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Growth Mindset

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Cultivating a Maker Mindset

Hearing the excitement of students as they question, design, create and make is one of my absolute favorite aspects of teaching. Every child is engaged in an activity of their choice, and collaboration skyrockets. As a classroom teacher I’ve been able to see how learning in makerspace transfers to learning in the classroom. Teachers often ask me how to launch makerspace with their students, and it’s all about cultivating a maker mindset from the beginning.

Launching MakerSpace 

Prior to launching makerspace with my class I begin to develop the culture by reading books of exploration with my students. One of my favorites is What Do You Do With An Idea, by Kobi Yamada. Following the reading we brainstorm and prepare to share big ideas that we’ve had, or imagine new ideas. We discuss them, draw to envision and describe. Then when ready, we write about them. Students are invited to post their big idea in our classroom. There’s no idea that’s too big. In fact, I encourage them to dream big. Interestingly, even 9 and 10 year old children can be hesitant at first to share their big ideas. In some instances they’re concerned that someone will think their idea is ridiculous or impossible. When we read If I Built a Car, by Chris Van Dusen students grasp that no idea is too crazy. Through the brainstorming process where students engage in collaborative communication, their creativity begins to flow and students synergize!

Growth Mindset

The makerspace culture is all about failing forward and learning from mistakes. Students learn to see mistakes as proof that they are trying, and that mistakes lead to improvement. Growth mindset is a critical component students benefit from in all areas of life. In our class we read the book The Most Magnificent Thing, by Ashley Spires. This book is all about failures, how we handle them, and that sometimes we need to reexamine our work to recognize the beauty it beholds.

Additionally, in class we also engage in team building activities such as Cross a Chocolate River where we learn to be effective communicators and then debrief in order to grow from the process and improve our collaboration. Students benefit from being placed in situations where they experience a non-threatening struggle (such as the community building activity mentioned above).  We cannot simply talk about growth mindset to our students. Using a combination of reading stories and discussing the characteristics of characters, as well as through experiential learning, growth mindset begins to develop authentically. In fact, it’s ideal to embed growth mindset into all areas when possible. Growth mindset doesn’t just to support makerspace, but it’s what nurtures the development of resiliency in children.

Opportunity to Play, Dream, Inquire, and Create to Innovate

While it’s critical for teachers to zero in on content and curriculum that aligns to the standards, we also need to be cognizant that we are fostering the 4c’s in our schools. Critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creation is what sparks innovative thinking. As students go through the school system the opportunity to play and dream often lessens. Our students benefit from having access to materials and resources that inspire them to make something. We can support the development of maker design thinking through the engineer design cycle where students are guided to ask, imagine, plan, create and improve.

  • Allow students time to dream and imagine
  • Promote collaborative conversation around what students wonder.
  • Empower students to inquire and research.
  • Inspire students to create, make, and redesign.

Connect with Real World Experts

When teachers foster the opportunity for students to inquire, wonder, and dream they often come up with more questions. Often times students design and then create what they envisioned making, only to learn that it doesn’t all come together the way that they had planned. This is the perfect opportunity to connect with community members or Skype with experts in the field to learn from their expertise. The process of making fluctuates with successes as well as opportunities for learning and growth. Connecting with experts supports student learning and reinforces the relevance of their work. They can collaborate with students to troubleshoot and retool their design.

It’s also beneficial to connect with experts outside of the school building prior to students making, if applicable to their project. For example, students may have questions about engineering that would support the development of what their idea. Connecting with outside experts promotes multiple skills such as communication, ability to ask questions to apply to problem solving, networking, and the understanding that collaboration is critical to all fields.

Reflection

Reflection is critical to learning and is best when done intentionally. Educators often wait until the end of each session to reflect. However, I have found it beneficial to pause mid-way and allow time for students to consider what is going well, and what needs to be improved upon. This fosters metacognition and the opportunity to immediately retool their design before the end of class. If reflection is always at the end of makerspace it can make it challenging for a child to resume their next session based on their reflections from the previous session.

In the reflection process we begin by engaging in collaborative reflective peer conversations. Through this process students take turns asking each other what’s working and what isn’t working for them. They have the opportunity to share and show what they’re working on and also to offer suggestions to one another. Following the reflective peer conversations they then take the time to further reflect on their glows and grows for me to review. In my classroom I typically have students write them on Post-It notes and then place them on chart paper. This provides an excellent opportunity for me to hear their thinking, see their personal thoughts, and then rotate to students to work alongside them and use inquire to learn more about their thought process.  

Retooling

Using the engineer design cycle students are guided to ask, imagine, plan, create and improve. Retooling following reflection deepens student learning as they engage in critical thinking and problem solving. I’ve seen students become incredibly inspired and excited through this process, it’s what learning is all about! When students enjoy what they’re doing they are driven to learn more and take more of an initiative in owning their learning.

Sharing with an Authentic Audience

In today’s world we can connect our students to classrooms of other makers around the world. By connecting with other students they’re able to get new ideas, further develop their own thoughts, and problem solve by sharing and receiving unique perspectives. Skype or Google Hangouts are excellent ways to connect students. Blogging to an authentic audience empowers student voice. It’s a way in which they can elaborate on their thinking and ideas while receiving feedback from others takes learning to a new level.

Makerspace is a place in which students can have autonomy over their learning and flourish as thinkers and innovators. How will you enhance learning for your students and provide authentic experiences where they can wonder, inquire, explore and create?

Ignite passion and empowervoice. (3)

Resources that have inspired and supported me through my maker journey:  

Worlds of Learning by Laura Fleming

Worlds of Making: Best Practices for Establishing a Makerspace for Your School by Laura Fleming

Renovated Learning by Diana Rendina

The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity by George Couros

 

Empower Learning Luminous Culture

Embracing our Unique Differences

“Give it another try!” Shouts my 11 year old to his friend Matthew. Matthew winds up the frisbee for the 10th time, and makes the shot! The boys cheered and erupted into laughter. The frisbee went through the basketball hoop. Honestly, it’s trickier than it sounds. Both my son Julian and his friend Matthew have been spending their summer days developing their YouTube channel featuring their trick shots. Not only am I impressed by their profound growth mindsets, but their tenacity that leads to their success is inspiring.

My son has also been creating other videos using iMovie and posting them to his Instagram page. He’s passionate about the work he’s doing and has been beaming at his creations as he’s embedding graphics and audio, as well as editing them to be unique and eye catching.

Last night Julian became quiet and disclosed to me that he deleted a few of his videos that he was really proud of. The videos he deleted featured him hitting baseballs and demonstrating what he sees as his strengths. Julian was transparent with the world, and while he received numerous likes on his videos, he also received a backlash. Julian explained that a friend shared with him that his videos were stupid. This person was relentless until Julian deleted the videos in front of him. Julian was hurt over the comments and began to question his strengths, as well as the videos he created due to these rumors. While I’m disappointed that anyone would say anything negative, I was equally disappointed that my child gave into peer pressure and the need to conform. This is not typical of him as he is a confident and bright child.

With an authentic teachable moment in front of me, this was the perfect opportunity to help Julian understand that we do not have to conform to the status quo. It is difficult, it can hurt, and there will be times in which standing out makes you feel isolated. When we stand up for what we believe in we are at risk for ridicule. However, I am passionate about standing up for what we believe in and it’s a risk I’m willing to take. As a parent and educator I want to protect our children from feeling discouraged, but at the same time facing adversity is what allows us to dig deep inside and learn to persevere. Our children need to be equipped with how to handle adversity and maneuver through our complex world with confidence and empathy for others.

In school and at home we need to be fostering a culture of acceptance and embrace the unique differences that each of us beholds. Too often I see children begin to conform to what they believe the world wants them to be and stray from who they truly are. How do we cultivate this in our schools and make an impact on our society? If our goal is to ignite innovation in schools, students need to be able to embrace divergent thinking and honor each other’s differences.

 

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10 Classroom Tips:

  1. Develop a culture of responsible risk taking through community building and intentional debriefing to foster empathy and understanding. This allows students to experience emotions and reflect on them. Through debriefing they develop relationships with classmates and a deeper understanding of how they can add to or subtract value from others.
  2. Model empathy each day. As teachers we have students that walk in daily from a variety of backgrounds. We need to always assume the best from our students and remember that their actions have an underlying cause. When we model empathy consistently, it transfers to students.
  3. Own up to mistakes. No one is perfect and we learn from mistakes. This is a critical component of any classroom. When students understand that mistakes are normal, they develop as risk takers and become more empathetic when their peers make mistakes.
  4. Survey students with questions such as: What would you like me to know about you? Or, what do you want to grow in this school year? Simple questions such as these can bring in a broad spectrum of responses from students that allow the teacher to gain a deeper understand of who their students are. This provides teachers with the ability to develop deeper connections and relationships with students.
  5. Utilize social media sites such as Edmodo or Slack where students can safely learn to interact with one another online with the support of their teacher. Prior to launching the site, facilitate learning on demonstrating positive Digital Citizenship with Common Sense Media.
  6. Empower students to find their inner passions and carve out time in class to allow students to work on passion projects. Students don’t always know what they’re passionate about, and by inspiring them to identify their passions we are supporting students to develop a foundation of who they are and what they stand for. This serves as a powerful force in a world where students pressure peers to conform. Angela Maiers states, “you are a genius and the world does need your contribution, you matter.” See Choose2Matter founded by Angela Maiers
  7. Ignite the S.H.I.N.E. within students. Lavonna Roth developed Ignite Your S.H.I.N.E (Self, Heart, Inspire, Navigate, Exceptional) to create a path for students to believe in their gifts, gain confidence and explore how they will contribute to the world. Students not only need to embrace their unique gifts, but learn how to navigate themselves to stay true to their heart and as they face adversity in life.
  8. Morning meetings are a great way to begin each day. Morning meetings allow students to start the day by connecting with their peers and teacher and sets the climate of the classroom.
  9. Provide opportunities for students to blog to an authentic audience. Students will grow confidence as they share their ideas through writing and received feedback from people who are looking to grow alongside them.
  10. Create a post-it wall in your classroom where students can post positive comments or shout-outs to celebrate their classmates. In our classroom this past year students loved recognizing one another and truly embraced each other’s unique gifts.

In our world we want to empower students to be dynamic innovators who have a growth mindset. The culture must be right in order to successfully develop this vision. I believe that we can instill in our students that they can change the world, and that it’s their unique gifts that will make the difference.

Empower Learning Leadership

Entering a New Frontier

Envision learners jubilantly returning from winter break who are eager to connect with peers, staff, and to be empowered as learners. Excitedly they re-enter the learning space while having conversations and greeting others. It’s possible that many learners were still connected with one another, and their teacher through platforms such as Edmodo over break. Remaining connected maintains that sense of family, and keeps conversations flowing so that when reunited as a team they can readily begin to synergize.

How are you setting the stage for the new year with your students? What are your students anticipating returning to? As we enter the new year, consider one shift that you’ll make to ignite students’ passion to learn. Learning is a natural desire, yet when forced or if not engaging, students can shut down and lose their drive to learn. We need to be creating a sense of wonder within our students to foster deeper questioning which promotes innovative thinking. Who are we to teach today’s students, yesterday’s information? What’s comfortable for both teachers and students isn’t necessarily what’s best. In fact, I find that when I am in a place of struggle or discomfort that it’s a blessing because it signals that I’m in a place of growth. When we enter a new frontier it isn’t meant to feel convenient or safe. However, that’s where we need to be for continual improvement. As I consider the shifts I’ve made, I recognize that they’re some of the main reasons my students eagerly anticipate returning to school.
Project Based Learning
I’m wholeheartedly committed to flipping education to move beyond mandated programs. My goal is to immerse students into authentic, relevant, real-world problem solving, and empower students to own the direction of their learning. I’m incredibly fortunate to have been trained and to be provided with ongoing training in PBL by the Buck Institute for Education. Through my journey I’ve noticed that when students develop their own driving questions it propels their research, and they begin to crave learning including the next steps of their project. What I observed this fall exceeded my expectations. In all transparency, our class also hit rough patches. There were times when my students looked to me in search of direction or answers. Similarly, as educators we experienced moments where we had to go back to our training notes as we collaborated to reconsider our process. As a team we hit several moments of discomfort because it was so different than our classic ELA block. While we always utilize best instructional strategies and structures for learning, PBL definitely took us in a whole new direction. For me, it was refreshing. As for the students, it’s evident that they’re more cognitively engaged within PBL. During this winter break they’ve continued researching and posting links for their peers to respond to around their PBL focus on our Edmodo page. The depth of knowledge, success skills, and vocabulary that they have developed is incredible.
Makerspace
When we started, students required reassurance that what they chose to design was their choice. They had to solve problems that arose along the way, but they knew that I was there to support them. Using inquiry as a driving force students worked through many issues. They’re constantly learning how to appropriately interact and converse with peers during challenging times. As our makerspace grows I am devoted to carving out time for students to wonder, explore, and create. Makerspaces provide opportunities for students to create, build prototypes, explore questions, fail and retry, develop critical thinking and problem solving skills, bounce ideas off one another and collaborate on building together. Innovative thinking blossoms in makerspaces.
Innovation Time
Last school year students had opportunities to explore their passions, and share their projects with peers through a variety of presentation methods. This school year I’ll be integrating innovation time more purposefully within the second half of the school year. Sure, students have a lot of choices in class. Within PBL students have ownership over their driving questions, method of presentation, and community contacts. However, I want to extend learning to be increasingly student centered. During the second half of this school year learners will have opportunities to identify and explore their passions with purpose. As I reflect on the first half of the year I feel that beginning with PBL and makerspace has set the stage for students to continue forward into innovation time. They all share a similar philosophy and compliment one another well.
Culture of a Growth Mindset Embedded in Relationships
Fostering and continuously nurturing a culture of a growth mindset embedded in relationships has been one of the biggest factors in allowing PBL, makerspace, and learning in general to be extremely successful. Growth mindset along with relationships is one of the pivotal components that serves as the foundation for all that I work towards. In our learning space you can visibly see and hear that we have a culture of a growth mindset. It’s developed through experiential learning, debriefing, and modeling as well as practicing how to emote through a variety of structures. We also consciously utilize the Habits of Mind and The Leader in Me. During math class students openly share when they’ve made a mistake in order to help their peers learn from what they’ve done. Their peers celebrate them by clapping and making genuine comments. This practice has encouraged students to share out often. Students also use a variety of talk moves to demonstrate that they were either thinking something similar, have something to add on, or new to contribute. All of these simple strategies not only maintain engagement, but also allow students to receive immediate feedback that others are truly listening to them and making connections. Student conversations have developed to be so purposeful that students clarify by asking their team members, “What do you mean by____?” or rephrase by saying, “In other words what you’re saying is_____.” The freedom to make mistakes, question one another, and clear up any misconceptions in a safe environment promotes deeper student learning as they become unguarded and open to risk taking to explore all areas of learning.
Tech as a Tool
Using tech as a tool to foster the four C’s is new for the students who enter my classroom each year, therefore it takes some time to integrate it. This school year students have been exposed to many different types of tech to enhance learning. The tech we’ve utilized has been scaffolded intentionally. We began using tech as formative assessment. Kahoot, Plickers, and Nearpod have been excellent to engage students while also providing quick and accurate feedback for reflection. At the beginning of the year it was messy. Students were unfamiliar with knowing how to login to websites and how to use basic functions on a keyboard. The experience provided me with a wealth of information, and I realized that I needed to back up the instruction more than I had expected. Taking the time to demonstrate, and allowing students opportunities to explore and ask questions made a difference. After working with formative assessment tools, we then picked up Edmodo as a communication and collaboration platform that also allows me to blend learning. Students are now creating and demonstrating their learning using Explain Everything, Prezi, and ThingLink. Once learners grasp how to use tech as a tool, they quickly find ways to integrate it independently and are prepared to choose the appropriate tool when necessary.Coding
While all students participated in the Hour of Code, we as educators cannot just expose students to an hour of code. We need to examine what the needs are of today’s learners. Today’s learners are required to be literate in different ways than yesterday’s learners were expected to be.  Dr. Ryan B. Jackson proposes that coding is the new literacy. I, too, believe that all schools ought to address coding as a significant need in today’s schools.  It’s inspiring to listen to students problem solve as they code, communicate effectively with peers when they hit an obstacle, and the excitement they experience when they overcome barriers.  If you’re tempted to say that this is just one more thing being added in, we need to step back and look at the current job market and contemplate the fact that we don’t know which direction our future will head. Our students are going into a future where many jobs will be newly developed. As educators we need to reevaluate what the greatest needs in our students are, and how we can reshape schools with flexible scheduling and interdisciplinary learning to promote innovative practices.

Enter a New Frontier
As we move forward into the new year we need to support one another as educators, and be fearless in the pursuit of what’s best for students. Yes, it can be uncomfortable to take on new initiatives, but it’s exhilarating too. By crafting a clear vision with a focus that is student centered, you will surely find your footing. Consider how you will enter this new frontier as an advocate for learners. We are the change, together we make the difference.

Empower Learning Inspiration Luminous Culture

Unlocking the True Potential Within Every Child: Be Their Champion

You have the power to make a phenomenal impact in the lives of children.

I believe educators are astoundingly fortunate to have the honor of engaging in the approach of unlocking the true potential within every child.  Regardless of their background or circumstances, by pursuing all avenues to reach and inspire each individual child, we can all make a difference in our students’ lives.  It’s phenomenal that educators have the opportunity to be a champion to not just one child, but hundreds of children over the course of their career.  I believe that when we work collaboratively for a cause that’s greater than ourselves, the impact will cause ripples that travel further than our minds can fathom.

Our profession is all about kids.  They’re our future, and it’s an enormous responsibility because our interactions will either inspire or discourage. A lot of conversations have been had around risk taking and failing forward in education.  While these words are tossed around and contemplated, each person has a different image of what this actually looks like.  

Developed progressively, every year my vision has shifted and evolved with each diverse and unique team of students I’ve had the privilege to work alongside.  I’ve gained a deeper understanding of why culture is critical and how to harmoniously refine the development within each new team.  In a community where culture is authentic and strong, students flourish and truly begin to seek risk taking, than simply being “open” to it. 

A considerable amount of time needs to be devoted to cultivating relationships with individual students in order to assist in developing their ability to take risks.  And this means daily, as it’s an ongoing pursuit.  Sit beside the child, allow them to guide the conversation, seek information about who they are and what their passions and dreams consist of.  When we demonstrate that we genuinely care, students connect with us.  When we connect by sharing our commonalities and continue to ask about their individual interests, students know we’re invested and truly care about their best interest.  

Our students need to feel a safety net around them from us as well as their peers.  Peer acceptance is a piece of their sense of belonging.  Tailoring experiences where students develop empathy for their peers is essential.  If we truly want students to develop the ability to take risks, they need to feel their basic needs are met and that others have their back.  Making the assumption that students come to school and feel safe, or that they belong, is risky.  We need to be intentional about how we craft our classroom culture by providing opportunities to build trust between students and teachers, as well as students and students.  Teachers gauge the level of trust within the room by observing, taking the temperature of the climate, and continuing to learn the idiosyncrasies of each individual student.  In looking at Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, we see that if we want students to become risk takers, it’s pertinent that all of their basic needs are met. 

Recently at the 2015 Model Schools conference one speaker focused on fairness in the eyes of a child.  Fairness is a child’s perception, and perception is real to the beholder.  Will students develop the mindset to be a risk taker if the playing field doesn’t feel level?  We need to communicate clearly, consistently, and remain cognizant of cultivating authentic relationships with each and every student.  Furthermore, students benefit from a level of comfort/safety where they’re empowered to provide us honest feedback as their coach (teacher), and that is only possible in a classroom where students feel completely supported to take risks without repercussions. After all, in order to understand our students’ perceptions we need to listen and validate their feedback.  When students provide us with feedback, we can then stretch ourselves to learn and grow from their input. Students thrive when they’re embraced unconditionally.  Every child deserves a champion who will rally around them and validate their feelings while continually improve for their sake.

This past year I continually repeated “mistakes are proof that you are trying” as students collaborated on relevant and complex problem solving.  I hung this poster on the wall to be visible to all students.  By midyear all I had to say, “mistakes…” and the students would complete my sentence.  Rather than scolding them for giggling when I made a mistake, students grasped the fact that I too will make mistakes and they’d say, “It’s okay Mrs. Bostwick, it’s proof you’re trying!”  It was liberating for them to identify that their coach is not the beholder of all knowledge, but rather the individual that was there to facilitate, guide, and encourage.

Life is filled with adversity.  How we choose to handle it is embedded in our mindset.  Fortunately mindset is malleable, and I believe every teacher has the ability to empower students to learn to fail forward, seek risks, and pursue their passions.  Setbacks are part of growth, and we need to provide experiences within a supportive environment to stimulate this understanding in order for students to develop flexibility in thinking.  Cultivating and nurturing the culture of a classroom provides the fertile environment for students to thrive and seek risk taking which leads to innovative problem solving and creations.

Repeated failures can lead to success when students are inspired to aspire toward their goal.  The key is to foster their ability to identify their passions in an environment that richly supports risk taking through supportive and trusting relationships.

This summer my 10 year old son, Julian, who has always been a tinkerer and maker, was further inspired by the idea of makerspace as it’s been a hot topic in our house.  Energized, he worked tenaciously to develop an obstacle course that would allow a ping-pong ball to travel from one point to another using random materials found around our home.  Unbeknownst to me at the time, he used an iPad to document his trials which demonstrate failure after failure that led to his success.  In watching his iMovie you’ll recognize his efforts of making slight alterations in order to reach the intended goal as well as the sound of success at the end.

See Julian’s iMovie: Trial and Error by Julian

Imagine the impact that would transpire if all students were empowered to continue to persevere in the face of challenge, and yearned for the sheer joy of the process of overcoming obstacles.  We can make this happen, and kids deserve the culture and environment that supports this.

Intrinsic motivation catapults students’ determination and outcome of success.  As educators we have the collective capacity to share in the movement to empower students to be innovative problem solvers, who develop the prowess to examine situations from all angles.  Every child deserves a champion who will tailor and foster a learning environment for them to bloom.  Be the change you wish to see in education because #kidsdeserveit.

Empower Learning Luminous Culture

Empowering Student Voice Through Classroom Culture

Empowering student voice transforms a learner from being an observer to an initiator. We’ve all seen students who walk in the door on the first day of school with a fixed mindset. Their previous educational experience has led them to believe they may be great in math, but struggle in reading. These students come to us expecting to experience the same struggles and emotions they have in past years. Students may lack confidence, and be unwilling to take risks. As educators, how can we support the development of a growth mindset that will lead to empowerment of student voice? After all, the most valuable voice in the classroom is the student’s.

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. 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 is the foundation of student voice in the classroom as they progress through stages of growth.

HOMHabits of Mind
Each month I focus on one trait from the Costa and Kallick’s Habits of Mind. These soft skills are the skills and attitudes support success in school, work, and life. Students use rubrics to monitor and reflect on their growth. Together we practice perspective taking and I structure activities that provide students with the opportunity to remain open minded. You can select traits to focus on that best support your learning environment.

Empowering Student Voice
Strategically establishing a culture that promotes responsible risk-taking 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 the empowerment of student voice. Integrating community building and the Habits of Mind promotes a growth mindset. In my classroom, when we make mistakes we fail forward together because our classroom environment is supportive and non-threatening.

Classroom Tip
Create an anchor chart on the art of collaborative conversation. Model it, have students practice, reflect, and integrate it as a part of daily instruction in math, ELA, STEM, and SS. Have students peer assess each other on the Habits of Mind using a rubric. Students can assess themselves and compare rubrics – then reflect for growth. Personal reflection is the core of growth mindset, which in turn creates a positive culture where empowered student voices echo throughout the classroom.

collaborative

Empower Learning Luminous Culture

The Why Behind Community Building

communityA 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.

Why Community?

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!