4 Back to School Habits that Cultivate Community

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The beginning of a new school year is rich with opportunities to cultivate community and build a solid foundation for interdependent learning. Rather than focusing on rules and consequences, why not devote time at the beginning of the year to building these four habits instead?

Doing so will help your students turn to one another for support rather than relying on you alone. Why not start the year by inspiring connection and the development of shared expertise rather than fostering fear and demanding compliance?

4 Back to School Habits that Cultivate Community

1. Let learners know that they will reflect on their strengths, passions, and growth during each and every lesson in order to share them with others. When learners understand what makes them unique, they are better able to contribute to their learning communities. When students rely on the collective intelligence and expertise of every classmate, their dependence on their teachers decreases. This is a good thing.

Great teachers coach learners to give as much as they receive from their learning communities. Students learn that their contributions truly matter and that they are expected to share. Purposeful reflection is great preparation for this work. I love asking learners to pursue questions like these:

  • What made you proud of yourself today?
  • How did your process work differently than others? How could it inspire others?
  • What are you good at as a learner? How could others benefit from your strengths?
  • How can you use your words, your skills, or the way you approach learning to be of service to others?
  • What are you passionate about learning? Who have your teachers been? Who might benefit from learning from them?

2. Rather than celebrating the completion of assignments, tell learners they will be sharing their expertise during every session. As you confer with your students and peek over their shoulders, take careful to note their individual strengths, the unique ways in which they approach the learning process, and the most important things they’ve learned. Then, tap them to share what they know and do with others when it matters most.

Sometimes, this may be at the beginning or end of a class when they can have the attention of the entire group. Sometimes, it makes sense to pair a student in need with one who has great ideas to share at just the right time for learning to take place. Take care to do this during every session if building interdependence and community are your goals, though.

3. Use your conferences to inspire connections between learners. As students become more intentional about sharing their passions and expertise, the community will become more aware of what others are good at and how they might be of service to each of them. For example, in my own conferences with writers, I’ll often ask them to consider who within our community might know a lot about the topic they are pursuing or the skills they are working to develop. Rather than relying on me for direction, I’ll invite them to approach these people as well.

4. Encourage learners to connect and learn from others beyond the classroom community. This often requires building a digital presence and using social networks for learning purposes. When learners expand their circles in these ways, they gain different perspectives, skills, and knowledge. They also bring friends back to the fold. This benefits everyone in the community.

One final thought: habits like these may build interdependence, and incredible things can happen when we coach learners to share their expertise in service to one another. This often requires a shift in thinking and values, though. Many students have been taught to remain humble, often to the point of hiding their strengths and their accomplishments. They may assume that those who do share are merely seeking attention or being proud as well. These judgments destroy communities.

It’s up to us to change this.

Rather than perceiving those who share as braggarts, learners must realize that when they hide their light, they deny others the benefit of their expertise, their help, and their support.

This isn’t humility.

It’s stinginess.

If learning communities are to thrive, each person in them must be willing to shine as brightly as they are able. They must invite others to stand in their light, and they must allow them to be warmed by it without feeling threatened. They must also stop assuming that those who shine brightly are doing so for selfish reasons.

This is a very different mindset for many. So, how can you model these habits and behaviors for your students? And how will you overcome your own discomfort in order to shine?

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A former English teacher, Angela Stockman is the founder of the WNY Young Writer's Studio, a community of writers and teachers of writing in Buffalo, New York. She is also an education consultant with expertise in curriculum design, instructional coaching, and assessment. Read more from Angela at Angelastockman.com.

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