“I’m glad you didn’t observe me today,” a teacher comments, “We lost the lesson plan for 20 minutes while we had a whole-class disscussion about what language students thought was appropriate in class conversations.”
That’s a conversation worth observing. More importantly, it’s a conversation well worth having. Such conversations, and other informal, unplanned interactions between and among students and teachers are the only authentic way to forging community within the classroom.
In the schools we need, community is co-created.
Most any thoughtful teacher – novice or expert – will tell you they want their classrooms to be communities and they want their students to see themselves as community members. They have their students sitting in groups. They assign projects where students turn in work with more than one name attached to it. They mistake adacency with community, thinking that being in proixmity of one another is the same thing as community formation.
In staff development, administrators ask teachers to group together vertically, horizontally, by discipline – all in the name of forming professional learning communities. Teachers are asked to talk about the work in their classrooms, discuss students, revise lesson plans. Such a thing, though, does not a community make.
Communities – at least the communities these teachers and administrators are attempting to foster – are not created by fiat. While any number of things could result intended communities looking more like committees, there are a few conditions that are likely to allow or even encourage community formation.
In his book Facilitating Group Learning, George Lakey outlines several tips for living up to the text’s title. Perhaps the most important and oft-forgotten is the creation of space for disagreement or argument in learning spaces. He speaks to the need to understand that people coming from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds are also coming from different approaches to disagreement. When there is safe space for argument, there is safe space for community to be built and for members of that community to come to understand where their voice fits within discussions and what others’ voices sound like at different levels of engagement.
To assist in navigating conflict in the search for common cause is the work begun by Gordon Allport on contact theory (sometimes called the contact hypothesis) which states that contact with groups identified as “other” will reduce bias.
While much work has been done to expand on and examine Allport’s theory in the intervening years, his for components of theory stated the following were necessary for successful communication:
- equal status between groups
- common goals
- intergroup cooperation
- and authoritative support
It’s easy to see some of these in place in the scenarios described above. It’s also easy to note where schools and classrooms can easily fall down in their efforts to facilitate communication toward community.
Sometimes the work gets too hairy too quickly for those in positions of authority to be able to sit back and recognize that tumult is inherent in the forming of healthy group dynamics. Better described in the work of Bruce Tuckman, groups develop in stages commonly labeled forming, storming, norming and performing.
Classroom and school-level leaders see the first stage of forming happening at a relatively peaceful pace. Once a group enters the storming phase, though, many leaders mistake the train for jumping the rails. In actuality, this is a sign of the uphill trek of individuals figureing out who they are as members of the group. Finding new identities is never easy. If the difficult isn’t seen as natural, many leaders will change course, thinking they’ve made a poor decision. Thus, groups miss the chance of developing their own norms and, more importantly, performing the tasks necessary to reach their common goals.
The classroom teacher who is willing to throw out a lesson plan for twenty minutes of students finding their way to community hasn’t left learning behind, but has made space for a kind of learning often winnowed out of curricula in the pursuit of facts. The skills earned through the creation of community and navigating the experience of working with others are key not only to higher quality academic work, but they are the skills of the advanced citizenship schools should be fostering.