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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Challenge of Creating Community: First Steps

Bob Lenz

Co-founder and Chief of Innovation, Envision Education, Oakland CA

My reflections on building community in schools have sparked a lot of responses and many questions. It appears people are looking for specific tactics, tricks of the trade, and ideas from Envision Schools and our cyber colleagues. I will offer some ideas here, and I encourage others to respond with their insights and strategies.

The challenge I am facing right now is trying to build this school culture in a conventional setting at a big-city school.

Begin where you have control -- your classroom. Here are some practices I have found to be effective when you do them consistently and with integrity:

  • Greet students by name at the door with a welcome and a handshake.
  • Organize your classroom like a seminar; arrange seating in a circle or in a group of tables.
  • Begin class with a quick check-in. Students have to make several speedy transitions a day between classes, and this check-in process lets students refocus and allows the teacher and classmates to see how they are feeling.

    Students who prefer not to participate vocally can communicate nonverbally with thumbs-up or thumbs-down gestures. Depending on your openness, this activity can also lead to topical conversations that help the class connect by revealing that they share common experiences.

    Finally, you build community when people trust one another. In order to do so, they need to know each other.

  • Create rules for group processes, and hold yourself and the students responsible for keeping the norms. For example, students must respect one another, listen with empathy and understanding, work hard, contribute, and not put one another down.
  • Talk about the goal of creating a community of learners early and often. Engage students in making a plan to build this community. Create a vision with them for what it should look and sound like. Periodically, reflect together about your progress toward the vision.
  • Have students take personal inventories, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality test, which helps you determine, for example, whether you are an extrovert or an introvert; or the Gregorc Style Delineator, which assists you in evaluating your thinking styles. Discuss the theory of multiple intelligences. Have the students share their self-assessments with one another.

How can I influence my school to be a community school?

After you have begun building community in your classroom, move on to building it with colleagues and parents. Here are some ideas about how to start community in a school:

  • Create a book club or a study group that looks at educational issues and topics.
  • Hold a potluck with students and their parents, and begin a conversation about how you can influence a school to become a community. Do the same with your colleagues -- or, better yet, have one potluck for everyone.
  • Ask a colleague to learn about project-based learning with you. Attend a conference or read an article about it. Discuss it with your colleague, and ask to share what you've learned at a staff meeting.
  • Ask a colleague to try out a new instructional strategy with you. Experiment with it, and observe one another using it. Share what you've learned. Repeat.

Does anyone else have a situation in which the community among faculty members is strong but the community among students needs improvement?

This is a great starting point. The faculty can work together to share common strategies to build community in their classrooms. They can endeavor to change their schedules to include advisory and community meetings. The faculty can hold evening events for parents and students to celebrate academic and artistic performance.

With a professional learning community for adults, your school has a great opportunity to create a student learning community as well.

In the second part of this entry, I respond to queries about how to get buy-in from colleagues and school leaders, but please share your thoughts about the suggestions I've offered here.

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