Kids Shouldn’t Feel Like Tourists: How Every Classroom Should Be a Tribe

Taken today – oh what a beautiful flag

“I feel like I belong.”  My little brother turns to me as we walk through the Copenhagen aiport minutes after landing.  We are indeed home, even if just for a short while, but I immidiately got what he meant.  I belong to the same tribe he does; the Danes, and with that comes certain hidden knowledge, requirements and social norms that normal tourists simply will not be a part of.  This is all unravled to us as we are raised; how to speak to elders, how to dress, how to survive in a culture which is very liberal but has heightened politeness and manners standards.  The manual for being a Dane has not been written, and indeed, it changes as the population changes, and yet there is a “Daneness” that I recognize.  We are indeed tribe members and not just by looks – in fact not all Danes are blonde like I am – but by culture and behavior.  We are members because we know how to be and the society lets us be, with only a few perplexed comments on our Americanness (13 years abroad will do that for you).

This is much like our classrooms.  We set them up to be inclusive and welcoming to our students but do we set them up as a tribe?  (And I am not referring to the Tribes program here).  A tribe would mean that every person involved in the classroom felt like they belong and understood the hidden language of the classroom.  A tribe means safety for all of the people wherever they venture in the room and also that they will be protected by other students outside of our territory.  A tribe is bigger than just being a class.  All of this is certainly something I strive for every year so I mulled about this all day and reached the following conclusions.  To be a tribe we must

  • Recognize that we are an entity, that yes we are part of something bigger in the school, but also see that we are our own unit contained within the walls of our classroom.
  • Realize that we are unique.  There are other similar classrooms but this actual composition cannot be replicated anywhere else and this is something to celebrate.
  • Determine our culture.  What do we value, what do we see as proper behavior and how do we act amongst each other?  These are all vital for a tribe to feel togetherness and should not be set by the teacher.  For real understanding, appreciation, and cooperation it has to be set up together.  A tribe may have a leader but it is still a regular person who holds that position.
  • Determine our hidden language.  Discuss the assumptions we bring into the classroom,  set expectations and explore pitfalls.  Unspoken assumptions in particular can be devastating for a classroom and need to be discussed openly so that all involved people have a real chance of ownership and understanding.
  • Allow change.  A tribe should not stay the same all year, it should move and fluctuate as the classroom moves much like a country’s culture.  What should remain though is the sense of belonging of understanding the classroom culture and being able to navigate it all successfully without feeling like a tourist.

Being a tribe is so much more than being just a classroom, even a really good one.  It allows students to lose inhibitions (and the teacher too) and to revel in a meaningful learning environment.  No longer just visiting for the year in the teacher’s classroom but actually building the foundation of it and then actively maintaining it throughout the year so that ever person who walks into the room can exclaim, “I belong.”

This goes beyond just building community and rightfully so and will therefore take top priority in the coming year for me.  What about you?

4 thoughts on “Kids Shouldn’t Feel Like Tourists: How Every Classroom Should Be a Tribe

  1. I really and truly love this "tribal" blog. I think that if students could feel like they belong in the classroom and if they understand how the classroom works we would have improvement in drop out rates. Your blog makes perfect sense to me! So, what would be the best way for an upcoming, fresh out of school, teacher make her students feel like they are a tribe in your opinion?

  2. I am currently working at a summer camp and am trying to establish this same feeling within our bunk. The girls are going into seventh grade. They are at the age when cliques, popularity, and gossip are on their minds constantly. When you throw in the fact that these girls are away from home for 8 weeks and living in a one room cabin with 9 other seventh grade girls, it seems impossible for chaos not to ensue. Yet, we are trying our best to create that family within the bunk. Everyone is included in bunk decisions and I want everyone to have a place within the group. Your blog post encouraged me to continue to work hard to keep the bunk together and take what I am learning from this experience directly into my future classroom. In reality a "tribe" is really just a family, and for a classroom to be successful it needs to be just that.

  3. Thank you Heather and Reidun for your comments, if you only knew how much it means to me when people comment on what I write. I am still bumbling my way through building a family or tribe in my classroom. I think the biggest two things I have done is take the time to listen and talk. There simply is not the excuse of not having any time any longer in my room. I also celebrate my classroom a lot and tell the kids how lucky we are to be in this together, we cherish that sense of community because we celebrate it. I am also very honest and authentic with my students, I think they can feel that. I share my life with them and they in turn share theirs. So hmm, don't know if I have any tips or wisdom but just be yourself and build the community actively, it will not happen on its own.

  4. Oh and one more thing, there is no putting people outside of the classroom. I will absolutely not tolerate division in my room so I make sure all of the kids work together and celebrate each other. Conflicts are discussed and hopefully solved right away and all students are taken seriously.

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