Updated: Jan 24
When thinking about building community in our schools, we must first ask ourselves what the role of education is, and what we want it to be. If it’s solely to teach our children a rote set of skills and abilities, then building relationships and connections, a positive culture, and a meaningful experience for students is not very important. However, if we recognize the role of schools and educators as participating in the growth and development of our children and youth as well-rounded individuals, community members, family members and citizens, then the way that we form relationships and communities in our schools becomes a model that students will take with them for the rest of their lives.
One of the giants in the history of modern educational theory is John Dewey. He believed that the educators’ role is to shape education to promote personal growth, a positive attitude towards learning, and the maturity necessary to learn from experiences (1938). Dewey wrote about the possibility for schools to form genuine community, recognizing that education is a social process able to impart, “one of the most important lessons of life, that of mutual accommodation and adaptation” (p. 60).
Why is it important?
Srilatha Batliwala, in her collection of writings about feminism and empowerment, Engaging with empowerment: An intellectual and experiential journey (2013), writes about the concept of deep structure in organizations. Deep structure refers to power structures and influences that operate beneath the surface of organizations: informal, implicit, underlying values and processes that might be felt but not fully understood. The tacit agreements that students (and teachers) step into when they enter a classroom, must be illuminated, investigated and in many cases replaced with an explicit agreement. Not only do students bring with them their own sets of values, cultural and familial norms, among other things, they also bring expectations about school they’ve picked up from other students, popular culture, and societal messages that get shared without critical thought. If getting shoved into a locker is a common trope that’s reinforced as a normal part of middle school through a number of different mediums, it becomes an expectation, and unless corrected, it will likely be adopted into the behaviour of middle school kids who are susceptible to social norms and peer pressure. In order to change our schools into environments that have strong communities of care and respect, educators must become aware of the deep structures present in our education system, and work to change those elements that are not conducive to a culture of learning and belonging.
How Do We Do It?
In their handbook on group dynamics, Johnson and Johnson share a combination of theory, research and practice for the formation of strong teams and productive groups. According to them, one of the most potent tools for creating positive interdependence between team members is the creation and adoption of a mutual vision (Johnson & Johnson, 2017). At The YES, we believe that the process we use for establishing a mutual vision, is one of the keys to success in our program. We call our approach The Free Zone, and we make our Free Zone by creating a literal and metaphorical container. At the beginning of the week we draw a shape on a piece of flipchart paper so that there’s space inside and outside. Sometimes the shape is a desert island, or a rocketship, it has been as simple as a circle and as complicated as a mediaeval castle with a moat, drawbridge and turrets. The inside of the container represents our time together, and the outside represents everything we want to leave behind.
We start by asking students what is is they they want to leave behind. We might ask follow up questions like: what are some of the things that happen at home, in your group of friends, or in the hallways of the school that you don’t want here in our classroom? What are some things that make you feel unsafe, uncomfortable, or sad when you see them happening? From these types of prompts we will elicit a long list of suggestions for things to put on the outside of our Free Zone. We’re careful only to write things down that we can work together to uphold as a group, and we ask for clarification or elaboration when something isn’t clear, or we’re not sure it should be part of our community agreement. For example, a student might volunteer “sadness” as something they don’t want in the classroom. So we might ask them, if someone is feeling sad, do you want them to hide their feelings, or not come to class? What could we put on the Free Zone instead that would reduce the amount of sadness in the classroom? What are some things that make you sad that we could try to eliminate or minimize?
If a student offers something that is really broad and unspecific like ‘bullying’ we might ask “what does bullying look like?” or, “what is something specific someone might do that would be an example of bullying?”. This way we can create an even clearer list of behaviours that are unacceptable to the students (i.e. homophobia, racism, physical violence). Once a thorough list has been created, you go through the same process to brainstorm the things we do want in our classroom.
There are many ways to create classroom agreements and this is only one of them.
Whether you use the Free Zone model or not, the process of making a container or agreement is an important one. It might be as simple as co-creating a list of guidelines that will make everyone in the class feel safe to contribute, or deciding on a list of values that everyone is going to follow, but the important part is to make those tacit expectations into explicit expectations so that everyone is on the same page. Co-creating this agreement is essential so that your students are not only accountable to you as an authority figure, but they’re accountable to each other as members of the same classroom community.
It’s important to know that you are a member of that classroom community too, so as the community agreement is being brainstormed and discussed, make sure that your expectations are made explicit and be clear about what you need to feel safe, engaged, and excited to come to class each day. The more authentic you can be as a role model in this process, the more permission you’ll give your students to speak honestly about their needs and ideas for how to make the classroom a place they want to return to again and again.
When you’ve succeeded in creating a Free Zone or classroom agreement, find a fun and engaging way for your students to commit to upholding it. We usually do a repeat-after-me oath and have everyone follow along. This process might happen on the first day, or in the first week, but it’s important to return back to this agreement again and again as a living document that helps govern your classroom. Things can be added or changed, and if there’s a problem in your class, this is an important touchstone to build accountability and empowerment. I write more about this in the post on Empowering Students.
Your job as a leader is to inspire a shared vision that students can take on as their own. Through the promise of working towards something worthwhile and meaningful, your students will experience their own personal growth, and contribute towards the betterment of the group (Johnson & Johnson, 2017).
Batliwala, S. (2013). Engaging with empowerment: An intellectual and experiential journey.
New Delhi: Women Unlimited.
Cajete, G. A. (2016). Indigenous education and the development of indigenous community
leaders. Leadership, 12(3), 364-376
Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, F. P. (2017). Joining together: Group theory and skills (ed.12).
Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
About the Author:
Chelsea Lake (she/her) is the Executive Director of The Youth Excellence Society and holds a Masters of Education in Leadership Studies from the University of Victoria.