Want to build community at your school? Here’s how!

One of the many things that I learned at the Montgomery Institute’s Cultural Competency Workshop in Maryland was how important it is to build community in schools. Students must feel a connection to their school, and they must take ownership of it. If they don’t, they won’t be empowered to succeed. But how do educators build community?

Here are two ways we did it at my school:

1. Humans of [Your School’s Name Here] – My goal with this project was to show that my school is more than just a building with 1500 students in it. I wanted to focus on individual students and their unique stories. So, borrowing from the idea of Humans of New York, which features portraits and interviews collected on the streets of New York, I randomly approached students at the beginning and end of the school day and asked them if they would like to participate in the project. I had no shortage of volunteers. All of the students interviewed told interesting and compelling stories about their lives.  I photographed each student and sent the portrait and paragraph to our media center, where they were printed and laminated. I then put them up on the bulletin boards throughout the school. Almost every day I see students, teachers, parents, and visitors reading the stories, which provide compelling and distinctive insight into the lives of our diverse student body.

2. An All-School Dance Party – In some of the videos we watched at the Montgomery Institute, I saw schools having parties in their gyms and auditoriums. Music, food, and performances were often featured. So while working on our Action Plan, I got on the computer and began looking for a band to bring to my high school to entertain the students and make for fun day. First, I thought about finding a reggae group, which I thought would appeal to the widest swath of students. A Bob Marley cover band never got back to me. After a bit more searching, I found a group called Mo Bounce. Mo Bounce, described themselves as a funk/R&B band, stating “Mo Bounce creates a party, playing the funkiest hits from past to present. You will dance the time away to Mo Bounce’s captivating groove and energetic performance! When you need mo’ music, mo’ dancing and mo’ fun…You need MO BOUNCE!” These guys sounded perfect, and they responded to my email instantly. When I got back to my school, I met with my principal who gave his approval for the idea. It took some time to find a workable date – it needed to be after Advanced Placement and state testing but before the senior prom – but Bren of Mo Bounce was very flexible. When I explained that we were a low-income, multicultural school, he gave us a very good price, which was covered by a grant. Another key point was that Mo Bounce provided their own public address system and handled their own sound. I didn’t need to bother the music teacher or hire anyone for outside help.

My Advanced Placement English Literature class and I sat down to build the set list from Mo Bounce’s song repertoire, choosing classic tunes like James Brown’s “Get on Up,” and Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop til you Get Enough,” as well as more recent hits like Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk,” Maroon 5’s “This Love,” and Bruno Mars’ “Treasure.” We also made sure all lyrics were appropriate for a high-school audience.

I contacted the NECCO Company (New England Candy Company), which is practically located in our backyard, and they donated a huge amount of candy to help make the event fun. My sophomore class, which meets from 11:00 a.m. til 1 p.m. (we have a block schedule) was tasked with logistics, including helping to set up and break down the event (a valuable learning experience in its own right). The students were amazingly efficient in their handling of the show, anticipating issues and taking care of every aspect of the pre-show and post-show. When the performance began, these same students distributed the candy to the audience.

The band arrived promptly at 11 and began to set up. Gym teachers moved students away from the set-up area. The band would perform during the last period of the school day from 1:00 p.m. to 2:20 p.m. I asked the band if it would be okay to have a surprise guest performer – a student who would sing Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie.” They readily agreed. This added even more “community” to the event.

Our principal introduced the band, commending students on all their hard work during the school year. When the performance began, students ran down to the “dance floor.” A wide-range of students took over, and as I looked around, I saw students from our Robotics Teams, sports teams, Gay Straight Alliance, Culture Club, and Book Club, to name a few, dancing together and having so much fun. Even teachers got up to do the “Cupid Shuffle.” Mo Bounce’s lead singer, Bren, was masterful in getting the crowd pumped and energized. For over an hour and twenty minutes, students danced, sang, laughed, and generally had a great time. Even students sitting in the stands told me they enjoyed the performance and asked when we would do it again. The entire event brought our students together in a fun, relaxed way that strengthened our school community and built a strong cohesive bond.

There were a few issues I didn’t anticipate. The candy wrappers left a huge mess in the gym, and since I NEVER want the custodians at my school to be angry with me, I had about twelve students help with the clean-up. But all in all I was pleased with how things went. The next day students came in and out of the classroom thanking me for helping to make the event happen. I was even called “The Real MVP.” My AP and sophomore classes debriefed the show, commenting on its strengths and making suggestions on what we could improve for next time. In reality, the event was simple to pull off: get administrators on board, find the right band, make sure they have the right equipment, secure the space, and have the party. In the end, I knew Community Building Day was a success when one student said to me, “You know, Ms. Barile, if we did more things like that in school, students would like to come to school a whole lot more.”

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