If You Build It

Nurturing a cohesive community is so integral to the culture here at Parker that it is written right into our mission. As such, the beginning of our school year is full of intentional events designed to strengthen our school community. In a typical year, many of these events would take the form of social gatherings and group activities. Our current climate, however, has encouraged us to recognize what is truly meaningful about these traditions — building community — and to preserve the integrity of that goal with thoughtful creativity. Fortunately, ingenuity is exactly what Parker teachers do best.
Everywhere you looked this week, you would find teachers hard at work establishing their communities. Parker teachers do not come into their classrooms with a preset list of rules. Every year, the teacher works with the group of children that they have to determine rules that respond to each community’s unique voice. At the youngest level, this involves talking with children about what we need to help our classroom feel safe and friendly for everyone. Teachers encourage students to think about ways in which their classrooms are like families: “We read books a lot,” “There are grown ups,” “We take care of each other.” Following this logic, the children then begin to recognize that each family has rules that work for them. From this common ground, each class then creates their own set of classroom rules.
As our students grow, so does the developmental level of sophistication each teacher brings to their community building work. In Lynn’s 1-2 class, the students continued planning for their outdoor classroom this week by launching into some fundamentals of democracy. Each student designed and presented an idea for what their dream classroom space would look like. However, before they begin to build, the students had to agree on where they were going to center their community. The class discussed and agreed on three favorite locations, and then held a vote. Before the vote, the children thought critically about the possible outcomes of their election. One student, wondered what would happen if two of the options were tied? “Would those two then team up?” another child asked. “No,” replied third, “I think if that happens we should do another vote using only those two options!” In addition to helping the group coalesce around one idea, this exercise also served as a powerful real-world lesson that in a democracy where everyone has a voice, you may not necessarily get your first choice. As one 1st grader acknowledged, “If you vote and the one you don’t like wins, you actually have to be okay with it.”
Likewise, Nellie’s 3-4 class has also been engaged in cooperative problem-solving to create a community that meets everyone’s needs. Beginning with a focus on growth mindset, the 3-4 students are practicing what it means to add to the group instead of taking away, so that everyone’s voice is heard. For example, the class recognized that some students were having difficulties with wanting to wander and move during their morning meeting time. As a group, they decided that it made sense for them to change their schedule to hold morning meetings first, followed by a treasured time known as “Sit Spots”, which allow students a 5 minute chunk of time dedicated to solo observation in nature. This is just a small example of how students and teachers are working together to ensure everyone’s needs are met within boundaries that ensure the success of the group.
At the middle school level, community discussions respond to the developmental abilities and needs of adolescents by focusing on the balance between individual independence and group identities. Advisors are all working with their students to establish relationships and customs that will set the tone for their community for the year ahead. 5th graders, for example, designed and are executing a Google survey to determine which class traditions they would like to adopt. 7th grade, meanwhile, is preparing for a class election to appoint a president and vice-president. Middle school students at all levels are also participating in get-to-know-you exercises designed to help students identify ways in which they are distinct along with their commonalities as a group.
When you put student interests and ideas at the center, children will instinctively unite towards common goals. This is the powerful belief that underlies so much of what we do here at Parker. This week, as teachers strove to ensure that each student’s voice was heard and represented, they were also laying the groundwork for students to feel invested in a community that they all helped to create. Students caring about their community is the foundation from which all else is built. 
*Robert C. Parker School follows NYS guidelines and protocols for school safety during Covid.