Classroom and Community: An Attempt to Bridge the Divide

At Good Shepherd, we have a process for helping students arrive on time for class with the necessary equipment for their lesson. The first bell rings just 5-minutes prior to the lesson giving students 5-minutes to finish up their lunchtime activity, gather their equipment from their lockers, and make their way to their timetabled lesson. Students are expected to be at their class ready for the lesson to begin by the time the second bell rings. We are a large College and we need systems like this to support the movement of hundreds of adolescents and teenagers.

One of my Year 8 students is consistently late and very rarely organised. He’s often racing up the stairs to the classroom five-minutes into the lesson, bursting through the doors with a very loud, “sorry I’m late miss!” racing to a spare seat and diving to sit down. He regularly then realises he has forgotten his laptop, phone, headphones, pencil case and books and has to collect my Student Movement Pass to head back to his locker to collect his belongings.

He is a great kid who is loved by his peers, and as a footy player, and a young hunter and fisherman, he is valued part of the rural Top End community. Like most 13-year-old boys in our Year 8 cohort, he spends his weekend’s camping, fishing, hunting, quad-biking, and of course, playing Fortnite. School can be a little painful compared to a weekend like this.

From the top of the stairs, as I let students into the class and give them time to get settled in after 40-minutes in Darwin’s intense build-up, I can see this young man with his friends in the courtyard. He is either at the centre of a group conversation or one-on-one with his hand on his friend’s shoulder. As he settles into our lesson, often 10-15 minutes late, I ask him just what his conversations involve. I’ve discovered that he is, in essence, holding court.

As he holds court with students from not only his year level but also those younger and older than him, he is negotiating among different friendship groups, he is resolving conflicts and peace-making, he is coordinating after-school footy matches by messaging a coach and disseminating the information, he is organising itinerary’s for weekend hunting, fishing, and camping trips, and recently as his peers merge from Year 8 into Year 9, he is helping his friends navigate just what it means to “go out” with a girl. He is essentially doing the work of a valued and effective community leader. He is mastering a large variety of approaches to learning skills as he daily holds these 10-15 minutes sessions with a wide variety of his peers. The highly empathetic side of his nature and his natural magnetism and leadership skills are well and truly being activated.

After watching this and listening to this student with his friends, I’ve considered the many ways in which my classroom can be a natural transition and compliment for this student to develop as a community leader. School can often be such a clinical, artificial simulation of our context and community. And our curriculum so very narrow in relation to the lives of our students.

I’ve found that as I have transitioned my classes to primarily project-based, self-managed learning with lots of conferencing and feedback points throughout the term, the open-ended nature of this has allowed students to exercise agency and also develop skills that are important to them beyond the classroom.

This student and one of his classmates decided to flip a project around and begin with the makerspace physical representation part of the text production before they engaged in the writing process. This meant that they are experienced experts and can use their leadership skills to teach and guide their classmates in the process of the DEEP design thinking process.

To compliment his camping trips and to inspire himself to consider the possibilities of literature while he is out in nature, this student is transforming Slim Dusty’s The Pub With No Beer to a narrative rich with descriptive and emotive language that shows the nature of the outback and the emotions wide-open, wild spaces evoke; to achieve his goal of reading two novels in one year he has chosen to spend one lesson per week reading Jason Reynolds Long Way Down while listening to Lee Kernaghan and lying on the grass in the shade of a tree on the edge of the school oval; and to complement his language skill development he has chosen to teach a few of his mates who are regularly in trouble how to proofread and self-edit their own work.

Harnessing what is natural in our students can help bridge the divide between school and life beyond. Listening to them, watching how they interact, and valuing what we hear and see can make the school experience of our students a pain-free, valuable and memorable experience.

I still have much to learn in how to create a classroom environment and how to structure learning experiences that are personalised and allow for students to flourish academically and personally. Some questions that have framed my thinking over the past few months are:

  • How can the relationship between the classroom and the community be strengthened?
  • How can I create the conditions for students to develop as community leaders?
  • How can I work within the processes and systems of school to ensure that students individuality and strengths are honoured? And, how do I do this for all 160 students on my roll?
  • Basically, how can I create a classroom experience that is enjoyable and responsive to the unique nature of my students?

Header Image: Network by Yu luck from the Noun Project

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