09.15.2018

Robin R. Collins: Taking Care of One Another

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The class learned that one student’s success should not be at the expense of others.

On the last day of school, excitement mingles with farewell tears. The 5th graders I teach at Columbine Elementary in Woodland Park, Colorado, are particularly emotional because this is their last day in this building. For many, it’s the culmination of a six-year journey in the only school they have ever attended.

Attempting to bring closure to this journey, we sit in a circle on the floor for one final class meeting. Our meeting begins, as always, with a compliment circle; each participant chooses to give or receive a compliment or to pass. Over and over students express sentiments like, “I want to compliment the whole class. … We did a good job taking care of one another,” “We really became a family this year,” and “We were good to each other this year.”

These comments reflect the cohesive community this class of 20 kids has built during the school year. That cohesion did not occur naturally. Early in the year, I watched my band of students begin to fracture. It wasn’t just bickering and playground disagreements: Girls bullied other girls through insults and exclusion, cliques formed, students with low social skills were ostracized, and most students ignored classmates who had learning and physical differences that were outside their comfort zones.

As I pondered how to teach my students to respect one another, I thought of the personal and social responsibility standards Columbine Elementary uses to teach students what mature, responsible behavior looks like. We evaluate students quarterly and show them how to evaluate their own progress using a rubric of six skills, such as “listens attentively” and “supports and interacts positively with others”—the latter being the skill that seemed to apply here.

People can’t learn if they don’t feel safe. And a sense of safety goes beyond physical security to include a sense of purpose and belonging—of being able to be yourself and claim ownership of the place where you learn. Just as I want students to have ownership of classroom rules, I want them to own the class atmosphere and make it inclusive.

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