A Living, Breathing Community Agreement

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Summer Swallow

School buses pull up and unload over one hundred 5th grade students who, as reality sets in, are suddenly experiencing a range of emotions from ecstatic to homesick and everything in between. As a graduate student in the Education for Environment and Community program, I work as an SOP field instructor, so it is my job to maximize my team’s time for learning and fun. My best tactic is to foster a strong sense of community and trust and a culture of safe exploration through daily team-building activities.

For this I rely on the Community Agreement—a living document created by the students on our first day together that establishes their expectations for how our team will operate. Similar to classroom charters, at the core of this agreement are the behavior norms that students generate for themselves. Typically these include "be safe," "respect," "inclusion" and the all-important "have fun!" Other gems I've seen are "be neighborly," "work together," and "be helpful." Additionally, each student has a space in which to write a positive individual quality that they will contribute to our team. These range from "creativity" and "humor" to "supportiveness" and "friendship." While team collaboration is a strong theme throughout the week, this element of the Community Agreement helps students share their individuality and learn about their teammates.

School Overnight Program community agreement

When I unfold the large butcher paper we will use to create our document, the students immediately want the markers to begin filling it in, all that blank space calling out for ink. Yet I hold them back and first explain how we will create the agreement together, in a step-by-step method. The elements of the document—team expectations and individual contributions—are discussed before anything is added in ink. I also build in time to allow students to contemplate what they would like to write before the markers create a frenzy.

To help clarify those ideas, students are asked to share with others in the group. This helps promote critical thinking, because it's easy to say "I'll bring kindness," but what does being kind actually look like? What does it mean to be respectful? Eliciting actual examples of behavior helps set the team up for success. This sharing on the first day also helps students hold each other accountable throughout the week. This not only helps out the whole team and the instructors, but also helps to empower students to speak up for themselves and others, as they now have the precise language with which to do so.

After the initial elements of the agreement are filled out it is helpful to revisit it each day and even modify if necessary. Ideally each field day begins by reviewing our Community Agreement, and I ask students to think of instances when they saw teammates living up to our behavior expectations. Students that get honored then draw a star next to that behavior, breathing life into our living document. This sharing helps tune students into making observations about behavior and how it impacts everyone and thing around us.

However, in the middle of a field day it can be cumbersome to unroll that large sheet of butcher paper, and so we need easy and effective ways to reference and reinforce those values and behaviors. Verbal shortcuts or acronyms, which make a concept stickier and aid student recall, are one way. During one week of the School Overnight Program, my co-instructor Natalie developed the acronym CEO for Collaborators, Explorers, Observers to use with our field group, Team Lightning. Short but sweet, it hit the main targets of our program and norms established within the Community Agreement. So if I witnessed a breakdown in communication between the members or students’ throwing rocks, I could ask if we were being good CEOs. This allowed for quick and spontaneous reflection on behavior and its impact.

It was extra delightful to hear students referencing it themselves when they witnessed actions contrary to our contract. Team Lightning enjoyed being asked to act like bosses by being good CEOs this week. The acronym served as an gentle reminder for them to be thoughtful teammates and helped everyone be successful as we explored and learned together outside.

Summer Swallow is a graduate student in the Education for Environment and Community program offered in partnership with the University of Washington. Learn more about the teaching practicum that is part of this 10-month residential prorgram at IslandWood.