A classroom community is not just a cohesive, cooperative, and collaborative group of students; it is also a trusting environment that encourages positive risk taking, which stimulates social, behavioral, and academic growth. As educators we are accustomed to teaching core subjects daily. We can all agree that when students are continually cognitively engaged in learning they make greater gains. Do we only math once per month, and expect students to apply concepts? When they struggle should we punish them for not having the concepts mastered? Over the years I’ve been on a journey to cultivate community in my classroom to empower students to shine true to themselves, and collaborative authentically.
As educators we envision a community where students learn harmoniously alongside one another, challenge their peers, think flexibly, and consider the perspective of others. In such a classroom students are empowered to respectfully question each other’s thinking, as well as their teacher’s, and feel supported to take responsible risks. Students take ownership of classroom procedures and demonstrate leadership by taking care of classroom duties without being asked.
Within our well crafted classroom community I can truly step back and facilitate, as well as ignite the flame in my students to do the same with their teams. I recall the day I stepped back and recognized that each team was independently facilitating their own learning by creating their own STEM focus question and investigation plan within the topic of matter and energy. Students were using inquiry with one another, everyone participated by having a role, and they were holding each other accountable in a respectful manner. This was the result of cultivating a classroom community continually throughout the school year, and I was thrilled!
Ongoing Community Building to Support Growth Mindset
Educators grasp the importance of team building, but to take it further in order to shift the culture, I utilize Laurie S. Frank’s “Journey Toward the Caring and Collaborative Classroom 2nd Edition: Using Adventure to Create Community.” The structures are designed intentionally to support the development of students into responsible risk takers within the framework of experiential learning and choice theory.
Students participate in collaborative activities that work through the stages of cooperation, trust, problem solving and challenge. The debriefing period at the end of each activity is where students make growth in their ability to process, reflect, and emote. This, along with the integration of Habits of Mind, is the foundation of developing a growth mindset. Strategically establishing a culture that promotes a growth mindset also opens the gates for the empowerment of student voice. Those who never envisioned themselves sharing perspective, advocating for a cause, or respectfully disagreeing with another’s perspective develop the ability to do so. As educators we need to put all the structures in place to support growth mindset. In my classroom, when we make mistakes we fail forward together because our classroom environment is supportive and non-threatening.
What Brain Research Says
Community building that provides the opportunity to emote increases the student’s ability to reflect. Brain research shows that emotions influence learning. What we as teachers see/feel may be completely different than that of our students. We need to consider our classroom environment from all angles since stress is often perception. Some stress is necessary for growth though. For example, learning occurs with eustress, which is the perfect amount of hormones to overcome challenges. However, on the opposite end is distress which is defined by too many hormones (cortisol) that block the ability to think, memory capacity, and can trigger an overreaction to stimulus. In school there are numerous causes of stress including, but not limited to, fear of being wrong, physical and language differences, cliques and bullying, frustration with difficult material and boredom from lack of stimulation. As Dr. Judy Willis explains, when the brain is in distress it goes into reactive mode and triggers a fight, flight, or freeze response. In contrast, when the brain is in a positive emotional state, information passes through the amygdala and into memory. It’s critical that we nurture the development of a supportive classroom community to counteract distress and provide opportunity to learn with eustress.
Additionally, Eric Jensen states that the brain needs three things for “meaning making.” These include relevance to the individual, context in which it is taught, and emotions. As educators, it’s crucial that we try to regulate the emotions of our students through the culture of the classroom community as it affects their learning. The key here is that by creating a positive emotion that is associated with learning, there will be increased retention.
We need to consider our approach to cultivating a collaborative community and the impact it can have on the whole child. When the culture of a classroom supports community, the team develops common characteristics, goals, and shared values. Everyone feels a sense of belonging and all within the community support one another in reaching individual and groups goals.
Benefits of Intentional Community Building
When classrooms implement community building with intention, culture is impacted and it spills out into the larger school community. Academic skills, cooperation, collaboration, and problem solving soar. Peer interactions enhance classroom management and also decrease student conflict due to the fact that community building fosters social and communication skills. In my classroom I’ve recognized that there is increased trust between students and myself. Students are also likely to embrace their unique differences and allow their personalities to shine. Community has enhanced personal character, compassion, tolerance, and empathy. By engaging students in community building we are providing them a gift that can carry with them for a lifetime.
Let’s foster an environment where anything is possible when a supportive team is involved!