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Feb 3, 2014

Education Professor Fosters Community Inside and Outside The Classroom

Community as a concept is so vague that it is impossible for people to agree on a single definition. For Dr. Aaron Bodle, assistant professor in the College of Education, this lack of consensus about communities is precisely why the use of community is such powerful educational tools. Whether it be teaching how to build effective communities of learners in his education classes, conducting research about the resettlement experiences of displaced people and refugees, or organizing community summits that address the needs of children in Harrisonburg, Bodle is passionate about building vibrant communities—despite the fact that no one can seem to agree on what communities are, what they should look like, or who should belong.

Learning from and generating a sense of community was not always the easiest for Bodle. As he expresses, “When I began teaching English to seventh-graders, I dreamed of creating classroom environments where my students treated one another with respect, and where we could come to agreements on what was important about the literature we were reading at the time, in my head, this was a utopia!” But Bodle goes on to mention that “It didn’t take long for me to realize my students had other ideas in mind. While they were required to treat each other with respect, there simply was no way for me to convince them to see things the same way, nor was my vision the least bit desirable.”

However, Bodle soon realized that moments of disagreement, often created by his students, were the richest learning experiences he could facilitate for them. “Disagreements were generative as long as we all came to the table with a willingness to hear the other side,” he recalled.

Today, Bodle encourages the same generative tensions in his education classes at JMU, but notes that they rarely occur. “I think most of my students have been socialized to avoid conflict, even when that means they silence some of their deepest held beliefs about the topic under discussion,” Bodle said. He added that some of the more disconcerting times are “when students are made to feel their opinion doesn’t matter, or their stance is invalid.”

Bodle believes that “Breaking these silences is the pathway to building truly vibrant learning communities in the classroom and beyond,” and hopes, that unlike his experience as an early-career educator, his students will enter the teaching profession “prepared to organize their classrooms in ways that will allow students to develop a belief that each of their voices matter and deserve to be heard, even when they aren’t in agreement with the majority. Societies can only grow when the voices of the marginalized are taken seriously by the rest.”

Bodle draws inspiration for his work from author, social activist, and educator Gloria Jean Watkins, who states, “To build community requires vigilant awareness of the work we must continually do to undermine all the socialization that leads us to behave in ways that perpetuate domination.” For Bodle, the only way to start this process of change is to promote and support students’ critical thinking from an early age.  “We have to help young children build the critical thinking skills they can use to empower themselves,” he said. “We can help them believe that the voices from the margins that have something new to say are extraordinarily valuable for bringing about social change.”

According to Bodle, we must also start building communities outside the classroom.  For Bodle and education colleague Dr. Tim Thomas a community building summit will put their beliefs into action.

On March 3, 2014, the two colleagues will host The Whole Community/The Whole Child: A Summit to Build Networks of Care for Children in Harrisonburg. This summit is one of eight events organized in conjunction with "A Book for the 'Burg," a shared community reading series co-sponsored by JMU, The City of Harrisonburg, Eastern Mennonite University, Massanutten Regional Library, and The Arts Council of the Valley.

Bodle explains, “We saw ‘A Book for the ’Burg’ as the perfect opportunity to put to the test our mutual belief in the power of education to prepare students for civic participation, to bring seemingly different groups and individuals together, and to build communities by learning through our differences.” 

The Whole Community/ The Whole Child invites student groups, community groups, faith-based organizations, academic and community leaders, educators, students, and anyone who is interested to come together in order to solve the problems related to the general welfare of children including those issues in health and education. Bodle is optimistic about obtaining similar results to the results he experienced with his first group of seventh-graders and urges stakeholders to “come with a commitment to having honest conversations about the needs of children in our community.”

When asked if he hopes to rekindle those “generative tensions” he discovered with his seventh-graders he replied, “Absolutely.  There is no better way to solve problems than putting our heads together.”







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