In January I signed up for BLOG-A-MONTH where I get to read some great blogs from inspiring educators, and I get to write a lil’ something too and have it read by the hard-working, inspiring members of the group. It keeps my blog writing skills honed and also provides me with the motivation for the educational reflection and reading that I have sought on this sabbatical abroad.
Each month we are provided a topic (optional) and I have discovered it takes me well over a month to mull over it. In February we were to consider the topic of School Culture and Community – a topic nearest and dearest to my heart as a classroom teacher because I treasure the process of building a family, a community, and a culture with each group of students who enter into the class; however, this topic is one that left me with that ineffable silence, a paralysis on the keyboard, a true writer’s block.
Here are the prompts (again, optional) that have been the cause of my conundrum of dumb dumb:
What is the current culture of your school? Do you want to see it change? What do you do to contribute to the culture/ culture change in your school? How do we change the culture of a school? How do you foster a community of growth and learning at your school? How do you create a culture in your own classroom? How do you see the culture shifting at your school or district?
Perhaps some of the challenge was feeling the expectation that I should discuss our school culture - one where I am a proud, card-carrying member, but still we, as a community and culture, are in the midst of learning and evolving as our school continues to grow in population (300 in 2008 to nearly 700 now) and has changed location with varying leadership styles numerous times in only a few years. It is hard to express in words that emerging culture, at this time. So, I leave that blog to the future.
Given my ineptitude of getting this done earlier, I should have abandoned the cause for this blog, but I have been unable to let it go because it is just too important to me. So, I have journaled about it, read about it, “Pinterested” about it, and tried to talk about it. Alas, here goes my attempt to find articulation in the darkness in order to ensure I have completed a March blog – for a blog-a-month – on this last day of March! No pressure! No procrastination, no, not at all! So, here I offer my perspective of culture and community in my classroom. I am extremely proud of my classroom as it has come to symbolize a home and a harbour for my world-weary teens. I love that students enter the space and feel safe and in the heart of our home. But before the students even enter the room, I spend countless hours preparing the space for them. I know that most teachers also do this, but not always at a high school level.
My classroom is my home away from home, so the setting is the first important element for establishing our culture. I work to build that home-like feeling with cool, calming turquoise walls; a carpeted floor below their feet with light grey sound-baffles hung overhead (a gracious leftover from the days it was an elementary music room) lulling the students into a reverence as they enter (who am I kidding, in my dreams, but the baffling does lessen their noisiness); posters of poetry, quotations, and art inspiring and entertaining (or at least giving them something of value to stare at while I Charlie-Brown-teacher away the hour); walls lined with bookshelves, enveloping the learning space with the whispers of bewitching writers that I hope will seduce them into reading, aromatherapy redolently enhancing the students’ minds, bodies, and spirits (or at least taking away that adolescent I forgot to shower odour); and sometimes (needing to be regularly) music resonating with their souls or inciting their curiosity (a little Pink Floyd will do nicely); and finally, the room is furnished lamps (avoiding the fluorescent institutionalized aura) with some talk-show-like Oprah chairs and turquoise patterned pillows softening the space, or at least making me awfully comfy and cosy. In the recipe for my classroom’s culture, the physical setting of the class – our four walls – would be the first ingredient and the underlying continuity in building cultures and communities year after year.
Of course, no room is a home without the people, and for the past many years I’ve been graced with students for consecutive years, so we have an established bond, and when they come into the class for the new year, they are truly returning home and our family gleefully reunites. I am always impressed with how the new configuration of students unites and also embraces new family members openly; when the community is strong and the culture is foundational, it endures and evolves equally. These are my kids, and to them I’m “mom” – a role and calling I cherish and embrace. But just showing up isn’t all it takes for the cultural enlightenment to establish itself; rather, it takes a value that we collectively cherish and aspire to make our reality.
This value existed for me, for us, in our classroom, but it was undefinable and could not be explained until I discovered the philosophy of Ubuntu from South Africa whereby the essence of the ideology inextricably links a community’s respect, purpose, existence, and accomplishment together. Reverend Desmond Tutu explains Ubuntu as:
One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality — Ubuntu — you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.
I have longingly worked for this interconnectedness to reign in the classroom, and when a group of teens, in a high school English class can come together as a family – that is a community, a culture where I am proud to be a part of that realization.
Furthering the “aha” of this worldview, I experienced community and culture building via a virtual course – a place of professional development whereby I never expected to discover a unified sense of belonging and community. Last year in the ETMOOC course (Educational Technology Massive Open Online Course) that I participated in, the paradigm became realized with two questions that were to dominate the learning and the participation: How are you making your learning visible? How are you contributing to the learning of others? These questions provoked an epiphany in me that these are the same questions I want to dominate the learning in my classroom where students hold themselves accountable and simultaneously work together and contribute to each other. So, it has become a mantra in our class.
I see this realized in many subtle ways in my class. When students easily move in cooperative groups, when discussions are lively and interesting, when students help each other before-during-after class and online at night, when students speak up for each other, when students cry together, laugh together, and work together, and in countless other ways. Our space provided the home, but the culture and community has permeated beyond our four walls; the dream of this Ubuntu is clearly visible in the students’ own voices on the students’ blogs and in the comments students write to each other – their unity, respect, and support of each other is undeniably visible as share their writing and they contribute to the learning of each other through their wisdom and written words of support and celebration.
Community takes much time and care to foster, and a culture of shared beliefs, values, customs, and behaviours can often be far too elusive to attain in a classroom, let alone a school, dominated by a quirky melange of hormonally charged and stressed-out teens. I will continue this quest to mindfully bring this Ubuntu philosophy into my future classes, and I idealize that it will embed itself into the school wholly too. For now, I am proud that in room 1315, at the farthest corner of Shakespeare Street, in the deep south of the school – nearest the escape route to the student parking lot – a little oasis has been found in Hunni’s Room; it is their home, our home, a place where we belong and come together as a family, but continues in the virtual landscape that defies our time or our place. Further resources for UBUNTU:
- Desmond Tutu explains Ubuntu and Tutu Foundation