Start the School Year with Community

  • High School
Mary Moser

In order for students to be successful with our content, standards, and standardized testing…all of which help with post high school pathways…our students need to have a welcoming community within their classroom.  It’s pretty easy to take a look at your classroom and say that you are welcoming.  On the surface, I would presume that our educators are welcoming and would prefer to never be unwelcoming. 

If we dig a bit deeper, many of us, including myself, hold practices that don’t go deep enough to welcome our students and help them navigate the world around them, so that they can be ready to tackle the academics.  I lack the consistency, the structure and naming the practice to say with 100% affirmation that I am welcoming to all those who walk into my learning space.

I am grateful that prior to the new school year, I have had the chance to work as a building representative to attend Deep Equity training at my district as well as spend two days on Restorative Practices from the IIRP (International Institute for Restorative Practices) with my entire building.  Merging these two, new learnings, I am struck by the sense that building relationships comes above the rest.  By the rest, I mean the content, the standards, the tests, the projects. Not that the rest isn’t important.  But, it’s secondary to building a community in your classroom.

While I can’t send you to these trainings, or release the training to you, I would like to share 3 tips for building community in your classroom and building in order to be ready to tackle “the rest.”  IIRP does have webinars, conferences and summits available to individuals whose buidling/district don’t contract with them, which there are a couple coming up in Seattle.

Tip One: Break Down the Meaning of Words

When sharing an experience, it is good to know that everyone is on the same page.  Or, if they aren’t on the same page, to know where the other starts.  Sometimes, we misstep from the get-go because we didn’t check that everyone had the same definition of a word like: equity, respect, community.  You could use Concept Attainment (hat tip: AVID) to come to a common understanding of a word, which has the teacher sharing pictures of examples and non-examples of an idea and students wrestling with what concept is being shown in the images.   Or, you could do a Restorative Circle with the class with questions that peel back the layers of a word to build consensus with the class on what your topic means to each other and the community.

To use these with the idea of community, I would have students uncover the meaning of the words in your classroom norms or the words that define a working, positive, healthy community.

Tip Two: Help Students Identify their Emotions

In the IIRP work, we were introduced to affective psychology and how emotions are a response to a feeling, which is how you react to what affect psychology calls your nine innate responses. Regulating your emotions is especially hard if we don’t know how to identify and name our emotions when they are happening.

As I reflected on working with students around emotions, I realized that I had been doing this work with my daughter, who is almost 4 years old.  What began as a pointer from her pediatrician that arguments over food and bedtime are simply a reaction to losing control. 

The job of a caregiver is to help the toddler to identify when that emotion is occurring, to name that emotion, and then to talk about what one can or cannot do in response to the emotion.  This discussion happens over and over again.  When you intentionally teach this, you will end up one day having an almost four-year-old come to you at the end of the day and say “I’m sorry for yelling at you.”  This will throw you for a loop as you sitting peacefully on the couch with no yelling happening.  Then, she will explain to her dad that she is talking about that morning (9 hours earlier) and how she yelled about the new shoes he has chosen for her to wear and she was frustrated then.

In contrast to my work space, I wonder if I give the same space for identification and growth for our students’ emotional intelligence or even my fellow staff members.  Given how society beats us down, particularly young men, to stifle our emotional intelligence, our students need us to help them.  They need us to model how we can identify our emotions, share our emotions and help us build our community through that emotional work.  One of the first steps for building this into your classroom routine is to learn about and begin to use affective statements like “I feel frustrated when…” or “I feel proud when…”  

Tip Three: Make the Classroom “Ours” rather than “Yours”

When I had a classroom, the classroom struck a balance between my personality and my curriculum.  As I moved into GLAD in the classroom, more of my walls were devoted to the curriculum.  But, I can honestly say that I didn’t think about whether my walls reflected my students or their culture, beyond their work being on the wall. In the secondary classroom, it’s true that the person who spends the majority of time in the classroom is the teacher.  But, if we believe that community builds our students up and makes them ready to learn, then we must recognize that the learning space is as much theirs, as it is ours.

Even though you may already have the room decorated, take a moment to reflect on who is represented on the walls.  Are there any voices that you want to raise up through visibility?  Is there a space that you want to remain open to your classes’ input?

One way that I want to push myself in my library space is to extend the “mirrors, sliding glass doors and windows” ideas that I have written about earlier with book selection (insert link to previous post)  In book selection, it is important that we choose titles that allow the reader to see themselves like a mirror, see another world and step into that world like a sliding glass doors, and see a different world like a window.  How can I make sure that the space within my library also provides my students with mirrors, sliding glass doors and windows?  For example, when I make a book display, which covers am I choosing? When I choose to highlight LGBTQI+ books in my June display, do I also choose to place those books in a display about the greatest science fiction for young readers? The posters and pictures on the wall represent whom?  The first thing that I’m going to tackle are my Dewey posters that highlight which section of the non-fiction certain subjects are found.  They are standard, purchased posters, which results in my 800 poster for literature to showcase the dead white guy canon, as I call them, like Shakespeare, Twain and Whitman, with one picture of Langston Hughes who is weirdly covered by a blue filter, all but removing his skin color, and a picture of Emily Dickinson.  Of course, Shakespeare and Twain are the most prominent pictures.  That needs to change!

As you begin your year of teaching or working in the education field, ask yourself: how will I intentionally welcome and continue to welcome students in my room?

  • community building
  • diversity
  • Equity
  • restorative practice
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The opinions expressed by the CORElaborate Bloggers, guest bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of the Puget Sound Educational Service District (PSESD), Ready Washington or any employee thereof. PSESD is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the Washington State Teacher Leader or Guest Bloggers.

Mary Moser Board

Library Media Specialist at Clover Park School District

I work as a high school Library Media Specialist in the Clover Park School District in Lakewood, Washington. This is my fifth year as a LMS, and my tenth year as a teacher.Before switching to the library, I taught 9th grade Humanities, which is the area that I certified in National Boards in 2013.