Chandler was one of those students—the kid who other teachers said never spoke. One of his English teachers told me he didn’t know what Chandler’s voice sounded like. He had never heard it—not once in a whole school year.
It took me a while to recognize his voice. At first, it was soft, reserved for only his friend Emily. Then, a little louder, in groups. Finally, Chandler became a bona fide contributor to our writing class. He read his work aloud, offered advice, and sang, accompanied by his ukulele. “What’s so different about our class?” I asked Chandler. He said, “This class is like a little family for me. I’m not afraid here.”
What Chandler had found in my classroom was a sense of community. At a time when teachers are told to personalize even as administrations are standardizing just about every aspect of class time, it’s hard to make each student’s voice matter. The powerful idea of community has helped me navigate the ever-changing obstacles in daily teaching.
After 24 years in middle and high schools, I believe that community relationships are the foundation on which all personal learning stands. So how do we develop community trust and intimacy in our rooms full of individual desks?
Start With Stories—and Reading Circles
I begin every year with a simple story about when I was 5. I call it “Jewelry in My Underwear,” and it always gets hoots of laughter.
Chandler’s story was funny, too, about anticipating the day he’d get his driver’s license and no longer have to ride the bus to school, only to end up driving behind the bus. He trusted us enough to share, and the class laughed—and he became empowered. He had found his voice.
But sharing stories does more than entertain—it creates bonds. When we share something about ourselves, we put trust in others to appreciate our lives. This appreciation is what sustains relationships, the building materials of community. One student chooses to tell a story about an absent father, another about divorce, yet another about the loss of a grandparent. These stories bind those students in their loss. They become a community of support.
Last year I had the senior class president in two of my classes. She was vibrant, outgoing, and socially popular. Everybody liked her. But nobody knew her. Her story changed that. It was about losing a brother and being abandoned by her father, and being brought up by a single mother whose teacher salary supported her and her five brothers. When she shared this story with us, we all realized that Abby was not who we thought she was. She had braved loss and overcome it. Another student in the class, who suffered crippling anxiety, realized that he and Abby lived parallel lives.
Reading circles also strengthen this bond—when a text is discussed in a genuine way in real time, that allows us to appreciate what we read for the impact it has on our learning. Students become invested in not only their own stories, but the stories they read as well.
At the start of the year I spend a great deal of time modeling what good readers do. We think as we read. We ask questions, we annotate, re-read, make connections, find answers.
When we begin reading circles in class, I usually start with a very convoluted but short piece like Gabriel García Márquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” which begins: “On the third day of rain they had killed so many crabs inside the house that Pelayo had to cross his drenched courtyard and throw them into the sea, because the newborn child had a temperature all night....”
We stop there. Questions? Yes. What are crabs doing in the house? Where is this? What do crabs have to do with a newborn? So many questions, and I encourage them. Ask, ask, talk, talk, talk. This is about the communication, the shared experience of reading, all of us working toward the goal of understanding the text.
When I finally send students off into groups, I visit each, becoming a member of each for a few moments, until their discussion becomes natural, authentic.
Be Part of the Learning
You can’t expect students to develop community if you’re not part of it. At times, I’m a facilitator—I create activities, judge effectiveness, and rate student success. But most of the time, I sit in groups, ask questions, and learn alongside students. Most importantly, when my students write in class, I write too. I share my experiences—and not as exemplars: I write as a member of the learning community who is not afraid to sound stupid, fail, and be bettered.
I recently presented my ideas about community reading circles at professional development. Afterward, two teachers—one in special education and the other in history—emailed me to say that they had tried reading circles and found their classrooms transformed. Their classes became active and collaborative.
I have several Chandlers this year, and another Abby. Each had his or her reason for being quiet, reserved, and even afraid to be part of a learning community. But little by little, as we began to trust each other, their voices rose.