Back to School: Emphasizing Community for a Thriving Learning Environment
A welcoming and supportive community is at the heart of a thriving learning environment. As a new school year begins, feelings of anticipation, excitement, and worry can abound. The educator’s role isn’t strictly about preparing the classroom environment and developing the curriculum, it’s also about cultivating relationships and fostering a healthy community that promotes a sense of belonging, a place conducive for learning to occur. In a Q&A hosted by Larry Ferlazzo regarding student engagement, Paula J. Mellom, Rebecca Hixon, and Jodi Weber from the University of Georgia’s College of Education state, “Research shows (and experience supports) that students’ curiosity and passion about what they are being taught—as evidenced by their attention and active participation in the learning process— is directly related to their motivation to learn and progress in their education. Building student engagement begins with community and relationships.”1 Relationships and community can be built through consideration of the atmosphere, the environment, and the curriculum.
Building Community and Cultivating Relationships
Through Cocreating Agreements
Cocreating expectations with students and setting clear boundaries helps shape a positive community. By fostering a culture of respect, open communication, and collaboration, students learn valuable life skills that transcend a school setting. A sense of belonging ensures that every individual feels safe and accepted. Emphasizing inclusivity, celebrating diversity, and addressing any instances of bullying or discrimination promote a secure and nurturing environment for all. Through the development of agreements with students, educators foster and create a harmonious atmosphere in which everyone feels respected, valued, and heard.
Through Getting-to-Know-You Types of Activities
At the core of building a strong community are relationships. Educators can create an environment in which investing time and effort in understanding each other’s unique experiences and perspectives enhances collective growth. There are many ways to do this and, in the early days of school, getting-to-know-you or ice-breaker activities are often initiated. When choosing ice breakers, it is important to be thoughtful about asking students to take a huge social risk with people they don’t yet know. Assess if the icebreakers actually facilitate familiarity without embarrassing students, and if they are “cheesy.” These types of activities encourage students to share their interests, fears, and aspirations, and lay the foundation for creating and developing relationships that can extend beyond the classroom. Here are some great examples of activities from “Powerful, Evidence-Backed Ways to Connect with Students in the First Week of School,”2 by Youki Terada, and “Icebreakers that Rock”3 by Jennifer Gonzalez:
Through the Use of Junior Great Books Materials and Shared Inquiry
Ultimately, an educator is creating a community for the purpose of instilling an effective learning culture. Learning, as defined by Oxford Languages, is the acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, study, or by being taught. Fun and active engagement is an essential ingredient in building a vibrant community, while also aligning with what neuroscience tells us about learning and memory. When we are active participants and we are experiencing joy, we can remember much better!
For the process of learning and building healthy relationships, it is integral to cultivate an environment where it’s safe to take risks and questions, and perspective can be shared without fear of judgment. Learning is socially constructed, and a thriving learning community promotes collaboration, empathy, and inclusivity.
The Junior Great Books® method of Shared Inquiry™ is an active and collaborative experience during which participants search for answers to questions of meaning about a text. This collaborative process of thinking creates a community of learners in which every student is supported and challenged to find his or her own voice, develop deep understanding, and engage in respectful, civil discourse while learning from each other. This experience can reflect the value of each member of the classroom community, and each child’s contributions are acknowledged.
“Through others, we become ourselves.” ― L.S. Vygotsky
By nurturing a community that thrives on connection, understanding, and support, an educator is cocreating a foundation for a safe and fun-filled environment that enriches the educational journey for everyone involved. Together, we can create a community that not only empowers academic achievement but also fosters personal growth and lifelong friendships.
To learn more about how Junior Great Books and the Shared Inquiry method can fit into your classroom environment, please schedule a visit with your Great Books partnership manager today! We have outstanding, rich, diverse classroom materials in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry for K–8 students, as well as professional development in inquiry-based learning, to help you create a thriving collaborative community in your school!
- “Building Student Engagement Begins With Community & Relationships.” Larry Ferlazzo, Education Week, October 30, 2019.
- “Powerful, Evidence-Backed Ways to Connect With Students in the First Week of School–Start the new school year on the right foot with these research-backed tips.” Youki Terada, Edutopia, August 4, 2023.
- “Icebreakers that Rock.” Jennifer Gonzalez, cultofpedagogy.com. July 23, 2015.
- “Important Questions to Ask Your Students-Discovering your students’ answers to these questions can help you create positive conditions for learning.” Maurice J. Elias, Edutopia, July 30, 2018.
- “Handling the Crucial First Minutes of the First Day of Middle School.” Crystal Frommert, Edutopia, August 1, 2023.
- “Building Community Before the First Day of Middle School and Beyond.” Lindsay Kervan, Edutopia, July 25, 2023.
- “Establish a Safe Place for Risk Taking.” Starr Sackstein, Education Week, September 6, 2015.