In American society today there is arguably too much emphasis placed on the rights of the individual. This pull of individualism has undoubtedly exacted a toll on the larger community—its cohesiveness, ability to work toward common goals and develop a shared vision. It is a complex issue, of course, and terminology is important. There is a difference, for example, between individuality and individualism. John Horvat II, a scholar and educator who has done considerable research on the subject of the socio-economic crisis in the United States, was interviewed on May 29, 2013 by a reporter from the Idaho Senior Independent and the ensuing discussion was entitled "Individuality vs. Individualism: Why the Differences Are Not Subtle." During this interview Horvat II maintains that individuality has a more positive connotation because it involves developing one's personality and abilities so that one can become a responsible contributing member of the community. He contrasts this concept with individualism in which a person only looks out for his/her own self-interest and is not interested in the common good nor does he/she feel any responsibility to the larger group.
From this perspective, we could say that the purpose of a community is to enable the individual and the purpose of the individual is to improve his/her community. As a first-grade teacher I try to help my young students realize their individual potential at the same time that I encourage them to develop a spirit of team-cooperation. In order for a classroom community to thrive, its members must agree to work together in both small groups and large so that an environment is created where everyone can learn.
For a community to develop and grow into a well-functioning unit, its members need to share a vision of it that they agree to work toward. I have a vision for my classroom of learners. Our classroom community would be a safe, happy place for children to learn and play together, a place where all individuals are encouraged to learn at their own pace. Together we would revel in our successes and encourage each other not to give up in his/her struggles. Each member would be recognized for his/her uniqueness and could contribute their talents to make the group stronger.
The primary goal of my unit is to help my students examine the valuable contributions of the individual to a community and to understand how the community can be strengthened and enriched by the actions of its individual members. I will accomplish this goal by using select children's literature which is accompanied by a variety of reading, writing and art extension activities. I have found a number of picture-books that celebrate the value of individuality and of being "true to oneself" while also demonstrating the vital role that the individual plays in improving his/her community. My selection of books has been very deliberate as I seek to honor not only the gregarious individual with his/her highly persuasive ways of uniting a group but also the quiet introvert whose participation in and influence on a community more subtly serves to make it a better, richer one.
When we take a closer look at the story plots we will see that the main characters are so often ridiculed for their inability to conform and are initially excluded from the larger group or are forced to actually leave. Children can easily identify with these situations, recalling times when classmates have made fun of them or have excluded them from the larger group. What is so inspiring in these stories is the way that the main characters rise to the occasion, show empathy for their community members and employ their unique gifts to help them overcome danger or fragmentation or dissolution. They are the ones who have the power, the vision and the ability to think independently that pull the group together to become a stronger, well-functioning unit.
In examining the character traits of the main characters, as seen through their thoughts, words and actions, we will be able to see some similarities (empathy, self-reliance, a healthy stubbornness, strong sense of self, sense of humor) that govern their ability to confront challenges. Their contributions help the larger community realize their common interest and become more cohesive and tolerant of differences. A very positive result of their interactions with others is their ability to encourage other members to take risks and embark on self-realization ventures of their own.
I am a first-grade teacher at Davis Street Arts & Academics Interdistrict Magnet School. The self-contained class of 25 students in which I teach this unit are a heterogeneous group with varying abilities within the 6-to-7-year-old age range. Although I have designed this unit with them in mind, I am confident that it could easily be adapted for use by teachers in other primary and intermediate grades as well.
This curriculum unit is interdisciplinary in scope, incorporating reading, writing and art. My students work in both small- and large-group settings on the activities included in it. The unit lessons are taught four times a week for a period of 40 minutes over a 2-month period.
My curriculum unit is divided into three main sections:
Section 1: What is Community?
Section 2: Individuals Make Up a Community
Section 3: The Power of One
Through this unit I hope to create a stronger community of learners in my own classroom, a community that appreciates the individual gifts of its members, reflects on its actions and learns from its mistakes and works together to problem-solve challenges. Although the use of children's literature is my primary vehicle, I have also included some of the community-building activities created by proponents of The Responsive Classroom, a research- and evidence-based approach to elementary education that leads to greater teacher effectiveness, higher student achievement, and improved school climate. By using these practices a teacher can create a caring, positive community and expand students' learning potential.