Building Classroom Community through Asset-Based Thinking

by Danielle from Nouvelle ELA

Imagine you’re able to get some singing tips from your favorite pop star. Would you rather do this on stage in front of a studio audience or in your living room with three of your best friends? Props to those of you who’d choose the stage, but most of us would choose the latter.

Learning is a risk. Every time we open ourselves up to learning something new, we take a risk. Perhaps we’re scared of looking foolish, or perhaps we’ve clung to an ideology that doesn’t work anymore. Our students feel that same trepidation when being asked to try something new. To foster an environment where learning can take place, we must first build a community of trust and mutual support. 

A key aspect of building classroom community is helping every student feel skilled and valued. Too often, students at school get the message that they aren’t “enough” of x, y, or z. This triggers their negativity bias. Because our brains are hard-wired to protect us from threats, those threats get magnified and our attention lingers there until we deal with them. Negativity bias means that if a student feels uncomfortable in your classroom, that threat will consume their attention and keep them from being successful learners. (For more on brain-based teaching, check out Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain by Zaretta Hammond, 2015.)

By strengthening students’ attention on their assets, not their deficits, we can prime the classroom community for learning. One way to do this is to create an asset-based profile (Hammond). Though this is definitely something you can do privately, giving students ownership of this task is a way to empower them.

An asset-based profile can include the physical, social, and mental resources a student has. This can be adults who care for them, community mentors who inspire them, their love of basketball or marching band, and their math skills. 

Today, we’ll dive into soft skills. These are the assets that students can rely on as they take root in the classroom community. This is a great opportunity to shine light on some things that school hasn’t traditionally valued for students. A student might struggle with reading fluency, for example, but be an excellent leader in any group work. Helping students articulate this is empowering and critical to making all contributions feel valued.

Building an Asset-Based Profile

Students will be able to: 
-identify their unique skills and capacities
-recognize multiple approaches to the same goal
-value their peers’ differing contributions
-rely on these assets as they face challenging tasks

1. Tell a Story

Start off this lesson with a story, “A Tale of Three Gamers.” I encourage you to tell this story aloud, since sharing orally will draw in your community of learners. According to Hammond, “In oral cultures, there is a reliance on oral expression to carry meaning and feelings through its emotional vitality. The goal is to express aliveness and animation to stimulate the senses.” 

2. Discussion

After you share the story, ask students to name the best player. Honestly, there is no “best” player since each of the three players reached the treasure (the stated goal) in about the same time. What we want to highlight here is that each player possessed different skills and strategies that made them successful. Students may value some of these skills more than others, depending on their background and their own preferences. 

Once the initial debate subsides, have students list out traits each player showed. You can use the Asset Bank if your students need some help naming them. Do this on the board as a class or in small groups. 

  • Rashod showed courage and tenacity. Even though he died and had to start again, he kept going. He also improved through practice. 
  • Curiosity drove Jessenia. She wanted to know if she could beat the level, even with certain limitations, and she kept trying until she did so. She’s innovative. 
  • Shane showed planning and attention to detail. They managed their health well so that they never died. They also did some hard work before the Big Challenge to help it go more smoothly.

3. Application

Next, turn the gaze inward. Students work with a peer to brainstorm their own assets. They can use the Questionnaire and Asset Bank to facilitate this discussion. The Asset Bank is only a starting place, so you can circulate to provide more vocabulary as needed.

4. Creation

To solidify the value of these assets to the classroom community, display them! As a final step, you can ask students to create a visual representation of three of their assets.

What’s next? 

Using puzzles and games in the classroom are a great way to teach students to value multiple approaches to the same problem. I love these Collaborative Bellringers! Each puzzle is a mini-task that ties in students’ cultural knowledge and problem-solving. This quick, competitive game is a great way to build classroom community in the first few minutes of class. You can grab a free sample here.

Lately, I’ve been using digital breakout games like TERMINUS to help students open themselves up to a challenge. While my big goal is to strengthen reading skills, this game helps students value their own contributions to any team. 

What do you do to build up students' perception of their own skills? Let me know!

Happy teaching!
-Danielle @nouvelle_ela

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