Create community in the classroom–and no, you don’t have to be friends

I am teaching 3 sections of Latin 3 this year.  As they have begun assembling with me this week, the first week back at school, the realities of our very large Latin program become quickly apparent–some really positive, and some just really real.

  • As we have been experiencing, our Latin program looks like the face of the school, i.e. the wonderful multi-cultural mix that is our school is also our Latin program.  No one is excluded.  All kinds of learners are not only welcome, but they are successful.  Last year, out of 700 students in the program, we had 0 failures, and no one is unhappy with that.
  • The variety of places that students are coming from (think adverse childhood experiences) is wider than ever, and because average class sizes are 33 right now, denser.
  • The differentiation in Latin ability in each class fluctuates all the time.
  • And while this last observation may not seem like much, it inserts itself especially at this time of the year.  There was once a time when Latin students could expect to have the same teacher all the way through 4 years of study.  These days our Latin students and teachers really grow to like each other, and so as I look out on my Latin 3 classes, some of them have had me before, some have had Keith Toda before, some have had Rachel Ash before, some have had John Foulk before, some have had Miriam Patrick before, and some of them have had a mix of us before. They have varying feelings about not having “their teacher” this year.  The room, the space we share together is in need of some work so that we can work well together.

I’ve been moved, challenged and inspired by reading Christopher Emdin’s book For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood And the Rest of Ya’ll Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education. Emdin is associate professor in the department of Mathematics, Science and Technology at Teacher’s College, Columbia University.

I have tried something during these first days of school inspired by his work, and I will admit that I have a long way to go in implementing his practices–but that’s my aim.  I’ll write more specifically about that in another post.

Here’s what I’ve done and why.  It was clear to me after just the first day of school that while these were largely juniors who have matured a lot since I taught many of them as freshmen, the energy in the room felt jagged and disparate.  That’s hard to explain, but the best way is to say that it did not feel like a community–not like it did back when I was the only teacher they had.  In that case, by year 3 we all had already learned how to trust and work with each other.

So, on the second day, after I called the roll, I had instructions on the board: Considite vos in ordine alphabeti, a parte dextra ad sinistram.  Once I verified that they all understood, I pulled out my phone, hit the timer and yelled Incipite!

It took the first class 2:23 (minutes:seconds).  It took the second class 4:04.  It took the third class 3:47.  I conducted the next 10 minutes in English.  I asked them to explain why it took them that long to get themselves in alphabetical order.  The answers that came forth?  They did not know each others names–especially last names.  They were waiting on someone to tell them what to do.  They didn’t know that alphabetical meant by last name. They felt shy and unwilling to step up or speak out.

I told them that I had done this because I wanted us to begin to form a community. I defined community as a group of people sharing space together in a way that is good for everyone–and that we would be sharing the space of my room every day, 5 days a week, for 52 minutes.  I observed that they did not need to be friends to form community and that community was not an accident.  Community making requires effort.  I then asked them, in Latin, to find out from those sitting around them, their full names.

On the second day, I repeated with slightly different directions.  They still had to order themselves alphabetically, but from left to right and from the back to the front. The first class took 0:56; the second 0:57 and the third 1:05.  All of them were significantly faster.  I asked them to explain that to me.  They said, in short, that they remembered from yesterday who they were sitting next to, and they learned from yesterday that if they asked people their names and told people their names it worked out much faster.

Here is what I want to drive home for all of us:  acts of community building are as easy to begin as asking and giving a name. An act of community building is easier the second time because of the first time.  And this: acts of community destruction only create more destruction.  Our world is much too full these days of community destruction. We are forgetting how to build community. I want generations of young people growing up behind me to know how to create community.

I have felt, in just two days, the atmosphere in the room change–pretty dramatically. It’s beginning to feel like a little community.

Bob Patrick