Facebook
Edutopia on Facebook
Twitter
Edutopia on Twitter
Google+
Edutopia on Google+
Pinterest
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

A Community of Learners: Building a Supportive Learning Environment

Bob Lenz

Co-founder and Chief of Innovation, Envision Education, Oakland CA

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

sandra's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I also believe that we need to have a classroom environment that teaches the students that we are a community. I tell my students that we are one big family and no one can hurt another students feelings. We are all have important thoughts and things to say. Everyone in my classroom is equal.

Lyndsay Greenan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think a theme is a fantastic idea for building a classroom community! I have personally found that by first modeling how to care for my students, and then enforcing the expectation that each of my students will not only respect each other but be kind to one another, I have a classroom family. My students look at each other when the speak. They do not laugh when one falls, or answers a question incorrectly. They really and truly impress me daily with how much character they have. Personally I think by honestly caring for my students they learned to honestly care for each other. Some educators do not seem to think that the emotional/social aspect of a child's life is not their job. I feel as if it is crucial for success. With out this aspect your students will not feel the comfort level they must feel to fully learn whatever you are teaching.

Lyndsay Greenan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It definately takes an entire school or better yet an entire community to provide all a student needs for success. Some schools are not fortunate enough that the teachers can rely on their colleagues for support. In this day and age of testing some teachers are pinned against their colleagues to ensure a competetive atmosphere. This makes it very difficult to prevent yourself from becoming burnt out. At the school I currently teach at I am lucky enough to have team planning with the other five fourth grade teachers daily for a half an hour. In this time I am able to see how my students are doing in comparison to the other students. We are able to share concerns, and share new ideas. This is very important for all of the students to become successful.

Daryl Williams's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a substitute teacher you are not a part of a community unless you are somewhat of a community unto yourself. I have always been impressed with the subs I have met that are able to do just that. I feel that these modern day "Mary Poppins" types(male and female) have much more influence than they realize. They expose students to vastly different styles of teaching and caring. And they provide the possibility that at any time someone special can appear and make an ordinary day extraordinary. Your job is too important to wait for inclusion to come to you, you need to carry it with you from school to school, class to class,teacher to teacher and kid to kid.
Good Luck
Daryl
(Head Teacher and grades three and four)

Kathy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Our school created a school Code of Conduct that is announced over the loudspeaker every morning. The students stand up and put their hands on their hearts when they say this chant/pledge. Our school mascot is the FALCON. We created the following chant.

I will be Friendly to everyone in my school.
I will Accept responsibility.
I will be a Loyal and honest student.
I will Choose to cooperate with others.
I will Object to bullying.
I will Never stop trying to do my best.

Dawson	W.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Not only the extinction of plant species itself is affected by the climate change.The first living thing that is affected without water existence is the plant group which is considered as the food manufacturer for the animals and human.. The World Water Forum just held a meeting. The World Water Forum just met for the fifth time in Istanbul (not Constantinople) to talk about the state of the world's water. The amount of water in the world seems to be receding. Before a shortage happens, most world governments agree that something needs to be done about it, even if it means taking out a payday loan or two to help out. Changes in the world water supply have been brought about by climate changes. The consensus among the political and scientific community is that we have to get every nation in on the World Water Forum. So why did Istanbul get the water works? That's nobody's business but the Turks.

Myla's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi
I'm a student and would like to know that the difference is between a community of learners and a learning community. Can someone please enlighten me?
Thanks,
Myla

Terra Zdenek's picture

I also feel that if you are part of a PLC and students see you collaboarating with others, they will be more open to this type of environment. I have seen teachers that are unwilling to share their ideas because they feel they are superior to everyone else. You can see their students with the same attitude. I have always seen my students love the teachers that surround me. They are always excited to work with their students also. I feel this is because they see my interactions with other teachers. If you are open to collaboration inside your room, as well as outside, it works so much better. Your students feel they have something to learn from other people. I never hesitate to tell my class that I love another teacher or that another teacher showed me a lesson. This is really a way to open up their minds to learn from others. Thanks for this blog. I enjoyed reading it and learning from it.

Maria Haita's picture

My name is Haita Maria a teacher at Mari Mwengere Secondary School. I would like to construct a School in Rundu, a town of +_ 700 km from Windhoek, north of Namibia. I would like anybody either from oversee or Africa to Invest in my Project of constructing a School. The construction will be +_ 6 million. Contact me at Cell: +264812896565 or my e-mail: maria@yahoo.com. Thank you

Maria Haita's picture

My name is Haita Maria a teacher at Maria Mwengere Secondary School. I would like to construct a school in Rundu, a town of +_ 700 km from Windhoek north of Namibia (Africa). I would like anybody either from oversea of in Africa to invest in my Project of constructing a school. The construction will be +_ 6 million. Contact me at Cell: +264812896565 or e-mail: maria@yahoo.com. Thank you

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.

(1)

Sign in and Join the Discussion! Not a member? Register to join the discussion.