3 Intuitive Strategies for Building Community in Your Classroom

A few years ago, I interviewed a group of undergraduate women in my local university’s Engineering Technology (ET) program to understand why it had an unsavory reputation for having a very low (1:25) ratio of female-to-male students. As one woman summarized, “It’s usually just that awkward moment when you walk into a class with like 30 guys and they all look over. GIRL! Their eyes follow you to your seat.”

Another woman, whom I’ll call Tanya, shared an incident where a male classmate said to their professor, “I don’t want to be in her group, because she’s a girl.” She added, “…the professor allowed it and accepted it. Then they just moved on, and that was really upsetting, because honestly, I have a way better grade than any of those guys in the class. They had no right to say anything, and they didn’t want to work with me.” As one of many stories that were shared with me, women in the program not only felt different and unwanted, but also unsupported.

I share these accounts with you to talk about why learning communities fall apart, and what we can do as educators to build strong community foundations in the classroom. Even though people learn independently by self-selecting the kinds of resources that will help them learn (as I mentioned in last week’s blog), communities hold a very crucial social component of learning that gets overlooked.

While constructivism implies that we learn during social interaction, Interactive Spatial Learning (ISL) adds an extra dimension to this: social interaction affects a learner’s motivation to pursue their own learning. When done consciously and deliberately, communities positively motivate and push people to exceed their potential. However, communities can also demotivate members when they feel excluded, demoralized, or disempowered. From my research, I found that there are three factors that shape learning communities into either positive or negative social influences: (a) attention to belonging; (b) statements and rules; and (c) personal value. In the next sections, I’ll explain what these factors mean and how you can use this information to build strong communities in your classroom that motivate all of your learners.

Belonging in a Community

Going back to my example, the university had embarked on a five-year program to increase female enrollment and retention into their ET program. However, the first year of the program had little success, and I was called in to evaluate and provide suggestions. After my interviews, I learned that what affected whether a student stayed motivated to pursue her studies was heavily dependent on how strongly she felt she belonged and was supported by her personal and professional communities.

As you can imagine, being singled out (i.e. she is not one of us) and excluded (e.g., “I don’t want to be in her group”) really damaged that feeling of belonging for many of these women. Belonging in a community means that you feel like you share common interests and can identify/relate to the other people in that community. You also feel like you are a valued community member — meaning, your contributions are respected and appreciated and that other community members support and encourage you. When Tanya’s professor allowed her classmate to join a different group, Tanya not only felt separated (e.g., “they didn’t want to work with me”) but also unfairly treated and disempowered. In other words, Tanya and other women in the program felt that they were excluded from the professional ET community. This was the main reason why many women left the program after their first year!

To counteract these feelings, the university assigned professors as mentors for their female undergraduates. These mentors met frequently with their students and connected them to the resources and clubs at the university. For instance, mentors made their mentees aware that they could go to the tutoring center for help, and that they could go to meetings sponsored by Women In Technology (WIT) to meet other like-minded females in STEM professions and programs. I learned that through this mentoring, women used these resources in different ways to get help and make the connections that they needed.

The following year after I came onboard, a female undergraduate shared that her mentor, “genuinely care if we succeed and are willing to answer any questions we have.”  In other words, having a personal mentoring connection with each of your students is key to opening doors to resources and connections to other things that facilitate individual student learning. Students become more confident in trying new things and growing when they know that they have someone who believes in them and that they can turn to for help. Once you establish a positive, caring relationship with your students, they will be more apt to go to you for help, or to use the resources you provide to get the information that they need.

Fostering a culture of inclusivity and belonging for every member of your classroom also helps your students connect with each other. One of the strengths behind WIT was that women did not feel that they were alone or alienated as the “only girl” in their classes or programs. As one undergraduate woman shared with me, “It is nice to have another girl back you up because they [the guys] assume you do not know many things.” People connect and relate with others who share similar qualities like gender, culture, and ethnic background. This point hit home one year, when a senior wrote a heartfelt thank you note to me after taking my biology class. In her note, she talked about why having a female Asian woman teach her class (she was also Asian) made her feel more confident in science. Until that note, I did not realize that my race or gender had any educational significance to the subject I was teaching!

While we can’t (and shouldn’t) change who we are as teachers, highlighting examples of diverse role models that your students can relate to makes a huge motivating difference and adds to students’ feelings of belonging. When you highlight women in science, and people from diverse ethnic groups as role models, it strengthens your personal connections with your students because it shows them that you care about them beyond just being a body in the classroom. Relating to who your students are ethnically and culturally demonstrates care and empathy about your students’ world views and experiences.  

Role models also give students examples of successful people in career paths that they may not have previously considered. Seeing others like them who have succeeded demonstrates that they, too, can succeed. 

Clear and Fair Rules

This culture of inclusivity and belonging means that we say and do things that respect and advocate for each and every one of our students. Tanya was upset and felt unsupported when her professor “allowed and accepted” her male classmate’s very public choice to exclude himself from her group just because of her gender. By not insisting that the male classmate should work in her group, the professor indirectly advocated for Tanya’s exclusion.

An inclusivity rule or statement (and your reinforcement of this rule or statement) goes a long way toward making students — especially marginalized students — feel equally respected and welcome in your class. This is a very powerful way of helping students feel like they belong in your community and that they are valued. This article from Yale University has more on creating inclusive classroom environments.

At the start of the school year or at the start of a new STEM lesson or unit, you may consider involving your students in the creation of community rules. Including their feedback gives students ownership of the rules and a chance to share the concepts that make them feel safe. 

Essentially, students need to feel valued and safe to grow and share in your classroom without the fear of being excluded, bullied, or torn down.  Your rules (whether displayed or not, co-constructed or not) should outline ways students communicate and respect each other, ways to give and respond to critique, and acceptable (and unacceptable) ways of being a kind and productive community member.  In other words, community rules foster relationship building, communicating with peers as sources of knowledge and reflection, and allow students to share their strengths and weaknesses with each other without fear of failure or judgment. 

Content that Adds Personal Value and Growth

I belong to social communities that either teach me something new about things I’m passionate about, or they offer ways for me to personally connect to people who share the same interests that I do. Think about your personal social circles. Why do you spend time in them? More than likely, you are in these communities because they give you some sort of benefit or value.

Conversely, I leave groups when they no longer provide value to me. Students disconnect from class when they see no relevance or value in the content they are being taught. This disconnection takes the form of disruptive behavior, talking, or not listening.

In classroom communities, kids need to be shown the value of being in the classroom and what they get out of it. This value could be as simple as changing an expectation. For example (this only works for kids who are able to read), I stopped going over my instructions verbally when I began expecting my kids to read a lab before they started it. Because I expected students to read the instructions, I would give them time to read. Then, I would ask, “Is there anything in the instructions that you’re confused about or don’t understand?” This question honors and respects students’ abilities to read for themselves, and it opens up the space for questioning and for me to answer those questions.

I did a similar thing with a group of third graders who were isolating DNA from plants. In this instance, my instructions were verbal. Before I gave a student their strawberry, I would ask, “What are you going to do with this strawberry?” If they could not answer the question, I would say, “Could you ask your group to help you?” or, “See what Whitney is doing with her strawberry? Why don’t you go over there and ask her what she is doing, and why? Then come back to me and explain so that you can get your strawberry.” In positioning other students as experts, I’ve not only strengthened connections between students (since now they ask each other), but now they find other students in the classroom valuable to their learning! I also don’t have to repeat myself 10 times.

Value goes beyond the immediate lesson. For example, explaining how a scientific discovery has improved how we live is valuable to students because they experience it. When I talk about antibiotics and the story of Alexander Fleming, I start with, “How many of you have had ear infections?” Relating content directly to students’ experiences and lives, and emphasizing how this information will help them become better/smarter/more independent adds value and helps them connect to you and to the world.

As educators, we know that our classrooms may be the only source of comfort and positive connection that some of our students ever get. A strong classroom community where students believe and support each other’s abilities can break societal stereotypes that students face in the world and in their own homes. Community provides the foundation from which students may grow, take risks, and flourish in your classroom and in their lives. 

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