Last week, I wrote about how students, like cats, will come together in their own time. About how it’s important that every student is given the chance to be who they are in a comfortable and productive learning environment. Today, I want to continue that train of thought by talking about how community-building activities can help with student-to-student relationships.
The Cats Need to be Separated at First and Brought Together Slowly
Mikka’s diet has to be regulated. Because he likes to eat, he has a tendency to overeat, leading to him throwing up. He is also on a special urinary diet to prevent crystals from forming in his urinary tract.
Riel’s diet has never been regulated. He has always been free to eat whenever he likes. The only limits on his diet are really when I can be home to give him some fresh wet food. In this regard, he is self-regulating. This is great for me because I can leave him for extended periods of time without worrying about him being hungry.
In order to ensure that Mikka doesn’t overeat since introducing him to Riel, we’ve also been regulating Riel’s diet. What this means is that they get hungry around the same time – our carrot, as it were.
At first, we would feed each cat on opposites sides of a closed bedroom door. We moved to feeding them on opposite sides of the balcony screen door. Now, we are progressing to feeding them at the same time in the same room. Each time we bring them closer together, we first have to make sure they are comfortable eating next to but separated from each other. Sometimes, we take a step back when things start getting out of hand.
When we walk into class for the first time in September, the students are thrown together into a calculated mix. We put them into table groups based on how we read the class roster; we do it alphabetically, by gender, or somewhat randomly. On the first day of school, we only have the information we have gathered from their OSR, other teacher’s comments, or past experiences. Indeed, the students have a better understanding of each other than we do of any one of them.
I like to give my students the freedom to sit where they choose and work with who they like, so long as I approve it. This doesn’t always work well but I don’t know how their relationships have changed over the one-hour lunch break or ten-minute recess. I have found that most students will eventually settle into a space or group that is comfortable for them after a bit of trial and error and being asked by me to settle down or go for a walk. This isn’t always the case – sometimes, I need to take a more hands-on approach.
What I don’t do well is to introduce students to each other. I have this expectation that students will just come together and work well on their assignments. I figure that so-called “community building” activities are a waste of time.
They aren’t. Not at all. They are crucial to developing and facilitating a healthy working environment. They don’t need to be explicit team building activities and can be couched in larger projects.
Students, like cats, need time to adjust to each other, which often involves a compromise. They need to feel safe enough to be themselves around other students before they will show their true colours. We all need to feel valued and heard in order for this to occur. Everyone has a voice and they should use it. We also have a responsibility to listen to each other.
Cats will hiss, growl, or meow to express their discomfort. Students won’t do their work, wander the classroom, find the need to use the toilet, cry, or yell. Some may even start showing up late, get sick, or stay home. Students who are contributing members of a community, comfortable, and valued will be more engaged, supportive, and work well alone and with others. But it takes time to make this happen.
We need to be especially perceptive to students at the beginning of the school year. We need to use our lessons as carrots to pique students’ interest. We need to intentionally create opportunities for students to work together and with different people. We need to give students an opportunity to demonstrate who they are as individuals in an environment that is listening and responsive. We need to gradually reduce the strength of the barriers between them, taking a step back when necessary, in order to foster a learning community that is vibrant, dynamic, and productive.