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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

Steve's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Putting the core beliefs into action is something that I work on daily in my classroom. I take a lot of time to hold classroom meetings and discuss what is going well and what we need to work on. I know that I am consistent in working with these beliefs for I feel that this is an important part of their education. It is difficult to do this with all of the stress that teachers put upon themselves to achieve to high academic standards. It seems that the core beliefs of how we should behave as a citizen in a school gets lost.

Carrie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello Kristi,
I am glad to hear you are using Responsive Classroom in your school. I was very impressed when I first started teaching in my school which using the RC approach. I noticed a huge difference in the other schools I taught in. The language and respect the students have for eachother and teachers is unbelievable. I am a firm believer in Responsive Classroom. It builds community and holds the students responsible for their actions. I have seen such a change in my students who come from other districts or buildings who have not come in contact with this program. I hold morning meetings each day in my class and as a building we come together for an All School Morning Meeting every other week. I as well, greet my students at the door. This makes the students feel comforatble and at ease knowing you as the teacher are waiting for them with a smile. My entire building has been trained in RC which makes it easier to build not only community with your students but with the staff. Understanding the importance and applying these concepts taught helps build postive relationships. I am so glad I am around such a wonderful and warm atmosphere and I believe it is because of Responsive Classroom.

Anna's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am currently a substitute teacher and do not have a classroom of my own. I have mostly seen community as you state it. With morning announcements and the pledge and such. This to me is an effective and important way to begin the day with the entire school community. I think though that individually within our classrooms we should have a morning meeting with the students. Have the students share about the day and what is going on in their lives. Also, have them relate things we do throughout the day/year to what they experience in their community within and outside the classroom. Having a better feel on community as a school, I feel will be better for educators and students as a whole.

Justin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

About six years ago my school implemented restorative practices by bringing in an expert to work in our school and train a supervisor to take over after he left. Restorative practices is a great way for schools to build a respectful community because the person at fault must come face to face with the victim in a circle. They are also forced to make restitution for their mistake. This has had an effect on our students because they now see how their actions can affect others. I have noticed students treating each other with more respect. Suspensions have dropped dramatically, and restorative practices has helped to eliminate behavioral problems in the classroom, which allows more time for learning.

Karen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

You asked a great question: Has our sense of community become more or less important in our busy school day? For me, more important. I know that for my students to get along, trust one another, and work well together I must build community within my classroom. I am lucky enough to work for administrators who support my mission with my students. With larger class sizes and increased demands for accelerated curriculum, I see a greater need for class meetings and the community building exercises. I cannot waste a single minute of instructional time over arguments or other trivial matters. We must have a problem solving model in place, and students must understand the expectations. Teaching and modeling appropriate social skills is also important for our classroom to function smoothly.

I like the idea I saw posted above, of the all school meetings. My principal has been mentioning she would like to see more of this in our building. The logistics may be a nightmare (we have over 600 students and no one would want to lose their class or planning times) but we could try it out.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have worked at schools with and without a sense of community. Without question, all stakeholders in the school benefit from community. It seems that is has to come from the top down. My school was started with a deliberate goal of creating a sense of community, with students and amongst the staff. It has been very successful. We have substitutes who love to come to our school because of it. We will most likely get a new principal next year and I'm worried about what will happen to all that we have worked to establish.

Karen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My school incorporates building a school community through Morning Announcements and Afternoon Announcements. During these announcements different classes will participate in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and our school's code of conduct. The class participating in Morning Announcements will share any comments or accolades for a week. Then our prinicpal will come on a give the students a quote to get them motivated for the day. It's a great way for school to get involved and hear what the other classes are involved in. We also build our community through parents by sending a home monthly newsletter. This helps to involve the parents and read about what is happening in our school and in thier child's class.

Karen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have never heard of the term "Responsive Classroom." I also feel it is very important to build school community as well as classroom community. Building a classroom community helps the children to understand that together we are building a learning community. I like to greet my students every morning and give them a word of encouragement before the day begins. Just a simple hello or hug can change a student's day. I will definitely look into the website for Responsive Classrooms.

Satyra's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My school is a Learning Community and meets formally, once a month. Teachers are assigned to a group of 7-10 members based on grade or subject area. We are a K-8 school. I agree with the article that "norms" must be established and followed. This ensures that correct protocol is being used. Our ultimate goal is to improve student achievement. Teachers bring student work for colleague review. Group members analyze the work and offer strategies. The teacher then uses some of the strategies and reports noticed improvements back to the LC. This benefits both the teachers and the students.

Sarah's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Fostering a sense of community is very important at my school. We too have Morning Meeting, in which the classroom community gathers on the carpet to greet each other, share news, and review outcomes for the day. Each morning, the Pledge of Allegiance is recited, along with the Mission Statement of our school. Although it is not time explicitly teaching students academics, it is important to my principal that we all bond together and understand why we are doing the work that we are.

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