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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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Kim's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that with Heather. Communication skills have to be taught for group work to be successful. I believe that modeling how small groups should work and communicate is imperative. They need us to model what an appropriate comment or question sounds like. Also, how to share a differing opinion without putting the other student down.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Our school has also identified core values which are put on bulletin boards and into the school agendas which the students must purchase. However, like you said, not much else is done with them. One small idea that I had was to focus on these values during our folktale unit. The stories stay with the students and I can refer to characters throughout the year...the lazy Ananzi from Ghana or the hard-working lizard from Mexico...when a school situation parallels a lesson from a folktale. However, I would like to hear any ideas you, or anyone else, might have for explicitly teaching these core values.

Kristi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am lucky to work in a school that values not only classroom community, but school community as well. We have committees of teachers to help foster a positive community among staff members. We have a chance at least twice a month to get together and discuss ways we can better relationships among the staff and develop opportunities for collaboration and observation.

I have been impressed with the steps my principal has taken to ensure positive classroom community. We all had the opportunity to attend a Responsive Classroom workshop that taught us all about morning meetings, academic choice, and countless ways to build classroom community. I teach 1st grade, and our building is Preschool - 1st. I am glad to hear that teachers are working hard in the upper grades to establish communities of learners. I greet all my students at the door every morning with a hug, handshake, or high-five (their choice), which I value as a first-step in creating my family of first graders. If you are interested in learning more about Responsive Classroom, feel free to visit http://www.responsiveclassroom.org/ for some great articles and information about workshops!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I went to a great website called http://www.co-operation.org/ and was able to find some really interesting things about cooperative learning. I have heard of cooperative learning but have never really known how to use it in my classroom. After reading through the website I found some interesting activities I might try with my class.
One idea that I use in my classroom is called our "communication box". This is where students drop in notes of concern or of praise. At the beginning of each morning meeting pull out a couple of notes and read them to the class. We then discuss the notes of concern or celebrate for the person who is being praised. It is a great way for the students to feel like they can communicate with me and the rest of their classmates what they are noticing is going well or what needs some work. Also, kids LOVE getting praise from fellow students (not just from me) and this is a great way to do it!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I truly envy the classroom community Bob Lenz and Kristi both describe in their postings. I am at a school where the sense of community is little to none. It almost seems more competitive among the teachers. I wonder, what's the whole point in this? No one benefits from this going on in a school. Then, the principal seems so cold. He won't even say hi to you when you pass him in the halls, not a look, even if you and him are the only two present. It is so uncomfortable. I cannot stand it. I entered my teaching career at a school with a great sense of community among the teachers. We were always expected to meet with our colleagues and plan. This benefits the students. Now, I have transferred to a different school, and I wonder if I have made a mistake, or if transferring for the reasons I did were worth this. I love to build community amongst my students, and I love to see them playing together and standing by continuously throughout the years to come (I am a primary teacher). I'm sure this lack of a sense of community is noticed by parents and students, which in no way strengthens their learning, I am sure. Any suggestions?

Jen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Steve, is there anything that you can do to reiterate these core beliefs in your classroom? Has anyone brought this up in your plc (professional learning community) meetings? That seems like the best place to talk about ways to incorporate the core beliefs. I remember something similar in my student teaching a few years ago. The school identified 5 core beliefs but it only seemed like words on a piece of paper. I didn't really see teachers incorporating them. If there is no follow-through, what good are they? What meaning do they have? It's good that your school sets aside time for collaboration. If you were to bring this matter up and nothing changed, the least you can do is make a difference in your classroom.

Kimberly A.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello Laura,

Thank you for your interest in our whole-school opening. Our students arrive at 8:20 in the morning and we meet in the gymnasium at 8:30 for our whole-school opening. It is a routine that all students from K-6th grade are aware of, so it does not take much time at all for us to get started. The grade level that is hosting opening, starts it at exactly 8:30. Opening usually is about 15 minutes long. If we have a lot planned for our students to present, we usually let the teachers know that opening might run for 20 to 30 minutes total. It is amazing how many parents show up to see their children present their work. It lets them see what is going on in our classroom/school. Also, students develop such a sense of pride and ownership sharing their work with the entire school community. Even if your school is not able to devote 3 times a week to a whole-school opening, maybe you could suggest trying it once a week. I have a feeling that once the teachers, students, and parents experience for themselves how powerful it can be, they will soon request having it more days. If you need additional information, please let me know. I hope this helps!

Pam Willingham's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My school focuses on establishing a community by doing morning announcements. During this time, students broadcast the daily news. Our entire school comes together for ten minutes to stay informed on school events and daily news. We stand together, cite the Pledge of Allegiance, and sing the National Anthem. After that, we all go about our own business. I wish my school participated in more community building projects outside of our morning announcements. As an educator, I often feel alone and desire to feel like part of a community. If I desire more of a community atmosphere, I can only imagine what my students must desire.

anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The school I work in received a new administrator a year and a half ago. I find it interesting how our school climate has shifted as a result of this change. Our old administrator of 7 years was very focused on creating an atmosphere that promoted community between all of the students and their parents. Monthly assemblies and newsletters helped the students and parents become comfortable with each of the staff members as well as the rest of the students in the school. Our community in this respect was very strong, but our community between faculty members was not nearly as defined. After the change in administrators, our strong community shifted. This administrator is much more focused on creating a community between the faculty members. He has even gone so far as to create a committee of staff members who are in charge of coming up with ways for the staff to promote community within the faculty. Sounds great, however, the monthy newsletters and assemblies have stopped. In our K-6 school of 450 students, I no longer have a defined presence amongst the students. There are 6th graders who don't have a clue that I am even a teacher. Students don't know eachother and the strong community has become weaker. Does anyone else have a situation where community amongst faculty members is strong but community amongst students needs improvement?

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