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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
September 1, 1998
Vol. 56
No. 1

Building a Community Week by Week

At the weekly School Meeting, all members of an elementary school come together to build community and to celebrate one another.

Please tell kids at School Meeting not to touch our whale snow sculpture out front.—note from 2nd graders
Mary, now that we're close to the end of our math unit on area, perimeter, and volume, my students are in the process of writing and producing a presentation on volume for the whole school. When can they audition?—note from a 5th grade teacher
Dar Ms. Sterling We ad lik to do Baby Fas at school Medn by Kara and Katie and Emily and Tory Room 3. (Dear Ms. Sterling, we would like to do "Baby Face" at School Meeting.)—note from kindergartners
Well, we should probably take this to School Meeting—not just as a skit but we should have a serious talk about teasing.—conversation with a 5th grader
Every Monday, a hum of anticipation greets us as we begin our week at School Meeting. As students and staff enter our cafeteria-gymnasium, they know they belong to the school community. Each week, 20 to 40 parents show up, often with babies and toddlers, sometimes with grandparents. We never cancel this time together; it is engraved in the schedule as firmly as lunch and recess. At School Meeting, we pledge the flag, sing songs, pay tribute to students having birthdays that week, and make announcements. Most important, we enjoy presentations and performances given by the students. No one will ever forget the 5th graders in a Marx Brothers' skit or the time a 2nd grader memorized and recited "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere."

Building Our Community

A sense of community is no longer something we can take for granted. We have to build that community; affirm its values and its membership; and infuse it with the energy, imagination, and commitment of the group. In the practice of being community members, children find models and pathways that help them move beyond themselves to connect with others and to make contributions for the greater good. In her book Teaching Children to Care: Management in the Responsive Classroom, Ruth Charney voices the pressing need for deliberately building a sense of community:In today's world, it is particularly urgent that we extend beyond the domain of self and the lessons of self-control. We need to find connections to others and to feel ourselves members of many groups—intimate group, community groups, and a world group. These connections and responsibilities need to be taught as well. We need to teach children to give care as well as to receive care. In today's society, our children are often victims of adult attitudes of communal neglect and individual entitlement. We must help them learn to contribute, to want to contribute. (Charney, 1992, p.14)Such lofty and laudable goals are often best realized in familiar routines and modest efforts. School Meeting is one vehicle that allows the larger goals to become reality in children's lives.
Although a weekly School Meeting is common in Britain and Japan and in private schools, it is unusual in public schools in the United States. I learned about it from Chet Delani, a principal in the neighboring town of Sudbury, Massachusetts. Our School Meeting lasts 25 minutes every Monday morning, and, as principal, I can't imagine leading a successful school without it. School Meeting is a regular opportunity for me to set the tone in the building, lead an appreciation of students' academic and social efforts, and keep an open link with parents. The program for each meeting varies according to the events in the school, the current learning in the classroom, and the interests and accomplishments of our students. I have selected the following examples of announcements and presentations from more than five years of School Meetings to show the ordinary yet powerful ways that a school can be a community for the benefit of everyone.

Highlighting Academic Achievement

Kindergartners in one classroom were buddies with 3rd graders. During weekly visits, they worked as partners to find words starting with the same letter sound and then illustrate a poster. While 3rd graders learned about alliteration and coaching skills, kindergartners increased their letter-sound identification skills and their ability to stick with a task. The project culminated in a School Meeting presentation in which 3rd graders stood behind their kindergarten buddies and shared the responsibility of saying the words and showing the posters. Parents, teachers, and students were impressed by the level of cooperation and the high quality of the presentation.
Developing math equations for the number of the day was a daily routine in one 1st grade classroom. Some students took great pleasure in coming up with very complicated equations and were eager to show the rest of the school. It took some organizing and rehearsing—some students were so short that they had to stand on chairs to be properly seen!—to replicate the routine for School Meeting, but they did it. Judging from the students' grins and the pride on the faces of their teacher and their parents, the presentation went very well.
A 4th grade class had been studying ocean habitats. The students and their teacher decided to use shadow puppetry to develop a presentation for School Meeting. When one of the students came to me eager to schedule an audition, I realized, once again, that our students value School Meeting as a time and a place to demonstrate what they know and can do.

Promoting Community Service

Every fall, our 4th graders sponsor a food drive, which they introduce at School Meeting. For several weeks thereafter, a few 4th graders use the announcement time at School Meeting to tell how many pounds of food the students have collected and to encourage everyone to keep bringing in cans. When the drive is over, we learn how much we collected in all, and we often have a thank you letter from the receiving agency to read aloud.
Tucked in my mailbox, among the piles of catalogs, memoranda, and minutes of meetings, are notes from students: "der Ms. Sterling me and Conor pickt up trash. from Max." The students know that if they write a note about picking up trash on the playground, I will publicly thank them at School Meeting. In just a few words, we recognize individuals for their service and indirectly remind the whole student body that we like a clean playground and that we appreciate helpful students.
Although teachers propose most service projects, students occasionally come up with their own ideas. Last year, several 3rd graders decided to raise money to save the rain forest by selling ice pops on the playground during a week of hot June days. They came to me with cue cards all prepared to announce their project at School Meeting. Their project was much appreciated and well supported by all students! This year, a 4th grader, inspired by her parents' dedication to helping the poor, gathered a group of classmates and initiated a book drive. They asked to meet with me to plan the drive and to discuss the timing and content of announcements at School Meeting. The students demonstrated great poise in their presentation. The leader of the group was equally at ease when she presented more than 3,000 books at a schoolwide assembly at the receiving school.

Celebrating the Arts and Other Talents

I remember one of our very first School Meetings. A student unrolled the longest paper chain anybody had ever seen. With a few of his buddies, he walked it down the center aisle and around several sides of our cafeteria. Another year, a student who loved drawing presented the first "walking art show." After a brief interview with me about his artwork, he and several classmates walked around the front and sides of School Meeting to display examples. The show was a hit and spawned a run of requests from students to exhibit their work.
Playing instruments is a popular choice among students who wish to present at School Meeting. Sometimes, we listen to a young student who has just begun music lessons. It's an excellent opportunity for the student to perform and possibly to inspire other students to consider trying an instrument. In other instances, we have been awed by a student's accomplished rendition of a piece by Mozart or a traditional Indian dance in celebration of Dwali, the Hindu festival.
Hand-clapping games, silly songs, lip-synching performances, jokes, and trivia contests also find a place in School Meeting programs. Once, a staff member sang "Santa Lucia"; another time, students interviewed a staff member who had an impressive collection of pop-up books. During one school year, we featured music from different world cultures each month. The music and a little something about the culture from which it came were introduced at School Meeting.

Logistics That Make It Work

Like any production, School Meeting requires much behind-the-scenes work. Once we all know our parts, the whole thing goes pretty smoothly. At the beginning of the year, I rehearse each class before our first School Meeting. We review the purpose of School Meeting, I show them how to arrive and where they will sit for the year, and we practice the nonverbal hand signals that guide our routines during the meeting. Kindergartners join us in mid-October when they have adjusted to school and their teachers think they are able to sit still for 20 minutes.
We teach directly the skills of being an audience: quiet listening, still bodies, patience when a presenter has an awkward moment, and applause at the appropriate time. Our students' excellent audience skills often draw compliments from visitors. And when those skills slip—and they do—I use School Meeting to reset the standard, and we practice a bit until they meet expectations. Our students' abilities to keep still, to watch with an attentive attitude, and to refrain from chatting with neighbors are important to guarantee every current and future presenter a respectful and caring audience.
Advance preparation gives students a sense of assurance when they present at School Meeting. Teachers in our school work with their whole class, or sometimes with a small group or an individual, to ready the students for School Meeting. Then, students audition with me. They know that if they are not ready, we will discuss what they need to be prepared for a public presentation; I sometimes recommend more practice or a different choice of presentation.
Although "audition" might sound formidable to an adult, our students have learned that it is simply a rehearsal with me so that I know what they are presenting. We practice with the microphone, and we talk about any special considerations. Our presentations are generally not highly polished. They are works in progress, developmentally right for the age of the presenter, and appropriate for an audience of K–5 students and some very supportive teachers and parents. As principal, I find that auditions are some of my most important contacts with students. They are truly the high points in my week. I even enjoy figuring out a graceful way to reroute a group of students who propose something inappropriate or awkward!
Final backstage consideration is the use of ushers. Our 5th graders take turns being ushers for School Meeting. Each team of six students works with me for three School Meetings, setting up chairs in our cafeteria, guiding students to their seating area, and greeting parents with programs and showing them to their seats. Ushers announce the presentations and sometimes help with a portion of the program. When School Meeting is over, I greet visitors and parents while ushers take away chairs and clear the space so that physical education classes can begin. To orient ushers to their job and to build the team, I have lunch with each new group before its members begin their stint. My aim in using 5th graders is to keep them invested in school right until the end of their elementary years with us. Toward the end of the year, many 5th graders ask whether they can have one more chance to usher at School Meeting.

School Meeting: Mirror of Community

Our sense of community comes from knowing who we are and what we can do. The practice of School Meeting has knitted us together in many ways, most recently through a flag project to recognize the countries from which our families come. School Meeting ushers gathered information about the countries of origin from every classroom. Then, over several weeks at School Meeting, students of different ages presented flags, which were then hung from the ceiling of our cafeteria-gymnasium—48 in all. We will never forget one tall 5th grader, whose ancestors came from Nigeria, who adjusted the microphone for a petite kindergartner whose family came from Iraq. Parents watched proudly as their children said their family name and the country name; grandparents had often been consulted and some even were able to attend School Meeting.
The routines that we always follow for School Meeting and the student presentations that make each Monday unique combine to create a ceremony that anchors our school community and renews our sense of purpose every week. While reading an interview with Ernest Boyer on his tenets about the Basic School, I was struck by a quote that aptly describes the purpose of our School Meeting:It is a place where people join in a respectful collegiality; where the student, teacher, and the family join together on behalf of learning (Simonelli, 1996, p. 23).School Meeting is a mirror of our school community because it reflects who we are and who we hope to be. The values that we deem important find expression at School Meeting, which is simultaneously public and private, social and academic, and of the mind and of the heart.

Charney, R. (1992). Teaching children to care: Management in the responsive classroom. Greenfield, MA: The Northeast Foundation for Children.

Simonelli, R. (1996, Winter). The basic school: Recreating community for educational development. Winds of Change, 22-25.

Mary Sterling has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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