Tribes: 30-Years-Old But Continues to Offer Insights

I’m only a third of the way through Reaching All by Creating Tribes Learning Communities by Jeanne Gibs, but I thought this was good place for a review and some reflection. At 400+ pages, it’s a lot of information but isn’t too dense. I feel fortunate in that through my teacher training program, work with colleagues and professional development, much of the philosophy discussed in the first chapters of this book were not new to me. Some of the foundations of Tribes:

  • Teacher as facilitator
  • Students working in cooperative groups to construct learning
  • Address social and emotional needs of students first

The “why” for a Social and Emotional Learning philosophy was not new, nor the research they cited to back it up, so I read through this pretty quickly. I have colleagues at my school who are fans of Responsive Classroom, and I found many parallels in the reasoning behind why an SEL approach is necessary and beneficial to learning. I also found parallels to what my colleagues do in “Morning Meetings” with Responsive Classroom and “Community Circles” in Tribes, as well as similarities in conflict resolution strategies. I am by no means an expert on Responsive Classroom, so there may be more parallels that I’m not aware of.

Three basic elements of Tribes are:

The Agreements

A set of four agreements for interaction that foster inclusion, kindness and respect.

The Community Circle

A daily, morning circle where students check-in and practice social skills.

The Tribe

A group of 3-6 students, depending on age group, who work together for at least a month on learning and social collaborative tasks.

Other guidelines are:

Reflection on social and learning objectives.

Using conflict resolution to solve problems.

Now that I’ve started the nitty gritty chapters, the “how” of Tribes, it’s getting interesting. One thing that Tribes emphasizes is the need for what they call “inclusion” exercises continually through the year. The Tribes philosophy asserts that every person has such a deep need to feel included that they will engage in behaviors to get attention, to feel more included, that may be counter-productive such as detachment, acting out, hurting others, etc. The goal with inclusion activities is to make sure that every child feels included and accepted into your classroom community. They are also a vehicle to practice social skills and living up to the agreements for interaction.

I understood the logic behind this idea before and even implemented certain structures last year in an effort to foster community. I had students run morning meetings. We debated important issues to students in informal and formal debates. Students selected final project formats, and they also selected individual learning topics that matched their interests. We incorporated art and technology and played a lot of active games. I tried! I really did, and we were getting better. I tried to model inclusion not only by how I treated students but also by incorporating a lot of student choice in the content and running of daily learning.

Tribes has a slightly more formulaic way of looking at this and has you follow a “path” to community that spans the length of time a tribe is working together, but is also cyclical with each new learning activity. Inclusion activities are always at the start, and in the beginning of the year, tribes (or learning groups) of students are not even formed until several weeks after there’s been plenty of inclusion activities and social skills practice. “Influence” is the next stage in the path and this is where students are working on collaborative skills to gain influence but still remain inclusive. They also work on problem-solving and conflict resolution. The final stage is “community,” and this is where the focus in on pulling forth and showcasing each member’s unique gifts.

There are some things about SEL programs that I find corny or forced. With Responsive Classroom, it was the “greeting” in Morning Meetings. Turning to each person and greeting them in some silly or orchestrated way, seemed so unnatural to me that we ended up dropping that part of the meeting last year. With Tribes, the “I-Messages” also feel this way. Beginning conflict resolutions or expressing needs within your group with statements like, “I feel hurt when others interrupt me,” feels like it’s a line from a psychologist’s self-help book. I can see the white beard and eyes beaming at me through wire rim glasses from the dust jacket sleeve.

It’s times like this, when I feel uncomfortable, or don’t totally buy into something, that I wonder if I’m getting in the way. Maybe teaching my students these phrases and strategies will really help them. Maybe I’m feeding into my own insecurities or embarrassment at confrontation. Perhaps, but I do think that every teacher has to adapt philosophies like this and make them their own, trying on different strategies and tailoring them so they feel comfortable and authentic. If not, the students will sense your discomfort and won’t buy in anyway!

I am willing to try anything if it makes sense. I-Messages do make sense, and upon reflection, I use them in my personal relationships without calling them such. When I talk to my boyfriend about something that’s bothering me, I’m really careful not to go on the attack, but try simply to describe how I’m feeling and why. When I approach colleagues or friends about a problem, I do the same, making it about me, and entreating them to help me see things in a different light or discuss how we can improve the interactions. It works. It works a lot better than making assumptions and blaming the other person for feeling bad. That only puts them on the defensive. So, therefore, I suppose I need to learn how to teach this to my students in a way that feels authentic. Perhaps it’s the language that trips me up or the formula. In any case, we need to figure it out. I might try having them come up with a formula that works for them.

Now back to the book…


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