What did the community building process look like over time?

Vanessa Brown


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Sustaining community became critical for me as well as for my students:

I decided to have a talk with my English Department Chair about the pressures of the upcoming PSSA Writing test in regard to this new class. After tearfully expressing my concerns, she made it clear that everyone was expected to take the tests unless there was an IEP already in place to indicate otherwise. She also suggested that I should handle the situation as I saw most appropriate. With this window now opened, I left the conversation assured that I would just follow my gut. I didn't realize how much at that moment, but my gut and I were going to need a lot of support in the days, weeks and months ahead.

The Department Chair became one of my closest allies and confidants. As a matter of fact, she, my hall neighbor, my journal partner, and the Coordinators of the two Small Learning Communities across which I straddled daily, embraced each other as colleagues and friends. We became soul mates of sorts, through which we channeled ideas, raised critical questions, vented frustrations, shed tears, laughter and joy over small triumphs. We covered each other's classes when we took students on trips around the city including School to Career activities. We provided to each other the much-needed emotional, intellectual and professional support required to stay where we were. For me, it was exactly what I needed to help me focus as an inquiring practioner.

So, while it was clear that creating community for this new class was going to happen in carefully crafted stages, it was also pretty clear that I was going have to nurture a strong school-based community of adults as well. My core group of G-Town friends and colleagues were public and private witnesses to all that I have described in this project.

Sustaining community became critical for me as well as for my students

Rethinking community: From rules to procedures to process

Multi-purpose journals

Using Journals to Help Build Teaching & Learning Communities

Reading, writing, thinking and talking our way through

Sample Journal Activities

Classroom processes

Two poignant reading-writing experiences

Rethinking community: From rules to procedures to process

On Day two of my encounter with my new class, I announced that I was checking to see who was prepared with my required supplies as per the list I had distributed the previous day. The girl with the book bag had everything except the black and white marble composition book. Only one other person came remotely close. Over the noise, laughter and cursing, I told the group that they had until Friday to get prepared. Extra points would be given to everyone who was prepared 100%. I also wrote it on the blackboard. I reissued the supply list and asked each person to write down the new deadline on the list. All except two people complied. I also announced that people who could not get to a store could purchase supplies from me. Satisfied that they had heard and understood me, I didn't make a big deal out of anyone's non-compliance in copying the deadline. Instead I walked slowly around their desks, pausing to rest my elongated fingers on their desks. While I talked, the previous day's latecomers, who had arrived on time this day, just giggled. The beautiful young lady, who had been rubbing DJ's leg the previous day, sucked her teeth loudly more than once obviously irritated at my request and lack of response to her teeth sucking, but she took another list and copied down the new deadline.

Andre and three others, I found out later, were cutting. This meant that I would have to repeat the scenario several times before everyone heard the same thing at the same time.

It actually took about two weeks before everyone had all that I required and even then Andre brought nothing. One-on-one meetings, assigned detentions for cutting and pink slips to the disciplinarians had not had any influence. Eventually, I called Andre's mother (success was achieved only after the third try) and requested a conference. Two days after the conference he was prepared, as well.

In the mean time, I sold journal composition books for 50 cents and binders filled with loose-leaf paper and dividers for $1.00 to unprepared students. Andre later brought a second journal from me saying he was now going to keep a journal at home and at school.

... Andre later brought a second journal from me saying he was now going to keep a journal at home and at school....

Multi-purpose Journals (We kept these in labeled mini-crates on the window sill of the classroom. Each class had their own crate.)

In the beginning we used journals to respond to prompts related to pieces of short literature, current events and daily living and personal experiences. For most of my classes (every class of every grade on my roster used journals), the journal writing process took about fifteen minutes of the beginning of the class unless they were a part of another part of the lesson as well. For this new class, I spent about 80% of the time during the first two months reading, explaining, copying and sharing journal responses.

Transitioning from one activity to another was a challenge. Consequently, I often made the journal experience serve for what would ordinarily have been class work and homework. The binders were used initially for copying notes from the board, responding to read alouds or short pieces of literature and for storing handouts. This slowly helped us establish somewhat of a routine while also giving me samples of student work to analyze. I came early or stayed after school in the afternoon to check the journals and to write short responses to each student's entry.

Once the majority had books, paper and pens, I began to push more for consistency and self-control. The school supplies sort of represented studenthood. Against the advice of my teacher husband and a few other friends, I handed out line paper and pencils to the few persons who neither bought supplies from me nor purchased them on their own. Those students generally had very sporadic attendance. At least the papers recorded some evidence of their presence from time to time. Later these proved to be bargaining chips when I had to submit grades or reference samples of student work for reports, IEP conferences and talking to parents or students.

Over the next several weeks, we used the journals to define some purposes for being in school, particularly in English class. I used my own journal writing to share my purposes and passions for teaching. I told them why I became a teacher. I wanted no less for all of my students than what I wanted for my own children who were also young adults. I answered all their subsequent questions, including some that were a bit personal. I told them about where I grew up and why education had come to be so important to me. In spite of hoots and chides, I even showed them pictures of me in high school with my "Afro" and African Bubbas, as well as, pictures of me participating in school activities. I found opportunities to talk about my days of working in Black Panther run food co-ops and tutoring centers and having attended a Panther Convention to rewrite the American Constitution.

These topics would many times lead to one-on-one challenges and profane outburst. DJ and Andre particularly seemed to get angry about any sharing that hinted of working for change in the overall community.

Nonetheless, I felt I was mapping out a strategy to break through the "stuff" that seemed to be weighing down their ability to relax and accept the "classroom." There seemed to be some resistance to teaching, learning, trust, community, co-ownership, listening, speaking, writing and structured and unstructured positive social relations. So, I chose to first remove some of the barriers around who I was and why I was there.

... I felt I was mapping out a strategy to break through the "stuff" that seemed to be weighing down their ability to accept the "classroom."

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Using Journals to Help Build Teaching & Learning Communities

Reading, writing, thinking and talking our way through

I was passionate about creating a more fluid space where all of those things could coexist. Bell Hooks (1994, p.115) posits the "classroom becomes a dynamic place where transformation in social relations are concretely actualized and the false dichotomy between the world outside and the inside worlds of the academy disappears." I decided to use the journals as a tool to assist both teacher and students to break down these invisible barriers. Genuine shared laughter eventually led to an appreciation for who we were. Some of the processes I have listed (left) provided room for laughing and crying while thinking about and responding to topics addressed in the journals.

It was obvious very early on that position and power were important. These processes gave everyone an opportunity to preserve theirs. My role was to model and coach others on how to make room for both the person and the process in the group. This wasn't easy, but I found that by doing the following during read-alouds, read-arounds, shared writing, discussions and journal sharing, students slowly began to honor the words, feelings and thoughts of their peers.

Some classroom processes:

  • Look at each student intently using facial expressions to illustrate active listening
  • Take notes on what students say and refer to them when addressing the class and/or individual students
  • Say "thank you" when a student has appropriately shared some reading or writing piece with the group
  • Speak in conversational tones, even when the group is loud
  • Succinctly restate rambling responses and thank a speaker for providing so much to think about
  • Admit mistakes
  • Laugh even when the joke is on me
  • Ask for help
  • Ask for permission to help
  • Cry when I can't help it
  • Share my fears, disappointments, hopes and dreams
  • Use a quiet signal or facial expression to deter others from interrupting
  • Don't interrupt slow readers or speakers
  • Listen, look and listen and look again to student words, phrases, moves and rhythms
  • Wait patiently (anywhere from seconds to days to weeks)
  • Model thinking aloud

Sample Journal Activities

  • Doubting and Believing
  • Agreeing and Disagreeing
  • Split page note-taking (taking and making notes)
  • Responding to open ended writing prompts
  • Drawing
  • Rapping and Jammin' on a word
  • Text rendering
  • Role playing
  • Dialectical journal writing

Two poignant reading-writing experiences on our way to establishing community purposes and making text-to-self and text-to-world connections

These reading-writing and talking experiences paved the way for much of the change that later occurred in our class. One had to listen and watch carefully, however to the mood, movements and rhythms of the students to tell that it was happening.

Experience 1: This text was used as a shared reading. After a brief check-in on prior knowledge about Frederick Douglass and the institution of slavery, I read from my own 1968 copy of the book and the students read from a copy of page 49. While reading, students were encouraged to jot any word, phrase or sentence that stood out to them while reading and listening to the text in their journals.

Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, "If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master-to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world." "Now", he said, "If you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master." . . . These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering and called into existence an entirely new train of thought.
. . . From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. It was just what I wanted and I got it at a time when I the least expected it . . . Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble to learn to read.
(Excerpt from Frederick Douglass' Narrative of the Life of An American Slave, 1968, p. 49)

Follow up: Introduction of a process made popular by Pat Carini called Text Rendering. Students were asked to speak in rounds, without interruption, reading out a sentence, phrase, word from the text and finally a word that came to mind while reading and listening to the text. They could choose from their journal jottings or find new potential renderings.

Talk for about 10 minutes with your table partners about a time when you learned something important to you. At home, write a short story or draw an illustration about a time you learned something important.

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Experience 2

Experience 2: This autobiography was used as a shared reading. I think that it had the most profound effect of all on my 2nd period class. I read from a copy of the book while students read from copies of pp. 174-177. Checking in first on prior knowledge about Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam and the late Elijah Muhammad was helpful. Many of the students did not know who Malcolm X was. Some had never even seen the movie by Spike Lee that centered on his life. We also spent some time talking about "rehabilitation" of criminals and what that represents.

It was because of my letters that I happened to stumble upon starting to acquire some kind of a homemade education. I became increasingly frustrated at not being able to express what I wanted to convey in letters that I wrote, especially those to Mr. Elijah Muhammad. In the street, I had been the most articulate hustler out there-- I had commanded attention when I said something. But now, trying to write simple English, I not only wasn't articulate, I wasn't even functional. How would I sound writing in slang, the way I would say it, something such as, "Look, daddy, let me pull your coat about a cat, Elijah Muhammad--"

Many who today hear me some where in person, or on television, or those who read something I've said, will think I went to school far beyond the eighth grade. This impression is due entirely to my prison studies . . . I saw that the best thing I could do was get hold of a dictionary---to study, to learn some words. I was lucky enough to reason also that I should try to improve my penmanship. It was sad. I couldn't even write in a straight line. It was both ideas together that moved me to request a dictionary along with some tablets and pencils from the Norfolk Prison Colony School . . . I read more in my room than in the library itself . . . When I had progressed to really serious reading, every night at about ten p.m. I would be outraged with the "lights out." It always seemed to catch me right in the middle of something engrossing. Fortunately, right outside my door was a corridor light that cast a glow into my room. The glow was enough to read by, once my eyes adjusted to it. So when, "lights out" came, I would sit on the floor where I could continue reading in that glow . . . At one hour intervals the night guards paced past every room. Each time I heard the approaching footsteps, I jumped into bed and feigned sleep. And as soon as the guard passed, I got back out of the bed onto the floor area of that light-glow, where I would read for another fifty-eight minutes--until the guard approached again. That went on until three or four every morning. Three or four hours of sleep a night was enough for me. Often in the years in the streets I had slept less than that . . .

Haley, Alex. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The Ballantine Publishing Group, New York, 1964. pp. 174-177.

Follow Up: This piece provoked the liveliest response of any that I introduced over the first couple of weeks. Andre and several others felt such empathy. The girl who had spent the first few days rubbing DJ's leg was almost in tears. I asked students to write a short letter to Malcolm and share with him what most stood out about the piece. Below are Andre and DJ's journal entries.

Andre wrote . . . Dear Malcolm, I knowd that you is a determine man who wan better lif for you self. You is a good man. I wished you was not in jail. Now thet you can read, you will not have to steal or do bad thing any mor. I thng that you really want to read. I do to. I want to know a lot of words like you do. Thets what stands out to me, thet you want to know a lot.Then you will be able to write like how you want to mr Muhammad. Keep up the good work. Andre

DJ wrote . . . Dear Mr Malcom X, I thank that you was a great person cause you tried hard to make yourself better eventhough you was in jail. You learned a good lesson. Now you will help others. Now you got a reason to know more. You have purpus. I am very proud of you. DJ

Follow up: In journals, write about a time when it was important to make a change in the way you did things.

A week later, we read a speech by Malcolm X: "See for yourself, listen for yourself, think for yourself." Then we learned how to make character webs and various forms of brainstorming graphic organizers for stories. We talked about the author's craft and various writing elements. Each new process seemed to usher in more cooperation and stability in the room. Just before time to do our State Writing assessments, I introduced Writer's workshop (albeit with a few occasional arguments among workshop members and at least one physical altercation). This later became a saving grace.

...This piece provoked the liveliest response of any that I introduced over the first couple of weeks....


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Andre's & DJ's work