The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Creating a Community in a Public School

To me a “community” is more than a mass of people living in the same physical territory. It is a group of comrades bound together by communication, cooperation, purpose, and respect. In a classroom it’s fairly easy for a smart teacher to create such a community. Even a whole school may achieve it when devotion to a particular cause brings people together. But it doesn’t always stay that way. Differences in classrooms or bad experiences for only a few students can dissolve a community and severely damage the learning of those who are affected

What kinds of differences am I talking about? Well, they could be harsher discipline for some students than for others, larger amounts of homework in a classroom than in the one next door, limited opportunities for participation in extra-curricular activities, bullying on the playground, or even ability grouping in a classroom.

The most obvious respectful action for a teacher is not listing students’ test scores for every one else to see. That information should be shared only with the students who earned them and their parents. But it is just as important for teachers to not publically criticize the work or behavior of any student. When necessary, those things must be done privately.

The key to creating a classroom community is a teacher who knows how to respect all students and figure out ways for even the most struggling ones to shine. The most obvious respectful action for a teacher is not listing students’ test scores for every one else to see. That information should be shared only with the student who earned it and his or her parents. But it is just as important for teachers to not criticize the work or behavior of any student publicly. When necessary, such messages must be delivered privately.

On the other hand, teachers should make it a point to praise positive actions such as when a student has gone out of his way to help a classmate who is struggling to learn what others have quickly absorbed; or one who is new in the classroom, appears confused, and seems too shy to ask for help.

Another action that good teachers choose to take is assigning desirable classroom jobs, such as distributing new books, to a shy child who usually works alone. Still, the teacher must be sure the student is ready to bloom. She talks to him or her, explains the new job, and makes sure that the student is willing to take it on. Or maybe that student is only ready to be an assistant to someone else. Okay, that works for now. Leadership can wait for the future.

In a classroom where a true community exists, cooperation, productivity, and learning soar. Those things happen because each individual is willing to work with others whenever necessary, and to support anyone who needs help, is shy, or has been treated badly in the past. Classroom leaders may not consider everyone their new friend, but they do believe that all classmates deserve the same consideration the teacher gave them when they were new and scared.

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The Trouble With Textbooks

Several years and jobs later, I was hired to be the Chair of the English Department at a new high school.  When the school district decided to buy new English textbooks for everyone, none of my teachers were pleased. The old books were still serviceable, and the teachers wanted to get single pieces of literature instead that would give them more freedom to teach.  Besides, textbooks were getting increasingly expensive, which might mean that we would get less money for other things that we needed. As a group we rejected the new textbooks and requested funds to buy a variety of paperbacks instead. The only hardback books we needed to teach English were the poetry collections we already had.

Later on, in two elementary schools where I was principal we also opted for paperback literature instead of textbooks and workbooks.  My teachers believed that they could teach both English and American history using those materials and the other materials we had accumulated over time.

In all those actions our purpose was not defiance, but a firm conviction that the materials we chose and the other less expensive materials we collected were better for teaching than textbooks. In all the schools where I worked over time we were able to amass large numbers and a variety of paperbacks to serve our teaching preferences and students needs.  We also found that paperbacks— their covers strengthened with Scotch tape– lasted just as long—if not longer–than far more expensive textbooks.

Please understand that we were seeking the best things for our students, not lower spending. The problems that haunt all commercial textbooks are the impossibility of meeting the needs of schools all over the country, and the fact that those who are creating them are far removed from the reality of students’ needs, interests, and abilities. It is sad, but true, that you can’t effectively teach a student you don’t know personally.

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