Two weeks ago I wrote a post on how I was building community in my classroom this year. I had decided that it was important to focus explicitly on celebrating individuality, as well as team building. I wanted to see if it would make a difference in students’ risk taking as learners.
When I last left off I had been ruminating on the fact that I did not feel I was moving forward, that the class did not feel like it was a community yet. After just two weeks with the class I was not surprised that it had not instantly occurred but a bit disappointed nonetheless.
After I wrote the last post, we had a turning point in the class. Could it have happened without the work I had already put in to building community, probably not. But including one new idea into my class shifted the thinking of many of the students and shifted the way they saw each other.
One strategy that some teachers use to create community in their classrooms is class meetings. I had often thought it was a good idea but never found the time. Obviously I did not feel it would make that much of a difference so did not put this on my priority list. I guess I simply undervalued the impact a meeting could have where concerns are aired out and listened to by all.
Since the beginning of the year there had been an underlying issue circling the class, causing much negativity and a lack of celebrating individuality. The issue had finally come to a head and I felt that it needed to be dealt with quickly or we, as a class, would never make the leap from the focus on self to a belief that ‘together we are better’.
So I asked our school councillor to come in and be a part of a class meeting. He has had tremendous experience in ensuring the success of these types of meetings and I was looking for support as I travelled this new road. We started by moving all the desks and leaving an open area for all the chairs to be in a circle. The openness allowed all of us to make eye contact and to feel like we were an equal part of the group. When I shared with the group that we were to have this meeting, I referred to our class as a family. It was important for all of them to feel safe and know that family keep matters private – that we did not gossip to others, that family can trust in each other and that family was there to help each other.
I will not go into the details of what transpired over the forty-five minutes we had but suffice to say, I was overwhelmed by the students’ empathy, by their accurate observations of what was happening in the class and insightful comments on how they were treating one another and why it was as it was.
Since that meeting I have witnessed such a turn around in the class, I often stop to marvel at how far they have come in such a short time. Now instead of being quick with their sarcasm or quick to laugh at an individual for something done or said, the students are much more accepting of the differences each other brings to the class. They have a deeper understanding of particular needs of specific students and are more willing to help by being positive rather than demeaning. I had a student ask me just yesterday when we would be having our next ‘family’ meeting. I have booked another spot for this coming week and am looking forward to the discussions we will have.
After reflection I understand that having the meeting alone, without all the work I had done previously, would not have ended with the same results. So even though I had felt that I had not moved forward with my students in building community, I was wrong. What I could not see was that the students were believing that ‘together we were better’, that a sense of trust was growing and most importantly a focus on respect for self and others was instilling in the students a sense of what is important for us all.
My goal was to develop an environment where students felt safer to take risks in their learning. I believe this is happening as some of the students who are normally too shy to contribute are now becoming a part of the conversation. I am seeing students enter the class each day with smiles on their faces, excited to learn, willing to step out of their comfort zones.
I cannot wait to see where out next class meeting takes us, cannot wait for our tables to arrive so that we are not connected to individual desks and cannot wait to see how they work together on their next team building exercise.
It is very clear to me that I need to ensure each year building community is a part of my yearly program, and not just something I ‘fit in’ the first two weeks of the year.