The Power of Community Norms

Michael Kris
Oct 6, 2017 · 3 min read
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This week’s blog post is written by John Bower (Director of Diversity & Inclusivity) and Sam Poland (Middle School Dean of Students).

Community is central to everything we do at Rivers Middle School. But rich, lasting relationships don’t just happen. They require careful tending. With that in mind, we have designed structures and programs that reaffirm each other’s individuality and give space for adults and students to bring their full, authentic selves to campus every day.

Our Community Norms are key to this effort. When we gather in small or large groups, these norms reflect our shared understanding of how we can interact in a way that promotes equity, inclusion, and safety. Whether discussing current events in Media Literacy or the theme of justice in To Kill a Mockingbird during humanities, Community Norms foster a classroom environment that honors each student’s perspective and makes space for constructive conflict.

How did these norms come to be? Last year, Rivers invited VISIONS, Inc. to work with our students and faculty. We wanted to create a common language and framework to enhance our ability to communicate and work together effectively — including tools to engage in challenging conversations around topics related to identity, race, and culture. Students engaged in workshops and deep conversations around historically included and excluded groups, the intersectionality of the identities we bring to our community, and how critical it is that we engage thoughtfully and respectfully in dialogue, especially around difficult topics.

Here are our norms:

• Speak from the “I” perspective: Tell your own story, and speak only for your experience.

• Lean into discomfort: Embrace, rather than run from, uncomfortable conversations and experiences. These are where important learning occurs.

• Be aware of intent and impact: Realize that what you meant to say may be different from what was felt and interpreted by others. Think about this as you are communicating.

• Respect others’ realities: Recognize that someone else’s story and experience is different from, and just as valid as, your own.

• Suspend judgment; assume positive intent: Give a person a chance to explain a statement that was made and try to avoid taking a defensive attitude.

• Don’t blame, shame, or attack self or others: Allow everyone (yourself included) to ask questions, explore ideas, and take risks without fear of consequences.

• Practice “both”/“and” thinking: Acknowledge the possibility that two very different perspectives can both be true. “I care about my friends, and sometimes I need time to myself.”

• Ouch!: If someone’s words or actions hurt you, communicate this so that resentment doesn’t build and learning can take place.

In September, during the first week of school, we held our annual Student Leadership Lab. One of the highlights of the week was when our eighth graders led interactive workshops that introduced the community norms to the sixth and seventh grade students. Some incredibly powerful learning happened during these student-led activities. When students are responsible for teaching a concept, they often develop an ownership and deep understanding that they might not have held before.

As we progress through the year, these ideas will continue to be an active and living part of our community. They are currently posted in many of our classrooms, and with our eighth grader’s continued leadership, they will help our community thrive.

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