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Cultivating a Caring Community: An Essential Aspect of Creating Engaged Classrooms

An excerpt from The 5 Dimensions of Engaged Teaching (pp. 108-110)

Heart in ClassroomEach student arrives in the classroom with a different personality, background, learning style, and skill level. When we take steps at the beginning of the term to intentionally gather students into a cohesive whole and give them a clear sense of purpose and direction, we are investing in the foundations of our learning community. This initial investment then supports students in effectively communicating and collaborating with each other, participating in their own learning, and feeling as if they belong to a community they are also responsible for. As Stephen Covey (2009) notes, “Helping students to feel connected is what prevents and removes many of the discipline issues before the year is scarcely underway” (p. 93).

In stage one of the learning journey, we focus on developing trust, promoting a caring community that respects differences, fostering cooperation and companionship, and creating a climate of focus and academic rigor. Students will:

  • Get to know and trust each other
  • Begin to explore their own identities, interests, and personal goals
  • Explore their learning goals for the school year
  • Develop a sense of cohesive community
  • Learn skills to focus and apply themselves to schoolwork

Sue Keister, president of Integral Vision Consulting, shares the following story about building trust and a sense of belonging (S. Keister, personal communication, April 10, 2011). Sue provides consulting and professional development services for the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL); Lions Clubs International Foundation; and the PassageWorks Institute.

I was teaching a class in which we were exploring the impact of our words and actions on others. I opened the lesson by explaining how genuinely affirming words and actions tend to strengthen us, and negative ones tend to weaken our confidence. I held up a sheet of paper and asked the students to contribute words and actions that they might hear in the course of the day. I then tore a piece of paper from the sheet when the words and actions were negative, and I added pieces back on when the words were supportive. Soon I was down to one little piece of paper.

One student said, “What happens when you get down to your last piece?” The class became silent, and I knew that it was a critical moment for learning.

Staying with this inquiry, I asked, “Have you ever felt like you were down to your last piece? What did you do?”

Another student remarked, “You would hold on for dear life because you disappear if you lose your last piece.” So I closed my fist around the piece of paper.

Another student said, “Look at your hand. It’s a fist. When you get down to your last piece, you present a fist to the world. You have nothing to give. You have to fight and keep people away, because you’re not going to let anyone take your last piece.”

Continuing with the metaphor, I asked, “What do people need who are down to their last piece?”
Another student responded, “We have to add to that person’s last piece so that they have enough to give away again. Then they can open up.”

Another said, “So, when someone approaches us with anger or hate or sadness, they may be on their last piece. It may have nothing to do with us. Our responsibility is to add something positive to their lives. Next time, we could be on our last piece, and it will be good if people understand that and help us instead of returning fists with fists.”

From that point forward, the metaphor of the “last piece” became our touchstone for the power we have to support each other and help open the “fists” of the world with kindness and support rather than negativity and reactivity.

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