I used to pride myself on my knack for building community in the classroom. I spoke to students about what it would take. I displayed our class mantra at the beginning of each school year: “We are a community of independent flexible thinkers working interdependently to solve problems.” We created classroom values, and those values informed our daily behavior. I could often be heard saying to students, “How does your behavior align with our values?” Students would mumble some response and walk away dejected, but compliant. I liked it. It maintained order.
But I saw little transfer of the learning goals outside the classroom. Incorporating scripted social and emotional lessons from Second Step helped a few students, but the majority were just being compliant, so I asked my administrator for help. I said, “I’m trying everything to reach them! Why can’t they transfer the social and emotional lessons I’ve been teaching in class into other spaces?” The response: “What if you don’t have as strong of a community as you thought? The goal of learning is to reach independence, and that can only happen if we are cooperating with one another.”
Over many talks with students, lunch supervisors, and other teachers, I discovered that students didn’t feel they had the right to hold their peers accountable. Other teachers believed it wasn’t the students’ responsibility, and when a student did say something to a peer in conflict, I learned it exacerbated the issue. I summed it all up to mean students didn’t feel safe enough, they didn’t trust one another enough, or they didn’t feel connected enough to believe they could support each other. I was reminded of a Zulu saying: “A person is a person because of other people.” A community builds cohesion and creates like-minded individuals through shared values. I needed to get them there.
How to Build Community in the Classroom
Today, my community structure is built on cooperative routines supporting a student's need for safety, trust, and belonging. These values undergird our behavior throughout the school year. We practice these values through cooperative routines that make each student feel safe enough to be themselves and trust that the teacher and their peers have their back, and that all students can contribute to our learning.
I have finally created a positive classroom community through culture and climate. You can do it, too. Here’s how.
1. Create human values for learning
On the first day of school, I ask students, "What do we need from one another to learn?" I always make sure to add mindfulness and responsiveness to the “Safety” list, integrity and validation to the “Trust” list, and listening and patience to the “Belonging” list. Students come up with other examples (such as food, water, breaks, sharing, kindness, fairness, acceptance, confidence, patience with self and others, support, and supplies). This list is then categorized into three “Values” columns: Safety, Trust, and Belonging. (These values are adopted from humanistic psychology, and follow a similar structure to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.)
2. Co-construct behaviors around these values
The next day, we co-construct behaviors around our three values. Utilizing the examples of what we need to learn, I guide students through a list of what “safety,” “trust,” and “belonging” behaviors look like at school. This sets the stage for our “community practices.” See the framework below.
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