Buliding a Community of Learners in an Inner City Classroom

May 7, 2007 at 9:09 am | Posted in behavior, education, elementary, inner city, strategies, teachers | 2 Comments

Inner city students require a safe learning environment that utilizes their strengths and supports them in their difficulties. A classroom community of learners is this safe environment.

What is a community of learners?

A community of learners is a group of people who support each other in their collective and invividual learning. They are cooperative and can work productively together. Individually, they are motivated and strive to do quality work. Since they kknow they are going to be encouraged to take risks and be supported if they do not succeed the first time they try something new, they challenge themselves, and they view mistakes as learning experiences which will make their later attempts successful. A community of learners can include all levels of learners, because everyone is learning, not competing. And, best of all, a true classroom community of learners allows the teacher to learn as well as the students.

-Barbara Benson, How to Motivate Students, Meet Standards, and Still Enjoy Teaching, p. 23

Why is a community of learners important?

Teachers alone cannot possibly meet all the needs of all learners. Teachers need the supportive community of students helping each other succeed. (p. 23)

Building a community of learners require thoughtful effort on the part of the teacher. The success of the community of learners is, indeed, entirely under the control of the teacher, even in an inner city classroom full of “disruptive” students. I put the word disruptive in quotes because there are many teachers who will immediately claim that a working, respectful community of learners is not possible in their class because the students are out of control. In my personal experience, putting a lot of effort into building a community actually has a strong, positive effect on my inner city students. In fact, I believe the correlation is direct.

Building a community of learner leads to a respectful, hard-working classroom. NOT building a community of learner can leave a teacher with a classroom full of disruptive, out of control students.

How to build a community of learners

Here are somethings that I find important in building a community of learners.

  • Fostering responsibility and self-direction
  • Set clear routines and clear expectations
  • Ensure emotional and physical safety
  • Know your students
  • Peer interaction
  • Focus on personal improvement, not competition

Fostering responsibility and self-direction

A community of learners require that each student is responsible for their own learning and is a self-directed learner. Teachers find that this is the most difficult part of establishing a community of learner. Some teachers question, “How do we motivate seemingly unmotivated students?” I’ll think about it and post more on motivating students.

Goal Setting is one strategy for fostering a student’s sense of responsibility for their own learning. If a student sets meaningful, relevant, realistic goals, they feel responsible for reaching those goals. However, as with adult goals, you can’t just write it and forget it. You have to have a strategy for reaching the goal and continually revisit. The goals must be in the forefront of every lesson, every day.

My third grade students have writing goals and reading goals and physical education goals. Everyone’s goals are different, and that’s okay. Many goals are informal and short-term, a few are formal and written down and long-term. This goal setting makes my students for focused on their learning because they know where they’re going and they want to get there.

Set clear routines and clear expectations

Children, particularly inner city students, require boundaries and routines. They need to be able to expect the predictable, no surprises. My inner city students deal with much chaos, disruptions, and unpleasant surprises in their lives. (“This is the police! Your father is going to jail!” “Hi, this is your mother! I’m out of jail!”) They need the opposite in their learning environment.

Set predictable routines for every moment of the day. This is not to say that every lesson is identical, merely that the structure within which the lessons operate is predictable. Teach students how to behave for every routines and be consistent.

Set clear expectations so students know what’s expected of them. Give them rubric for every assignment so that you don’t slap them with an arbitrary grade.

When students know what to expect, and know what to do, they are calmer and can focus on learning.

Ensure emotional and physical safety

For many of the same reasons, it is the teacher’s job to ensure a safe learning environment, emotionally and physically. A student cannot learn in a threatening, fearful environment where the motivating factor is fear of punishment. Yet, many classrooms are built on fear. Fear of the phone call home. Fear of being benched at recess. Fear of having to write standards repeatedly. (Which is actually corporal punishment and illegal.) No wonder these students turn on each other and cause fear, or turn on their teachers as payback.

If the teacher is respectful to the students, the students will return the respect. Yes, respect must still be earned.

The teacher must be firm in demanding that students respect each other emotionally and physically. Students will resist this at first. At the beginning of every year, I go through the same routines of landing on students like a ton of brick over the littlest sign of disrespect, because these students are not used to operating in an environment of respect. Once this norm is established, my students feel safe and they no longer have to be disrespectful as a defense. I do not, of course, use fear to establish an environment of respect. That is counter-productive. We have very firm, honest discussions at recess.

Know your students

There is no greater power in the classroom, then a teacher who knows his students. There is a great book that everyone must read, Do You Know Enough About Me to Teach Me?. At the beginning of the school year, I don’t know enough to teach these students. I don’t know where they’re coming from. I don’t know who had breakfast and who didn’t. I don’t know who slept on the floor and who slept in bed. I don’t know who can read and who can comprehend and who has learning disabilities and who loves skate-boarding and who loves drawing. I don’t. I make a huge effort to get to know my students and allow my students to get to know me. Using what I learned about my students, I can begin to differentiate my instruction, build a working relationship with my students, and actually begin to teach to these particular students, rather than just deliver lessons.

Structure peer interactions

Any community requires productive interactions between its constituents. The students must be able to converse, collaborate, and work together in order to help each other and help themselves. No longer is a quiet classroom acceptable. The adult working world requires that we interact with each other, not sit quietly and stare at our work.

Use Think Pair Share and Cooperative Groupings to structure student interactions. As a teacher, design every interaction so that it is productive and focused on learning, not merely gossip time.

In my classroom, we use think pair share at least twice every hour. My students know how to talk to each other and stay focus on the lesson. I don’t use cooperative groupings enough. My goal for next year is to have more small group work.

Focus on personal improvement, not competition

Competition is built on the premise that there will be one winner. That leaves all others as losers. Do you really want a classroom of losers? Is that conducive to learning? Some teachers will claim that competition is a great motivating factor. It is for the students who expect to win, but not for the students who expect to lose. Inner cit students are used to “losing” all their lives. They certainly don’t want to lose again and again every day they’re in school. This is one of the many reasons why students drop out, quit, or become helpless and hopeless.

Instead of focusing on competition, focus on personal improvement. For teachers dead-set on competition, think of personal improvement as competition against oneself.

For every concept, skill, lesson, or day, the goal is always to do better than before. (We go back to goal setting now. Very important.). Celebrate every success, because for many inner city kids, they have never seen success before. Celebrate every success, foster a sense of self-worth, and suddenly, the lowest achieving students are making giant strides. They may not be at the same level as the highest achieving students, but they are always making progress. As for the highest achieving students, a focus on personal improvement means that they can never become lazy and rely on simply being smart. They will always have to work hard to reach the next level, even if the next level means working at the next grade level.

One of my special ed students started third grade reading 7 words per minute. He was getting ready to give up on school because there was no way he could catch up to the other students. He may be special ed, but he’s not stupid. We focused on personal improvement and celebrated every success. It took a few months, but he started seeing his own progress, and that however small, he’s succeeding. This student now works very hard on his reading every day. He doesn’t feel hopeless. Quite the opposite. He enjoys reading! He now reads 25 words per minute. Some people may disregard his achievement, a gain of merely 18 words a minute. How about his gaining a positive attitude and an excellent work ethic?

There are many, many more ways of building a community of learners. Seek them out and try different strategies until you find ones that help you. I’m continually looking for effective ideas.

How do you build your community of learners?



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  1. Here’s how I teach teamwork:

  2. […] Building a Community of Learners […]

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