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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.

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loo's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We use the Three R's at my school. They stand for Respectful, Responsible, and Ready. We teach all of our students what they mean starting in kindergarden though sixth grade. This shows all of our students schoolwide what our belief system is. We really try to teach our students the importance of being respectful to all members of our school community (teachers, staff, students). As teachers we need to be responsible for our classrooms and making sure we are on time. We also need to be ready and prepared for the day to begin.

Diane Gerg's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I also believe that a strong sense of community in the classroom is important to foster and create positive outcomes for the students as well as the teachers. As educators we need to model respect and help our students develop strategies to reach these goals. I think a social contract signed by the student is a fantastic idea. It places the responsibility of a cohesive classroom not only on the teacher, but the students. Students will feel more accountable for their actions and be able to encourage one another just like we help to encourage our students.

Andrea's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is so important for a school to have a sense of community amongst the staff and students. It seems to be such a hard task with all the politics involved at the administrative level. If we could look past the politics and the push to teach to the state testing, I think the students and teachers would be more relaxed. This in turn would create a more positve and effective learning environment. As a teacher I feel like I am constantly rushing through material. I don't stop and get to know my kids or just to take a breath with them. If had more activities like pep rallies to build this sense of partnership and respect I do believe everyone would benefit.

Kacy Langevin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe that it is very important to foster community and respect in our schools. I think that it is really positive for the students and will help students have positive outcomes in academic and social situations. In my school, we have a Leadership club that helps meets weekly and helps all of the kids around the school. Our school also teaches character traits. Everyday, the principal comes on the intercom to address a topic such as respect. In individual classrooms, teachers have weekly classroom meetings (or more frequently if need be). We talk about issues that arise in the classrooms and let the kids share things that are important for them to talk about. Hopefully, we are well on our way to effectively fostering community and respect.

Gina Rom's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Fostering a classroom community of learners

Sonia Nieto, in her book What Keeps Teachers Going?, says, "Teaching involves trust and respect as well as close, special relationships between students and teachers" (p. 37). I agree. I believe that in order to build a community of learners within the classroom and foster respect between students and teachers, teachers need to start by (1) making connections with their students through the use of interviews, listening to their concerns, showing interest in students' after school activities, and getting to know them throughout the year, (2) establishing on-going communication with students' parents on a regular basis, and (3) displaying a genuine belief in the students' capabilities. All of the above comprise the human attributes a teacher must develop in order for students to feel safe and willing to participate in this community.

At my school where I work, there's rampart disrespect and apathy towards learning on the part of the students. But, is it their fault? I honestly think that teachers at my school, myself included, do not know how to establish a community of learners or lack the time to do it. I guess the excuse is that 'we do not have the time' because we have to teach the whole textbook and have time to review the material before the state tests. All human aspects of teaching and learning have been placed at the lowest priority.

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

Kelly's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Having a supportive classroom environment is conducive to learning. Students feel comfortable and are more likely to take chances.

Our school structure is organized to foster a sense of community. We are organized by pods where we have built in planning time with our pod teachers as well as grade level colleagues.

In our school the guidance department does an excellent job of teaching character traits. Each morning students listen to announcements encouraging them to be productive and caring students. We having "Caught Caring" sheets students fill out if they see another students doing something nice for another. These "Caught Caring" slips are read at the end of the week on the announcements.

Teachers encourage a positive classroom environment daily through encouragement and role modeling.
I am very interested in establishing community meetings within my own classroom this year.

Jeff Arenson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have been at a few schools which have 'Professional Learning Communities' as well as those which don't. The schools with them, as expected, operated much better than those which didn't. At the very least, it allows a channel of commmunication between administrators and teachers as well as teacher to teacher. If a PLC is going to work, at the highest level, then all teachers need to buy into the concept. Unfortunately, there are many who don't. I do find, for the teachers who use them, they provide a place for teachers to discuss issues which are pertinent to their school and students. Like all changes in pedagogy and professional development, you will only get out of a PLC what you put into it. I do believe that all schools should provide the opportunity for teachers to interact. This would at least give the teachers who care about their profession, the students, the community and their school a chance to reap the benefits.

Cathy Schneck's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with what you said about the students' apathy towards learning. I also believe there is a lack of support from home. We need the parents to help us. I teach in a high school. I see each of my students every other day for 90 minutes. The learning process needs reinforcement from all directions. We need parents to be involved and role models as well. As we keep learning new ways of teaching their children, they need to keep up with what is going on as well. Also, if they come home from work and sit in front of the TV, what do they expect their kids to do as well. We need to inspire the kids at school and need it to continue upon their arrival at home.

cathy Schneck's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that they need a place to feel safe in order for learning to proceed. If they will feel attacked if they say anything, they won't participate. I teach a foreign language and have the honor of teaching students for multiple years. I am very careful how I address their pronunciation so that I don't stop them from trying. I have 2 sets of names to learn each year since they select a French name for class. It gives them a sense of a new beginning when they can become someone else. They get a certain comfort level in my room and keep coming back even after they graduate or stop taking the language. They expect me at the door to greet them for each class and they know the daily routine. Once I tell them to stand up (in French), they know class has started and it is down to business. I respect them and they respect me. If there is a case of disrespect, I address it and actually feel supported by the rest of the class. It usually doesn't happen again. If I don't respect them, I feel I don't have the right to expect respect.

Katrina Countryman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

From the first day of kindergarten I set the tone for community by informing my students that it is our classroom and we are all friends in a community of learners. Students are encouraged to help, listen to, and respect one another. In Pat Wolfe's article Brain Research and Education: Fad or Foundation, he states that "The environment must be physically and psychologically safe for learning to occur" (2003).
Our school counselor introduced the cougar PAWS program last year and it worked great because all staff and students understood what the school rules and expectations were.
Play safe
Act responsibly
Work hard and try your best
Show respect
When a student was caught performing these tasks, they were given a small cougar paw to write their name and teacher's name on and then placed it in a drawing. On Fridays a predetermined number of names were drawn. Winners were given a cougar pencil, their picture was taken and placed up on a special bulletin board in the lobby. Many of our teachers were glad to back up this behavior plan because we have not had any clearly supported plan in place.

Wolfe, P. (2003, Fall). Brain-compatible learning: Fad or foundation? Retrieved May 24, 2007, from http://www.mcli.dist.maricopa.edu/forum/fall03/brain.html
Reprinted with permission. From the December 2006 issue of The School Administrator.

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