Sunday, November 24, 2013

Feeling at Home in the Classroom

     A few weeks ago I blogged about the classroom as a community and promised that I would spell out the variables that can be used to define a community. These variables came originally from a study by John Schweitzer who was examining neighborhoods in Detroit. With two other colleagues, John and I translated the neighborhood measure he had used so that we could apply the same variables to the classroom. It was our understanding that a community is a community, whether that community is a sports team, a musical group, a legal firm, or a classroom. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, our hunch paid off in the case of the classroom. The measure proved to be both reliable and valid in the sense that we were able to predict that students with a stronger sense of community in the classroom had grades that showed greater improvement; they also enjoyed the course more.

     The variables in our study and in the previous studies on community in neighborhoods were:

     Connection: To what extent does a person feel connected to the community and its values, whether neighborhood, classroom, etc.?

     Participation: Does the individual join in the activities of the community?

     Safety: Does the community feel like a safe place to be and to express oneself? 

     Support: Can the individual provide support to others in the community and expect support in return?

     Belonging: Does the individual have a sense of being a member of a community with similar values, language, etc., and not being an outsider?

     Empowerment: Does the individual feel that he/she can make changes within the community and express their opinions openly?

     You can see how these variables would play out in the classroom, but we can take one at a time and think of ways to create a climate that is in fact a community in the classroom. I am as concerned about the student who doesn’t feel any sense of community at school as I am happy for the one who does. Imagine what it would be like not to feel safe in the classroom, unable to express your opinion? Or to feel disconnected from your teacher, principal, and classmates? Or to feel that you simply don’t belong? Or that you can expect no support from others?

     Two weeks ago a reader mentioned an excellent book, To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey by Parker J. Palmer. It’s a book about community from a Christian perspective. So far (I’ve only gotten to read the first few chapters) I have only one disagreement with the author. He argues that the civic community is very different from the community in education. I disagree. I think communities of all sorts have much in common, such as the above six variables. I believe our own research has demonstrated that. But don’t let that one difference of opinion discourage anybody from reading Parker’s book, especially if you are interested in the spiritual aspect of education. His work in innovative and challenging.

Which of these variables do you think is most important in the classroom?

            Schweitzer, J. H., J. W. Kim, and J. R. Mackin. 1999. The impact of the built environment on crime and fear of crime in urban neighborhoods. Journal of Urban Technology, no. 6:16-20.

            McKinney, J.P., McKinney, K.G., Franiuk, R., & Schweitzer, J. (2006). The college classroom as a community: Impact on student attitudes and learning. College Teaching, 54, 281-284.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

What's in a Name?

I haven’t blogged for a few weeks as I promised I would. I’m sorry. But something happened yesterday that made me want to tell you about the last few weeks. My writing coach noticed that in both of my novels, Charlie’s Angle and An Ode to Cleve, the name of the main character is similar: Charlie in one, Chuck in the other. “Who’s Charles?” she asked. “That’s something you’ll want to look into.”

I didn’t have any conscious basis for the choice of names except they seemed to fit the characters. I thought back to the “Charlies” I’ve known; two of my high school classmates were “Charles.” One we called Chuck, the other Charlie. Charlie died last week. His name had changed to Mario, but he was still Charlie to me.

I’d better back up. The reason for the name change was the fact that Charlie had become a Franciscan friar. In those days the Franciscan order gave novices new names as they studied and prepared to become priests. When I was young, I studied for the priesthood. Charlie and I knew each other in the Franciscan seminary, where we were both studying to become Franciscan friars. In the end, however, both of our lives went in a very different direction.

When I got word from Charlie’s wife, Marge, that he had died, I stopped what I was doing – nobody else was home – and sang the Ultima out loud, first in Latin and then in English. The Ultima is a hymn to the Blessed Mother asking for a peaceful death... “Lead us home to thee, we call; Virgin Mother, Queen of all.” It’s a Franciscan song that we sang at the end of every celebration, happy or sad. So while it’s traditional at funerals, it’s also a song full of hope and joy. Is the Kaddish like that, you Jewish readers? Does it also have both senses?

On the day of Charlie’s funeral, at the very time I knew the celebrant, Father Jim Van Vurst, another classmate, would be giving the final blessing and those of my classmates who were at the funeral 1000 miles away would be intoning the Ultima, I played it on my harp.

My wife, Kathy, asked me later what I most remembered about Charlie. He was a quiet person, but kind. On Wednesday and Saturday afternoons we had regular chores before we could take off on a hike, or play baseball, go downstairs to shoot hoops, or whatever. I worked in the tool shed where I dispensed rakes, hoes, shovels and whatever people needed to do their work in the garden or around the building. When they finished their work they brought the tools back to me for cleaning, oiling if needed, repair if broken, etc. That meant that most of my friends had finished their work while I still had plenty to do. I recall one time when I was up to my eyeballs in rakes and shovels and the place was a mess, I heard someone behind me laughing, “JP, it looks as if you need some help here.” It was Charlie, in a characteristic manner offering to help someone else. It took less than half the time with the two of us working together.

To answer my coach’s question: As I said, I wasn’t consciously thinking of anybody in particular when I used the names Charlie and Chuck in my two novels. Although it’s interesting; my seminary classmate, Charlie, did later teach math in high school. Hmm.

On the day after Charlie died, his wife Marge sent me a email; she mentioned my book:

“I wanted to write and let you know that Mario (Charlie) ordered your book... it arrived 2 days before he was admitted to ICU. I took it to the hospital... he attempted to read... but had little concentration left. I plan to read it for him...the blurb is very intriguing.” I assured her that by now her dear husband knows the story.

I can imagine Charlie looking down at my writing and, still laughing, saying, “JP, it looks as if you need some help here.”

Pax et bonum, Charlie!

PS. If anybody wants to read about Charlie Brannigan, the protagonist in my novel, Charlie’s Angle, check out my website,; or you can get a copy on Amazon. If you have a Kindle you can get that version free next Friday, Nov. 29. Amazon is having a promotion on Black Friday only. You don’t even have to leave the house to shop on Black Friday, and did I mention that it’s free?

How do you choose the names of your protagonists?