Community-Building for All Students, All Year
By Diane Esolen Dougherty
Several years ago Time magazine devoted its cover story to the latest wunderkind educational reformer. It was an in-depth look at “state of the art” practices in education, particularly in teacher accountability. One anecdote from the article was telling, at least to me. The reformer was doing a walk-through in an elementary school in the district. After observing a teacher for several minutes (yes, I wrote minutes), her decision was made. “I’ve seen everything I need to see,” she said. Nothing of merit was happening in that third-grade classroom. The teacher was conducting a class meeting, and class meetings are not instructional. All class time was to be devoted solely to instruction.
What I found most disturbing about that incident is the absolute certainty about what constitutes instruction. Successful reading/writing classrooms, indeed successful classrooms period, are successful when everyone in the room knows they are in a safe place. When students and their teacher work together to learn, learning happens. Class meetings are about building community, and just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a community to produce a productive classroom.
Of course community-building activities should not be just fun and games, though I would argue that even fun and games can have a salubrious effect occasionally. Greeting students at the door every day, connecting with each child as s/he walks into the classroom, telling stories about yourself and your family during the course of the day—all of these actions are steps that begin the process of community building.
One can find hundreds of ideas for community building online, but the problem, as I see it, is that these are typically “beginning of the year” activities. Community building should occur throughout the year; they are not “once and done.” Students need to know what is expected of them in the classroom every day. They need to know our goals and aims for them and for ourselves. For secondary teachers, listing the class agenda on the board may set expectations and as such, become a community builder, especially when the teacher allows student input. In elementary classrooms, writer’s notebooks and journals may serve a similar purpose: teachers share their entries with students; students share their entries with a partner; students share their entries whole group.
I took a page from Donald Graves and in my classroom I put a checkmark next to a student’s name when I discovered something about them that was not classroom related, for example, when I learned that Keshon got her driver’s license. I put a second checkmark next to Keshon when she was aware that I knew that about her. It was a way for me to get to know my students as more than faces in the room. I also discovered that classroom discipline became a non-issue fairly quickly. Students are fair-minded most of the time. By and large they respect teachers who take an interest in them. From this respect often comes effort, and isn’t effort what we want all of our students to show every day?
That wunderkind from Time? She’s no longer in Baltimore, but she is still around making speeches, writing books, and casting her pearls of wisdom for all of us. I just hope that she’s also discovered something about the art of teaching. It’s about instruction certainly, but it’s also about knowing who our students are and what they need in order to become their best learning selves. Community building is the way to achieve those lofty goals. Don’t neglect it.
Diane Esolen Dougherty is a retired high school English teacher and has coordinated courses for the PAWLP including both the Writing Institute and the Reading and Literature Institute. She is one of the PAWLP co-directors; her book Grammar Matters, written with Lynne Dorfman, is now available.