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.

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