Wednesday / July 24

5 Tips for Building Community in Tense Times

5 Tips for Building Community in Tense Times

Community and safety are crucial to student learning, especially after a tough event such as a divisive election. The emotional state of relaxed alertness fosters learning, while feeling scared, isolated, or self-conscious hijacks the brain’s focus and energy. You probably started the year shaping an atmosphere conducive to relaxed alertness. You used name games to build familiarity, co-created classroom norms with students, established routines that offered predictability, co-designed rituals that foster appreciation and connection, and chatted with individual students regularly, especially those who might feel marginalized. Besides establishing the best atmosphere for academics, such practices demonstrate and offer practice in social-emotional learning.

If you missed some of those steps, it’s not too late. If you used all of those strategies, tough times call for revisiting those efforts. The start of a new year, the start of a new term, the start of a new month, the start of a new unit are all opportunities for fresh starts.

“It’s new term (or month, year, unit). Think about times when we were at our best last term, when you were participating and learning the most you could. What did we do that worked well? Let’s figure that out, then craft some agreements and routines so we’re at our best as often as possible next term.”

Use a think-pair-share format to foster reflection and safety, coaching students during the share-out so that negative statements are turned into suggestions and commitments. “Okay, you want fewer arguments. What discussion formats and guidelines would help us talk and listen respectfully?” This approach builds on the group’s assets and confidence. Focusing on negative feelings and experiences as in, “Last term was really challenging; what behaviors do we have to avoid this term,” reinforces feeling self-conscious, hurt, and defeated, hardly a positive fresh start.

Setting agreements is one practice, explained in more detail in Teaching the Whole Teen: Everyday Practices That Promote Success and Resilience in School and Life. It’s through your everyday practices that you shape the emotional atmosphere and the routines for learning. Through everyday practice, students build brain pathways for connecting and communicating civilly.

Below are 5 tips for building community and civility:

  1. Chat with students individually. Whether they are concerned about the election and its aftermath, their fall grades, or making an athletic team or band, connecting with you is crucial. One or two-minute chats can help students feel comfortable enough to participate in discussions, ask questions in class, or listen to your feedback. For more on the power of teachers showing they care, see Russell Quaglia’s Student Voice.
  1. Stand up for norms about respect. Your behavior guides all behavior in the classroom. Teens will test you and test imposed limits—that’s normal teenage behavior. They need adults to model and instruct that there are indeed limits.
  1. Shape (or reshape) your culture of conversation. Effective conversation does not involve the same two students talking all the time, it does not involve polarizing every topic, and it does not involve the teacher asking all the questions, each answered by one student. Effective conversation involves everyone—willingly and skillfully.
  • Create or revisit agreements on discussions, for example, “Students will ask questions that call for a response, not a defense.” Craft some exemplar questions for practice. Post them for guidance. Any proposed guideline takes similar demonstration, coaching, and practice to become a group norm.
  • Give opportunities and coaching to rephrase a question to take the charge out. Learning to ask open, non-judgmental questions will help students in school and in the rest of their lives—with family members, peers, coaches, and bosses.
  • Use lots of pair-shares with explicit tasks: discuss a question, then find one idea to offer to the whole group afterwards. Trust and comfort build in small groups faster than in big groups.
  • Instruct students to listen for two points of agreement as well as a point of disagreement. When students report or journal about those points, they can appreciate more complexity and less polarization.
  1. Have fun together; eat together. Take advantage of holidays, birthdays, school events, and dates connected to your curriculum to lighten the mood, share cultures, and build common ground.
  1. Use all of the practices above with the faculty and staff. To be their best selves in school—caring, creative, responsive, optimistic, energetic—adults also need to feel comfortable, have predictable and safe routines, and build common ground. A strong community supports adults’ and students’ resilience, and the community’s as a whole.

Written by

Rachel Poliner is an educational consultant specializing in whole student approaches and change management. Her work has focused on school climate, instructional, and structural reforms: K-12 social and emotional learning, middle and high school advisory programs, high school redesign, and improving faculty climate. Her in-depth approach spans classroom and school-wide structures, practices and programs, curriculum, staff development, district policies and systems, and coaching administrators, teams and teacher leaders. She is an author of Teaching the Whole Teen: Everyday Practices That Promote Success and Resilience in School and Life (Corwin, 2016) and The Advisory Guide: Designing and Implementing Effective Advisory Programs in Secondary Schools (2004), and curricula, chapters, and articles on personalization, social-emotional learning, resiliency, dialogue, and conflict resolution. Poliner has consulted with public and independent schools in New England and across the U.S.; has been a teacher, educational organization director, and a faculty member for master’s degree candidates in conflict resolution education and peaceable schools. 

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