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A Community of Learners: Building a Supportive Learning Environment

Bob Lenz

Co-founder and Chief of Innovation, Envision Education, Oakland CA
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Recently, a nationally recognized expert in classroom management visited the campuses of Envision Schools to help coach our teachers. Though he had plenty of advice about how we can make our learning environments more structured so student learning is accelerated, he was also effusive about the sense of respect he witnessed between students, between students and teachers, and between adults in the schools.

Like many visitors to our organization's campuses, he sensed a strong sense of community. A learning community does not just happen; it is created intentionally at every level of a school and organization. At Envision Schools, we employ several strategies to create this type of environment:

Explicit Value

We are explicit that we hold community as a core value. We describe it in our literature, and leaders and teachers state it to students and their parents constantly at events, in private meetings, and in letters home. We also explicitly state to the adults in our organization that we are a professional learning community and that we plan our professional development to help foster and sustain our core value of community.

School and Organizational Structures

We organize our schools and our schedules to build a sense of community. Schools are organized by teams or families, in which a group of educators share a cohort of students. Teachers serve as advisers to sixteen students, and the advisories meet two to three times a week in our lower division (grades nine and ten) and daily in the upper division (grades eleven and twelve). Each week, teachers have three hours of common planning time with content-area colleagues and four hours of facilitated collaboration time with their team or family colleagues. We also build time into our master schedule for at least one community meeting (either by team, division, or whole school) each week.

We meet as a whole network of schools five times each year, and teachers collaborate and share curriculum and project ideas across our schools almost every week, either in person or virtually through email, instant messaging, or our Project Exchange online community.

Classroom Activities and Community Meetings

In the classrooms and advisories where we see the strongest sense of community and respect, we observe teachers regularly facilitating activities to develop these qualities. Most of these teachers greet their students at the door with a handshake or even a hug. These classrooms and advisories have norms or agreements posted prominently in the room. The norms ("Respect each other," for example, and "Listen") are not just words on a poster; teachers and students hold each other accountable to them daily.

Students are often organized in circles -- and often without desks. Every class begins with a brief check-in, during which the students and the teacher share how they are feeling, even if it's just a nonverbal thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Teachers explicitly teach collaboration skills that help groups working on projects to be more successful, and they simultaneously build community. Teachers also confront issues of diversity, race, and class in the context of their curriculum, teaching collaboration while explicitly building a learning community.

Community meetings offer school leaders an opportunity to teach and build the whole school learning community. Each school has developed its own rituals and formats for their meetings: Some schools start each meeting with a chime and an inspirational reading. Others have students facilitate the meetings, and they begin with a quote of the day.

Schools use community meetings to address critical schools issues, to explicitly teach values such as community, and to share information. Sometimes, they're just about fun -- like one featuring an adviser Hula Hoop contest. Community meetings also serve as an opportunity to showcase student performance in the context of a project. Though every school's community meeting looks different, the outcomes are the same: Students and teachers feel more connected and part of a community.

As with most aspects of high-quality schools, building community begins with a vision and happens because the school leaders and the teachers intentionally design structures and activities to reach the vision. When our students graduate, we challenge them to lead the formation of community wherever they go, for the rest of their lives. Once you have the privilege to experience true community, you have the obligation to create it.

How do you foster community and respect in your schools? Please share with us.

Comments (97)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Sharon M Rawls's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Gina, You are are the right track. I too am reading Sonia Nieto's(2003)book, "What Keeps Teachers Going?". I am motivated by her advice and feel better equipt to build a community of learners. Your concern is time. Time to implement all of the techniques that will foster the necessary relations to accomplish our goal. I find that most of the techniques can be implemented without extra time. It is how we treat our students thoughout the day that promotes the bond we are seeking to establish. Our tone of voice, facial expressions, positive attitude, patience, and professional demeanor will win our students over. All can be accomplished while we are going through our daily routine. Good luck!

Nieto,S.(2003). What keeps teachers going?. NY: Teachers College Press.

DaMesia Starling's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As often heard so many times in Education, it takes everyone in a school setting to ensure the success of the students. I believe that collaborating with other teachers is very helpful. With me being in this profession for 5 years, I rely on my colleagues quiet often. Where I teach, we have a strong sense of community, we meet once a week in our various teams to discuss assessments, and any evaluations we have made. As far as parental involvement, we have some parents that will do whatever it takes for their child. My primary responsibility are my student's and whatever it takes, my kids are worth it.

Jamie Baughcome's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree whole heartedly with your statement about the "new 3 R's." If rules are arbitrarily put on students, they will not go along with them. I choose to teach my rules as expectations that they are striving to achieve. We go over each expectation and discuss why it is important and what the class would be like if it was not in place. I also allow the students to come up with expectations for me. Students have a right to be treated well and they need to see that I make the choice to treat them the way they ought to be treated each day.

Anne Shaw's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I too believe that we need to help foster respect and a sense of community in our schools. We as teachers need to model this in everything that we do. The middle school that I teach in started a character program a few years ago but it fell by the wayside this past year. It was an unfortunate demise because the program really seemed to be making a difference. Due to numerous changes in administration and lack of time to plan events, teachers stopped making an effort. One idea that didn't work well was a merit system for good behavior. It was so subjective. I'll be looking for more ideas to help my school so if any of you have any ideas, I would greatly appreciate them.

Shannon Lowmiller's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach in a rural high school just outside Alliance, Ohio. We have professional learning communities. Each department meets twice a week for 25 minutes each time. Once a month, we have building committee meetings and whole staff meetings. This organization has great potential to foster a sense of community. The only problem is we seem to get bogged down in testing and analysis of test results that we don't have time to discuss strategies to address the results.
I like what Bob Lenz said about "norms" posted in classes and teachers greeting students as they enter. I will adopt those ideas for my class.
Our local library organizes a "One Book, One Community" project each year. They encourage several local high schools to have teachers use the book in classes as well as advertise to the public. The author comes for talks at a community location as well as at the schools. Being involved in this program seems to help build a sense of community.

Kate's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello Katrina,
I loved your school's program. I am also a kindergarten teacher and have difficulty making character education exciting. Your idea is simple, straightforward and fun! Thank you for sharing.

Sara Hutchinson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Building a community involves purpose, expectations, respect, safety, communication, and teamwork. Creating an environment that fosters these elements helps produce positive relationships and rapport between students, teachers, parents, and colleagues.

Something I am trying out in my classroom this year is a theme. The students were a huge part in picking out the theme, giving them ownership and choice. I liked having them be so active in picking out the theme because it is something I know they are interested in and will help motivate them.

The theme is sports and I am directing it to many aspects of my classroom. As their "coach," I direct them in "getting in shape," "practice," "scrimmage," and "play." For my discipline policy I made an "Out of Bounds" bulletin board. It is amazing to see how naturally things fit into the theme and make it fun!! I am honestly still in the beginning stages, but already I can see improvements in working together, communicating effectively, and encouragement.

Jen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a recent graduate who is substituting. Although most of the faculty is willing to help or even offer a seat in the teacher lounge I have found that there is little the district is doing to foster a relationship between the teachers and substitutes, or the community and substitutes. I understand that I do not have my own classroom, but I am still working with the same children on a daily basis. I would like to see more of an effort to build a relationship to make substitues feel more comfortable and involved. After reading about the Professional Learning Communities, I have to wonder if substitutes and other non- full time staff should be included. Does anyone have this in their district?

barbara's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with your comment, teacher collaboration helps a lot. My school has strong feelings on this as well. At the end of each year a groupd of teachers/staff memebers representing each of the 'groups' in our school sit together to formulate the master schedule for the next year. During this time (of talking and debating) our Principal tries her best to give each teacher on the grade level common planning time and lunch within minutes of each other so we will have two opportunities during the day to get together to share if we would like. In order to 'force' some that might not see this as a valuable tool, they require us to fill out minutes for each of our meetings. I think when people have the opportunity to share and collaborate - great (or greater) things can happen.

barb's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really like the PAWS program that your school has. Our school guidance department put together something similiar using the program character counts. It is nice when students are recognized for doing nice things, and not only for the honor roll...which not everyone usually makes. I am also a knidergarten teacher and agree with your feeling (setting the tone) with your students. I actually have my students help create the class rules. We talk about being safe at school, about learning, and about having a good time...and then we come up with a list of things that we feel are important to help us learn, be safe, and have fun. The students really get into helping create the list and are quicker to remember/follow the 'rules' as they were the ones that actually created them.

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