Tales of Community Building

We started this year with a Community Building Call to Action.  We can sum up the work that many educators have done over the past month.  However, we’d rather present to you the experiences of one Halton Teacher.

Nancy Zigrovic is an French teacher at Iroquois Ridge High School.  She took up our Community Building Call to Action and ran with it!

I have often heard it said that with so much content to cover, how does anyone have time for community-building?  Team-building activities such as classmate bingo and “two truths and a lie” seem to happen in the first week of school and never again.  I have often found myself caught in this same dilemma - is it community or curriculum?  I am here to argue that in a 21st Century learning environment, one cannot happen without the other.

I am currently teaching Grade 9 Applied Core French with a lovely bunch of students who have made it very clear to me that this will be the last time they ever take French.  They tell me that French sucks and ask me not to take it personally.  I don’t, because what they don’t know is that my plan is to change their minds so they see that French actually DOESN’T suck!  The more important point is this:  even if this will be the last time they ever take a French course, they will walk out of our class having built the confidence to fail, because truly it’s only through trying, failing and learning that anyone ever learned to speak another language and increase cultural awareness.

My educated guess is that many of the students in this class have done a fair bit of ‘failing’ in their educational experiences.  My other sense is that they have spent years interpreting these failures as negative - yet another reason to doubt their abilities and resist engaging in the learning process.  So I will do my part to help them reframe their understanding of failure and to embrace a growth mindset, where failure is seen not as the end result, but as an important part of the learning process.

How to begin?  By building a sense of belonging and community in our class that fosters kindness, acceptance, compassion and risk-taking.  At the same time, by equipping students with the knowledge and skills required to try new things.

One of the first activities that we undertook to begin to get to know one another is called My Story/Mon Histoire.  Students created a Google Slides presentation of 5-10 slides that gave us a snapshot of who they are:  interests, hobbies, families, cultural background, dreams, etc.  There were three goals for this activity:  a) get to know one another better, b) assess prior learning and c) continue to develop effective presentation skills.  

Of course, I would never ask them to do something like this without also being willing to do it myself, so I went first and shared Mon Histoire.  They seemed genuinely interested as I shared about my family, interests, challenges and my life’s mission - to make high schools more kind and compassionate places for kids.  As they started to work on their presentations, it struck me that I now had time to connect with students individually as I circulated and helped them create.  Another great way to get to know my students.

For many of the students, the exercise was a very positive one.  We all learned just how many places so many of our classmates have lived in the world and how many languages they already speak!  We had a chance to feel compassion for two students who are brand new to Oakville and to our school.  

It wasn’t all a success.  First, I entirely overestimated the students’ collective ability to actively listen to their peers, without the distraction of a device.  It did, however, allow us to engage in a great discussion about appropriate use of technology and how it’s simply rude to not pay attention when someone is sharing their life story with you.  Second, and while I don’t like to promote gender stereotypes, I observed that many of the boys had a much more difficult time sharing than the girls.  There were two male students who simply decided not to do the exercise.  I am convinced that they had their reasons.  So instead of just moving on, I opened up a new Google Slides presentation and we did it there, right on the spot, with the assistance of the class.  They still shared information about themselves, and I believe they learned a very important lesson that non-engagement is not an option.  

In the end, did we accomplish our goals of getting to know one another better, assessing prior learning and working on presentation skills? For the most part, yes.  Will I do this activity again?  Most definitely, yes!
Here’s what I will do even better the next time:   I will give them a few more weeks to ease into the class and engage in community-building activities that involve less risk at the beginning of the semester, before diving into this level of sharing.  In addition, I will consider asking them to share together in small groups rather than in front of the class.

As for French sucking?  The jury is still out on this one, but our community-building is showing signs of success!  We are now demonstrating our active listening skills and we have learned appropriate ways to show our appreciation after a classmate has presented.  We have also begun to embrace mistakes in pronunciation as wonderful opportunities to learn!  As we continue to engage in more of these activities, I am convinced that we will be able to push our second language learning even further as we embrace risk-taking, failing, and ultimately learning.  Curriculum THROUGH community!

And here are my next two ideas:  community circles and Androidify this week to lead us into a discussion of descriptive language in French.  I’ll keep you posted…

~Nancy Zigrovic