In this section we learn about the many ways in which an individual helps his/her community. This is the largest section of the unit and incorporates the following themes:
Encouraging the community members to try new things
Encouraging the community members to be nonconforming and to think independently
Helping the community members to achieve their goal
Protecting the community members from harm
Encouraging the community members to value the 'gifts' its members have to offer
Each of the selected picture-books falls under one or more of these categories and is used to exemplify the role that the individual plays in enhancing his/her community. What we also discover as we read and reflect on these themes is how a community can help its members realize their unique gifts. It works both ways!
To provide a visual of our character studies in this section, I create a matrix that is displayed on a bulletin board in the classroom. I have filled in the first two columns.
As we discuss each book that is read aloud we fill in the chart with our ideas. This provides an effective framework by which we can compare and contrast story characters and plots.
One way to learn about a character's perspective is to do a role-play where one student plays the story character while the rest of the class are newspaper reporters who come up, microphone in hand (a marker serves this purpose well) and ask him/her questions about his/her life, feelings, story experiences. At the same time that it is fun for the children, it provides feedback to the teacher about the extent to which kids understood the story and can view the world from another's perspective.
Another activity that helps children to 'connect' with a story character is to have them write a letter to the story character where they are to include questions they have, shared experiences they can describe and advice they can give. As with all new writing experiences I first model the writing of a letter to a story character and identify the different types of content I have included. Students then try their hand at it. What is a letter if there is no one to reply back to it? To make this a more meaningful activity, I also have each student select one of the completed letters, pretend they are that character and write back to that classmate. Once again this type of exercise provides the teacher with lots of feedback on students' understanding of the story character and his/her experiences.
A third writing activity that I have had great success with in the past is one where the students create a suitcase for the main character and include items inside that he/she will need to face the challenges encountered. Lesson Plan 3 offers full details on this activity using Helen Lester's Score One for the Sloths as the chosen book.
I leave it to the reader to discover the story plots of most of the aforementioned books in the above matrix but I would like to mention a few because they exemplify the power that an individual can have in his/her community.
Helen Lester's Tacky is a most unlikely leader who actually fumbles his way to become savior of his group, protecting them from a mean-tempered monster who ends up running away. Tacky earns the devotion of his friends but not only this. The small community of penguins becomes much more tolerant of the lack of skills he shows in other areas. Robert Munsch's Stephanie, an outspoken, self-proclaimed nonconformist leads her school community to a greater understanding of the value of independent thinking as they attempt to outdo themselves in their imitation of fashion that she initiates. Leo Lionni's Frederick is an artistic-minded, highly imaginative mouse who appears never to do anything practical. He is tolerated but not much appreciated by the rest of the mouse community for a long time. Then the day arrives in the dead of winter when the food supply has been depleted and the cold temperatures are both numbing and unbearable. Frederick helps the other mice huddled together in their refuge keep their minds off their misery by imagining the glow of the sunrays and the glorious colors found in spring flowers. He further cheers them with his beautiful poetry which helps them endure until Spring finally arrives. What inspiration these characters give us as we reflect on ways that we might as individuals help our families and classmates.
Not everyone can imagine being a leader, a nonconformist or a change-agent within their community but we can envision ourselves helping others and this is the role that I emphasize in my community-building activities. The expression, 'power of one' in my unit relates to the idea that a single person, using his/her special traits and abilities, can make a strong impact on the larger community that he/she is a part of. That individual actually strengthens the community. In this age where so many of us feel powerless to effect change I think the powerful message that 'you can make a difference' is an important one to convey to my students. And we can start out small. On the website http://ripplekindness.org one suggestion given is to begin teaching about community building by remembering to smile at a classmate. I would add that a friendly pat on the back or the gesture of a 'thumbs up' sign can further cheer a classmate.
On the website www.tolerance.org there are two relevant activities that I use. One is called 'Happy Faces' and encourages students to become sensitive to other's feelings. They make a number of happy faces to have on hand to give to a classmate who they see needs some cheering up. A second activity is called 'Everyone's a Helper' and in it students are led to discover their strengths and 'struggles'. In the ensuing discussion they are asked to reflect upon times when they can help or have helped and times when they need help in the classroom.
There is always room for renewal and improvement in a community's growth and development. I plan to borrow an idea given on the website www.tolerance.org which involves critiquing our classroom community in order to make it better. I use a simple chart like this:
I ask my class to think about what is going well in our classroom (i.e, partners taking turns during 'buddy reading') and what needs to be improved or changed (i.e, lowering the noise level during center time so that everyone can hear each other and focus on their work). Such an activity increases my students' awareness of their role as a member in the community and of the need for teamwork in order to bring about change. In order for a community to be a source of solidarity to its members, all members must agree to actively participate in it. If something isn't working well, it is our responsibility as a group to come up with better ways to employ. Another school setting that often becomes highly charged with conflict is the recess field and so I use this same chart to initiate their working together to problem-solve for solutions.