Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Community Building to Boost Learning

We keep hearing how the first week or so of school is important to develop positive attitudes in our students, to create a positive classroom climate and to build community. We know that it is important for us to show kids that we care and that they matter to us. We have read and studied how a learner will only learn if he or she feels and safe and welcome. Most of all, we know that students are not "empty vessels to be filled", or "blank slates" to be filled out. This may sound cliché, overrated, repeated, or maybe even lame...but it is so very true!

Not only is it true, but even though we all seem to know this, how often do we put it into practice? Many times I've seen teachers, who I am sure know all about constructivism and have heard that quote a million times, come into their classrooms without saying hello to the students, and start their class bu asking students to open a text book to a particular page. They begin their lesson, deliver it, and by the time the hour is over, ask students to organise their things and leave.

So it's not enough to know that students are people and should be respected, and to know that the more comfortable students are the more likely they are to learn... it's about actually doing things in the classroom and with the kids to make sure they FEEL respected and comfortable, to make sure that they are emotionally ready for meaningful learning.

Before the school year started I logged onto the Teaching Channel and found an amazing set of Vlogs (video blogs) by Sarah Brown Wessling (@sarawessling) which were super helpful for me to start thinking about the first week of school.

These vlogs were all about creating a real community of learners with the groups of students, as the most important way to set the scene for meaningful learning throughout the year.

I found that creating a community and a positive classroom culture was the most important thing I had to do at the beginning of the year, before even thinking about what I was going to start teaching my students.

I also investigated Sarah's blog post on how to cultivate classroom "chemistry" and found really interesting things there.

The following are, for me, the most important TO DO's at the beginning of a school year with any group of students at any grade level, and they are, in fact, the things that I have concentrated in doing throughout these first two weeks of school.

*Note: I know that "first two weeks of school" sounds like a looooong time to invest in only cultivating classroom community and culture, but I think that it is SO IMPORTANT that the time invested is absolutely worth it. Besides, it's not like ALL I did these first two weeks was JUST about building community.... the kids and I did, in fact, get other things done as well...

  1. Make students feel welcome, from the first instant they step a foot inside your classroom.
  2. Get to know them, for real: who they are, what thy like and dislike, who their friends are...
  3. Have them reflect on their expectations, and share your expectations with them: what are they expecting from you as a teacher? What are they expecting from their peers? What are they expecting from themselves? What are you expecting from them?
  4. Come to agreements about how we will all act and behave, create Essential Agreements.
  5. Have them reflect on who they are as learners, and how they embody the IB Profile.
  6. Make the fact that we are all different explicit: we all need to learn different things, and we all learn in different ways!
  7. Prepare students for making mistakes: it is from mistakes that we learn. 
  8. Check to see if students have a growth mindset as opposed to a fixed mindset, help them see intelligence and success as something that depends on them, and that is not fixed.
  9. Teach students how to collaborate and work together, make it explicit that learning has a social factor.
  10. Help students set goals for themselves.

Even though the first two weeks of school are fundamental to develop these attitudes in ourselves and in students, and even though they set the scene for the rest of the year, it is important to remember that creating a positive classroom culture is an ongoing and never ending process. 

Super simple things such as just making sure you greet each and every student every morning can actually make a difference. However, we can also do this by making sure we respect the culture we have in our classrooms and that everything we do, we do remembering that the students we are working with are people, that they have feelings and thoughts of their own, and that they are not just "empty vessels that need to be filled". 

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