The Power of a True Community

“There is a yearning in the heart for peace. Because of the wounds and rejections we have received in past relationships, we are frightened by the risks. In our fear, we discount the dream of authentic Community as merely visionary. But there are rules by which people can come back together, by which the old wounds can be healed. The purpose of Community Building is to teach these rules- to make hope real again- and to make the vision actually manifest in a work which has almost forgotten the glory of what it means to be human.” 

     -M. Scott Peck MD, author of The Road Less Traveled

This statement is the vision of a community building workshop that I had the opportunity to participate for three days last week with staff, parents, religious leaders, law enforcement, and other community members. It was an emotional experience wherein we shared our own stories and heard the stories of others so we could learn to empathize and grow together to build a stronger community. At the end of three days, I felt exhausted and completely exhilarated at the same time. We found connections with one another that we had no idea were there and learned to sit in silence with each other at times to make space for everyone to process and feel. We all entered the experience having no idea what to expect and getting little to no direction from the facilitators, which was really frustrating at first and made total sense by the end. After the three days, we were tied to one another with a tight bond that helped to heal some wounds and certainly made me feel hopeful about how we can make those same connections in classrooms and with families. 

After the first day of the workshop, I went to teach a class for pre-service teachers at one of our local universities on inclusionary practice for children with special needs. It was the first night of face-to-face class as the first half of the course was held online. As I drove there, I could not stop thinking about the vision of our workshop. Our classrooms and schools need to be places where we make hope real again and remember what it means to be human. We have to be less focused on finishing a textbook or getting through our curriculum and more focused on making sure our learners feel a sense of belonging and that they are a part of something important at school that translates into skills in life. 

As the college students entered class, I shook each person’s hand and introduced myself, which seemed to surprise them. Many of them spent a few minutes before class expressing frustrations about challenging students they encountered in their student teaching placements. As I listened to the challenges, that vision again came to mind. We started class by talking about empathy and why it is so essential when working with each other and all learners, but especially those who have disabilities or those who are disconnected from school and life. We spent a lot of time that first night talking about creating community in the classroom, how to help learners find access points to grade level material, and the importance of making sure content is driven by student interests.  

I invited a math and a special education teacher who co-teach at one of our high schools speak to the class. They talked about how much easier teaching is when you have a true collaborative partner and ways they have found to connect the material to some of the most challenging learners. They shared stories about the successes they have found in developing relationships with learners by knowing their interests and their future plans.  I asked them at the end to share their favorite part about teaching. They each talked about the sense of purpose they feel in giving back and connecting with the learners who need school the most as sadly they do not have the opportunity to make those connections or feel that sense of community anywhere else in their lives. 

By the time our class had ended and the last student left over an hour later, I had gotten the chance to hear about what many of those students are going through while attempting to complete college, successfully student teach, and have lives outside of both. Many of them have partners and children as well, which makes it all even more complicated. I made some adjustments to the syllabus that night as I learned what the students wanted and needed to know. I added opportunities to learn about Restorative Practices to help create a sense of belonging in every classroom so learners want to be there and want to work hard. 

We often focus on creating relationships between our learners and ourselves, but do not always work on the relationships they are creating with one another. A restorative classroom starts with community building circles through which we can learn about the learners and they can learn about one another by asking a series of progressive questions. They start with low-risk questions about superficial topics such as, “What is your favorite ice cream flavor?”. As learners begin to trust one another they ask high-risk questions like, “Describe a time you acted on your core values when others did not.” Circles can be used for relationship building or academic activities by asking questions related to content.

After students get to know one another through circles, it evolves into opportunities to support one another and eventually repair harm within a classroom when something goes awry. Restorative Practices are a way for learners to own their actions, take responsibility for them, understand the impact of them on others, and learn from mistakes to do better next time. Classrooms that are genuine communities are full of learners who are far more willing to try and fail as they know they have the backing and support of everyone else in the room. In our classrooms and schools that have embraced the restorative model, learners are able to host circles to help each other reflect on their reading at age seven. They are able to mediate whatever happened at recess without the teacher. They are able to keep everyone in classrooms and communities because they have the skills to work through conflict together within the class instead of heading to the office. We want learners to feel the same level of connection and trust with one another that I felt after three days in a room with people I did not know very well at the start so they can own every part of the learning environment.

I sent my college students a new syllabus later that night with a couple of the assignments removed and a new one to bring back to class the next week. I asked them to do empathy interviews with at least two students with these questions:

  • Tell me about a time you were successful in school.
  • Tell me about a time you struggled in school. What did you do?
  • What are three words you would use to describe this class?
  • What is one thing you wish teachers knew about you?

I cannot wait to see what insight this gives them about their learners and what we can do next week to continue working on how to create classrooms that are real communities where learners feel safe and inspired.  We get to try “to make hope real again- and to make the vision actually manifest in a work which has almost forgotten the glory of what it means to be human.” 

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