Holly Valentine | June 2021

The Many Layers
of Community Connection

Community. Connections. Two words that have so many layers to them, are so important, yet often get lost. No matter your role in a school, as one school year finishes, and you inevitably look towards the next, it is the perfect time to really step back and consider what these words mean to you and how you want to promote them. It’s important to add in one more word though. Arts. The arts are the bridge and link to however you look to connect to your community. 

Start Small

Relationships matter. Stories matter. Those are undeniable facts. What needs to be considered is the path you will take to building relationships and the stories you will share. We know it’s important to start small and to start with what you know. So start with your smallest circle. If you are an administrator, start with your teaching staff. If you are a teacher, start with your classroom, and start now. You know the people you will be working with in the fall (whether adults or students), so use this time before the demands of curriculum set in to really learn about your people. The one thing the pandemic has taught us is the importance of connecting with people. The great thing is, we have more tools than ever to do that.

Create a private group online somewhere for your circle to share themselves. Share your summer adventures, share your family activities, share your daily life. People want to know each other, and we do this best visually. Remember, capturing photographs is art! This is often all the work we do in the first months of school. Why wait? As teachers, we know that “summer slide” happens for students when they aren’t engaged academically over the summer, but doesn’t it happen socially as well? It happens with a building team, too.  Gain that time back and start your year already knowing your people and their families. Bring in the new people and give yourself that head start. 

Dive In

After using the summer months to build your circle’s community, you can dive in with the fall to expanding your circle. Perhaps you expand to the other classes in your building, or your district. Build the community of your school. Host family nights and host them often. Have game nights, ice cream socials, movie nights, book fairs – there are so many options. Sure, build in some with a curricular focus as well, but have others that are pure fun.

As humans, we want to have fun and we want to feel invested in a group. When we do, we go out of our way for the people in that group. Isn’t that ultimately the kind of support system we want for our kids? A safe space for the hard times. Thinking back to the heart of the pandemic, so many schools made lawn signs for their students or their teachers. Such a simple gesture, but it made you remember you are part of a whole. Even though you might not display that sign any more, it’s a safe bet it’s in your garage or a basement and when you see it, you smile. 

Think Bigger and Use the Arts

So you’ve done the work and you’ve built the community within your classroom and building. Now think bigger. You started early with the process, so you have all the time in the world. So often when we turn to thinking about our larger community, we think about one community partner, or one artist-in-residence. Don’t get me wrong – those partnerships are amazing. But think about what could happen when you combine two of them, and combine the arts too?!

There are many artists who work to combine art forms themselves. One such example is Melissa McCracken, a synesthete, who is able to visualize sounds through color. Be inspired by her by watching a brief video about her process and how her art takes shape. It’s so interesting to go to her website and view her works, thinking about the music that inspired them. While this is a rare occurrence for people, how could you bring this to life for students?

Invite a local musician and a local visual artist into your classroom. Have them collaborate in time together in front of your students. Meaning, the musician plays while the artist starts with a blank canvas and creates as she listens. Have students watch the development of her painting. Do her brush strokes change depending on the music? Do her colors change to different tones? Allow the two artists to work without interruption, then guide a discussion with your students and the artists. Then allow your students to do the same. Start with that blank canvas and see what takes shape.

Connecting Content and the Arts

Now connect more than two arts. Connect content and the arts by using your community.  Find one location in your area that you want to expose your students to. This might have a curricular connection, which makes things even easier. Then think about which art form (visual, media, music, theatre, dance) you can align naturally with it. For example, reach out to your local science center, along with a digital photographer. Or a news station with a musician/sound designer. Or a writer who is developing a character with an actor. How can two often separate entities work together to collaborate and express their ideas?

Remember the value in using the resources within your school community as well. Who are the professionals you could bring in? Parents? Other staff members? Administrators? Students themselves? You are looking for natural alignments with your content and the arts. Once you open the door to it, let your students run with it. The fewer parameters you have, other than forging the connection in areas, the wider the range of creativity.

That is likely the most difficult part. Creativity happens with fewer boundaries. As teachers and administrators, we often look to the boundaries first. Take them away. You will be surprised at how much you really don’t need them. 

Plan Now

Use the summer to think about these larger connections. Start building the relationships you need to make the experiences happen now. The school year gets so hectic. Use the relative calm of the summer to think ahead and lay the needed groundwork. Find the right people, find the right connections. 

Essentially, by creating connections within your community, you are creating the connection of a common experience, which only develops and strengthens your classroom community even more. You are bringing the world to your students, and your students to the world. Remember, they want to feel part of a larger “something”, just like we all do. Administrators, this goes for your staff as well.

Building experiences builds memories, and it is memories that bond people together and inspire new ones. So get started and challenge yourself to really consider the many layers of the words community and connections. So, where will you take it and how will you do it? The possibilities are only limited by your own thoughts.

Dream big and think even bigger. Go connect. Go create. 

About the Author

Holly Valentine is the Director of Curriculum and Assessment for the Institute for Arts Integration and Steam. Prior to joining the Institute, Holly worked as an Arts Integration and Classroom Teacher for 20 years in a suburb of Rochester, NY. She is a certified Arts Integration Specialist and has served as an Arts Standards Writer for the New York State Education Department. Holly has been a recipient of the NYC Broadway League's Apple Award for her work in Arts Education. She also serves as the Director of Education for the Rochester Broadway Theatre League, where she has created nationally recognized programs and develops standards-based curriculum for touring Broadway shows in order to bring the theatre to classrooms and classrooms to the theatre. Holly holds both a Bachelor of Arts degree in Theatre and Psychology as well as a Masters degree in Education from Nazareth College in Rochester, NY,  where she currently lives.