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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

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you about trying to incorporate the students in building a "community" in the classroom. This does seem to help them take more ownership for their own behavior because they know they were a part of creating the rules and regulations and need to follow them. I teach at the elementary level, and I always have the students help to make up our rules for the classroom. All of us then sign the rules so we know that's what we'll be following throughout the year. I know I do like having things a certain way in my classroom; however, I do know it is important that I try and let some of the "jobs" be left for the students to do so they learn responsibility and respect for certain things. Incorporating these "community building" strategies into my teaching is something that I will continue to try...I know it will take time and patience each year for me to do. As you said, "this is a work in progress." I know I will continue to learn even more about building a community in the classroom as well.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In my school (I teach 8th grade), we have implemented the advisory period- however it could be a more effective use of time. I do see when we do activities to spur on team-building and academic achievement, the students really excel.
I think sometimes schools underestimate the benefit of establishing the connections between students and between teachers and students. When those connections are formed, I find discipline is not a very big issue. We have not tried the community meetings but I was thinking of talking about that idea with my colleagues. I would be curious to hear about what activities are performed at community meetings.

Angie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I feel it is very important to build a community within your classroom. I build a school family where we all have jobs and expectations. We treat each other with mutual respect and fostering this kind of relationship within the classroom, really create an environment where students can feel comfortable and take risks. I think that if you foster this school family that the students can achieve more because they feel safe and comfortable.

Victor Diaz's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe that creating a sense of community in our classrooms is a key element to students' success. Not only are we building a learning environment but an environment that is safe and comfortable for them to feel successful and be successful in. I know that I try to build my community from the minute they walk into my classroom by greeting my students at the door as they walk in. I continue this every day of the year not only do I do it in the mornings but every time we enter the classroom my students know that they are not to walk into the room until I am by the door to greet them in whether it is from lunch, music, art, etc... I also do this as they leave, I will stand by the door to dismiss them and wish them a great afternoon this brings closure for the day whether it was a good one or not. This has created a great sense of community and RESPECT!

Taesha's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that as teachers we need to role model proper behavior and teach respect to our students. Sadly many students do not respect simply because they have never been respected or seen it modeled. Respect is my number one rule for my community of learners.

Stacey Johnson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that a sense of community is very important. Last summer I went to a "Capturing Kids Hearts" workshop, as did most of my grade level. Everything I learned there helps foster a sense of community in the classroom and since most of the grade level was doing it also,the sense of community filtered through the grade level. The students helped develop and signed a social contract. They were able to call each other out if the contract was violated. They were also encouraged to give each other compliments. It definitely cut down on the number of behavior problems I had this year.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

One of the keys to building a supportive learning environment is remembering that we teach human beings. More emphasis on establishing positive relationships within the overall goal of educating our youth is vital to both student and teacher success. I once heard someone say that the new 3 R's of teaching should be "Rules without Relationships leads to Rebellion." Perhaps the Reading, Writing and Arithmetic would improve if we all followed this advice.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really liked what you said about the "new" 3 R's - "Rules without Relationships leads to Rebellion." That is very true!! I have experienced this as an educator. Without building some type of relationship with your students discipline becomes a major problem. I have found that building a strong, possitive, educational relationship with students leads to positive participation in the classroom.

Melissa Yeager's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love the idea of a school chant. Do you know of any resources I could use to help me get students to come up with one?

Melissa Yeager's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love your input about morning meetings, the announcements, the assemblies. All of these are key components that are missing from my building. I have worked in buildings that had these elements...it was a more positive environment for all. The sharing of work completed is a great idea, too.
Thank you for sharing.

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