Community has to be one of my favorite words. It’s a word that has been steeped in a strictly religious context for me for so many years, yet the idea of community, belonging to a socially connected root system, has also been life saving. Communities are where I found healing from trauma, where I found parents and queer elders, where I found partners and friends, where I learn. Community is relational. It is a critical element of change and visible demonstration of our relational values, so how do we bring folks together in a classroom to build this community, how do we engage with students so that they are building community well, and also how do we uphold boundaries for the critical wellness of our students and ourselves? The following represents a few thoughts on community in the classroom, and discussions with colleagues about supporting students with relational intention in spaces of engagement. We hope that this is the start of many conversations about fostering community, and we welcome you to offer your thoughts, strategies, practices, trials, and questions.
First, it’s important to note that we’re approaching community from a hooks perspective: community is vital and necessary to the teaching and learning process. Without a spirit of community, we cannot approach the classroom with a democratic practice, minimize authoritarianism, or foster learning “…as an experience that enriches life in its entirety.” If we want to change our students’ lives, we have to recognize the value community has in the learning process, mainly that it is a relational process. As educators we focus a lot on how we can produce activities, assessments, reports to demonstrate our effectiveness in the classroom, but how many times do we look to the quality of our relationships with students to determine success? If humanizing and creating spaces of belonging and inclusion are necessary for equity work, then community needs to be the lens through which the classroom and engagement spaces are curated. In his work, Enhancing Adult Motivation to Learn, Raymond J. Wlodkowski makes note that “learning requires us to perceive a person’s thinking and emotions as inseparable from each other and from the social context in which the activity takes place” (96). Thinking and emotions are inseparable for the purpose of learning, which leads me to start asking some questions about my practice in the classroom, especially when I think about engaging students:
- How do I address my student’s emotions on a weekly basis?
- What language do my students have to talk about their own emotions?
- What language do I use to talk about emotions?
- What emotions do I bring to students?
- What emotions are most critical for fostering trust and inclusion?
When these basic principles of love form the basis of teacher-pupil interaction the mutual pursuit of knowledge creates the conditions for optimal learning. -bell hooksTeaching Community
If we approach the classroom with these questions and emotion-based principles first, the work of building community has a chance to stick. We cannot do community as an activity, we must approach students in the spirit of community. This is perhaps the largest takeaway that I’ve had in using relational/emotional principles for equity work: My beliefs about community and my own spiritual wellness are going to impact the community work in my classroom, relational wellness of my students, and the trust we have with each other.
So, the following are 5 core strategies and principles to remember when doing equity-focused student engagement and community building. We can take these principles as challenges to our own identities as educators and then also use them to curate meaningful spaces for students built on trust, inclusion, and belonging.
Strategy #1: Positionality Awareness & Trauma Acknowledgement
We have lately said that our first meeting with students is crucial. It’s the first day where we have the chance to make or break trust with students, but this is a false understanding. Our trust starts with students the day they learn our names, see our faces on websites, and watch our names tagged on Discord or GroupMe. Our names and reputations follow us, and students really love to help each other out with this. They know who to trust and who to avoid. We’d be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge this as a vital part of community building and student engagement. Our reputations are our responsibility. What presence do I put forth on campus to communicate trust to the students that I will potentially have in my classrooms?
This kind of engagement is unseen from our perspective, but not from our students’ perspectives. They are watching and they know.
One professor, in Picture of a Professor, writes about a critical activity she does with her students on the first day of class before addressing the syllabus or any other academic agenda items:
Grounded in the understanding of the structural conditions and institutional barriers that Latinas in the professoriate experience, and the importance of critical reflexivity for facilitating inclusive learning communities in the college classroom, in this chapter, I describe the “What Comes to Your Mind?” activity as a tool to help students recognize and work to transform their problematic biases about who a professor is. I offer this activity as a pedagogical tool for educators to use during the first day of class. Critical reflexivity can help facilitate students’ understanding of how their perceptions of who a professor is, or what a professor looks like, undermine opportunities for meaningful learning and the cultivating of positive student-educator relationships. (Fernandez 53)“Critical Reflexivity as a Tool for Students to Recognize Biases” by Jesica Siham Fernández
Fernandez flips the script a bit here to offer us a reflection on how students come to the professor-student relationship with biases as well. Positionality is a two-way street, and in order to cultivate meaningful engagement, we must tackle bias as a conceptual problem. In a similar manner, relationship experts encourage folks to see one another as supportive partners in tackling relational problems rather than seeing one another as the problem. This is a similar principle when applied to student-professor relationships: how can we tackle the problem of positionality and privilege together. We can acknowledge, provide language, address, and soothe. This practice builds trust on day one (for a detailed breakdown of Fernandez’s scripted exercise – consider coming to our March 30, zoom COP session during college hour)
For light-skinned, cishet, able-bodied folks, there exists a responsibility in acknowledging positionality and power dynamics before students walk into the classroom. This means bringing our faces to the students to help build that trust before the classroom. Whether it’s on a website or in the engagement centers, our online and physical presence across the campus matters when we present ourselves in the classroom.
In a similar manner, bringing awareness to the traumas that students face because of these power imbalances is also crucial. Bettina Love in We Want to Do More than Survive, reminds us that the education system is built to reiterate the racial and identity inequities of our larger society and “are often forced to simply survive the harsh conditions of school, and this focus on survival limits their ability to truly thrive and be well.” (qtd. in Venet 59). So, how can we break away from the classroom as a place of trauma and bring in healing? How do we address the realities of trauma without overwhelming or dismissing students’ experiences and emotions (and our own)?
Strategy #2: Personal Relationships in Visible Spaces
When as professors we care deeply about our subject matter, when we profess to love what we teach and the process of teaching, that declaration of emotional connection tends to be viewed favorably by administrators and colleagues. When we talk about loving our students, these same voices usually talk about exercising caution. -bell hooks, Teaching Community
There are several ways in which we can have relational value in the student-professor engagement. We can bring ourselves to the visible spaces of where students live. In other words: get out there. Step out into the community. Find the pockets of where students are and be there.
- Hosting office hours in spaces where you can find connections to student communities is a great example of building trust into our reputations as faculty.
- Being present for students and taking an interest in their holistic college experience helps humanize us, giving them a context of who we are as people outside of the classroom. If we’re not with students outside of the classroom, it’s going to be more challenging to find moments of community in the classroom.
- Two of our colleagues are going to share more about this, but using the engagement centers as pivotal spaces to build trust and inclusion can be fruitful when it comes to being faculty who are trustworthy.
- Focus on stories: listening to student stories is also another great way to engage in these spaces, making their stories the central focus of your engagement can inform our practices. If we want to reach them in the classroom, let’s find out who they are outside of it.
Strategy #3: Creating Critical Wellness
Another strategy for engagement that fosters community-building is approaching the classroom space (online and F2F) with critical wellness. In Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education, Venet reminds us that “[h]umanizing school requires that we dispense with the outdated idea that children or adults can somehow divorce their brains from the bodies. Why do schools so often pretend that it’s possible to leave our emotional and physical selves outside of school and bring only our intellectual selves into the classroom?”(58). Honoring students’ wellness means addressing the ways that their bodies and emotional histories are present with us in the learning process. Venet challenges us to create classrooms and engagement spaces as “places that can increase our personal and community wellness, not deplete it” (58). If our focus on learning seeks only to engage the intellect, we are doing our students a disservice. They walk through the doors and the browser windows with a whole host of emotions, and more tragically, with not a lot of language or tools to even recognize that they do.
One of the challenges and barriers I’ve sought to tackle (and I know others are as well) is to provide students with language and space for emotional regulation before I ask them to produce an artifact or face an academic challenge. By giving language to their emotions, students can ease anxieties, increase blood flow, stimulate spatial awareness, and find an outlet for potential healing. Venet takes the term critical wellness from Tyrone C. Howard and contributors in All Students Must Thrive, focusing specifically on the point that “wellness cannot be a solo endeavor” (58-59). Healing takes a village, and for 16-weeks (or 8 if you’re fast-tracking), we have an opportunity to facilitate this process and weave it in with the learning. By focusing on topics like students’ mental health, coping mechanisms for anxiety, emotional regulation, and trauma awareness, we allow students to be fully human – to showcase their inner life in conjunction with their visible identities.
There are several strategies I’ve adopted and created to do this, which I will link to here, and include scripts for:
- Writing and identifying emotions
- Regulating breathing in the classroom together
- Anxiety soothing
- Emotional regulation
Most of this can be done fairly quickly (5 min), but the act of consistency (doing it more than once) and intentionality (starting with it), addresses students’ whole selves in the learning process.
Strategy #4: Boundaries Create Safety
Perhaps a counterargument to this perspective is: but how much of this is really my responsibility? I can’t answer that for any one person, but I can say that the more we provide relational support for students, the more successful they’ll be. This doesn’t mean we enable oversharing or focus solely on these relational skills, but rather use our relational skills when needed, strategically and intentionally, by setting boundaries.
Having scripts readily available for when students venture into more delicate conversations can be very helpful as we navigate the growing mental health crises on our campuses. My class in the fall had a very robust discussion one day on our theme of love. They asked questions that were text-driven but deeply personal. At the point at which they asked if they should “break up with so-and-so because of they way he’s been treating me,” I said, “I’m not really trained to give that kind of advice or support, but I definitely encourage you to talk to a therapist.” The class, represented by multiple voices shouted: “But YOU are our therapist. We need your help.”
While I redirected the thought that I would be a therapist to them, what didn’t escape me was their need to be seen in that moment. That someone would teach them not only how to write, but how to love well, how to communicate, how to set boundaries. It’s important to note that this was in week 10 or so, and after we’d built a lot of trust around the topics of love, relationships, systemic oppression, and healing. We’d written about love, we’d discussed it, but now they wanted to know how to embody it. I was out of my element, and I believe I stumbled my way through that conversation. In this next semester, I’m teaching the same themes, but I’m preparing scripts now for how to create boundaries with our conversations. Boundaries that allow me to tell them I see them, but that also keep me and others’ safe in the classroom from potentially triggering or oversharing moments.
Scripting potential conversations and responses to emotional distress is also a great way to foster engagement with students. It is a teaching moment that says “Even though I can’t directly help you, I still care that you receive the help you need.”
- What content in your classroom leaves students emotionally charged?
- How can you script and prepare for responses ahead of time to foster inclusion without cutting off their emotional experiences?
- How can we teach others in the class how to respond and create boundaries as well?
Interested in scripts? Come to our March 30th session during college hour on Zoom!
Strategy-esque #5: Don’t do it alone
This last strategy is based solely on opinion, but also kinda not. None of this work should be done in a vacuum, a silo of coffee-induced lesson planning and course building. In the spirit of community, we need each other as well. I assume that’s partially why you’re reading this, and also why you’ll attend our session later this month (March 30, college hour, zoom – see flyer). If student engagement is going to be genuine, it’s going to need practice, so how do you check-in with colleagues? How do you foster emotional regulation in your spaces? What space is there for vulnerability for the sake of humanizing our processes and putting people first? This work requires us to start with ourselves by acknowledging our emotional responsibility to be people of trust with one another and for the sake of our students’ wellness and success.
Further Questions for Thought:
- How do I address my privileges and positionality in my classrooms and engagement spaces early in the semester? Throughout?
- How can I instill a reputation of trust before students enter the classroom?
- How do I address the traumas that students have experienced because of the personal and systemic prevalence of others’ positionalities?
- What are my boundaries when it comes to offering students’ support? Are these intentional or presumed?
- How do I communicate these boundaries?
- How do I bring relational value to the forefront of my practice?
- Where can I show up more with students?
Fernández, Jesica Siham. “Critical Reflexivity as a Tool for Students to Recognize Biases: A First Day of Class Conversation on What a Professor Looks Like.” Picture of a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning, edited by Jessamyn Neuhaus, West Virginia UP, 2022, pp. 51-67.
hooks, bell. Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, Routledge, 2003.
Venet, Alex Shevrin. Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education, WW Norton & Company, 2021.
Wlodkowski, Raymond J. Enhancing Adult Motivation to Learn, Josey-Bass, 2008.
Come to Our Community of Practice!
Community of Practice: Student Engagement & Community Building
March 30th, 2023 | 12:50pm – 1:50pm
Hosted by: Alex Gilbert (English), Thatcher Carter (English), Sharon Walker (Umoja), Tim Gutierrez (Sociology), and Thea Marie Seals (LASSE/WRC)