CM . . .
. Volume XX Number 22. . . .February 7, 2014
Discourses about creating caring and just communities, as well as classrooms, are trending up in North American and other societies where creeping individualism and competitiveness are on rise. It is in this environment that Kathleen Gould Lundy and Larry Schwartz offer their new contribution:Creating Caring Classrooms: How to Encourage Communicate, Create, and Be Compassionate of Others. This nonfiction title grabbed my attention because of my strong belief in the productive power of caring in human relationships, and in my pedagogical practices where Noddings’ (1999; 2005), conceptualizations of care theory has found a permanent home.
In combing through the contents of this book, I encountered an informative introductory chapter whose goal is to address “the bigger picture” surrounding the concept of caring. The authors use this space to inform readers about the philosophical and ethical underpinnings of their work—the importance of creating and maintaining a culture of caring in classrooms and ultimately, in society. Lundy and Swartz use the introductory segment of the book to explain how the book evolved from initially being one about bullying to a deeper more complex offering about “how teachers could work from the beginning to build on the individual strengths of each student to establish classroom environments of trust and respect.”
Drawing from their own experiences, Lundy and Schwartz are very much concerned with providing ideas and activities that will allow teachers and their elementary students to co-create caring classrooms where the value of addressing the emotional and spiritual needs of learners is emphasized and where adults treat children with “the care and respect that they would extend to their own children.” Delineating such values and beliefs, the authors structure the book around the notion of the five Cs: community, communication, collaboration, compassion, and confronting the bully issue. With this, the authors establish some of the key components involved in creating caring classrooms. Thus, caring is something that happens in communities; it is at once a desire, a creation, cultural practice and vision. Caring is not a matter of common sense—it is a matter of construction. Also, the articulation of caring relies on communication: talking and listening and the manner of our talk, hence the authors’ view that we need to “pay attention to language and become critically aware of how we speak to our students and to our colleagues.” And, along with community and communication, the creation of caring classrooms requires collaboration, compassion, and confronting the bully issue. Each of the Cs is associated with a phase of development and is the focus of Chapters 1-5 respectively.
Every chapter comprises the following: A definition of the “C” being explored, ideas related to operationalizing the particular C that is the focus of the chapter, “events” designed to reinforce the C, “Games” that build the C, and a segment entitled “Spotlight on the Classroom” which features reflective and/or argumentative writing, and/or short essays authored by practitioners. The practitioners contribute to the book by sharing their lived experiences, strategies, and hands on activities aimed at solidifying the C being discussed. The “Spotlight on the Classroom” segments of each chapter is one of the strong features of the book because they feature the perspectives of contemporary classroom teachers and others directly involved in schools and are useful, authentic and compelling pieces of writing.
In Chapter 1, “Building Community”, for instance, the authors define their vision of community and provide 20 succinct ideas and strategies intended to help teachers build community. Some are likely to be familiar to experienced and pre-service teachers (e.g., Greet students by name, set class routine, plan together, hold meetings, and reward group accomplishments (e.g., pizza lunches)). Other suggestions include writing End-of-Summer letters to families, determining how to begin and end classes, and encouraging leadership. In addition, Chapter one has an extended list of “Events that Build Classroom Community” and includes nine specific games that teachers are encouraged to use to “build a sense of inclusion among students.” These are well-laid out practical events and games that readers will be able to implement with relative ease, and I certainly plan to share some of the ideas I have gleaned from the book with my own teacher-candidates (e.g., “I’ve got mail” and “The Seat on My Right is Free”).
While each chapter has some similar features, each is also unique. Although this does create unevenness between the chapters, the uniqueness of individual chapters means that there are fresh ideas present in each one. In Chapter 2 for example, where the focus is “Communication”, the link between caring and communication is only modestly explored yet space is allotted for a brief discussion of the needs of English Language Learners (ELLs). This is necessary and important, and I am grateful for it. Additionally, Chapter 2 presents a menu of fresh games for “encouraging talk”, ideas for spurring, “talk skills”, speech making, questioning, and interviewing, and about conducting group discussions. Overall Chapter 2 presents a variety of useful ideas but is not as strong as the chapter that precedes or follows it.
Chapter 3 is a relatively strong one; it offers solid information about “Collaboration”. I warmed to the notion of poem puzzles, beamed at the inclusion of ideas for “choral dramatization” and savoured the segment on collaborative “Literacy” and “Writing events” and accompanying self-assessment tools. Users of this work will appreciate such vibrant features but are likely to lament the limited connection to the core concept of the book—caring. This concept remained underexplored in Chapter 3. That said, the chapter has a strong finish in “Spotlight on the Classroom”. Written by practitioner and Ph. D. student, Raymond Peart, this piece details a successful arts-based project (The Shine Project) in an ethnically, racially, culturally, and linguistically diverse elementary schools in Toronto. This segment captivated me and is likely to do the same for many readers. It highlights three of the prominent themes that germinated from the Shine project: collaboration is compulsory to success; democracy must be made visible within the relational experience of students; and leadership cannot flourish without compassion.
For this reviewer, Chapter four, which, deals with “Building Compassion” is noteworthy. Here I found the kind of discussion that makes this resource more than just another “practical” manual—a compilation of quick tips for the busy practitioner who, it is usually assumed, has no time or use for theoretical explorations of subject matter. Theory matters. Deep discussion matters and is available here. The chapter is introduced with a section on “Telling Stories to Build Compassion” wherein the authors cite Nussbaum’s (1998) Cultivating Humanity to emphasize the importance of personal storytelling in creating caring and compassionate classrooms. The privileging of storytelling is especially important at this time in Canada because of the stellar efforts Indigenous people and their allies have invested in reclaiming the storytelling tradition of this place—Turtle Island. In Chapter 3 I encountered some of what I wanted to hear—some of what I look for in books about caring—the philosophical argument of the authors. For instance, Lundy and Swartz point out that
The academic, artistic, and social work of the classroom is dependent on many things: what the student brings to the classroom in terms of background knowledge, experience, attitude, and learning style and what the teacher models, expects, wants to happen, knows, values, and provides in terms of resources. So much of the work is dependent on the willingness of teachers to listen to their students, to reflect back to them their identities in the books and resources that they choose, and to find ways to celebrate the diversity before them in terms of learning style, language, race, sexual orientation, gender, and cultural and class background. (p. 95.)
The preceding are complex and meaningful ideas that honour and breathe life into the vital work of teachers and like-minded others committed to creating caring classrooms. These ideas are worthy prefaces to the strategies and activities that are teased out in the chapter and intended to “teach compassion to young people” while helping them to be “accountable for their actions.”
In Chapter 4, we are reminded that “we cannot just snap our fingers and tell students to "be compassionate” and that building compassion means that we are working with the stuff of emotions and beliefs, as well as assumptions that have become part of the way in which students see the world. As a way of assisting readers, Lundy and Swartz provide a list of stories that illustrate compassion and that can be used to help learners understand the nature of compassion. Moreover, they point out that it is not enough to be compassionate; we must act, and to aid action, the book showcases The Story of the Hummingbird. Along with the story, readers are gifted with six specific response strategies that can be used to guide learners to envision and take up the responsibility of operationalizing caring and compassion in the world as is illustrated in The Story of the Hummingbird.
Chapter 4 ends with two relevant and insightful research-based essays and a script that teachers and students can use to better understand compassion and the construct of putting on another’s shoes and walking in them. The research-based essays focused on (1) furthering the goals of inclusivity through gender equity (Reid), and (2) reclaiming Aboriginal education (Senk) by emphasizing community, the strength of “culturally proficient, respectful, and relevant pedagogy and curriculum”, and anti-racist practices and pedagogies. Having navigated through this plentiful chapter, I am confident in its ability to help teachers/educators and learners understand and build compassion.
The focus on compassion found in Chapter 4 is a good bridge to the final chapter: “Confronting the Bully Issue”. Chapter 5 presents bullying as a “matter of relationships” and offers 12 sketched out lessons that can be used deconstruct the bully issue. Teachers and others who work with children and youth are likely to be familiar with the content of the lessons. The ideas presented are helpful. For instance, there is value in the activities entitled “What Should You Do? Alternatives for Discussion” and “What if …?), and the Self-Reflection questionnaire.
This is a fine chapter but one that could go much farther and deeper. It would benefit from a more explicitly articulated connection between the constructs of caring and bullying. The absence of an explicit discussion that links the two constructs weakens the book and so does the absence of an overt discussion of the role of power in bullying. Power and its uses are inextricably wrapped up with the societal practice of bullying and need to be part of discourses about it. I lament its failure to appear in a substantive way in a book about bullying. Power was the first word I checked in the index when I opened the book. It was not there, and this was an indication of how the bully issue would be treated in the book—traditional and attenuated.
In conclusion, Creating Caring Classrooms by Lundy and Swartz is a credible pedagogical work that offers a combination of mild theory, practical strategies, activities, and research based insights from diverse practitioners embedded in real classrooms. It is a good choice for university, college, and public school libraries, and tax-payers would be well-served if this accessible monograph were to find a home in public libraries. A strong feature of the book is the “Spotlight on the Classroom” segment that is part of every chapter.
Although I would have liked to have seen a deeper theoretical teasing out of the concept of caring and more philosophical theorizing about the “bully issue”, the book is firmly and proudly moored within the orbit of social justice and equity and is interested in contributing to the building of a better, inclusive, caring and compassionate world. I celebrate this. As educators and citizens, the authors are justifiably focussed on the classroom and identify it as a place in which and from which to begin to fashion the world of which they dream. Therefore, this is an action-oriented, “how-to” book for practitioners. With the primary goal of strengthening and expanding the repertoires of teachers and learners to create caring and compassionate classrooms, the book offers an extensive collection of approaches and actionable items that can help to empower students to be compassionate of self and others. The ideas, strategies, events, games, and insights available are powered-up by two excellent Appendices of recommended resources as well as a good index. My journey through this ideas-packed book did not leave me leave tired; instead, I am inspired. My copy will be well-used.
Dr. Barbara McNeil teaches in the Faculty of Education at the University of Regina in Regina, SK.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.