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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

Lorie Wall's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

When I began teaching at my school six years ago, it was the first year the school had a music and an art teacher that worked together and truly cared about the students. By our second year here, teachers began to notice a change in the students. They began to love music and art. Students who had various talents became more confident in themselves, and it was noted that overall school behavior improved. Our forth year of working with the children, we got a new media specialist and gym teacher that joined our "team". That year, the school won the distinguished honor of one of New Jerseys Governors Schools of Excellence. There are many factors in achieving this award, such as test scores and professional development in the school, but I cannot help but to believe that by improving the climate of the overall school community, the schools teachers and students were able to become successful in other areas as well. We have since added a Multicultural Day Festival onto our list of opportunities to showcase our students various talents. The school and community love it!

Kristin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a graduate student who is required to blog for one of my masters classes. I was leary at first of the process because it was foreign. Now I think I may be hooked. It has been so enlightning reading all of the blogs and gaining new perspectives.

My school and classroom truly do have a sense of community. In my classroom, I do greet my first grade students with a smile and hug every morning at the door. From the first day of school, I told them that we were a family. We discussed the fact that like their families, everyone may not always agree or get along but that we would treat each other with respect at all times. The Golden Rule is our classroom motto. I strive to not only teach my students academics but also character education and life skills. It warms my heart to see my six year old students encouraging their peers verbally. I also develop and foster relationships with all of my students' families so that it extends to them also.

In my school we strive to be one big family. We meet as a whole both for professional development and to discuss school issues and concerns. We meet as a grade level once a week. Also, we have professional learning communities within our grades that meet two to three times weekly to plan lessons, interventions, and to examine student work.

Cheryl's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The postings regarding learning communities have been intriguing. The vast differences that occur between schools, districts, and states are amazing. My own experiences have shown me that the more steps that are taken throughout the entire school to foster a positive learning community the more connected the students, staff, and families feel. I have seen the effects of this first hand.

I was introduced to the Responsive Classroom model in my first year of teaching. I use many elements of this model in my own classroom. I am a firm believer in the importance of morning meetings. They are a great way to promote active listening, oral language skills. Most importantly, the members of the classroom community get to know each other on a more personal note. While I have always found Responsive Classroom to be a positive experience, I have recently realized that a true community of learners extends well beyond the classroom.

Not long ago my school began broadcasting the morning announcements through a television link within the school. The traditional elements of morning announcements are still incorporated (pledge, song, lunch choices) however, they now include thoughts from our principal, and students being acknowledged for good character. This has been a great way for the students to see what their fellow schoolmates are doing.

Finally, the new principal in my building has recently started grade level and school wide assemblies. These assemblies have been focusing on student learning. Students and classes volunteer to "show off" what they have been learning in class. The entire school meets once a month and the students from each grade level also assemble once a month. This has been instrumental in bringing the students together.

With all of these opportunities to bring students together within the school, it has also started to bring our staff together. Prior to this year my school has had a divided staff. It consisted of many small cliques that resembled a high school lunch room. While most everyone "tolerated" each other, no one went out of their way to seek out members of other cliques within the professional community. As we have worked to bring our students together in a common goal of learning, our staff has begun and natural shift in the same direction. We still have a long way to go, but we are at least moving forward.

Cheryl's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that the initiative has to come from the top down. You can do many things in the classroom to foster community, however, to truly feel as though you are part of a learing community it needs to be school wide. The students and staff need to see that we are all connected and working towards the same goal.

Cheryl's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have never heard of Resorative Practices. Could you give me some more information regarding this practice? It sounds like a method for truly holding people accountable for their actions. I have a few students in my classroom who have a very hard time seeing how their actions affect other people.

Valerei Crowe's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As I read some of the blogs on education, it seems to me that the sense of community is not only an important factor in the success of the students, but important in the retention of teachers. Mark Nichol noted in his blog that he beleives he would do well in a school that better supported it's teachers. This discussion shows the importance of sense of community for the students and how to acheive that. It seems that that sense of community needs to be enforced from the top down with each person's success being considered. When teachers feel success in themselves they better develope that sense in their students.

Karen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach art at two elementary buildings. At one building, we have a community atmosphere. At the other, we do not. The community relationship between faculty and students is important because it fosters a sense of family and respect. We have morning announcements schoolwide hosted by the students. Students vote on classroom rules as well as consquences. We have a principal who supports the staff and students. All of these things help our students to succeed. I never valued this type of learning until I began teaching at my second building. We do not have a school community there. Teachers don't speak to one another and students lack the problem solving skills they need. I try to still have a classroom community to demonstrate to the students that I value each of them but it doesn't work without the support of other faculty, the principal and students. I would love for that school to experience the benefits of a school community. If they did, the atmosphere of the building would change and our students would benefit.

How can I influence my second school to become a community school?

KP's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really enjoyed reading about Envision Schools and how they work to develop a sense of community among staff members and students. Our school has a definite sense of community. I teach in a middle school and I am in charge of the 8th grade Leadership program. This program is an integral component in developing and maintaining our school community. The most important thing we do is the mentor program. Every new 6th grader is assigned to an eighth grade mentor. We have meetings throughout the year in which the mentors design and lead lessons that focus on issues that 6th graders face as they transition from elementary to middle school. This program has been very successful and I am proud of the work we do.

Ellen Archambo's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach in a newly consolidated district which adds an interesting dimension to creating a sense of community. It was hard for our young students to give up their old school name, mascot, and school colors. They are also seeing lots of new faces in our building including both new students and new teachers. From reading Mr. Lenz's blog, I conclude that communication and collaboration are essential in the process of building a new community. Some of the steps we have taken as a school to promote solidarity is to start a Parent Teacher Organization and a school-wide newsletter. All the teachers use the Boys Town Social Skills to discuss ways we should relate to each other. There is also a plan to foster character education. In my classroom I invested a lot of time in those early weeks of school doing activities that I hope would create a positive classroom community. I greet my students at the door each morning. I also send home a weekly newsletter to update parents on what is happening in our classroom.
I would love to hear from other teachers about how they have built an atmosphere of community in a new school district.

Jennifer Brown's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My school is working hard at making the school united to feel like a community. We are elementary. The students just seem to disrespect each other alot. We are trying class meetings and team building activities by Kagan.

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