You belong. We do this with you, not in spite of you. You can trust me not to humiliate you and to keep you from humiliating yourself.
These are the messages in action or in word that students want to hear daily from teachers. To promote these themes, we give students positions of responsibility and the know-how to do them: running the daily newscasts, updating the website, coordinating environmental efforts and guest speaker programs, directing plays, managing the music library or team equipment, leading a club, designing and building classroom displays, and coordinating blood drives.
Positions of responsibility engage students more personally, and this connects them to the school; they have a part to play. Working together for an audience other than the teacher really strengthens bonds among the group.
We can meet the need to “be a part of something larger than myself” by facilitating major, multi-role projects like service learning programs; putting on a school play, musical performance, or festival; and requiring that all students participate on at least one sports team.
To pull this off, we’d have to adopt a “no-cut” policy for most teams, performances, and festivals in middle school, and we’d rotate everyone into meaningful participation at some point during each event. We can take the entire class on a day long hike up a mountain, making the goal to get everyone up the mountain, not just ourselves.
Students explore who they are in relation to others when they experience a day-long ropes initiatives course in which they navigate the 12-foot wall, the zip wire, the “electric fence,” human knots, and more.
They define themselves when interviewing the elderly, inserting personality into projects, writing letters to their future selves that the teacher sends to them on the appointed date, and telling their story of how they learned math, science, music, and art by writing their autobiographies for each subject.
We can divide students into smaller groups or teams so they are well known to a specific group of adults. We can learn students’ names and use them frequently as continuing proof that students are important enough to have their names remembered, and we can ask their classmates to also use their peers’ names in discussions: “I’d like to add something to what Ingrid just said,” “Jerry’s point was taken out of context.” Having your name and interests known to respected leaders of your group is powerful confirmation of connection.
With participation in social media so prevalent among our students, there’s no doubt that connection matters. In schools where most of the student body have access to the internet, we can start our own password-protected online communities around classroom content. We can conduct moderated discussion groups and collaborate on projects through Google Docs and wikis and much more.
The tools for substantive online community-building keep coming our way.