Creating Community

      Last night, we held our first “Neighbors’ Potluck Dinner.”  We have  been threatening to get together for most of the two years we have all lived next door to each other.

Superstorm Sandy, though, finally pushed us to put our money where our mouths have been.  Sandy.  And Jess who asked, “When?” And Betty, who made us set the date once and for all: Three Kings Eve.

It was proximity that brought us together. We would meet running out in the morning and coming home again at night.  Carrying in groceries and dry cleaning. Walking a dog.  Dealing with snow. Basking in spring time sunshine.  Complaining about summer heat. We had a granddaughter.  Jess and Justin added a baby.  Betty lost her mother.  Xiomara moved in.  Our son and his girlfriend got engaged. We welcomed a grandson.

It was Sandy, though, that, in some odd way, provided the catalyst to transform proximity to community. No electricity. No heat.  Snow added insult to injury.  When the power was restored after 12 days, we weren’t just neighbors any more; now we were survivors.

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Community in the Classroom

   Creating community is what we try to do in our classrooms, too.  Our students are together by accidents of proximity.  They crowd each other at lockers.  Jostle one another in the lunch line.  Sneak a peek at a neighbor’s quiz when they think no one is looking.

It is our job to create learning communities from these daily student experiences of proximity.

We start by learning each other’s names.  We work to build trust and mutual respect.  We use structured groups to support community. It is all in an effort to create an environment where kids feel safe to take academic risks, where it’s OK to ask questions and offer insights.

For better or worse, my students meet me in seventh grade and remain with me until they leave our building for high school.  And literature provides us a springboard for community.  The Outsiders.  The Pearl.  Twelve Angry Men.  Trifles. To Kill A Mockingbird.  Discussions of the heroes and villains are safe zones because these characters created by authors’ imaginations are fair game and impersonal.

And literature gives us real life heroes, too, which is how the students and I sidle into the beginning of the end of our academic relationship: The Auto-Bio Unit. We read excerpts of autobiographies of real people who have accomplished real goals.  Some are political figures: Barak Obama, Bill Clinton, John McCain and Colin Powell. Others are literary: Frank McCourt, James McBride, Sandra Cisneros.  Some are well known–Anne Frank and Tim Russert– and others  obscure–Jack Falla.  None are perfect. And that’s the point. What they all have in common is their humanity and a legacy of commitment and determination.

And while they are reading about the lives and times of those who have survived adolescence and gone on to change the world in some way, students are writing about their own lives.

And this is where community is an integral element of each day of the Auto-Bio Unit.  For kids to share their life stories presupposes an environment of trust and mutual respect, deliberately nurtured over our two years together.

The culmination of this unit is a very personal binder full of early memories, persuasive essays, original poetry, critical lens responses,  career research, thank you letters.  The kids add photographs and drawings and song lyrics. In a way, the kids like to think they are survivors, too, because the demands of the project require time and thought. Living through it becomes as much a communal bond as the process of sharing their stories.

And our big event is an evening reception during which students proudly show off –and willingly share–this volume of work.

The reception is exhilarating.  It is a gallery style event where family and friends are invited to visit students at tables where they set up their projects.  Kids read from their binders.  The adults sometimes cry. It is at once a look back at the past and a glimpse into the future.  The Auto-Bio Reception is academic community at its best and strongest.

So last night, at our “Neighbors’ Potluck Dinner,”  we all told our own stories.  We dined on Justin’s sausage and peppers.   Xio shared her photos and we learned that Betty speaks Swahili, and we toasted Dom’s new job title.  We were holding our own Auto-Bio Reception.  We were celebrating community.

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