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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

Adam's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

When I think of the word community, I think of a group of people working together for a common goal. Do all communities thrive? The sad thing is they don't. In order for a school community to thrive they must work with one another, and cooperate with one another on everything they do. In my school we are a community, but we don't always act the way a community of teachers should. This is the thing I know that my co-workers and myself need to work on. Anymore we email more than we talk face to face, we only hold department meetings once a month, and we only have faculty meetings three times a semester. Is this enough to be a succssful community? Our school runs smoothly, and the students are successful, but there is always more we could do.

Latonya Glanton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

To influence your second school in becoming a school community, you could lead by example. It many sound obivious, but if others see you initiating a sense of community they will follow.

A.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My school is community. Teachers, parents, administrators, and students are stakeholders. Each group is represented in our Charter Council, which makes decisions for the school. We have several events that happen throughout the year to foster a learning community, such as International Week, AR Races, and MANY PTA sponsored events. However, I feel there is more we can do to foster a sense of community. I LOVE the idea of weekly school wide celebrations. I really liked the events Karen described above. Children celebrating accomplishments in front of their peers would help boost self-esteem. Not only that, but this would teach children to acknowledge others' accomplishments.

Andrea's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I found this article to be very interesting. The sense of community is so important in a classroom. I really enjoyed reading the different ideas and methods for engaging students in a classroom community. I'm a pretty new teacher and am always looking for new ideas to help my students feel welcomed and comfortable. It is so important to aide students learning and part of their success depends on how comfortable they feel in class. I remember when I was in school, if I didn't feel comfortable in class I definatley did not want to succeed as much as when I knew the teacher cared and had a very close classroom enviornment.

Evelena's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that it is very important to have a close knit school community. This builds a sense of belonging for the students, parents, teachers, and the administration. It makes the school environment condusive to learning and provides a sense of security.

Dorothy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe building community is vital for a successful and productive school year. Students want to feel a sense of belonging. Students want to feel safe. They want to be able to talk to their teachers in confidence without any hesistation. Each year I spend about a good first month, building on the core values in our school. They are community, respect, and effort. I believe when children are exposed to values constantly, they eventually will practice or carry out these values. As a teacher, I am straightforward with my students and tell them that my duties as their teacher is keep them safe and comfortable and teach them their curriculum for the year. You know you have made a difference when your students ask you to loop with the class for the next school year.

Mrs. M's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I find that a supportive "community" in a classroom is vital for each student to be successful. This article mainly focuses on the secondary level of education. I teach elementary which is the root system for students to understanding what a community environment is made up of. I demand a high level of respect from my students, but they get that same amount of respect from me. The Essential 55 written by Ron Clark was a tool that helped me form a postive community in my classroom my first year of teaching. Although I don't follow each and every part of Ron Clark's essential 55, I have continued to use the parts I felt were most important each year thereafter. I would like to hear what more elementary schools and their teachers do to encourage a postive community within their school.

Reynaldo's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm looking for resources and ideas on how to run a comm. meeting.

I already like the idea of a school chant/anthem.

Then regular house cleaning announcements, and then a quote or a reading.

I've read all your responses and they are very helpful.

Rohit Sood's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have taught in a free progress school called Mirambika, New Delhi, India for three years facilitating children in their learning journey. Over the years I have been working with National organizations of repute to bring in school reform. In the end I feel the School culture is a place which needs a lot of intervention. How the school, its culture and people around the child help him grow and nurture is of immense importance. I have seen it and experienced it in Mirambika, New Delhi with 130 children which is located in the beautiful 30 acre campus of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and not to forget the Rishi Valley School run by the Krishnamurti Foundation in Chittor, Andhra Pradesh in a larger scale. It is a full fledged school and a great example how school life extends to the community.

The challenge I am facing right now to build this school culture in a conventional setting in a city school like New Delhi. A big school with 1500 children and 0ver 120 staff. Is there a system, process, model I could follow to build the culture, heritage, have a space for all engaged in the child's environment to learn as well. How Values, life skills, professional development and the Spiritual dimension which is most missing in our lives become part of the School, Community, Town, State, Nation and the World at large. Help me begin somewhere with children and parents around me. I would love to learn from schools, educators and enlightened people working and struggling in this area.

Ultimately I have to be answerable to everybody in the picture about career choices, competition, globalisation, the government about my dream. There are New Age schools which are open to ideas and have invited me to work. I am at the moment of conceptualizing the idea. Please share more. A learner and aspirant. Rohit

Amy Berry's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I know I have not did a good job establishing a community when I start to have behavior problems. Not much can be established if respect from each person is not established from day one. When we rush to teach before everyone becomes a learning team, valuable time is lost in the long run. Allowing students opportunities to express thier beliefs and thinking about how the classroom should run gives the students a sense of ownership for established rules, procedures, and routines. Make them a part of class organization. Think about how they can help in every aspect of learning. Let them do the thinking and learning. Of course the way to establish this is by getting them actively participating from day one. I think when you base your whole classroom on the students' needs and interests you are going to have a great year! It may take more time establishing everything, but the students will feel a sense of pride for the choices that they help make. They keep the room clean, follow established procedures, keep classroom rules, keep books in the right tubs, remind the other classmates of their responsibilities. When we do it all for them, they don't have to think, problem solve or get involved. Let's face it, the less involved they are, the less ownership they take. I want students who know what thier roles are in my class. They are thinkers, problem-solvers, partners, and learners, and I do not have to tell them. They experience it daily and take the roles on themselves. When certain students do not, I reflect and work on ways to get a needed shift from them. I watch my language. I make sure that my language reveals my belief in them in every circumstance. My thinking is how can I get them in the "driving seat" as quickly as possible. This is a work in progress and I am getting better at this. I know I will continue to grow and learn about community building as long as I am teaching.

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