Each year I ask my staff what community means, the usual responses circle around place, people and shared visions and values. A check with the dictionary concurs. I often find there generally is one person or core of people that are identified as the Heart of any community. I’ve wondered what would happen if everyone was at the Heart?
18 years as director of the School of Arts and Sciences Extended Day Program in Tallahassee, FL, has provided me the opportunity to explore creating an environment of safety and belonging where students, families, and staff participate in fostering the growth of lifelong learners and responsible citizens through community building. In other words, everyone is at the Heart. Big stuff you say, but how do you do it?
Exposing the Cover Up
I am open in saying the workshops covering the gamut from STEAM to life skills are a cover up for teaching social skills. They are fun and exciting, but they are only the medium for building relationships with one another which is the heart of community and key to responsible behavior within any group of people. So while I don’t have a degree in social work or teaching for that matter, I am actively teaching social skills to a diverse population and ages. Concordia University’s School Age Degree and Conscious Discipline® provided me with the research and professional skills to support my original vision of out-of-school time programming.
Our school is an all-county charter school based on a lottery draw of students K-8th grade. We see an average of 80 students each afternoon and 50 before school. Many of our students attend all 9 years of school. Many of our workshops are split by skill/age in cluster groups similar to our school’s multi-age classrooms (k/1, 2/3, 4/5, MS) however many are not grade specific allowing siblings and friends to play and work within a wide variety of personalities. Our ratio is one adult to twelve students. Our workshops are flexible in size (12-24 students) but within the ratio we set of 1:12. And yes we have some of “those” students and parents.
The first six weeks are centered on getting to know our families and building a sense of safety and belonging. Daily, we begin meeting in smaller groups based on grade clusters. Here we learn each other’s names, lay out agreements about how our community wants to operate, have meaningful jobs that contribute to our wellbeing, and transition from academic to out-of-school time learning. At snack, we move into a larger un-graded setting for eating and playing. Forty minutes after final (MS/4/5) release, we move into one hour workshops selected by families and students bi-monthly. After workshops, students choose from active play outdoors or quieter play indoors.
The heart of our community begins daily with greetings. An adult and student are selected daily to be the greeters as students come in. These greetings require eye contact and touch in a playful manner and are often created by the students themselves. This is the first moment of saying, “you are important and valued here.” After putting their backpacks away, students lead and participate in a Brain Smart Start® developed by Dr. Becky Bailey of Loving Guidance. Students take on the responsibility (jobs) of uniting through a chant or song, de-stress through a brain break and deep breathing, building empathy through connecting with others, and committing to a goal for their time with us. The goal is often based on demonstrating one of the skills needed for the agreements that they chose. The accountability for the goal is on them. Often it comes by a community member noticing their actions in the day.
We’ve just concluded our first six weeks. Despite the school expansion building project, a new school administration, two hurricanes, doubling our extended day attendance, and new staff for our program, we are adjusting and settling into what our community looks and feels like. Are we there yet? No, but together we will get there. Our next step is to build that same Brain Smart Start® idea into the individual workshops we teach.