Project Based Learning

How Building Community of Belonging Makes Powerful Student Voice

Create A Culture of Belonging Image
Building a Culture of Belonging

Building Community of Belonging: What Does it Mean?

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I see myself

Allyn and Morrell believe that “to build a community of lifelong writers in our classrooms, we must create the conditions that will allow for confident, courageous reading, writing, speaking, and listening, all the components of literacy necessary for student writing to bloom”. Allyn and Morrell emphasize, “Our communities of learning must be communities of belonging.”

“When we create a community of belonging, students begin to understand themselves as story worthy.” from Tell Your Story by Pam Allyn and Ernest Morrell

Allyn, P., & Morrell, E. (2022). Tell Your Story. Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).

The goal is to help educators establish an environment of belonging that shows students their voices are powerful, regardless of what their story might be or how it differs from the books on their school’s library shelf. With a community of belonging, all students feel centered in understanding that their voices matter.

The essence of Building Community of Belonging from Tell Your Story:

“We can create spaces where children narrate themselves into being by sharing their own stories, whether these are stories created out of their own imaginations or about the multiple cultural communities in which they participate.”

Allyn, P., & Morrell, E. (2022). Tell Your Story. Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).

Purpose of a Community of Belonging

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Community of Belonging Definition

The purpose of a community of belonging is to cultivate self-worth, and in turn self-worth cultivates world-changing writers. Allyn and Morrell believe asking students to tell their story communicates two things:

  • They have the talent to be a storyteller. It says, “I’m sure that you have a life that is worthy of story, and that you have the eloquence, knowledge, and skills to tell it best/better than anyone.”
  • It reinforces all they have to offer their community.

Reimagine Story Towards Community of Belonging

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Story Tellling

The first step towards community of belonging, Allyn and Morrell state, is to shift the reimagine story from something that exists in a book or on the news—to something for which the only prerequisite is simply living. To see your life as story worthy is not intuitive. Asking our students about their stories communicates to them that they have one.

Allyn and Morrell describe the biggest challenge in education as “a self-ability crisis, a self-loathing crisis, a crisis hinged on lack of belonging deeply felt by learners.” How do educators strive to remedy this problem? By offering your story to situate yourself as someone who is teaching, sharing with, and offering yourself to others is the ultimate antidote to self-loathing.

Allyn and Morrell give an example: you can put an A on a student’s paper, but it’s nothing like 15 people reading their work with rapt attention. The point is in a community of belonging, “you don’t just tell people they are worthy, you put them in situations where that is obvious to them.”

When students are their own storyteller, they will begin to look at the text they read differently, and that is through the lens of the story. Allyn and Morrell suggest asking the students “How is this writer telling a story?” rather than, “How is this writer using an adjective?” If our students consume stories with the driving concern of the storyteller, we can help them unlock the purpose of that adjective.

Allyn and Morrell note that our curriculum should not be full of the requirements and conditions of good writing, the adjectives, etc., but the purpose of why we write. This environment is not easily created and will need consistent work and practice. We have to build a community of belonging where the environment is both challenging and also wholly safe. That is a hard balance for us as teachers.

10 Cornerstones for Creating A Community of Belonging

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10 Corenerstones Community of Belonging

List of 10 Cornerstones:

  1. Centering Joy in Your Classroom
  2. Be a Deep Listener
  3. Value Wonder
  4. Prioritize Creativity and Value Student Innovation
  5. Become Problem Solvers
  6. Make a Pro-Empathy a Core Value
  7. Create Story and Writing Routines
  8. Create Community of Norms
  9. Help Students Thrive Independently
  10. Interrupt Negative Thinking and Turn to Positive

Allyn and Morrell give numerous examples of how to turn the 10 Cornerstones into classroom activities. There are too many to list, but I will list a few. These are the ones I thought it stood out:

Center Joy

People in the community must be open to the collaborative nature. Joy must exist as your students tell, share, and receive stories.

With joy comes bonding, vulnerability, and communities of belonging. 

There are tangible ways to spark this:

Create time and space for storytelling circles.

Create a library of mentor texts that support the power of storytelling across cultures and languages.

Give easy access to abundant resources for storytelling: technology and tablets, yes, but also notebooks with personalized pages, such as» Photos of friends and family» Hopes and dreams» Favorite hobbies» Pets» Memories» Funny images» Favorite authors, illustrators, or musicians» Sports» Art» Collages» Journeys» Special moments» Favorite books or quotes

Make words and stories into gifts: put small stories and seven-word memoirs into picture frames and place them around your room. Have kids make them for their families.

Value free writing. Use it many times a day, even for a few minutes at a time, to get students thinking, to get their story muscles in motion in every subject area.

Be A Deep Listener

Allyn and Morrell describe a deep listener this way:

  “As listeners lean in and ask questions, they can spark creative courage in the storyteller, who is then motivated and inspired by the invested receivers of their story. So often we are rushed, and we do not believe listening plays an active enough role in our work with our students. And yet, it may be the best way to build that sense of belonging, so that the oral storyteller can first feel acknowledged and heard. And when the student goes to the page or screen to tell a story, they have a learned memory of what it feels like to be really listened to without judgment.”

Some ways we can do deep listening include the following:

  • Take notes when your students are storytelling. Carry a notebook, tablet or phone with you to every writing conference with your students.
  • Create a “listening corner” in your classroom, with recording tools such as notebooks with pens and tablets, so that students can record each other, interview each other, and generally practice active listening.
  • Post on walls and in online documents different ways for you and your students to practice deep listening: “What are you dreaming about?” “Tell me a story about your childhood.” “I am here and listening. Tell me about yourself, your hopes, and your dreams.” “What is one story you want to share again and again? Tell me that story twice.”

Value Wonder

In every genre, be it nonfiction, poetry, a science lab, or historical analysis, the writer becomes a storyteller: envisioning a question as they write and exploring an idea, as described by Alllyn and Morrell. Both believe students must be writers, because “they are not simply repeating a story told to them or jotting down the ideas you passed on”.  Allyn and Morrell emphasize, “Our aspiration must be that we cultivate the vulnerability that allows our learners to explore the world with their own words and ideas.”

Here are some ways we can build environments of wonder that lead to writing with freedom and assurance:

  • Create a Wondering Window, where students can sit quietly to look outside or simply feel there is a place in the room for quiet reflection.
  • Create a Wonder Jar (on- or offline) with questions for students to use as jump starts for their writing, including:

        Wonder about the world

         Wonder about the sky

        Wonder about the nature of humanity

         Wonder about yourself: What are your forks in the road, your hopes and dreams?

         Wonder about your home language: What are the origins of words you use or love? 

  • Keep a Class Wondering Journal. This can be online or offline. Each week, assign students a day to create a wondering prompt for their classmates.
  • Establish Wondering Partners. Each week assign students in partnerships to work in wondering partnerships and react to each other’s ideas with a wondering stance: “I’m wondering what made you write this.” “I’m wondering where this idea came from.” “I’m wondering what you could do to expand on that idea.”
  • Use open-ended questions or wondering-centered questions when conferring with students:

 “What are you thinking about right now?”

 “What are you wondering about?”

“What surprises you?”

“What are you observing that you have a question about?”

Prioritize Creativity and Value Student Innovation

Allyn and Morrell note that creative thinking is best inspired by prompts, but there is a fine line between guidance and prescription. Let the prompts you give your students encourage their creativity. Do not judge them when they are silly or serious, somber or surprised. To create a community of belonging, we can share ways of experiencing the power of writing without judgment. Let the stories flow. Prompt students in the following ways:

  • Envision a world of peace. What would it look like or feel like?
  • What would school be like if you could tell a new story about it?
  • Imagine you go on a trip with magical powers to help you get there faster, or fly there, and write or tell about it.
  • Imagine a beautiful country where children or teens made the laws.
  • Use alternative materials to tell a story (e.g. paper collage, chalk, pencils).

Allyn and Morrell encourage you to let your students guide the way as practitioners of writing. Create and innovate and change as they go. Our students are bursting with ideas, and writing should be a vehicle to help them express all that. They constantly innovate language and ideas. Let’s center that in our classrooms by valuing the magic of innovation.

Here are some ways to do that:

Create a Maker Space in your classroom, providing tools, materials, and resources for building and creating.

  • Create an Innovation Hub in your classroom with small notebooks or tablets available for students to borrow and use as portable idea collectors.
  • Ask students to do a Build a World activity, writing and sketching what they see as innovations necessary for improving our world—and don’t underestimate the great ideas of your youngest students!
  • Have students redecorate their classrooms to make them more conducive to writing, such as table lamps, decorations, and twinkling lights, or creating cozy nooks and corners for authentic dialogue.
  • Invite students to challenge each other and themselves by putting together a few seemingly unrelated ordinary objects they see around them, and then writing about how they can change the world with those objects.

Make Pro-Empathy a Core Value

Allyn and Morrell define a pro-empathy classroom environment as really about empathy for oneself, as well as for others, for one’s own steps into one’s own identity and sense of belonging. How does this look in a classroom? Allyn and Morrell describe it this way:

“In a pro-empathy classroom, our students always look through the lens of story to ask, “Who am I, and who is that person next to me?” No one should be a stranger in a community of belonging. Pro-empathy means we actively work around how we can inhabit the worlds of others and how we can take tender care of ourselves.”

Allyn and Morrell believe that “literacy and the power of stories show us how to empathetically take others’ perspectives”. Allyn and Morrell explain that “Each book and story we read is an author attempting to make the world stronger by writing their way into understanding the human spirit and the human condition.” The point is “Story is what makes us human, after all.”

I agree with “A story provides a look at the world around you, and it provides another lens for you to use”. So, “The more lenses you acquire, the easier it is to switch to a new one and consider what the people around you may be experiencing.”

Allyn and Morrell define empathy as the ability to feel for another person, to feel their pain, and, through that feeling, do something. A story can ignite and maintain an empathetic perspective in our students.

You can ask your students to do the following:

  • Write letters back and forth with partners to “introduce themselves” (even if it’s midyear). For every age, this is so powerful and can be done multiple times throughout the year. “Let’s reintroduce ourselves. How are we changing and growing? Share about yourself anew with a partner.” Recently, we listened in on one such conversation where students were writing back and forth, and one 7-year-old said to the other, “I used to be afraid to talk in class, but now I’m not. I learned how to smile with my eyes. And I’ve become a big sister, so now I am really different!” There are layers upon layers of story possibilities to draw from to write even more.
  • Invite your students to write a letter to themselves in the future and a letter to themselves in the past.
  • Ask your students to select a character from a book they’ve read or that you’ve read aloud to them, and write about their experience from a first-person perspective.
  • Write a letter to a character in a book, expressing your feelings toward them and what you might do to help and support them.
  • Share various genre options with your students (including op-eds, poems, social media) and invite them to write what they would do to help a fellow student. What would they say if they could reach out and affect the life of another person?
  • Invite students to take the role of a character in a book that is hard to like, and put themselves in the shoes of that character to write from that first-person perspective. A pro-empathy classroom is hard work; it’s not only the easy-to-understand person who needs our empathy; it’s those whose actions may be most unfathomable to us. Response to literature can help practice pro-empathy.

My Takeaway

I was attracted to the Tell Your Story book because story telling can make a powerful student voice. I love the message:

“Teaching Students to Become World-Changing Thinkers and Writers explores how to help students see themselves as writers and storytellers, who are developing the skills and techniques to communicate in ways that resonate with various audiences.”

If you want to learn how to increase students’ skills as writers and storytellers with an innovative, inclusive, and empowering framework for teaching writing that centers student voice, Tell Your Story is the one to read.

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