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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)

I am impressed with the variety of ways that Envision Schools intentionally seek to develop community. At the school where I work, we have "teachers' devotions" twice a week where the teachers come together to be mutually encouraged and to share concerns related both to school and personal lives. The students also meet by level (primary or secondary) twice a week. However, I like the idea of small groups who relate as "families." How are you able to find the time for all these meetings admist the normal class schedules? Also, do you have any tips for explicitly teaching collaboration or group work skills?

Bob's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I like the idea of teacher devotions. In order to find common meeting time, it has to be a priority in scheduling and an explicit value. Our schools are required to build it into their schedules - it is almost impossible to plan integrated PBL or build community with out common planning. Schools usually put the time at the end of the day when students are in electives taught by other teachers or guest experts. They meet once a week to plan curriculum and once to discuss students. Each of these meetings are about 90 minutes but some schools only meet for an hour twice a week. We are working to develop specific activities to teach collaboration in advisory. When I was a teacher I used many of the same activities that drama teachers use and also student council camp (I was an student council leader.) activities. Expeditionary Learning/Outward Bound uses a process called initiatives. The common characteristic with all of these activities is that they put kids in a simulated experience that requires collaboration and then the teacher spends equal or more time reflecting on the experience with students helping them apply the lessons learned to real life working in groups.

Bob Lenz

Debra's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

A supportive learning environment creates many positive opportunities for children and adults to learn. The idea that a school is a community is true - which includes the positive and negative aspects a community may possess. At times the adults in a school determine the atmosphere. The Envision school sound wonderful..but do most school function in that manner?

Heather's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love the fact that we teach our children that we are a community. The entire district is a community. Each individual school is a community and each classroom is a community. When the students understand that we all must work together to learn, the learning environment becomes a better place. I have recently started a Master's Program and our professor wanted us to discuss our learnings in a blog. We have been learning ways to create a better atmophere in the classroom and school. We know that students learn best in a safe environment. I think the first step to creating this environment is by teaching the students that they are a community and that they will need to work together so that every student will get the most out of the class. Meetings should be held where the students are able to communicate their thoughts about the class. Students learn best when they have an interest in what is being taught and how it is being taught. They also need to feel a sense of safety. My school uses a program that allows for no bullying. This makes the students feel safe. Students also need to feel that their teacher and peers care and respect them. When students feel that they are respected by their teacher and their peers, they will feel more comfortable to share their ideas. Then learning can take place. It is important for positive relationships to be fostered in and out of the classroom. The relationships should be between teacher and student, student and teacher, and students and student. These relationships will show the students that they are cared for and respected. Students want to know that what they say matters. I believe that when you create a community in your classroom you are creating a learning environment where every child can grow and develop. Please share your insights on what makes the best learning environment for students. I would love to hear how other people create a community in their classroom. What types of activities do you do to foster a community of learners?

Heather's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I just finished reading the comment from Anonymous. You asked if anyone knew of any tips for teaching collaberation or small group skills. I think that before you put students in groups, you need to teach them how to communicate with each other. If students do not know how to communicate then they will never be able to discuss the information you want them to learn. Students need to feel that the teacher and other students care for them. When there is a true sense of caring in the classroom then the students are more willing to share their thoughts. The students feel it is safe to speak and that nobody will make fun of them. It is also important to teach the students that every student in the class has something to offer. Respect is a large part of group work. Have the students discuss something that is real to them. Something that they can relate to easily. Make sure you give them time to communicate in their groups. It is important for them to practice communicating with each other and then reflecting on how the whole process worked. Did they feel that their group worked well? What do they think they should do differently nest time? Reflection is a key part of group work. I do not know if any of this will help you, but I hope it does.

Allison's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Your description of forming communities in the schools must be great preperation for students after graduation. After all, isn't preparing kids for the "real world" a great deal of what teaching is about? I would love to experience this kind of cummunity in my own school and district. Outside of our own grade level teams, we are pretty isolated. In my Master's studies, we're discussing relationships and trust. Having the groundwork for a community on the scale you have described must be extremely helpful in building effective trust relationships.

Karyn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Schools are as different as the communities in which they are located. I believe in order for a school to have a sense of community it needs to begin with the teachers and administration. It takes hard work, planning, support, and a daily commitment to establish a community within each classroom and throughout the school community. In my school and many schools in Montana, we are committed to changing our school environments. MBI is a philosophy that originates around a schools core values. Ours focus on being responsible, respectful, and ready to learn. We integrate these values in all aspects of our school community. Any school can choose to function as a community, but they must make the choice and commitment to make change possible.

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