The Academic Mindset consists of several beliefs that greatly contribute to students’ college success. They are: “I can do it if I work hard on it,” “My work matters,” and “I belong here.” The latter one, I feel, is the backbone of the first two. Students, and especially community college students, who don’t live on campus and whose complex commitments outside of school make it challenging, if not impossible, to linger and socialize and network in between classes, those students need to know that BMCC is their place. A place to be themselves. Before any learning can take place, the students have to believe that they are at the right place—a place that welcomes them, a place that values them, a place where they can feel comfortable. This is where the social belonging aspect of the academic mindset comes in. If we want students to believe in themselves and in BMCC, and if we want students to believe that the assigned coursework is important, we must first create a learning community. My experience, both as a former student and as an educator, has taught me that this community should resemble a (happy) family: we don’t always agree with one another, but we know that our voice matters, that it will be heard.
There are many activities that can enhance this feeling of social belonging in the classroom. Those activities can be big or small, and they can be implemented at any time during the semester. One thing I did back in late January was this: I told my CRT 100.5 students that we would be sitting in a circle, every time. In previous semesters, I have asked my students to sit in a circle for specific activities, but it was never the default.
The first day of class, the students moved their chairs into a circle. I sat among them. We introduced ourselves. We talked about our goals for the class, for the semester, for the future. We brainstormed the definition and examples of critical thinking. In other words, we talked; the layout of the circle–no rows of desks, no student sitting with their back to another student, everyone facing everyone else—allowed us to get to know one another in a comfortable, intimate setting. It didn’t feel like we were at school, or at least I certainly didn’t feel like I was any different than my students. In the circle, we were all equal, all at the same level.
When I walked into the classroom the following day, I was pleasantly surprised and extremely impressed: without being prompted to do so, the students had moved the chairs into a circle. What is more, as I was setting up the projector, the students were talking with one another. This in itself may not sound impressive, but it is when the norm nowadays appears to be students in rows, each on their phone, talking, texting, interacting with their electronic device, not with their peers. Of course, students work together in pairs and groups during class time. But when I witnessed the students socializing with each other before class, out of their own initiative, I felt like we already had a blossoming community, the very base of academic success.
As I write this, the semester is almost over. And yet, I am still inspired by my students every time I enter the classroom to find them sitting in a circle, chatting. They all come from vastly diverse backgrounds, they all have different goals and different commitments outside of school, and many speak different languages. What unites them is that they all belong here. And they know it.