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An inspiring new book from the Northeast Foundation for Children describes how a school staff uses traditions to weave a school of individual students, staff, and families into one community.
I have just finished reading Familiar Ground: Traditions that Build School Community, by Libby Woodfin, with contributions by Northeast Foundation for Children Staff (Northeast Foundation for Children, Greenfield, Mass., 1998). This 73-page book describes how a school staff uses traditions to weave a school of individual students, staff, and families into one community. And the focus is on all-school traditions, not those of a single teacher.
A glance at the Table of Contents brings the realization that this book covers unfamiliar ground -- ground seldom written about or addressed directly. Listings in the Table of Contents include The Knowing of Names, All-School Games, Greetings, and the Magic Penny Ceremony.
WHY ARE TRADITIONS IMPORTANT?
At Greenfield (Mass.) Center School, the staff uses all-school traditions to teach children how to be part of a community and to see themselves as valued members of that community. In the book's introduction, Roxanne Kriete writes:
"Many traditions, described in this book, help children at Greenfield Center School feel that they are on familiar ground. Learning about each other through traditions like All-School Meeting and Mountain Day builds our community. In the spaces where we feel most comfortable we are able to offer the gifts and venture the risks that the best learning requires. We are on familiar ground."
"The sense of community is strong, even palpable. But this sense didn't just spring full-blown from being a group of people occupying the same place at the same time. It was built upon many small and specific moments of learning the same verses to songs and sharing traditions, memories of times together and stories often-told."...
"Some of our traditions are once a year events; some happen every week or even every day. They give us ways to greet each other, to learn about each other, to sing and celebrate and say goodbye. These events mark our comings and our goings and affirm our common interests in the time we spend together."
WHAT'S IN A NAME?
Names and greetings are very important at Greenfield Center School. And the using of names and greetings indicates how much community members share with and care for one another. The importance of all school members -- from oldest to youngest and from persons of authority to those with less authority -- is affirmed.
One yearly, school-wide contest is "Name the School." This does not mean the school building, it means naming all of the individuals in the school. Multi-age teams of students name -- during the weekly all-school meeting -- each and every individual. The youngest children begin by learning the names of their team members and becoming friends with the older children. The contest demands time for children to go around to other classrooms, learning the names of teachers and students. Greenfield Center School is a school where this is important and so, the time is made.
The tradition began when the school was much smaller and individual students "named the school." Today, the school has 180 students and twenty staff members.
What could be better for students than to feel part of a place where they know everyone and everyone else knows them?
ALL-SCHOOL MEETINGS AND ALL-SCHOOL GAMES
All-School Meetings, held every week, are an integral part of life at the school. A different class hosts each meeting. Visitors are greeted and their names made known, birthdays are recognized, and announcements made. These meetings are
"...special gatherings, a routine that children know. They know that they will sing, they will share, and they will see the whole school gathered in one place. It is routine; yet it is special because it provides a time once a week when our entire community comes together to enjoy and appreciate each other."
All-School Games is another tradition at Greenfield Center School. "Once a week for half an hour at a scheduled time, students go to the room of their All-School Games teacher, and from there the group goes outside to play games. Teachers choose games that are appropriate across a broad range of ages." Again, this tradition demands time, and because it is an important part of the community, time is set aside. Children become part of another class (their All-Schools Games class) and another group of children -- of many ages -- with whom they bond. Older children teach and help younger children and share the fun of the games together.
Each year new events and old traditions at Greenfield Center School are carefully analyzed because people there "have learned that traditions without purpose are hollow and do not -- in fact, should not -- last.
"We must constantly examine and reexamine our traditions. They must have purpose; they must make sense; and they must be sustainable within the constraints of our resources of time and energy. When these measures are met, traditions allow us to pass on what we know and what we care about. At Center School we have built our traditions around creating and sustaining a sense of community and meeting the most vital needs of that community.
"But we must remember that schools are, like all human communities, dynamic organisms. The community whose needs we are meeting doesn't get defined once and tidily stay that way. Some changes are predictable and foreseen; others swoop upon us."
WHAT CAN YOU LEARN FROM FAMILIAR GROUND?
Every school is different, but every school can benefit from becoming a community. The ideas in Familiar Ground might open new avenues to community at your school. The authors express that wish.
"Some of our traditions might transplant beautifully and thrive in your school's climate; some might not be suitable at all. We invite you to borrow and adapt any that appeal to you, just as we have borrowed and adapted from many sources over our almost twenty years as a school. The specifics don't so much matter. What does matter is the commitment to make time and space for the hard work and great rewards of an all-school community life. To be part of a group of people who can depend upon each other for what they need is, after all, quite a goal."
As a common starting point for teachers at your school, Familiar Ground could form the basis of a staff workshop on creating school community. Planners of charter schools and magnet schools could find ideas and support for new and creative ventures. This book will warm the hearts of teachers and administrators -- and get their creative juices flowing as they remember
"In the spaces where we feel most comfortable we are able to offer the gifts and venture the risks that the best learning requires. We are on familiar ground."
They will also learn what the Magic Penny Ceremony is.
Familiar Ground: Traditions that Build School Community belongs in every school library and on every teacher's personal bookshelf.
Teaching Children to Care
An article about the responsive classroom concept from teachers in Cortland, New York. Topics include classroom organization, guided discovery, the morning meeting, rules and logical consequences, choice time, an assessment and reporting to parents.
The Character of Education: Promises to Keep
Remarks from Chip Wood (a founder of the Northeast Foundation for Children)
A weekly activity that allows the exchange of compliments and criticism among the students in your class can help resolve conflicts and teach children how to properly handle conflict. (A July, 1997, Education World LESSON PLANNING article.)
Case Studies Focus on Teachers' Everyday Problems
Is "I'm bored!" one of your students' favorite expressions? Are name-calling and play-fighting problems that you face every day in your classroom? Follow six classroom teachers as they struggle to understand and find workable solutions to these and other everyday problems in a new book from author Ruth Charney. (A July, 1997, Education World BOOKS IN EDUCATION article.)
Article by Anne Guignon
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