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“What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.” --Kurt Vonnegut
Most classroom teachers spend at least a few minutes establishing norms at the beginning of their school year, to help ensure that behavioral expectations are met and, often, to build a sense of classroom community. In the best cases, the norm-building process is done with students across several days, so that it’s less about rules imposed by the teacher and more about getting to know each other and co-creating agreements about how a class intends to work and learn together, norms that reflect the needs of students so they are actually met. And in schools striving for that same sense of student-led culture across the community, such norm building ripples out into the schoolhouse at large, bringing students and adults together to foster and maintain the sort of “beloved community” Martin Luther King believed was possible everywhere.
But building and maintaining community during a global pandemic has been challenging for schools. In most parts of the world, arguments over in-person and online learning continue, as do questions about mask mandates and educational access that ensure the safety of children and teachers, as well as parents’ ability to work. It’s easy to forget that much of the world remains unvaccinated; many countries have only just begun to vaccinate their most vulnerable populations, much less their teaching force and children 12 and over. (How absurd the United States must seem to most of the world, with so many people refusing a vaccination most would be grateful to have access to.)
And it’s easy to forget that a return to school remains impossible in regions where the pandemic rages on and the digital divide has already robbed students without technology of over a year and a half of learning. Add to that growing legislative controls over teaching what we most need to teach: laws against teaching the history and impact of slavery and systemic racism in the United States, laws against teaching anything related to the LGBTQ+ experience in Hungary… I was horrified to discover that my own alma mater, Bard College, was deemed an “undesireable” educational entity by Russia in late June, 2021, which means the end of Smolny College, a 25-year collaboration in liberal arts education between Bard and St.Petersburg State University. Some days, it feels like all the cards are stacked against educators and the young people we serve.
But our kids need us, so let’s take a step back from the politics and pandemic to ask ourselves how we can open this school year right. After a year and a half of uncertainty and ambiguity about the present and the future, our students don’t need to be held back a grade level or pushed so hard from day one that they end up hating the schools they’ve longed to return to. They do need a sense of family in their community, to know their community stands by them and sees them as full human beings (even when their masks are on, or when they’re staring into a computer screen from home). They need to feel a deep sense of belonging and connection and support as we all try to make sense of our changing world. And they need to feel that global embrace we all felt so keenly in March of 2020, when we realized that the entire planet was in this together. Let’s not let the pressure to catch up keep us from taking the time we need to reconnect, to establish first steps this year that help students feel safe and loved in our schoolhouses. After all, if the entire world is behind, no one is.
Following are a few strategies for building classroom and schoolhouse agreements—and the associated sense of community and belonging—in ways that also engage students’ bigger sense of global community. There is a curricular sequence to the order of activities, however subtle that learning arc may seem.
1. Explore what makes a community work, and the individual responsibilities that allow for collective wellbeing. These first days are a perfect time to empower our social studies teachers to help students understand how a society and, in miniature, a school, functions best.What are the rights and responsibilities that allow a given community to function for all of its members? What are the roles different people play in a community, to help it work? What are some of the pitfalls that can crumble and divide a society? How might we avoid those pitfalls? What are the conditions we need, as individuals and collectively, to make sure every student and adult feels deep belonging and security, even when the world around us feels so dangerous and uncertain? If you’re lucky enough to have philosophy teachers at your school, involve them as well: How do the rights of the individual interact with the rights of the collective? How have philosophers defined the ideal society, and how well have humans fulfilled those ideals?
2. Explore how other classrooms in the world organize their classroom, roles, and responsibilities. What does a learning community look like in other parts of the world, and what might we learn from and with young people in other countries this school year? This is your chance to give students their first exposure to the world during your school year. It's a chance to expand their sense of community to include others, to help them feel less small and helpless, more connected to others dealing with the very same challenges, if in a slightly different form in each part of the world.
If you have a global partner already in place, plan for a virtual tour of each other’s classrooms, either by video or live videoconferencing. If you don’t have a global partner already in place, try using Twitter (#globaled and #globaledchat)or the Global EducationConference Network to find a learning partner for the year. I haven’t found a perfect website for showcasing classrooms around the world, but any global educational organization that includes a collaborative platform, such as iEARN or TakingITGlobal, hosts images from students and teachers around the world. You can also use asynchronous tools to find images of school lunches around the world, for example, even if lunch isn’t connected to the classroom in most countries (and even though school lunch may not be happening in communities with more severe COVID-19 restrictions). But the best will certainly be to have a real, live conversations with a partner classroom, so that students can see each other’s context, ask questions about the schools they attend, discuss the agreements used to run their classrooms, and understand each other’s hopes for the school year (or, if the partner is in the southern hemisphere, how their year has gone so far). This small global step allows students to feel connected to something larger, a global community of learners and educators striving to build a more connected world. See more about global education and global partnership development in my Global Education Guidebook: Humanizing K-12 Classrooms Worldwide through Equitable Partnerships, designed to support teachers who want to connect their classrooms with the world in equitable ways.
3. Create opportunities for students to share who they are and set aspirations/goals for the year. Understanding who is in the classroom and what they bring with them is an essential step toward a healthy classroom culture. Elementary teachers often build a visual board of classroom profiles to accomplish this, printing photos of students and creating a board with facts about each student’s family, values, talents and goals. Advisory leaders often do something similar, though the practice of actually posting a visual of the classroom community isn’t always included in the higher grade levels. I do think it should be; even in a virtual classroom, a space where students see each other’s full faces and can read about each other or watch an introductory “all about me” video is key to making sure kids know each other (and yes, they may have been educated together for years, but that doesn’t mean our students have seen each other’s faces since February, 2020).
It is essential that students craft their own profiles for such a board, however, particularly when it comes to students sharing about their identities and family contexts. If the teacher decides what to spotlight about each child, s/he runs the risk of making assumptions about what matters to that child—and loses the opportunity to have students articulate their own selves and name their own goals. When students do this work for themselves, they choose what they want to spotlight about themselves, their families, and their aspirations, which puts them in charge of their own learning journeys. Students will remember themselves as powerful participants during difficult times, not as passive victims, if we involve them in solving the challenges our times bring us. For more on student protagonism as the core of equity, keep an eye out for the new book co-author Kapono Ciotti and I are writing, to be published by Solution Tree Press in May, 2022.
4. Use questioning and participatory protocols to ensure students co-create your classroom agreements. The key word here is “agreement,” as there is a big difference between authority-imposed rules and truly participant-driven agreements, particularly when it comes to how well they’re fulfilled. Teachers, don’t let this become a thinly-veiled attempt to push your own rules by getting kids to agree to them; work with your students to co-construct the norms your community will live by. Get students working in teams of 3-4 to establish the norms they believe matter most, then compare lists to identify commonalities and divergences, and run voting protocols to narrow down to a final list everyone can agree to. If any norms you insist on don’t make the final cut, only at this point is it appropriate to negotiate with students and add one or two teacher-centered agreements to the bottom of the list, with their permission. In my experience, however, this is rarely necessary if you’re asking students to consider important questions as they brainstorm norms: How do we want this classroom to run this year? What do we want it to feel like when someone enters our classroom? How might we ensure that every class member feels safe? How might we ensure all voices in this community are heard? How might we ensure that every student’s right to learn is respected? How might we respond if someone breaks our agreements?
5. Ask students to identify the gifts they bring to their community, and how they want to contribute this year. Sometimes, students feel hopeless just like adults do, like just one person can’t effect significant change. How you start the school year helps determine if students feel like their gifts do matter, and can imagine how they might use their talents to contribute to the improvement of their community. Inside the classroom, this might look like identifying gifts and determining roles on the basis of them, such as, “Stewart and Charlotte are very good artists, so maybe they could be in charge of some of our classroom displays; who would like to help?” or, “Who feels like they have the organizational skills to help us design spaces and systems for task tracking this year?” Beyond the classroom, it might look like students offering their gifts to the improvement of the broader school community: students might have ideas about how to stop bullying, or have creative gifts to help beautify the halls, or have passions connected to climate change who might help redevelop eco-friendly practices across the community.
When I served as Head of School at Gimnasio Los Caobos, we started every school year with several days of norm building, and one of the cardinal questions for students was how they wanted to contribute to the community this year. During the opening week, students in all grade levels were asked to explore who they were, to establish norms and goals, to activate and demonstrate prior learning in specific subject areas, and to consider how they wanted to contribute to the wellbeing of their community. Students and adults were part of this process, and every community member developed a visual, symbolic representation of their contribution. At the end of the week, we came together as a community to paint these individual designs on stones, which were then placed in a communal space to symbolize how our individual gifts come together to make a strong community.
6. Be sure the classroom norms/agreements are put into visual form, by the students, to be displayed in the classroom. Visual arts teachers will be important in this step because they can help students create unique artistic displays for our final lists of agreements. If the art teachers want students to learn about particular artists or techniques this school year, it’s a great chance to play with those styles in miniature. A norm lists should appear in every classroom and, again, should not be the work of teachers but of students. Keeping the norms visual can help us stay connected to them in the day-to-day this year, and become a visual reference point the teacher and students can use when an agreement is broken, as well as when someone’s adherence to them is worthy of celebration.
It is important to note that norms might shift during the course of your school year, as our circumstances change; I encourage educators to involve students in making decisions about such shifts, should the need arise. As we know all too well now, the often sudden movements from in-person to virtual to hybrid learning can change many aspects of effective teaching and learning. If there's one thing we know for certain about COVID-19, it's that we still know very little. Our flexibility is what will make kids remember these uncertain times more happily than not, and our ability to respond to them and their needs, the socio-emotional as much as the academic. Particularly if the goal is to accelerate and challenge, it behooves educators everywhere to create classroom and schoolhouse cultures of belonging, safety, and the certainty of family. Doing so isn’t dependent on the pandemic or the educational mode we are using; it is dependent on those intentional community builders we call educators.
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