Building Community to Achieve High Standards

Every year, regardless of my students’ ability levels, I start with community class time. Community class time is when students learn trust, seek help, and gain the skills to be responsible in their daily lives. If we want our children to master high academic standards, then we must provide learning time for them to build an emotionally intelligent framework of understanding. Building community practices provides students with valuable skills they will use for a lifetime and is necessary to help them challenge themselves to reach higher expectations.

Building community takes thoughtfulness. There are plenty of curriculums to choose from when starting to build community. First, I asked myself what my students needed. My students are stressed. From factors like poverty, home, and food insecurity to never unplugging from social media, my students navigate a complicated world. As a result, they honed some carefully crafted coping skills that do not translate well to the school environment. My “always goal” is to affirm them and build their resiliency. Then from there, I want to build a foundation of mindfulness, agency and self-respect.

My classroom community time is a combination of conflict resolution techniques, self-awareness and regulation lessons, and partner building games. To do this, I use three different resources. First, I use the Restorative Justice curriculum developed by Amos Clifford at the Center for Restorative Process. The resource lays out a day-by-day plan for restorative class circles. These lessons help lay the initial groundwork for building trust and respect in the class. Next, I use the Zones of Regulation. This resource provides us with a language for self-regulation and awareness. Finally, I use the Sanford Harmony program. As the year progresses, we don’t always go to a class circle, but my students crave the social interaction, and Sanford Harmony provides great prompts for peer-to-peer interaction. Harmony also is a great way to solidify my peer-to-peer sharing routines and class discussion expectations. I find that Sanford Harmony is a powerful vehicle for scaffolding peer-to-peer academic talk and revoicing routines for all other subject areas!

Building community also takes time. Critics of class community builders will say, “There just isn’t enough time in the day to meet the high academic standards and do the ‘fun stuff’!” Well, the twenty minutes a day I invest in community building comes back to me through quick transitions, deeper focus on academic objectives and less conflict between students. The time that I used to take micromanaging my students’ emotions and conflicts has been traded for the exploration of opportunities for my students to build their self-awareness, agency, and self-respect muscles. Because we spend the time up front, when a conflict arises on the playground or during a lesson, we quickly handle the issue or table it until our next class meeting. This gives me more focus from students and greater commitment to the lesson’s objectives. Committing consistent time to building community pays back itself in dividends.

Lastly, building community takes failure into account. Every new initiative has a slump in results during the adoption process. For example, the first time my class passed the “talking stick” around the class circle and shared how they felt that morning, only two kids shared. Two. I accepted the low participation rate and counted that day as my pre-assessment. Two students sharing how they felt was my baseline for safety and social-emotional intelligence in my classroom. We had room for growth! After some lessons about feeling words and the Zones of Regulation, every student was sharing when passed the talking stick.

When my students encounter a challenge that they fail at, they now have skills that help them persevere. Rather than using avoidance and distraction to circumvent failure, they embrace failures that come with learning. Our math time is full of finding the humor in our failures, trying again and celebrating what we got right. Mindfulness has helped us focus on growth. And that growth eventually leads to achievement.

Students need community to achieve success when working with high academic standards. Whatever community building approach(es) you use, you will be ensuring your students are equipped with incredibly beneficial soft skills they need to achieve academic success in school and in life. Conflict resolution, self-regulation and learning about our peers is the “how” to becoming successful in college, career and life. By dedicating a small amount of time every day to community building, students will be able to exceed expectations, master high academic standards, and acquire valuable skills they will use for a lifetime.

Katie Paetz currently teaches 5th grade in Arizona. Katie believes children learn best when communities and teachers come together to inspire students to find their passions and develop useful skills. She is the past-president of the Osborn School Board and is serving her second term. On the board, she passed inclusive sex education policies, culturally relevant curriculum, and restorative practices that make school equitable for all students. Katie serves as the only teacher on the City of Phoenix Traumatic Incident Intervention Resources Ad Hoc Committee where she works with volunteers to provide innovative solutions to the trauma crisis.