Build a supportive classroom community

Create a safe atmosphere for collaboration, sharing, and failure by fostering an open, kind classroom community

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There can be no productive collaboration or innovation without a nonjudgmental, supportive environment. Many students will not share if they fear their ideas will be shot down. This is why building a positive, inclusive classroom community where all students feel comfortable bringing up problems and ideas is essential for nurturing the risk-taking inherent in innovation. An effective way to create this type of community is with regular class meetings. I have seen this in my class and my partner class over the past two years, using the Positive Discipline model. 
Positive Discipline lays out a meeting plan, with lessons leading up to regular meetings. Students can bring up any problem or idea by putting it on the agenda, and students are empowered by the meeting structure and teacher guidance to work as a team to solve problems.http://www.positivediscipline.com/
Ideally, meetings are held once a week for about 30 minutes, at the same time each week. Some teachers feel this is not a productive use of class time, but we have found that it builds a strong community in which students stick up for each other, and provides a place for children to "park" their issues, knowing that we will discuss them. They learn to listen to each other, which they then do when brainstorming and collaborating. They are respectful of each others' ideas and ways of expressing themselves. 
Start this at the beginning of the school year to set the stage for everything you want to accomplish.


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Photo of Becky Leff
Team

Team members, The beginning of the school year has taken a toll on my participation in my team! I have written a draft prototype, using your ideas. If you are able, I would appreciate comments, corrections additions, etc.
Prototype – Positive classroom community

Starting on the first day of school, the teacher includes getting-to-know-you activities, like partner biographies and interviews, sharing opportunities, like Me Bags and connections. These activities help the students in the class find out more about each other, find common interests, and see that every child is respected for who he or she is.

In the first weeks of school, the teacher integrates activities designed to create a community. These activities could come from sources such as Positive Discipline or the Responsive Classroom. One activity is for the class to brainstorm ideas to make this the best school year ever, then categorize these under bigger ideas, such as “help each other learn” and “have fun while learning.” Smaller groups work to list things to do and to say to help make these goals happen. Everyone signs off on the finished lists.

Once this is established, weekly class meetings begin. It is important to hold meetings every week, at the same time, and not wait for problems to appear to have a meeting. An agenda is available for anyone to add items for discussion at the meeting. Students take turns running the meeting. As a problem is discussed, first the student who wrote it explains what happened and says whether he/she wants a solution or just to talk about it. Other students can offer evidence and perspectives, then if a solution is the goal, students suggest different ways of solving the problem. Last, they need to reach a decision, either by consensus or a vote. The big idea is for students to take responsibility for tackling problems in their class community. Students will get better at this as the year goes on.

When adding issues to the agenda, it is most productive to have students name the people involved. Having a discussion about anonymous people does not help build responsibility or lead to solutions. In order to implement this, students must have guidelines ahead of time and practice speaking respectfully and kindly to everyone.

Other aspects of building the community include giving students chances to work in collaborative groups, to authentically help others in the world, and learning self-regulation.

Near the beginning of the school year, teachers teach the class about how the brain works and that when a person gets angry, the frontal cortex disengages and the “fight, flight, or freeze” part of the primitive brain kicks in. Next, the teacher demonstrates different calming techniques, possibly including centering breaths, body checks and other mindfulness activities. Once students recognize when they have gone into the fight, flight, freeze mode, they can use the mindfulness techniques they have learned. Oftentimes they will need a teacher to remind and guide them.

Many teachers use collaborative groups for various learning activities. They will work more productively once a positive class community begins to build.

Teachers and students together can brainstorm about service activities that go beyond donating money. Trick or Treat for UNICEF is ideal for children. Book drives, shoe drives, reading to youngsters at Head Start are examples of authentic service for young students.

Once the foundations of a positive class community are in place, students start to feel confident about taking risks in the classroom. They know that their peers won’t ridicule their ideas, but will encourage and offer suggestions. This leads to an environment where innovation can happen.

Photo of Mangla Oza
Team

I wanted to add an article I found which goes with the idea of community building leading to greater academic success. The idea of Responsive classroom to build equity in education is catching up.

https://www.responsiveclassroom.org/sites/default/files/pdf_files/rc_educational_equity.pdf

Photo of Becky Leff
Team

I have never used Responsive Classroom, but I have heard good things about it. It would be a valuable addition to building a positive community in the school.

Photo of Mangla Oza
Team

In order to build a safe community I start the school year with getting to know activities. One of them is a partner interview which leads to writing Peer Biographies. This is a great way to get students to talk to each other and find out about their peers. We type and post all the Biographies on the wall for students to read. This generally sparks an interest in students to ask more questions and know more about their peers. Having this opportunity and learning about each other helps students feel safe in the classroom. Looking at similarities and uniqueness about each other makes them appreciate the differences and similarities. Many team building activities done at the beginning of the year help foster a safe environment for students.

Photo of Becky Leff
Team

I completely agree! I like both having students share things about their own lives and having partners learn and then share about each other. Oftentimes one partner finds something interesting that the other partner never thought would be of interest to his/her peers.

Photo of David Harrington
Team

I am glad to be part of the team, Becky. I re-read your post re: creating an environment of sharing ideas in a "safe" place. I have 2 comments:
* At Google, every week, we have a company-wide "all-hands on" that is led by our 2 founders. Prior to the AHO, we can ask questions via a dory. During the Q/A, very direct but polite questions are asked to our 2 leaders. No topic is off the table. This took some time for me to get used to this environment but it is what healthy, sustainable and nurturing thoughts are derived from. Because our leaders lead by example, it makes the rest of us follow closely behind. People of all levels and rank ask direct but polite questions. It is healthy.
* My second comment is more of a question. I wonder if the community or board could lead by example with this sort of behavior? Again, I love a "lead from above mentality".

Photo of Becky Leff
Team

I like the Google meeting idea. My teaching partner and I decided when we first began holding weekly class meetings, following the Positive Discipline model, that students would have to "name names." We teach them to be respectful of others' feelings and express their issues in a kind way, but after years of "Someone is being mean at recess," followed by no one admitting that they were the one, naming names gives students a chance to take responsibility and also to explain themselves (Hey, there was more to that incident than the complainer is saying!). It's also much more productive. The key, I think, with both children and adults, is learning to express oneself in a respectful way.
Have you read "Search Inside Yourself" or taken the Google course? I found the book so helpful.

Photo of Becky Leff
Team

Here is a link to a blog post on creating a space for gathering as a class community. though it is specifically about writers' workshop, many of the points apply to creating a class community in general: https://twowritingteachers.wordpress.com/2015/08/30/classroom-meeting-area/