Erin Couillard~ Grade 5 Math/Science, Learning Coach
I have been thinking a lot about community building in the middle school. I began my teaching career in a very small K-8 school in a rural Alberta town where one didn’t give much thought to community building, as the school WAS the community. Parents were in the school regularly, siblings saw each other in the hallway all the time and families gathered at community events, soccer practices, swimming pool, skating rink. In a large middle school (600 students, grades 4-9) which draws its population from all four quarters of a large city, a sense of community isn’t a ‘give-in’. It must be purposefully orchestrated.
At Calgary Science School we operate as a community of mutual respect. Discipline isn’t punitive. It is a dialogue meant to understand and change negative behavior to positive. Teachers and students talk and model respect of this place, self and each other. In the past few years we established colour teams as our first attempt at building a larger school community outside of grade pods. This program placed all 600 students in one of 4 colour teams who competed throughout the year in whole school initiatives (academic, social and sport related) for points. Colour teams would collect points and wear their colours at school events throughout the year. This was useful in helping to provide each student with a sense of belonging, but we quickly realized that 150 kids to a ‘team’ was too large to establish the types of relationships we were aiming for.
In 2012, myself and two other colleagues visited Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia PA and learned of their Advisory Groups. Every year when students enter the school in grade 9, they are placed in an Advisory Group with a teacher (not necessarily one who teaches them). They meet with their Advisory Group each week to discuss any issues, concerns or achievements with their advisor and their group. They stay with the same advisor (when possible) from grade 9 through graduation. It is purposefully constructed to build community and foster positive relationships between peers and teachers. We began to think about how this model might translate in the middle school. Out of these conversations, the concept of “Family Groups” was proposed.
At the beginning of this school year, all 600 students were divided into “Families” and assigned a staff member (including librarian, assistant principals and other non-teaching staff). Families are comprised of students from grade 4-9 and are approximately 16-18 students large. Currently they meet for one 45-minute block in a 6 day cycle. During this time, a wide variety of activities and projects were undertaken by different families. As we end year one of family groups, I have undertaken an action research project to review the successes and opportunities for this school wide initiative.
I am curious, what do you do in your school to build community? Do you have school wide themes? How do you gain the enthusiasm of staff and students in community building initiatives?