On reason I like being a classroom teacher is that I like building a community with one group of children. Helping those children work with each other, encouraging each to recognize that they are part of a larger group and not just the only and most important person around, supporting them as they get know people different than themselves and work with them for the greater good —- these are all very important acts of teaching and learning for me.
But I also teach in a school that celebrates individualism. Our founder, Helen Parkhurst, conceived of The Dalton Plan, as a way for students to work individually and at their own pace on areas of interest. Balancing this important concept with the also important one of community has been something I’ve had to do and think about through my many years at the school.
One worry I always have is that misplaying and/or overplaying the individual will create little narcissists. An article by David Cray, “Study: College Students Get an A in Narcissism” confirms these feelings. All our efforts to create self-confident individuals have also created young people who are evidently far less community-minded and empathetic than we could wish.
What to do? For me, it means continuing my struggle to validate community, look for ways into the curriculum that balances community and the individual, and to continue to encourage my students to truly empathize not just pay lip service to the notion.
The way I try to do all of this is to get my class engaged in a project that is that is for the whole class yet gives them plenty of opportunities to do something that is their own. Here are some examples:
My Class’s Sierra Leone Project
This project occurred spontaneously at the height of the war in Sierra Leone. I’d been reluctant to do too much with my class as I did not wish them to view the images of savage brutality so prevalent at the time. However, as you will see, that did not happen.
Our Experiences with The Gates in Central Park
I admit that this was because I loved this work of art (and not all did, by any means). And the kids did too (even when their parents did not!). It was fascinating to discuss the question of whether it was art and why people felt so many different ways about it. The Gates not only helped my class as a community (particularly as that cohort struggling throughout the year with issues of bullying and more), but New York City too.
Our Study of Alice in Wonderland
I’m just getting this project underway for the umpteenth time. It always becomes a wonderful community building activity for my class because they know it is something special for them — that no other class will do it. They come together in their appreciation of the book, of the author, the illustrators, and of each others. At the end it is Lewis Carroll and his story that is celebrated, not the individual children.
In each instance, the class comes together as a community, enormously excited about the overall theme. As they work together to present their learning they both work as individuals and as a class. Hopefully, these activities and the many others I do are support my students growth as empathetic individuals not narcissists.