A Daunting Task

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For teachers it is a daunting task to start a school year. The questions that must be answered are abundant. From the practical, 'What will go on this bulletin board,' to the pedagogical, 'How will I inspire these young learners.'

But the big question is…how to make this disparate group of individuals into a class community? How can I create a safe haven for these students to ask questions and take educational risks? To accomplish this task, it is necessary to set the expectations for communication. Steve R. Covey has said, "Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply." Encourage your students not to raise their hands to speak till the speaker is finished. Active listening requires students to pay attention to the speaker, not focus on what their response or answer will be. Their response may change as they hear what is being said.

Students need to understand point of view and how this affects others' actions and statements. Even the youngest learners can be exposed to this idea. When I taught Kindergarten, we always read the story The Mitten as part of our unit on winter. A point of view activity involved having the students draw one animal from the story with a word balloon above its head. The kindergartners then had to draw or write how the animal felt being squished into the lost mitten. Recognizing that others have different opinions based on different experiences will guide students in their responses to other classmates during discussions. Understanding what is a fact versus someone's opinion, is a helpful skill for students to acquire. This allows them to acknowledge that they hear the opinion and can respond respectfully with their own thought.

How does a teacher's words set a model for community conversations? One way is the morning meeting. An Edutopia article from August 2015, Morning Meetings: Creating a Safe Space for Learning, discussed the Responsive Classroom Morning Meeting.

According to Responsive Classroom, the goal of these four components, and the meeting as a whole, is to "set the tone for respectful learning, establish a climate of trust, motivate students to feel significant, create empathy and encourage collaboration, and support social, emotional, and academic learning."

Teachers can use the morning meeting as a way to demonstrate how to mindfully state an alternative opinion, ask a question about a student's answer, or show understanding for someone's concerns. In fact, a teacher can use his/her words to encourage a growth mindset as well. Encouraging students to look at their accomplishments and how those were achieved. Then guiding students to continue to push past obstacles and view first attempts as learning opportunities. Continual feedback on how the students are communicating with one another is vital to maintaining an effective and comfortable class community.

What about the classroom environment too? What will be the decorations used to reinforce a respectful classroom community? Will the classroom start out as a blank slate for the students to imprint their own uniqueness and class identity? Will you start with a few motivational posters and then change them as the year progresses? There is no one way to decorate for encouraging a class community. Think about yourself as a student and what would have made a classroom a safe place to be yourself and grow? This answer will likely be the best guide for you. You will then be comfortable welcoming students into seeing the classroom as theirs as well as yours.

Incorporating opportunities at the start of the school year to create a class community will have long ranging benefits to the learning that can occur all year. Committing time to develop and maintain a classroom community will show dividends in the academic, as well as social/emotional growth of your students.
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