Sometimes people look at my third grade class and wonder how we got this way. They smile and shake their heads. It doesn’t take much for the class to break into spontaneous song or into a combustion of creative questions and ideas and expression. I stay amazed. We resolve things that come up and stick together when things go down. Our ideas come in storms, and we share the results in a sea of calm. We are often surprised when the bell rings at the end of the day. This may sound ideal, but it isn’t easy to manage: we are a team with many captains. When people ask me how we got this way, I know what they really want to know is this: How did we, as a third grade class, become a community?
“How do you teach that?” they want to know. And the answer is this: you can’t. You can’t teach community, you have to build it. And you can’t build community without learning love, trust, kindness, responsibility, forgiveness, humor, honor, fairness, and relationship. You can’t learn any of this without honest conversation and you can’t learn honest conversation without an expanding and deep vocabulary.
We begin at the beginning. In a summer letter, I ask children to bring a riddle to share on the first day of school. The riddles help children find their voice in the group as we begin to learn the difference between laughing together and laughing at each other.
We spend the first nine weeks learning how to greet one another with a handshake and eye contact. We learn how to honor questions that have more than one right answer, and how to shift from one point of view to the other. We learn how to apologize and how to forgive. We learn how to listen and we learn how to share. We learn that singing in parts is a way to make music together. We play games and learn that it is okay not to win every time, and that we can celebrate the wins of others.
“How do you find the time?” people ask. My answer is that it is too costly not to teach these things. Community builds the academic life and deepens inquiry. I try to communicate that we have all of the time in the world for the exchange of deepening ideas and simultaneously that there is urgency to learning. And there is. Pacing charts, state standards, and mandated tests are real. We try to keep it real by making what we learn meaningful. State mandates are serious. We take them seriously by taking our world seriously. The standards of learning (SOLs) are presented in chunks and pieces, but that doesn’t mean they should be taught that way.
Third graders in the state of Virginia learn about Rosa Parks and Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King, Jr. This is a rich opportunity. We’ve been talking about slavery and segregation and injustice. We’ve been talking about how we, all of us together, can bring things around right and how to fight ignorance, indifference, and bitterness. Dr. King called his vision for this the Beloved Community. It is a concept that takes time and heart to understand, but we are getting it. After all, we’ve been working on it since September. It takes time to build a better world.