"To make a difference," is often the reply given when teachers are asked why they've entered the education field. It's a wonderful reason; it's a response I've often given over the years. Nothing is ever as cut and dried as a single phrase though. What's this difference we're trying to make– that every child know the Pythagorean Theorem, recite Shakespeare, recall state capitals, classify rocks and minerals? We hope to instill a love of learning and the tools to uncover all these great educational feats, but if we really want to make a difference, it starts with fostering a classroom environment that encourages a sense of community and citizenship. These are the traits that our students will carry out into the world long after the sentences are diagrammed and the value of x has been determined. We make a difference when our students become positive contributors to society.
Working to make a difference brings to mind what I'd like to call the And So On Effect. I'm probably dating myself here with this reference to a late 70s/early 80s gem of a commercial for Faberge Shampoo1 but its concept sums up the lasting effects that can occur when students form a sense of community within the classroom. As they take those ideas and values outside of the classroom walls into the lunchroom or onto the playground, it affects others in the school community. This then affects the families and neighborhoods of these students, and so on, and so on. Fostering a community of belonging, acceptance, and fairness is where we can really make a difference in the lives of our students and society at large.
As we work to instill the importance of being good citizens and create a positive classroom community, there are several elements to take into account. Scholastic pinpoints the importance of helping students establish their own identity within the classroom2 While the classroom is a "we" environment, students can't feel like they're losing themselves to fit into it. Embracing the individuality and differences in our fellow classmates is imperative for building a community where trust and acceptance reign. By creating a safe zone where different ideas and viewpoints are encouraged and accepted, we are protecting the uniqueness that each member of the community contributes. Turn to any media outlet, and you'll see this is a key element that is often lacking in society at large.
While the beginning of the school year is the best time to lay the foundation for citizenship within the classroom, it's not a concept that is exclusive to those first few days. If you didn't begin the school year with a classroom community in mind, it's not too late to create one. The five themes of good citizenship shared by Education World3 can be introduced at any time during the school year. Honesty, compassion, respect, responsibility, and courage are the building blocks for this foundation, and writing, discussion, and/or role-playing are a few of the ways to introduce these at various grade levels. I like the nuances that are highlighted within the five themes and how self-respect and a student's responsibility to learn are addressed. The dialogue circle model used at Glenview School4 introduces a way to get discussions underway. When all the parts are spinning together, a positive classroom community is set in motion, and so on, and so on…
It's important that we're purposeful in our creation of this environment. There won't be an a-ha moment at the end of the year where students find that unbeknownst to them, they've become good citizens. Having an understanding that good citizenship results from hard work and a day-to-day focus on building a positive community within the classroom and beyond is an important lesson in and of itself. While the TVO Parent article on citizenship5 has a parental focus, there are some great takeaways for educators too. If you're wondering whether or not your current classroom design is fostering citizenship in your students, the checklist for parents to ensure citizenship is being taught at their child's school is a great place to start. Ask yourself if your students stand up for one another and all voices are being heard.
As we work to make that difference, we have to keep the global classroom in mind. The classroom communities we create form the overall school climate, which spills out into the neighborhoods surrounding our schools, and so on, and so on. Make your community one that makes a lasting difference by focusing on the importance of citizenship.
Additional Resources & Works Cited
1. ASCD Edge, Faberge Organics Shampoo Commercial
2. Scholastic, Building Community in the Classroom
3. Education World, Teaching Good Citizenship's Five Themes
4. Edutopia Schools That Work, Using Dialogue Circles to Support Classroom Management
5. TVO Parents, What is Citizenship and What Does it Mean for My Kids?