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Advice for the First Week of School:
Create a Caring Community

By Deborah Kenny

Neuroscience demonstrates what progressive educators have known for years: social-emotional stability drives cognitive ability.

The wisdom of progressive education guides our work at Harlem Village Academies in all domains of learning, including academic as well as social-emotional learning. For example, we aspire to create not just respectful culture in our classrooms but respectful and independent culture to support our ambitious academic vision.

To this end, in every classroom within each of our five schools we start the year by focusing on developing a caring community. This shapes the way students feel about school which in turn impacts their behavior and depth of academic engagement and effort.

Here are some of the most effective progressive practices to create a caring community in the classroom and school-wide:

Early Bonding Experiences

The classic approach to building bonds of trust and love is outdoor camping. Those of us who attended summer camp as kids are familiar with the way the camping experience can build bonds like no other. Outward Bound teachers us that outdoor trips are an incredibly effective way to do this: kids get dirty, vulnerable, upset, and exhausted together, and they help each other. If camping is not realistic, another way is to start the school year by having students create something together that helps others in need, such as building a garden for the local community. The key is to start the year with some kind of experience that authentically builds relationships.

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Class Commitments

With teacher guidance, students start the year by creating a list of commitments for how they will treat each other — how they will function as a community. Entrusting students with the responsibility of creating commitments inspires them to uphold them. This is particularly effective with adolescents for whom peer approval is one of the most powerful motivators.

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Student-Created Goals

Empowering students with the responsibility to create their own goals — for academics as well as character — inspires them to work hard. Ownership of one’s own progress is intrinsically motivating for students of all ages. At HVA we teach students to self-monitor, independently track their progress, reflect thoughtfully, and self-assess as they continually work toward their goals.

Advisory

The late, great Ted Sizer and other progressive educators pioneered the practice of advisory. Advisory is based on the premise that it is imperative for each student to be personally connected with at least one caring adult who knows that student well and provides consistent guidance and support. Advisory helps students feel a sense of belonging and teaches them to build a close-knit community. We divide homerooms into smaller advisories which meet regularly as a group. In addition each student has personal time with his or her advisor as needed.

Circles

At Harlem Village Academies, our K-8 students start each day with an “opening circle” — a structure that continues to deepen relationships while reconnecting with a sense of belonging and emotional safety. The opening circle may also serve as a forum for discussing current events, social justice issues, and important topics such as peer pressure and social media pressure. At the end of each day, “closing circle” is a time for students to publicly thank one another for upholding commitments and to publicly apologize for breaking the commitments. It is a short and sweet but important way to end the day.

Keep it Going!

The best way for these structures to take hold in a school is for teachers to meet regularly as a group to brainstorm and push to continually improve. What’s working and what needs to change? What challenges do we need to address? What best practices can we share?

When school becomes a caring community, then students feel emotionally safe and nurtured. This provides a strong foundation for academic success throughout the school year.