At a time when so many lived realities are under attack, safe spaces are necessary.
Our schools and our classrooms provide opportunities to work towards the world we want. At a time of political upheaval, when leaders model behaviors that we would not accept in our own communities and hate seems to be empowered, our work becomes more apparent and even more necessary.
Schools are where we educate but we would be foolish to pretend that education is only an academic endeavor. Schools are, in many ways, where people learn to live. Learning about one’s self and one’s role in society begins in the early years but continues throughout all levels of schooling. Much of this learning comes from one’s experience of community.
What does it mean to truly build community in a classroom and in a school? As educators we should ask ourselves about the ways we can model functioning communities by teaching students to dialogue and disagree while putting forth an inclusive vision of the world.
An essential part of learning and a necessary element of any functional community, is an ability to withstand and grow from conflict. While the dominant example in our society seems to have become one of attempting to humiliate others at times of conflict, our classrooms and our schools should be much more sophisticated and demand more from young people. George Lakey speaks of overcoming conflict aversion and re-writing the script: “When conflict erupts near you, move closer.”
It is hard to manage conflict in a classroom setting where it often feels like the struggle is for balance. The Morningside Center provides detailed examples about the use of restorative circles and the importance of reintegrating rather than further alienating students on the fringes. By teaching students that community is a living entity that requires work to maintain, our students learn that the world is more complicated than the simplistic idea that those with power diminish those around them.
Using the Power of Ritual
When educators speak of rituals and routines, we sometimes make the mistake of forgetting the true power of a collective act. While it is true that students benefit from routines that help them focus on content, communities also benefit from rituals that convey meaning while helping to establish understandings and possibilities.
The structure of our schools makes it easy to feel constant pressure to cover material and continually move on to the next step. The scholar Joseph Campbell articulated the larger value of these ritual acts: “[B]y participating in a ritual… you are being, as it were, put in accord with that wisdom, which is the wisdom that is inherent within you anyhow.” Classroom rituals can be more than beginning each class with a “Do Now.” We can create regular opportunities to connect, offer appreciations, share good and bad news, celebrate accomplishments and milestones, and reflect on events happening beyond the classroom.
Honoring Multiple Identities
Right now I have the enormous privilege of studying education in New Zealand. Rather than randomly arriving here, my family was ritually welcomed into the community. As a Maori scholar described it, although NZ society is dominated by other cultural practices, Maoris have managed to preserve certain spaces to prioritize their own culture and language. He was clear that this is not to be exclusive but to honor beliefs and traditions. In a Maori community, at my children’s school, and at the university we were part of different Powhiri, rituals that officially marked our entrance into these communities so that we are no longer outsiders but part of the extended family.
In our classes and in our schools students don’t always feel as if they belong or that a clear space has been made for their culture and/or different parts of their identities. By proactively creating a space where students feel they belong and embracing the different cultures and realities of students’ lives, we help students envision and experience the enlightenment and the challenges of community.
Building community is hard, draining work. This work changes the entire meaning and experience of school for young people and creates possibility within all of our lives. This is the “agape” that Martin Luther King Jr. said, “does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people…It begins by loving others for their sakes” and “makes no distinction between a friend and enemy; it is directed toward both… Agape is love seeking to preserve and create community.”
Note: This is a personal blog. All views and information presented herein are my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program or the US Department of State.