Sunday, September 18, 2011

Building a Sense of Community in a New School Year

I shared the following comments to teachers and staff on the opening day of school, September 6, 2011:

The opening of school marks another transition in our lives and the lives of our students. And transitions often bring about anticipation, hope, and perhaps a little anxiety. In fact, about a week or so ago I made a trip down to DC to drop off one of my daughters to school. Claire, who had just returned from Maine where she spent the summer as a bicycle and sea kayak guide in Acadia National Park, sighed as we navigated the car down Mass. Ave. through U-Hauls, boxes, and move-in day traffic at American University. “You know, dad,” she observed wistfully, “It’s a lot simpler on a kayak in Frenchman’s Bay…” Yep! Transitions sure can be tough!

The following day after saying goodbye to Claire I took an early morning run around the Mall and Capitol Hill before getting back into the car for the long trek home. The streets were quiet, clear, and clean and the Washington Monument looked bright in the early dawn. In the distance, I could see the Lincoln Memorial turn from rust to gold as the sun’s rays grew stronger. But the order and calm of the streets and the simple beauty of this particular morning belied the dissonance and acrimony that marred our nation’s capital earlier this summer as Congress and the President wrangled over the debt.

I lack the intellect and perspective to explain what is or is not going on in Washington or in our economy for that matter. But I do know that in order to solve big, sometimes intractable problems we must sit down together, speak and listen honestly and sincerely, compromise when necessary, be creative, and demonstrate great humility. I think those elements are essential if we wish to genuinely work together to improve our lives and the lives of others. And while we may not be able to directly impact the dysfunction in Washington, we most certainly can create conditions in our schools and classrooms that encourage and sustain a strong sense of community.

As educators we have an opportunity, we have an obligation, to create and support the conditions that will allow our young people to learn and become active, engaged, innovative, and civil students and citizens. We must provide the structures necessary to engage divergent thinking and respectful discourse. We are responsible for nurturing a sense of community where students can be included and participate in meaningful and productive ways.

So, my challenge to you is this:

How will you build a sense of community this year for your students, their families, and one another?

What is it you will do to ensure your school supports a strong and lively sense of community and learning? Building a sense of community and belonging is work for us all—not just teachers and principals. Students move in and out of smaller communities all day interacting with adults and others as they ride the bus to school, play together, visit the nurse, or eat lunch. What are the steps you will take to ensure that the framework exists to empower student inclusion, dialogue, equity, tolerance, and deep learning?

Educator Eric Schaps proposes that halfway into the school year teachers survey students to answer True or False to the following four statements:

• My class is like a family.

• Students in my class help one another learn.

• I believe I can talk to adults in this school about things that are bothering me.

• Students in my class can get a rule changed if they think it is unfair.

Perhaps responses to these simple statements might gauge student empowerment and connectedness to the school community. Many of you already ask questions like these, and I encourage all of you to do so. We should all agree to support the conditions that enable all students to feel safe, secure, and ready to learn.

How will you build community this year?

Young people look to adults for leadership and guidance. Therefore, it is critical for students to observe the school staff learning together and interacting as a genuine community. We must model the very traits we espouse and believe are critical to our students’ success. (You know, after watching the DC debt debacle, it is pretty clear that there are more than a few members of Congress who would benefit from a healthy dose of Morning Meeting or Middle School Advisory…)

How will you demonstrate the kind of respect, civic dialogue, collaboration, and intellectual engagement within your school, department, or cluster? How do you organize meetings, greet parents at the door, learn from one another, take care of one another, and celebrate the personal and professional achievements of colleagues and friends?

One of my favorite Boston College Professors, Gerry Starratt, wrote:

If teachers are to influence students to live as authentic persons who act out of a sense of autonomy, connectedness, and transcendence, as persons concerned about justice in their personal and social lives, genuinely caring for other people, and courageous enough to critique ingrained practices within society… then teachers will have to present themselves to students as people who strive to live their own lives this way.

Our students know; they watch and understand and follow our lead.

What example will you set, and how will you build a community of learners this year?

That is my challenge for us all as we embark on a new semester of growing and learning. Our task is critical, especially as we attempt to create and build a sense of community for our students within the current national context that is both sobering and discontent. And while the work is daunting, we must remember not to take ourselves too seriously and to find joy and laughter along the way. More than ever our students need the tools, skills, and encouragement to learn to live and work together in a way that challenges them personally and inspires them to care for others.

Seize the opportunity of a new school year to lead your students on a journey of discovery, learning, and community. In the process, you will guide them toward personal growth, academic excellence, and to their place as responsible and caring citizens.

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