A community: having things in common

I define a community as a group of people who have things in common.  Living in a community means coming to terms with that.  It means sorting out how you will manage the things you have in common and defending your own space- what you don’t have in common.

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It is important to emphasize what people don’t have in common because the word community can lead to fake visions of everyone holding hands and being happy.  That is definitely not my understanding of the word.  I live in a village.  The community comes together to discuss problems where people are rarely in agreement.  They gather under one of the barns and talk the issues out: not everyone can get their own way.  On your own property you are the boss, but when you have something in common you have to talk.  And sometimes you have to give way or compromise.

The village community is not ideal.  These people would really have benefitted from an education at MBAT.  When they have meetings, everyone talks at once.  People don’t listen.  They say what they want to say and then stomp off.  There is no chairperson to discipline this cross-talking and interruption.  There is no secretary to write down proposals and no systematic way of counter-proposing or voting.  If there is a big problem, as there was with the old water supply, people volunteer to “fix” it, but there is no follow-up, no committee that ensures things are going to plan, and no consequences for not bothering to do so.  People don’t understand that some issues can be decided by a group, some come to the vote of all, and that a simple majority is not sufficient to carry the day when a vote is important.  At the end of one meeting, a neighbor said, “What we need is a strong man to tell us all what to do!”

I was shocked.  These are simple techniques that children can learn!  And the consequences of not mastering them are terrifying: the call for a dictator.  People who don’t grow up in communities with strong and reasonable procedures of governance actively look for leadership from tyrants and demagogues.  They look to the teacher, the government official, or the policeman to sort out problems they could easily sort out for themselves.

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Although this kind of education has many implications in the world, I don’t want to wander too far off my theme.  I am talking about the community structure at MBAT and how it works.  I felt it was important to stress at the beginning, however, how important this aspect of our education is.

It is such an essential part of the functioning of the school that it is essential you understand it, especially if you want to come and work here.  It is rooted in the idea that sorting things out together is not difficult and is a bedrock skill for future life.  Here are the three essentials we start with:

  • A community is a group of people that have something in common
  • Everyone does not have to agree- well-structured meetings work out common ground
  • The community cannot affect all of your freedoms

First Experiences

Children’s first experience of community at MBAT is close.  In Hadiqa small classes have a warm atmosphere.  Each term has a series of festivities, excursions, performances and events that bring the children in their small class community together with others.  They have a lot of freedom and this inevitably results in disagreements and tension.  We resolve tensions in circle time where children are encouraged to use their voice to articulate issues.  From their first days in MBAT children learn that their voice is important.  Teachers are trained not to talk all the time and not to provide solutions to all problems.  They introduce children to some of the techniques we talked about above: turn-taking, listening, making proposals.  We give small children a firm adult presence, but the Hadiqa team leader guides teachers to prepare them for the bigger communities in Sama and beyond.

Just listening instead of talking is a powerful educational tool

As they move up through the school, children grow into their community.  They learn how to make proposals in their communities.  They learn how to make rules and how to deal with those who break them.  They call people to account by bringing them up.  They can call people from other communities as well.  The institutions of good governance are taught through practical examples.  It may start with simple things, like whether you need to take your shoes off when you go into the library, but develops into a more sophisticated understanding of how to hold people to account.

Sama

When children move up to Sama, they first enter a community of 44 and then a community of 88.  There are shared resources and activity rooms.  Their teachers get together to plan projects together.  Although they still have their classroom base, they also start to make decisions in that bigger group.  What kind of decisions do they make?  The formal curriculum is delivered by teachers, the informal curriculum is available in a mixture of projects and activities, and free play is their own imperative.  What is left for the community to consider?

If a community doesn’t have enough to do together, it drifts slowly apart or becomes stagnant

The school year is punctuated by festivities, parties, performances and other events.  There is always a half term and end of term party, for example.  This “Year of Parties” not only gives a structure to the calendar but provides Sama many opportunities to come together.  There are many possibilities for communal events.  I don’t feel like it is my job to lay these out at the beginning of the year because I want the children to be involved in making decisions including what those events might be.

Let me give you an example.  A group of kids might want to camp on the beach.  That idea would not be accepted or rejected by the school administration.  It would come to a meeting where it could be discussed.  The meeting would have to investigate whether it was legal and feasible and the community would be able to vote on whether it was acceptable.  The meeting would put some conditions after discussing the issue with the school administration.  This is very different from a school where you “ask the teacher” to get permission for everything.

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Most schools do not work like this.  They set the bar very high for children’s ideas to be listened to.  They have a discipline policy, detentions, report cards and expulsions.  MBAT works in a different way, but it is not a radical experiment that overturns educational precedent.  It is a reasonable school, built on reasonable principles that are founded in established good practice.  Teachers are still in charge of their classrooms and they cannot surrender that control. 

Bahr

We have designed our school according to an idea we have about growing up.  You might say that we want the school to work in line with the way people naturally grow towards adulthood.  I have mentioned before that it is always a good idea to celebrate developmental milestones.  Moving up to Bahr is one of those milestones.  Students are no longer children; they are young adults.  Moving up is celebrated with a new seriousness in the life of their community.

The Upper Bahr community is similar to the Clubhouse: 88 students with shared resources.  They understand about meetings and self-government.  They know how to organize themselves when they are working in groups and when they are working alone.  They are proficient in designing activities and projects for themselves.

The theme for Bahr is the Sea and the school makes a big investment in Marine Biology and Environmental Science.  Students moving up from the Clubhouse to Bahr are confronted with a world of opportunities and challenges.  Academic work becomes harder.  The shared resources and facilities are at a different level of sophistication.  Whereas a ten-year-old might be happy to make model planes a thirteen-year-old may be challenged to make a vehicle he can actually use.

As students grow up through adolescence their ideas about self-government change.  They are attracted to the outside world.  They start to see that the community they live and work in is nested in other communities: the city, the country, the region.  They also discover communities of interest that take them out of the school: art, sport, science, writing, design, politics.  The school encourages and promotes this explosion of youthful interest.  Just as moving up through the school is marked by celebration, the routes to leaving the school are also marked by milestones and celebration. 

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By the time students leave MBAT they are sophisticated in the use of self-government.  They have high level speaking, negotiating and listening skills.  They have served on committees, organized events, stood in positions of authority over others and been governed by the decisions of the meetings in their communities.  They have a deep respect and understanding of the roots of lawful behavior, but they feel that they can lobby to change laws they think are unjust or partial.  They have learnt that they cannot always have their own way when the vote goes against them.

Essential Community Agreements:

  1. open and honest communication amongst all members of the school community
  2. atmosphere of compassion and equality
  3. informed and effective teaching
  4. holistic learning environment
  5. understand needs through dialogue
  6. safe community regulated by regular meetings
  7. freedom to move around and play as long as the student does not endanger himself or others: freedom, not license
  8. equal respect for all to encourage self-control and self-discipline

Published by Jason Preater

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