a few new things I read about through twitter and other resources (I love what knowledge my PLN has brought to me).  The students have come up with a name for our classroom, it is now called the COOL zone, the Class Of Outstanding Learners.  I have also allowed the students to take control of the designing of the classroom. I let them know that nothing was permanent and that they needed to make it their own. In groups they created layouts of what they wanted the classroom to look like. I was thrilled with their ideas as I had not thought of the arrangement they finally decided upon. They also incorporated what they wanted for the walls to share their special qualities. I could see their excitement as they made decisions and knew that it was their home.

One other piece that I am in the middle of doing to help build community is to get rid of the desks and bring in tables. A big thank you must go out to Joy Kirr (@joykirr) for her inspiration and sharing of what she has done with tables this year. I believe that the classroom needs to be a place that we all are a part of and that we do not need to take personal ownership of any one desk. A few of my students are struggling with this concept but many are truly excited. They cannot wait for the possible freedoms that will come with being able to move more freely depending on the learning needs. Hopefully the tables arrive next week.

So how has this been going so far, have I seen changes yet in my students, has a sense of community been built? Honestly, no. But as I was reflecting on some of my frustrations with my colleagues on Thursday I realized that I cannot expect miracles (even though I want to) as we have only spent 2 full weeks together as a class. Building trust, building relationships will take time. I also need to recognize that many of the students are coming with a baggage load of issues. It will take time for me to build personal relationships with each, to help them move forward out of some very negative mindsets. I knew the group coming my way would not be a walk in the park, (are there ever any?) and so I need to be patient. I need to keep on doing what I am doing and not get frustrated when we take a step forward and two back. Relationships and connections do not happen overnight.

I am wondering how others build community in their classrooms. Have you found certain strategies that work well, are there specific techniques you work on to build trust and a place where all students feel safe in, to take risks in their learning? I would love to receive suggestions that I could use in my teaching this year.

I cannot wait to see, even in a months time, if the feel in the class has changed, if students change how they interact with each other, and if they begin to accept one another without judgement. I am excited when I think of the possibilities that this community has for the growth and learning of each child. “Together we are better.”