Defining the Classroom Community that I Work In
A primary (K-2) classroom community is made up of a heterogeneous group of children of the same age-range gathered together in one locality—the classroom. Few changes, if any, occur in its membership during the 180 school days that they spend together. One to two adults work with and guide them during the daily 6-hour period they spend at school. Their common interest, whether they initially realize it or not, is to learn together. Such an aspiration, however, does not come automatically to a classroom of children. It has to be initiated, modeled, explained, "sold" and nurtured by the teacher throughout the school year.
I have discovered an excellent teacher-resource book entitled Interactive Modeling by Margaret Berry Wilson. It offers a seven-step technique that the teacher can use to teach behaviors and routines as well as social and academic skills to children. The premise is that when students can see what is expected of them in repeated ways by the teacher and see individual classmates modeling it and being given immediate feedback on their approximations, they will have more success in actually incorporating it into their actions. Benefits include less time wasted on giving constant reminders of expectations and more time available in which students are on task. This technique includes the following steps:
1. Say what you will model and why.
2 .Model the actual behavior.
3. Ask students what they noticed.
4. Invite a few students to model the behavior.
5. Ask students again what they have noticed.
6. Have the whole class practice it.
7. Provide your feedback being very specific like, "Everyone crossed their legs on the rug and looked at the teacher. Great job! Let's begin reading our poem."
To provide further clarity regarding what a public school classroom community is, it is helpful to determine what it is not by comparing it to a few other common types of communities. Compared to a family, the members of a classroom do not share in the exclusivity of being born into the group, of maintaining caring bonds to it over a lifetime, or of being obliged to follow particular traditions treasured by its members. Compared to a neighborhood, classroom members seldom have the option of either moving away or of 'keeping to oneself' as its members so often do in many neighborhood communities where there is no real need for interdependence. Religious schools (Jewish, Catholic, Evangelical, etc.) have the distinction of imposing certain shared values on the school community. All of its members voluntarily accept these values whether they believe in them or not. This can be either an advantage or a disadvantage. In contrast, the teacher in a public school has to supply social/ethical cohesiveness without resorting to dogmatic 'truths'. In effect, at least in theory, this can lead to a greater tolerance of differences, creativity and dissent.
Gaining Purpose From Vygotsky
All of our learning takes place in a social context. We learn through communicating with others. The continuous interactions that we engage in with others serve to shape our understanding of the world. Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934), an eminent Russian psychologist, maintained that children's development and learning occur as a result of the social interactions they have with their peers and other adults. It is through these interactions that children develop language which supports thinking. Vygotsky's theory promotes learning contexts where the students play a more active role in their learning, constructing knowledge, developing skills and attitudes through their interactions not only with people but also with significant objects (i.e., toys or books) and cultural practices.
Teaching young students to become active and responsible members within their community is no small task. The teacher's role in creating a learning environment that fosters and manages communication among all members in the classroom is vital to its development into a cohesive group. She is not only a facilitator, but also a model and a guide as she works to create a positive interdependence among its members. Cooperative Learning (CL) is an educational approach where the teacher organizes classroom activities into academic and social learning experiences. She must help students learn to collaborate with one another, to share the workload of a given task, listen to each other and help each other. What is the value of learning together? Very simply put, cooperative learning helps students feel more connected to school and to each other.
The Responsive Classroom practices can help the teacher in this endeavor. Very briefly as outlined in the book, Classroom Spaces That Work by Marilyn K. Clayton and Mary Beth Forton there are 7 beliefs included in this approach:
1. The social curriculum is as important as the academic curriculum.
2. How children learn is as important as what children learn.
3. The greatest cognitive growth occurs through social interaction.
4. There is a set of social skills that children need in order to be successful academically and socially.
5. Knowing the children we teach is as important as knowing the content we teach.
6. Knowing the families of the children we teach is as important as knowing the children.
7. Teachers and administrators must model the social and academic skills which they wish to teach their students.
Building Community in My Classroom
Let us now move to some specifics that I use to build community in my classroom revolving around the Morning Meeting using The Responsive Classroom approach.
Each morning we begin our day with Morning Meeting which involves students and adults gathering circle-style on the carpet for a 20- to 30-minute time span. During this time we greet each other, share news and ideas, participate in an activity together and read a Morning Message that the teacher has written. These class gatherings build a sense of community among its members and also help reinforce academics and social skills in fun ways.
Specific ideas for each of these four components (greeting, sharing, group activity and morning message) can be found in the many books published by the Northeast Foundation for Children, Inc., cited in my bibliography. For purposes of example I have used the book, 88 Morning Meeting Ideas by Susan Lattanzi Roser as my resource.
Greeting: We'll Cheer Hooray
The following greeting (to be sung to the tune, Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star) is displayed on chart paper for all to see.
___________________________came to school today. We're so glad, we'll cheer
Select one child in the circle to start with and have the whole class sing this chant to him/her raising their hands high when they sing "Hooray!" Continue in this fashion all around the circle. (p. 22)
Sharing: You Like That Animal? Me, Too!
Tell the class they are to share about an animal they like using up to two sentences of description. (i.e., I like cats. They purr when you pet them.) Allow students 'think time' and ask them to let you know when they are ready by putting their thumbs up. The teacher begins as the first sharer. If others share that same preference, they put up the Me,Too signal (with middle 3 fingers folded down and thumb and pinky extended, move your hand back and forth toward the speaker and yourself). Go around the circle in this fashion. (pp. 74-75)
Group Activity: Jolly Jump Up
Prepare a deck of flashcards using a variety of subject matter (i.e, sight words, math facts, letter cards, etc.). Include numerous cards that say 'Jolly Jump Up' and 'Slowly Sit Down'. Shuffle the deck and begin the game. Hold up each card and ask the class to call out what's on it. When you show a 'Jolly Jump Up' card, students immediately stand up and jump until you show them the 'Slowly Sit Down' card. Other movement cards can be added as desired. (pp. 114-115)
The teacher presents a prewritten brief note on chart paper that reinforces skills and pique's the children's interest in what they will be learning that day. Read the message together and then have a discussion about it. Here is an example:
Today is Tuesday, June 23, 2014. It is sunny and hot outside. Each group's bean plant is growing taller day by day. Can you estimate how many inches your plant is now? Write the number below.
In the ensuing discussion we can talk about June's weather, strategies we use to estimate, what plants need to grow and how to prove whether or not our estimate is close.
In summary, I envision that my daily use of Morning Meetings will be a comfortable yet engaging way for my young learners to make the often difficult transition from home to school each day. They will quickly see that we as a group value and encourage their contributions and that learning is fun.
Taking a Closer Look at Our Classroom Community
I begin this unit by reading the book, Investigate Communities, by Neil Morris. This informational text depicts various types of communities that children are familiar with: family, friends, neighbors and school. It also shows how people gather together into communities based on the religion they belong to. After reading the book's first sentence, "A community is a group of people with something in common" (p. 4), I will pause and ask the class what we all share in common. 'Why are we here together?" After writing their ideas on chart paper, I will emphasize the notion that we are all here to learn together but add: "So how can we do this?" I envision the resulting discussion involving the need for some types of cooperative behavior in order for everyone to have the opportunity to learn.
Let's now take a more in-depth look at two types of communities that children are integrally a part of and in which its members share similar goals and responsibilities: family and school. It seems especially relevant to young children to begin a study of community with one's family. It is within this group that a child first learns how to interact with others. He/she develops his identity based on the relationships he/she has with other family members. I am the big brother in the family. I am an only child. My big sister always helps me with my homework. Daddy reads us a bedtime story every night. My job is to take out the trash. Mommy drops us off at school.
We can begin our exploration of the family community by acknowledging that families come in all sizes and honoring those differences. A hands-on activity that helps students conceptualize this idea involves using buttons. Each student is given a pile of assorted buttons and told to find buttons that match in some way, putting them together in one set. After gluing this set of buttons on a piece of construction paper, each student must describe how their grouping is the same in some way (such as color, material, or number of holes). I will point out to the students that the grouping still includes buttons with different shapes and sizes just as our families do. Some are tall while others are short. Some are heavy while others are thin. To make this more clear I give each student a rectangular piece of cardstock on which they draw all the family members who live in their home together. From this activity, which is shared with the larger group, we learn that there are many types of families that exist and that its members are there to help each other. We then move on to exploring the roles and responsibilities of each family member in a household.
Because my aim is to use their positive family experiences to build our classroom community, my instructional charts about family have two sections to allow for comparison between the two communities—family and classroom. Some charts are set up like this:
I have chosen the award-winning picture book, A Chair for My Mother, written by Vera B. Williams to read aloud to my students at this juncture because it effectively depicts a loving family, Rosa, her mother and her grandmother, who lost their home in a fire. Both the family and the neighbors work toward a common goal of furnishing a new apartment for them to live in. In this story Rosa helps her mother and her grandmother save up enough money to eventually buy a big comfy chair for their living room. This chair is especially for her mom who works hard as a waitress every day but, in fact, they all enjoy it. This heart-warming story shows a family at its best, providing security and hope for its members and inspiring them to cooperate together to reach their goal.
For an extension activity I ask the students to consider ways that each of them could help this family and to write about it using the sentence starter: I would help Rosa and her family by __________________________. The purpose of this activity is to have the children put themselves in the shoes of people who are suffering and consider the talents or gifts they can contribute in such a situation.