Thursday, April 25, 2013

Building Community

Adolescents, by design, are individuals who struggle with finding out who they are and where they belong. As middle school teachers, one of the most important ways we can use our classrooms is to give adolescents a place where, no matter what, they feel as though they are important and that they are accepted. At the same time, we need to present them with real world challenges to tackle. In other words, it's our job to create an environment that functions like a community where everyone contributes, and everyone matters. As I said in last week's post, since we are preparing our students for the real world, it makes sense that our classrooms mimic this real world as much as possible.

There are some specific ways I've tried to do this in my classroom through both instruction and behavior management. Here are a few techniques I've found to be successful:

1. Utopia Project: While reading The Giver by Lois Lowry, students are strategically placed into groups where they are asked to create their own utopia. This utopia must demonstrate elements of a civilization, and then they are asked to attempt to solve 6 world problems (hunger, poverty, discrimination, war, crime, and violence). Next, they are asked to create a digital advertisement persuading their classmates to move to their utopia. While developing their utopia, I try to step in as little as possible, and allow them to problem solve and reach a common goal on their own.

Why I think this works: Students are examining real world issues, and having conversations which help them to develop their viewpoints on important issues. For example, I observed an argument the other day over whether one group's utopia should have guns. It was fascinating to hear this conversation happening in a context that is so real to them. They are working through disagreements, and attempting to problem solve in a collaborative, interdisciplinary environment, much like their workplaces and worlds will be someday.

2. Montagues vs. Capulets: While we are reading Romeo and Juliet, my two 8th grade groups are temporarily renamed after the two feuding families. Throughout the unit, each "family" is able to earn points for positive behavior and academic choices, and faces losing points for negative ones. Additionally, they participate in several text related challenges where they compete as a team to earn points.

Why I think this works: The students encourage and help one another to succeed. They check on each other, saying things like, "Hey, Matt, don't forget to grab your book before English class!" As an added bonus, they are very motivated to learn the material, as points are taken away when I observe off task behavior. I'm careful not to single out any individual off task behavior, but instead simply remove a point from the score board, and all students quickly remind each other to stay on task. By being more aware of the fact that they are being monitored as a team based on their positive or negative choices, they are more likely to work together and support one another in moving forward.

3. Turning Negatives to Positives: When students complain, I try to spin their obstacle in any way I can into an opportunity. For example, when a student says something like, "I'm not friends with Johnny, and he's in my group." Rather than saying something like, "That's too bad, you have to work with him anyway," I try to respond by saying something like, "This is a great opportunity to learn about working with people you don't normally work with!" Or, "That's great news. I challenge you to find something you have in common with Johnny. I can't wait to hear what you discovered at the end of class."

Why I think this works: Helping adolescents feel more comfortable branching out of their comfort zones can only be a good thing, and can only help them to be more optimistic. It is a less threatening way of reminding students to control what they can control, which is their reaction to uncomfortable situations.

4. Reminding my students that I am human: I have found that my students respond much better to me when I remind them as much as possible that I am human. I am not some all superior being that they need to be scared into respecting. When I make a mistake as a teacher, I acknowledge it and apologize. When I trip over a chair and my students giggle, I giggle right along with them and tell them how clumsy I am. I acknowledge my flaws, like my frustrations with staying organized, and explain that sometimes it's tricky to overcome them.

Why I think this works: It helps adolescents realize that it's ok not to be perfect, and that we all have strengths and weaknesses as human beings. It creates a more relaxing and forgiving classroom environment where students are free to be who they are, and not always who the teacher wants them to be.

Though I haven't perfected the above strategies, I've found that each year, my classroom functions more like a team, and less like a room full of individual students. That's the kind of environment in which I feel best about myself teaching and my students learning. If they can transfer at least a little bit of that mentality into their lives moving forward, then I think I have succeeded.

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