The Beginnings of a Strong Learning Community
In the Early Kindergarten, our main focus in the beginning of the year is community building, which is central to all other curriculum work. As teacher-researchers, we find that this is foundational to cognitive, academic and inquiry-based learning.
Developing a community starts fresh at the beginning of every school year and continues to grow and blossom as the year unfolds. It begins as the children first enter the classroom door and the classroom becomes more than a room, it becomes a home for all of us, a place to be together, think together and bond together.
We’ve learned at Opal that the development of a strong, classroom community doesn’t just happen, it takes the intentional work of teachers who hold these values as they plan, reflect and make decision. We’ve found that children best understand the meaning and power of community by participating in one, by experiencing the day-to-day interactions that let them know each other’s joys, heartaches, interests and gifts. Intentional structures and rituals to support community building are alive in our classroom from the very first day of school.
Below are a few structures that are built into our curriculum that support and encourage a strong learning community:
We begin our days by gathering together every morning. This is a time to come together to sing songs, say good morning and set up preparations and expectations of the day to come. The greeting, to me, is one of the most important parts of the day. We strive to greet each person in our community to let them know that we are glad that they are there to share in our day and our explorations.
Creating a Classroom Culture
Opal School has many small yet important rituals and celebrations that help create and build a strong learning community. From blessings and table settings at lunchtime to birthday celebrations to the sharing our work with each other, we take the time to celebrate the individual and the group as a whole.
One aspect that strongly supports the growth of our classroom culture is listening. The encouragement and expectation to truly listen to one another happens all day long, when someone is sharing an idea, solving a problem or telling a story. We listen to understand one another; we listen to all our community members and this helps us realize that we all make up the community together.
Working out problems through authentic conversation and inquiry is not easy, but when children are given this tool early on, it is amazing how readily and aptly they use it. A group of four students were working together at the Small World table (a table set up with small animals and natural materials). One student D.W. wants the coyote that another student L.B. is using. D.W. is getting very upset and so, a teacher supports her to ask a question. She asks, "Can I have a turn?” L.B. says, “When I am done.” D.W. starts to leave the table and L.B. calls her back and gives her the coyote. Then L.B. asks D.W., "Can I have one of your tigers?" D.W. answers, “Sure!” and goes on to ask, “Which on do you want?” L.B. chooses one and says to D.W., “Thanks, that was so sweet of you!.” Just after this, another student, C.C. has chosen the snake as his character at the table. He says he is a poisonous snake. The other three students hide under the table, scared, not wanting their animals to get eaten by the snake. They do not know how to proceed with their play, then L.B. stands up and says to him, “Wait, are you nice?” C.C. answers, “Yes!” L.B. says to the others, “It’s OK, it’s OK, he is nice.” She turns to C.C. and says “Come on over here to my house then.” and then she reassures her other playmates, “Don’t worry, he wont hurt you.” Practicing this ability to talk through miscommunications and conflicts helps us to connect bit by bit in positive ways.
One ritual that we began this year in order to establish a culture of listening and sharing happens at the very end of the day. Before we sing our last song, we gather as a group to share that one special memory from our day that we wish to take home with us. The children then listen to each other as they, too, remember those fun structures in the block area, running fast in the Rocky Space, working together in the studio, making things for each other in the Dramatic Play and just giggling A LOT with our new friends! This has been a great way to end our special days together!
Connecting with the Natural World
One goal and expectation for Opal school students is to pay attention to nature and be a mindful steward of the planet. We love watching the relationships that occur in nature – both with the natural world and with each other. It is a delight to see what happens when we are outside of our classroom walls. Being outside slows the children down and gives them the time and the space to really look and connect with everything around them, including new friends!
Creating a strong leaning community will continue as the year goes on. In the next few weeks, we will begin to talk more specifically about how we want to be together and what being a community looks like, sounds like and feels like. Please keep posted as share more about how our strong learning community is created!