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A Discussion: Building a Community in the Classroom

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Below is an edited excerpt from a spring meeting of the Philadelphia Teachers' Learning Cooperative. The topic under discussion was how to build a community in the classroom.

Betsy Wice, reading teacher, Frederick Douglass Elementary School: "Can each person think of a time when there was a feeling of community in the classroom?''

Lynne Strieb, 1st- and 2nd-grade teacher, John B. Kelly Elementary School: 'I'll start with bookmaking. Every child in the class contributes a page to a book, which then becomes a class book. ... We read the book to the children, and the children all see themselves as part of a whole. It really gives them a sense that they are part of the community that wrote this book.''

Goldie Lieberman, kindergarten and social-studies teacher, Feltonville Elementary School: "There are a couple of things that I started to do about six or seven years ago. ... Just taking photographs of the kids at different times throughout the year, engaged in different activities in the classroom, and hanging them up gave them the feeling that they were part of a special group. It seems like a very simplistic thing to do, but it was very effective.''

"Another thing was tracing their family histories and doing family trees, making a gigantic family tree for the classroom.''

Peggy Perlmutter, kindergarten teacher, John B. Kelly Elementary School: "I find that when kids share an experience it brings about a certain mood in the classroom that is serious, though it's joyful.''

"Just this past week there were two incidents. One afternoon the children noticed that the eggs in the incubator had two tiny holes. And the next day, there were four chicks out already, and there were two eggs left. ... We all sat in a circle on the floor with the incubator in the middle, and the kids watched these chicks hatch out. There wasn't a peep out of the kids. But when the chicks emerged, there was such applause. ...''

"Today for the first time, I let the children watch the snake eat a mouse. And the same kind of thing happened, the same silent watching and waiting ... that common experience.''

Edna Morris, 3rd-grade teacher, Feltonville Elementary School: "I never think of it as building a community, I just think, 'Hey, we're all together, we're all on the same wavelength.''

"I feel that way usually when there's something special that is going on, or something happens to common property, such as books that are owned by the children.''

"In the beginning of the year, to increase our library, I tell the children to bring in two or three books from home that they have read before, that they don't really need, and that they would like to share with other children. We have these books for the whole school year.''

"When the children get up to get a book to read, if they notice something is wrong with it--if a page is torn, or if the book has been colored in or written on--then they are outraged. Also, any time that there is property missing--a lot of the children bring in things from home--they're really very, very angry.''

Tamar Magdovitz, 2nd-grade teacher, Bache-Martin Elementary School: "The time that is overwhelmingly coming back to me is the year I was teaching and one of the children in my class was diagnosed as having cancer. ... It was a sad, horrible, tragic thing, and it was very upsetting to everyone. But it pulled the class together in an incredibly powerful way. We're all still in touch with each other. It's still a very powerful thing.'' [The boy later recovered, and his cancer has been in remission for a number of years.]

"This year, for the first time since I've been teaching in Philadelphia, I had a party that involved parents. I felt very brave and very nervous about doing it. We had an 'authors' party.' When every child had 'published' a book, each child was allowed to invite two special guests--family or friends. We had in our tiny little classroom 92 people. It was absolutely incredible.''

"The parents got very involved with the refreshments, and sending things in, and writing comments to the children, and collecting autographs from all the authors, and talking to each other. The principal came in, and a lot of other staff from the school came in. That was a real big community-building experience, and the children still talk about it. ... It was so unusual, I think, for parents to be invited en masse into the classroom. Even though it was nerve-racking, I would really recommend it, and I'll do it again next year.''

Fran Mitchell, special-education teacher, Frankford High School: "I'm at the secondary level now, and I think building communities can be very difficult.''

"One of the things that I've done in the past four years ... is that the first week of school I telephone all of the parents of all of my students. ... It helps me let my students know that I care about what's happening in the classroom and that I want their parents to know that we're a team, and they have to be a member of this team.''

Rhoda Kanevsky, 1st- and 2nd-grade teacher, Samuel Powel Elementary School: "I've always felt that songs and poems and chants and hearing each other's voices are a good way to start developing a community.''

"There are a few things that I've always tried to do. I have children from all over the world. ... and I always have them do a song together that's called 'What is Your Language?' You can then substitute each language in it and find out how to say 'Hello' or 'How are you?' in the other language.''

Tamar Magdovitz: "What I keep hearing in so many of these stories is that there's something about building community through respect, through showing children that you respect them. ... When you respect children, and notice things about them, and share your real life with them, and open yourself up to them, and become vulnerable to them, and let them do the same for each other and for you, then maybe that's what makes community possible.''

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