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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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Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

One way to create a safe environment in the classroom is through the use of games. There are many books which outline games that can be used to foster the sense of community. Such games teach students how to communicate and work together as a team towards a common goal. If students can learn to play together, they can learn to work together.

Jen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As Allison stated, we are preparing our students for the real world. Community building is an important part of teaching and the real world. No matter what career paths our students may follow, they must be effective communicators and collaborators. I have heard of many schools designating time in their schedules for teacher collaboration. These same teachers also understand the value of building a community within their classrooms and incorporate those skills. One aspect I see lacking, however, is the ability to involve parents and the community outside of school. I know that at times it can be difficult and frustrating to involve everyone, but are schools really trying their hardest? I know that this is an area where my school could improve, and I would like to show my colleagues the information presented in this blog.

In the past I have held morning meetings. It is a great way to start the day on a positive note. I also made sure to include students in the decision-making process. On day one we discussed rules for the classroom. I had in my mind what they should be but giving the students a chance to share their input made it more personal. While writing the rules we discussed how they would be written positively. Students need to know what they are expected to do, not the opposite. Rules such as "Keep hands and feet to yourself" replaced rules like "Don't hit others."

One avenue I would like to explore further is cooperative learning. If you do an online search you will see there is much research devoted to the topic. There are also websites where teachers have shared their effective cooperative learning strategies. If anyone has had success with cooperative learning or other effective community building activities I would love to hear them!

Heather's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks for the idea. I agree with you statement that if students can learn to play together, they can learn to work together. I had forgotten the simple idea of game play. This is a great way to foster teamwork. Giving them a task or game where they all have to work together will teach tolerance and communication skills. Each student can identify strengths and weaknesses that they need to work on for future collaboration. Do you have a special book that you really like for teaching teamwork? If so, I would love if you would share the title. I am always looking for new ideas and information. Thanks for the help.

Corinne's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have always referred to my classroom as a family. We take care of each other, treat each other with respect, work together, and share the responsibility of taking care of our home. I am intrigued with the thought of expanding this value to the school, home, and district level. My elementary school is small and for the most part, there is a feeling of warmth and caring. Our community is also small so parents, teachers, and students interact with one another inside and outside the classroom walls. Relationships are formed but there is nothing formally stated or intentionally taught across the grade levels regarding community building. I think the first step is to put core values for community building in writing. Karyn stated that her school's focus is being responsible, respectful, and ready to learn. I would be interested in knowing ways others schools have expressed their core values.

Kimberly A.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My school believes in creating a school-wide learning community. Three times a week, our entire school gets together to start the day. Each grade level team takes a turn hosting our opening. At our opening, we start out by saying a staff and student pledge. (Teachers say: "We touch the future, we teach." To which students reply, "We are the future. We learn.")Then we sing a patriotic or our school song. Next, we share teacher and student announcements. During this time, students can share their personal accomplishments (such as, "I won second place in gymnastics last weekend", or "I am a new big brother"). After that, we acknowledge student and staff birthdays, and sing to everyone as a school. Finally, the grade level that is hosting opening, has their students share some work/insights about what they have been learning in their class with the entire learning community. It is important to note that we also invite parents in to attend our whole-school opening. It is important for students to see that their parents are a vital part of our school as well. This is a great way to start the day. We really do feel like one, big family.

steve's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach at a small school as well. Our school has been working with a professional learning community format for the past four years. Time is set aside to get together in cross grade level teaching groups to discuss what is going on in the school and our classrooms. We selected core values for our school, and discussed them in these groups. These ideas were then shared out to the school in general. Our school's beliefs are to be safe, kind, and responsible. I don't feel as though we do much with these core values as a school. They seem to just be words that are thrown out without any follow through. Our music teacher put them to a song which was taught to the students. I don't feel that it really had any impact on the students.

Joan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Your comments about what your school does three times a week is amazing. I have never heard that before and the fact that your principal and all the teachers set aside time three times a week to do this - definitely shows that your school works together to build a community.

Laura West's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am really interested in the school-wide learning community. Kimberly, you say your school does this three times a week, but how long is each opening? I am currently working at a school that has no sense of community. In my classroom, it feels like a family, but beyond the walls of my room, I, and many of my parents don't feel welcome. I like the idea of a school opening message. I welcome any other ideas to help change the climate of my school.

Laura Hoehn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I completely agree with your comments regarding the difficulties of encompassing the community feeling throughout the school. I teach in an elementary school that has well over 500 students, grades K-5 and realize that it is sometimes difficult to keep the entire school involved in activities, especially trying to be considerate of developmental appropriateness as well as teacher's preparation periods, etc. I am fascinated by Kimberly A's posting of the schoolwide morning meetings, and love the idea that each grade level takes a turn in hosting it. This truly promotes ownership, I'm sure, and also a sense of community.
When thinking about my school and the idea of an entire school community feeling, a few ideas come to mind. First of all, core values (as was discussed in a few other blogs)that are worked on throughout the grade levels creates a common language and value system that continues throughout the grade levels. Secondly, classroom and student pairing across the grade levels makes it possible for students to interact with one another. As a fifth grade teacher, we had reading buddies from kindergarten that we would participate in library times with as well as read with and to them on a weekly basis. Finally, we have (as I'm sure many of you do) schoolwide programs and assemblies that give students a common activity to reflect on. I am curious, with all of the concern for appropriate use of every minute of educational time, if these activities are becoming less common within schools? Do you find that the sense of community as a school in it's entirety has become more or less important in our busy school day?
In my classroom, I feel that over years of trials and tribulations I have become successful in fostering a positive cooperative learning environment. When participating in cooperative learning groups, I have found it helpful to assign roles to each group, usually letting the participant decide which role they will take. This prevents one student from doing all of the work, and gives each student a sense of accountability. In addition, I would grade each group both individually and as a whole. I have found this to be the most fair way to assess group projects.
In my Master's Course at Walden University, one of our texts (On Being A Teacher, Kottler 2005) suggests quite a few helpful ideas for being an effective communicator as well as models for cooperative learning. One idea I found particularly interesting was assembling students in a "fishbowl" structure for debates and discussions. "Students in the inner circle share their arguments or ideas, and the student seated just behind serve as resource people, providing additional details or important information. The students in the outside circle are listening intently and making notes in preparation for their turn in the inner circle 10 minutes later." (Kottler, 2005)I thought that this was an ingenious idea to promote learning and participation within the whole group.
I would be interested to hear of anyone else's ideas that foster positive group learning within their classrooms and schools.

Kim's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

At my school, elementary, we have a daily news program viewed by the whole school. Every student stands at the end and says the school wide pledge which basically states: "we will be respectful, responsible, honest, and fair, while honoring each others differences." The teaching staff wrote it collaboratively six years ago when the school opened and it has been powerful. Out rules and behavior management system fit right into this pledge. We hold each other accountable.

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