Building Community: Where to start?

Vanessa Brown


. . . I was devastated, yet I suspected not only that this was a class that would benefit from the development of community, but also that a sense of community was crucial if any learning was to happen at all. (Ackerman, 1996)

Andre, DJ and the students who made up the ninth grade English class that came to me one month after school began---one month after moving to rosters of their own that had never brought them to my side of the building; one month after I had completed many of the typical opening school, community building activities that have proven so reliable in the past; one month after I had already completed a favorite Writing Project warm up that always yielded the first student work of the year had been hung around the room, the two-part interview illustrations---had not been a part of any real community and they had not an inkling or care about what had happened in Room 526 before their arrival, or so it seemed.

One wall was covered with colorful acrostic poems, movie trailers, news ads and posters to introduce members of my former second period ninth grade class and two other twelfth grade classes to each other and me. Our rosters had changed so abruptly that we hadn't had time to take them down before the new class arrived. Second period had already read and discussed The Little Old Man Who Could Not Read. Thoughtful, sensitive journal responses had been written to excerpts from The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Black Boy, Anastasia Krupnik and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, written by himself. My former second period responded quickly to the requirement to buy a black and white marble journal book to keep in the classroom for such responses. We had become a community in a little over five weeks. Reading, writing, talking, and thinking together about what was important to learn and to be able to do had made us whole.

Class after class had entered that room and accepted with little protest the idea that we were a teaching and learning community. Students had read excerpts of the literature and most of them made all the necessary connections to the purposes of education in our lives. Confidences, deep personal confidences, had been shared. Room 526 was the place where students felt honored and they recognized the significance of teaching and learning.

But, for the next three months or so, things would be very different, at least during second period.

...I decided to follow my gut-- sick as it was-- to go back and rethink my assumptions about teaching and learning....



Margo Ackerman's words could not be more close to my own thoughts about my ninth grade special education students than if I had written them myself. Her middle school male students, whom she loved and wrote about, a mass of confusion and endless challenge, could have easily been my class at G-Town High some ten years later.

October 9th became my Pearl Harbor Day. Unsuspecting attackers slipped in and seemingly without relent proceeded to disrupt the status quo and all that was precious to my very predictable little community.

I was greeted by one beautiful plump fourteen year old with, "What chu lookin at?" A second girl, who entered quietly with a book bag pulled tight to her bosom, looked straight ahead and refused to talk to anyone, including me. Four male students ran full speed into the room twenty minutes after the late bell rang, "We didn't know where your room was." DJ, who charmed me immediately with a broad smile, asked, "Dis your classroom?" Another young lady, entered slowly, but refused to give her name. She slipped into a seat next to DJ and began to rub DJ's inner leg. When I asked if she was supposed to be in Room 526 during second period, she shouted at the top of her lungs, "I'm here, ain't I? What chu think?" then laughed hysterically. DJ took the opportunity to wink at me and nod his head yes, as she stared me down for two or three long lingering seconds. I managed to get her full name about fifteen minutes later in the period. Before the third period bell rang, one of the four boys who had come in late managed to fall out of his seat. Another smeared blue ink from an exploded pen across his desk. I cannot remember when Andre entered the room. He just sort of appeared. He sat front and center. He had no books or writing utensils. His glazed eyes stayed focused on me most of the period. It actually made me feel uncomfortable, as if he were looking through me---through my garments or . . . I don't know for sure. I have never been able to nail the feeling down, except to say, that I immediately felt I didn't want to spend any private time with this young man. The remainder of the group, all boys, leaned forward on the edge of their seats until the bell rang-they never relaxed or sat completely back in their seats. Some talked to themselves or to nearby students. Occasionally, one or two would call out a profanity across the room to get someone's attention.

Trying to take roll with this group was the hardest task I had attempted since the school year began and it wasn't until the next day that I actually confirmed who was in the room with whom I thought was in the room. I was surprised that only three or four of them actually knew each other's names. For a previous month or so, they had just been together---reacting to each other and any stimulus around them.

...Trying to take roll with this group was the hardest task I had attempted since the school year began and it wasn't until the next day that I actually confirmed who was in the room....

Fifty-three minutes was a long time that day. At the end of it, I had sort of taken roll, sort of collected roster schedules, sort of introduced myself and sort of gotten the class to introduce themselves. I did hand out class supply lists and reminded students to get to class on time the next day. And, I managed to smile and say, "I'll look forward to seeing everyone tomorrow." Thank God the bell rang signaling my thirty-minute lunch break. I was going to be sick.

Second period is confused, angry and out of control. And, so am I. I want my class back! I don't have the energy or the desire to do all that seems to be needed, now. One day! One day and I have had enough. The PSSA Writing Tests are coming up in a few weeks and I can hardly take roll. How will I ever get these students to think about writing for a test? or social action in their school and community? I don't know what to do. Should I force my way into "test prep" mode or go with my gut? I just really feel like crying. (Teacher journal, October 10, 4AM)

I was sick. Sick enough to go back to school the next day. I arrived by 7 AM. As usual, I entered through the campus back doors opened at that hour for the custodial staff and early arrivals like myself. Loaded down with brand new black and white marble composition books, pencils, pens colorful binders and reams of notebook paper, 100 sheets per pack, dividers, name labels, colored dots and a disposable camera. I had decided to follow my gut---sick as it was---to go back and rethink my assumptions about teaching and learning.
My plan included using my own charm, passion, motherly wit and professional knowledge to engage the attention of this class long enough to establish some purpose for education and through the establishment of that purpose to build a community to support those purposes. It proved not easy. I learned a lot of patience. I did a lot of rethinking and listening accentuated by copious note-taking before, during and after classes. Listening, in this case, was to be distinguished from observing, although there were many observations made. Listening helped me hear beyond the obvious. Many, many times I asked myself and other colleagues, "What do you think this means?" What do you hear in all of this?

Listening helped me hear beyond the obvious.