Building Community with the Habits of Mind

Daniel Vollrath (@HabitsofMindInc) is a special education teacher at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in New Jersey, and a United States Professional Development Trainer for the Habits of Mind Institute, with a strong passion for developing curriculum, classroom culture, and mindfulness based on the Habits of Mind. Over the past five years, Daniel has gathered student and teacher reflections with the Habits of Mind which has led to a better understanding in reference to a blend of learning and dispositional thinking.

Daniel will be presenting selected reflections within a monthly series. This blog is part 3 within the series.

“Who are the people in your neighborhood, in your neighborhood, in your neighborhood, oh who are the people in your neighborhood, the people that you meet each day.” – Sesame Street, “People in your Neighborhood”

Oh yes, Sesame Street, one of the most influential and powerful educational shows of our time. To this day, it teaches many lessons, from effective storytelling, to listening to Big Bird sing about the alphabet. Even behaviors are modeled and taught through the use of characters. For instance, Cookie Monster, a big blue monster with a voracious appetite for cookies who struggled with paying attention and controlling impulses. Cookie Monster’s behavioral outburst was a way to catch children’s attention, and let them see that struggling with an issue is normal, and can be overcome. The lessons are endless, and can be applied to all walks of life. But what is it about that big yellow bird, silly blue monster, and those other outlandish enthusiastic characters that can capture an audience, and engage youngsters day after day? The answer … COMMUNITY!

We often envision a community as a place where people live, socialize, and share experiences with one another, sort of like a neighborhood. Actually, that is pretty close to the true meaning of community. Although, building a community, like a classroom, takes commitment, shared goals, similar mindset, and time. Within education, community is imperative for both students and teachers. As you will see in this short blog, teachers and students share their thoughts, ideas, and express the hallmarks about building a Habits of Mind community within an educational setting.

Students

“The Habits of Mind are helping bring us closer together as a class, making us better workers, and improving our focus to learn better.” – Science student

In almost all classes students work together to develop products as evidence of understanding and application. Within a science class, it was apparent that when students worked together on assignments, projects, and labs, the Habits of Mind were the glue that held them together. One student stated, “I always want to do my best and make sure I am performing the Habits of Mind in group work.” As a teacher, this quote speaks volumes to the idea of accountability and commitment. While this student found the Habits of Mind to be a critical part of their learning, it was evident that their commitment to the group played an even bigger role- selflessness. By taking responsibility and displaying the Habits of Mind, this student believed they were contributing effectively to a successful end, not for themselves, but for their community of peers. Meeting goals and deadlines were important, as they should, but portraying a true sense of “community”, that’s valuable.

Equally important, as a learning tool, the Habits of Mind were a great asset for developing comfort levels within individuals in the classroom. For example, a student who had trouble asking and answering questions due to anxiety, the Habits of Mind helped him become more of a risk taker. In an interview, this student stated, “I am taking more responsible risks now in class. I feel more comfortable talking out loud and answering questions because I know everyone else does in class. We all know what it is like to take a risk, and everyone does it because it is a habit we all try out.” The sense of comfort and recognizing that everyone else is in the “same boat” seems to be a selling point for this student to utilize risk taking. By recognizing others in class that are performing a similar habit, it is implied that community is building confidence and decreasing anxiety when employing habits.

Teachers

“The common language and shared understanding of the Habits of Mind within the classroom was illustrated through work performance, discussions, and thinking.” – Math teacher

Throughout the year teachers found that their classroom community was impacted significantly by the Habits of Mind. In a math class the habits were a big part of the thinking process and how to go about solving problems. The ability to solve a problem by explaining the process using Habits of Mind terminology was a unique and novel approach. For example, the math teacher states, “The habits have become something that all my students share, discuss, and talk about with each other. It seems to have become a language that they all understand and use when explaining their work. One student mentioned how he solved a problem by thinking flexibly and making sure to manage his impulsivity by taking his time and applying past knowledge to new situations, that being this problem.” It is suggested that when students are using the Habits of Mind language in explaining the problem solving process, their ability to apply and connect their thinking to others is more understood and receptive.

“I love coming to class and talking about our weekends. We make it a point to incorporate the Habits of Mind terminology within our stories.”

When students can apply the Habits of Mind to the outside world, whether it be in a place of employment, sports, or even at home, it shows successful transformation. Students begin to recognize the importance of the habits in their life and the impact they can serve in creating success. The math teacher stated, “I will never forget when one of my students came in and told us about his weekend. He spent all day Saturday working on an engine for his car. He mentioned the importance of taking a responsible risk because he never worked on an engine, making sure to pose questions and problems during the process to his dad, and made sure to manage his impulsivity since he realized it was going to be time consuming and he would make a lot of mistakes. I was amazed by how this student explained his process of thinking in relation to the habits.” This suggests that the teacher, and the student, realized how impactful the habits can be within learning, experiences, and understanding self. But overall, within a community, everyone can learn from one another, through telling of stories, lessons, and most importantly, common language and understanding, which takes place within a community.

Now what?

Take your classroom and build a Habits of Mind community following these points of focus:

  • Utilizing the Habits of Mind common language
  • Sharing accountability and commitment to the Habits of Mind
  • Expressing a safe and comfortable Habits of Mind environment
  • Connecting the Habits of Mind to the outside world/real life situations

And most important, respecting and knowing the people in your Habits of Mind classroom neighborhood!