Saturday, 26 January 2013

Consciously Creating Community

The culture in a classroom is something that I have come to believe is extremely important for optimal learning.  While it's probably safe to say that any competent teacher realizes the value of developing a positive relationship with his or her students, even greater  accomplishments can be achieved if an environment is created where the students value strengths in each other.  Creating this environment does involve a shift in thinking when approaching curriculum. Instead of a class being approached where the teacher alone is responsible for delivering the curriculum, the teacher instead makes a goal to construct an environment where every student contributes their strengths and talents towards the collective learning of the group.  Every student is then seen as an asset of the group and a potential contributor to the learning environment.  Ideally, instead of the passion and talents and ideas of one person (the teacher) being used to create the learning environment, you instead have the diversified impact of 30 individuals. 

There are many reasons why building community in the classroom is not prioritized in most high school classrooms.  Heavy curriculum objectives, lack of time, and the pressure of exams and university entrance often weigh heavily on high school teachers and students alike.  If the purpose of a course is only to cover curriculum and students never have to speak to each other, what need is there to build community?  There are ways that this can be achieved at the high school level however, and there are three in particular I will focus on using examples from my current Literature 12 class.

1. Explicit Focus on Community

From the first day of class I tell my students that the expectations for the course will be a little different. They are told that this course isn't just about them and how well they achieve (or don't achieve). This course will be about the collective achievement and understanding of all of us. If one student is away, then the rest of us are incomplete and missing out on what that student could be sharing with the rest of the class. This can certainly be a bit of a stretch for grade 12 students. In most classes their understanding and engagement only determines their individual experience, and would not be expected to impact other kids. In this class students are led to understand that we are all working to create the optimum collective learning environment for all students. We are all working for the success of everyone. If 29 students are present and one is missing then we are less than we could be. This is a definite mind shift for many kids (and can be difficult for students who may have a previous negative history with another person in the class). (Disclaimer: A student's marks are never dependent upon the contributions of others, but that is a blog post for another day!)  

2. Showcasing Student Strengths

This can be a bit of a vicious cycle.  A sense of community must be established so that students will feel comfortable sharing their strengths, talents, and passions, yet the sharing of those strengths and talents, and the valuing of them by other students is what builds community. A survey on the first day of class indicated that two students in the class this semester are passionate dancers. At first glance, a literature course might not appear to allow for much room for dance moves, but it simply requires a small reversal of the way the teacher approaches the course. Instead of delivering the content of the course and rewarding only the students who have strengths that lend themselves directly to the subject matter (traditionally reading and writing), the teacher begins with the strengths of the students and then creates ways for students to explore that course using their interests or talents whenever possible. Even better if those strengths can be used to connect the curriculum to the learning of the entire class.  A very simple example is below.  In the Shakespeare play "King Lear" a crucial scene involves a storm that is very symbolic and in this case the two dancers choreographed a very simple dance routine that the class could perform. They knew it was essential that the routine was one that the entire class could imitate so it connected everyone to the activity.  The two students put a 1 minute video on youtube and the class used it to learn the moves for the next day.  It wasn't a large part of the class but it allowed these two students to showcase their talents, it created a memorable moment connected with a Shakespearean play and it added some kinesthetic elements to the lesson. The one minute clip below includes a portion of the youtube tutorial and a short clip of the students teaching the rest of the class. 

3. Connecting Curriculum to Community

Some parts of Literature 12 naturally lend themselves to the theme of building community. During these times students complete activities that link directly to anything that could be classified as "team building". One such example is "Meditation 17" by John Donne. This is a complex essay written in the 17th century that includes the famous quote "No man is an island".  As this is one part of the curriculum that links directly to the goal of building community, in class it is taught through the lens of our actual class and its members and how we are all dependent on each other.  Another topic covered in Literature is Cavalier Poetry which is known for its theme of "Carpe Diem".  To connect to the Cavalier poems in the course, students make lists of things they would like to achieve during their lives and then demonstrate their trust in their classmates by sharing those dreams with them.  The video below was made to capture both the class's sharing of dreams (Carpe Diem) and the theme that "No Student Is an Island".  Images of various highlights from the class (this video was made about 1/2 way through the course) were added to show the connectedness of the group and how the experiences are enhanced by the participation of all members.  The final requirement of the video was that every single member of the class had to be included. 

Now it may appear that a Literature class lends itself to community (as you could argue that any humanities course has a nature of interconnectedness in the subject area itself), but most of the poems on the core curriculum do not connect directly to community and cover numerous other topics including  love, death, war, fear, industrialism, the natural world, etc.  The point is that whenever the curriculum does connect, it is used to build community.  All humanities courses have elements of interconnectedness but so do other subject areas.  See this blog by @okmbio for an example of connecting curriculum (themes such as valuing unity and diversity) to community in a Biology classroom. (Thanks as well for an introduction to the Animoto program which I learned after reading this particular post.) The traditional fear is that if time is spent on developing community, then understanding of the learning outcomes will be sacrificed, however the time spent is actually a high return investment, as the students ultimately show more understanding when the collective energy and focus of the group is applied to the learning outcomes. 

The Big Picture

Our education system is the backbone of a healthy and democratic society that values the lives of every individual, and our classrooms should reflect what we hope our society to be: a collection of diverse and unique individuals who are respected for their individuality and yet value contributions to the common good.  As a grade 12 teacher I am particularly sensitive to the teaching of our future citizens, and  I am very proud of the fact that Literature classes in my school include traditional "academic" students, students from our alternate education program, students with behavioural designations,  and students who are completing school leaving certificates instead of a regular diploma.  It is my belief that all courses and curriculum should be taught through the lens of community, leadership, and inclusion. Everything our students learn should be applied to their own lives and if our high school students cannot see the value and strengths of other individuals who they spend 5 months learning together with,  then why would we expect them to see the strengths and value of others outside our classrooms?  Every step we take in this direction not only improves our classroom communities but echoes positively beyond the walls of our schools.  It may be an ideal, but it is an ideal worth striving for.