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  • Building a Classroom Community

    2010 - 10.24

    I believe that it is imperative to create a classroom environment in which the students and teacher comprise a cohesive community of learners.  This entails affirming diversity in the classroom and promoting an attitude of inquiry, discourse, and positive behavior support.

    Students planting flowers as a part of a city-wide beautification project. Students in Mrs. Wyrick's class, Spring 2010.

    Too often, students are not valued as the unique individuals that they are, and are instead treated merely as somewhat anonymous members of the classroom at large.  In my teaching, I strive to honor each student as the person that he or she is.  By building authentic and personal relationships with the students in my classroom, I am able to better understand their behavior and the manner with which that behavior impacts both their learning, and their interactions with other students.

    By showing students that their opinions and feelings matter, I believe that I have been successful in building rapport and in managing student behavior at the individual and whole-group level.  Creating an environment in which students respect one another, their space, and themselves is imperative to establishing a classroom that is conducive to learning and growing individually and together.

    Even in my early field placements and education courses at Albion College, I believed in the importance of affirming individuals and facilitating an inclusive classroom community.  I also bore witness to the consequences of failing to do so.  In a case study that I completed in the fall of 2008, I conducted an interview with a friend who had a very different educational experience than I did.  This person immigrated to the United States at a young age, and in our interview, she explained what it was like for her in American schools.

    Unfortunately, like many students who do not speak English as their first language, my friend’s dual identity was practically ignored in her school experience.  Almost none of her teachers seemed to acknowledge her Chinese identity or her growing understandings of her new American life.  Instead, this student was forced to essentially make the transition to American life completely independently, with no one showing an interest in her important and altering perspective.  She felt isolated and unable to express herself, and as a result, continued to struggle with her identity into her college years.

    Please click here to read this case study.

    This case study really reinforced for me the importance of an inclusive community in the classroom.  It seems my friend was never a part of such a classroom, and I wonder how different her school experiences might have been if she had had a teacher who tried harder to listen to who she was and how she felt.  I wonder how much more comfortable she would have been in school if she had truly felt included in a classroom community.

    Students in Mrs. Ellenwood’s 3rd grade class waiting to begin reading with a partner, Fall 2010

    Creating community is not only important for ELL students, but for all students.  I think that each child struggles to feel “normal” in school, regardless of their background.  All students want to feel as though they belong.  In my teaching, I strive to foster such feelings by modeling and promoting respect and constant communication.  I work really hard with my students to create opportunities for discussion.  In my Professional Internship, all classroom policies and changes were discussed openly with students in true dialogue fashion.  Students felt comfortable expressing themselves to me and to each other, and I believe that everyone was better able to learn as a result.  Of course, our classroom wasn’t perfect.  But we created an environment in which students understood that they were both important as individuals and as a part of a community of learners.

    On my last day in my Professional Internship, I was reminded of just how important this community environment had been to my students.  As various students were addressing me with parting words, one of my students remarked: “We are a family.  And now that you are leaving, our family is breaking up.”  At that moment, I was reminded of how important it was for me and for the students to know that they were a part of a classroom which valued everyone.   Her comment was true.  We were a family, a family of learners.

    Creating this “family” entailed several trends in the classroom management strategies employed by me and by my mentor teacher.  First, students were allowed and encouraged to be themselves.  We worked hard to allow students to complete work at their own level as much as possible (due to our efforts to create a learner-centered classroom), and this effort made students feel supported in their individuality.  We also created an environment in which students participated in a constant dialogue both with me (and my mentor teacher) and with one another.

    This communication happened throughout the school day.  Students set goals regarding their learning and determined whether or not those goals were reached.  They evaluated their own understanding of material, and indicated mastery or a need for support when applicable.  Students participated in the establishing and changing of classroom policies, and discussed their own behavior and the reasoning behind it.  They worked together in learning tasks for their own, and others’, enrichment.  Finally, students were free to share themselves on a more personal level.  Young learners are often eager to share their personal feelings and experiences with peers and adults.  Our classroom environment created opportunities for learners to do both.

    All of these opportunities for students to express themselves promoted our sense of community.  The more students participated and witnessed how their participation shaped their learning, the more they were able to share.  This sharing facilitated an environment in which I believe all felt safe and supported in their learning.

    My experiences as a camp counselor and swim instructor have also exemplified my efforts to create community.  I have worked with the nine and ten year old girls’ group in Bay View Recreation for the last 6 summers.  During the last two summers, I was in charge of the group.  One of my primary goals as leader of that group was to create a true community.  I wanted my campers to all feel included, an objective which was sometimes difficult to meet, considering that some campers participate in the program all summer, while others only take part for a few days or weeks.

    Creating community in this group, as in my classroom experiences, entailed constant communication between me, my campers, and the parents of my campers.  Everyone was always reminded that participation and teamwork were imperative for us all to have as much fun as possible.  By allowing campers’ interests and personalities to guide the activities implemented, and by fostering communication and teamwork, I believe that I created a group that was welcoming, safe, and fun for everyone.

    School can be a difficult place for anyone who feels different, and the truth is, at some point in time, all students are likely to feel some sense of isolation, whether it be caused by gender, ethnicity, ability, or anything else.  Building community is a priority in my teaching because it combats this sense of isolation, and fosters a positive attitude among students as well as a sense of individual and collective importance.  I believe that if students feel respected in a classroom which values their individuality, then they will be more likely to respect themselves and others.  Such an environment promotes cooperation and positive behavior, both of which are central to learning.

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