Half the students
in this Grade 11 Scarborough class are cool, and they know it. The boys
walk with a certain swagger, as if auditioning for the next big rap video.
The waists of their ultra baggy jeans hang-by some miracle-close to their
knees. Luckily their extra large shirts go down far enough to cover the
gap. By contrast, the girls' clothes are the opposite of baggy and their
faces show evidence of a few trips to the cosmetics counter.
The students in the other half of the class come from very different cultural,
religious and family backgrounds. The influence of rock videos likely
takes a back seat in their homes to more traditional ways of dressing
and conduct. Some are fairly new to Canada, and some are still learning
the intricacies of the English language.
So in this truly multicultural class that's a mix of cool and conservative,
in-your-face posing and modesty, the last thing you'd expect to see is
these kids really communicating with each other.
But because of a teaching program at work here called Tribes they're doing
much more than just talking. They're trusting each other and relating,
and sharing feelings and frustrations.
Tribes is a group
process in which students are encouraged to take risks, to challenge one
another and themselves in an inclusive, respectful and co-operative classroom
environment. The name refers to North American aboriginal tribes' practices
that create a group-centred, rather than individual-centred, culture where
everyone works together towards common goals.
On a snowy November day, the students in this academic English class at
Winston Churchill High School have been asked to mill around the classroom
to a pulsating hip-hop beat. Each time the music is turned off, their
teacher, Carolyn Brown, has told them to "stop, face the person nearest
to you and share."
And they do. They embrace this activity wholeheartedly, first sharing
what they like most about Anne Cameron, the student teacher who has just
spent the last month doing her practicum in their classroom, and then
sharing something about what they're planning to do in December.
The milling and sharing activity is part of a community circle and, like
native healing circles, is a central strategy for modelling collaborative
social skills and fostering participation in a caring and inclusive milieu.
"Our community circle is the best... it brings everyone together,"
says Krystine, a student in the class. "We do it every day. We talk
about stuff that went wrong or that we could do better... We don't shut
any people out. We accept everyone's input."
In a Tribes classroom,
students are divided into groups, or tribes, which form a safe and caring
nest for co-operative learning. These groups provide the foundation for
a process that unfolds over the course of a year as students learn to
interact in a positive and socially responsible way.
Their interactions are based on four community agreements that are fundamental
among the Tribes members: everyone must listen attentively; no putdowns
are allowed; mutual respect is always honoured; everyone has the right
to "pass" on a response or an activity that they feel they can't
contribute to at the moment.
What distinguishes Tribes from many other similar programs is that it
provides a series of specific and concrete activities for teachers to
do with their students that build on each other to promote a vibrant,
caring and democratic environment.
A progressive sequence exists for these exercises so that eventually,
structures are in place that both students and teachers can use to construct
a connected classroom where students experience a real sense of belonging
and genuine partnerships can happen.
The program is slowly filtering its way into boards across Ontario. Tribes-trained
teachers have been working for about 10 years in the Durham District School
Board (the first board in Ontario to adopt the program) and six in Toronto.
Denise Overall, the co-ordinator of staff development for the Toronto
District School Board, says more than 2,000 teachers in over 50 schools
in Toronto have been trained so far.
Teachers aren't the
only ones who are being trained. In some schools, office staff, administrators
and even caretakers also learn the Tribes techniques to ensure that the
whole school environment is inclusive. "It sends a very strong message
when you include everybody," says Overall. "This kind of collaborative
culture is a new thing. It's far from autonomous teachers in their classrooms
doing their own thing... It's a huge shift in thinking."
Penny Ballagh, an instructor at OISE/UT who teaches Tribes, says that
while the program fosters a sense of belonging to a group, it at the same
time values the cultural diversity of individual students and their unique
learning styles. "It pulls together so much of what we're learning
about brain theory."
And she says that while good teachers have always appealed to the different
learning styles of their students, Tribes codifies the methodology, making
it accessible to a broad range of teachers.
and media studies teacher Carolyn Brown (left) and student teacher
Anne Cameron use Tribes training to build co-operation and esprit
de corps among students.
This past fall-in
a first for the education faculty-in-service and pre-service teachers
learned about Tribes together in an OISE course that has been approved
for Professional Learning Program credits. After 24 hours of classroom
instruction by Ballagh and Karen Sheppard, the in-service teachers teamed
up with the student teachers for their practicum placements, many of them
at Winston Churchill.
It was a novel way for experienced and inexperienced teachers alike to
learn about Tribes at the same time as getting to know one another before
landing in front of a class for practice teaching.
"We haven't tried this before," says Ballagh, who came up with
the initial idea of combining both experienced and inexperienced teachers
in a single classroom. "We knew there were both teachers and teacher-candidates
who wanted the Tribes training... Often teacher candidates are nervous
and anxious about practicums. This way, they would have a relationship
going into it. It provides networking and mentoring possibilities."
Sheppard, who is seconded from the Durham board, says the reaction of
student teachers who had the opportunity to integrate Tribes theory and
practice during their practice teaching is immediate. "I can see
the light bulbs going on," she says.
Even before implementing the OISE/UT program, Ballagh recognized just
how valuable the relationship between new and veteran teachers could be
to enrich the practicum experience. But she needed a willing principal
"I put feelers out that I was looking for a school to play with,"
she says. Trina Wood, principal at Winston Churchill High School, leapt
at the opportunity.
For Wood, participating
in Tribes training along with a dozen or so teachers from her school was
a logical next step. Both her vice-principals had been Tribes trained
and she was already using many of the techniques herself in leading staff
For example, in her first staff meeting, she asked her teachers to line
up in A to Z fashion based on their favourite foods. Almonds to zucchini
lined up and got to know each other better than they did before. In another
exercise, teachers were grouped according to where they lived and soon
realized that many were neighbours and didn't know it.
"It not only broke the ice," says Wood, "But it gave them
important information about each other." At the same time, she adds,
it provided valuable models for teachers using Tribes techniques that
they could take directly into their classrooms.
Tribes was a seamless
fit for Winston Churchill, where collegiality among the staff is a priority
and students are expected to participate very fully in the life of the
school. "It provides a lot of empowerment for students... It gives
them a voice," says Wood. "You have to go through a calculated
process so that everyone can work as a team. You must make every kid believe
that he or she is part of a class all working together towards the same
Clearly, the experience of Tribes training was pivotal for Wood. So much
so, in fact, that she believes it should be a mandatory course for all
student teachers who are inundated with mastering material and curriculum
to the exclusion of studying classroom technique. "Tribes starts
to equip their tool bag," she says.
Moreover, Wood's experience has shown her how crucial it is that associate
and student teachers have a chance to get to know each other before they
begin their practicum. She suggests that in the future she will ensure
that such a relationship exists on some level before teacher candidates
and associate teachers land in the same classroom together.
There'd be no arguments with that approach from Carolyn Brown, an English
and media studies teacher who did Tribes training with Wood. For Brown,
it was critical that she got to know Anne Cameron, her student teacher,
before the practicum began.
"I ended up with a student who was philosophically aligned with me,"
says Brown. "I think I would have been frustrated otherwise and I
wouldn't have been as eager to take on a teacher candidate."
"We just clicked, there was synergy," says Cameron.
As for what the Tribes training itself taught them, both Brown and Cameron
are utterly passionate. "I think I've become 100 times better as
a teacher," says Brown. "Instead of throwing them into groups
and hoping for the best, it gives my students skills and strategies. Tribes
is really about team building so that when you put them into groups, they
can run themselves. This gives them real strategies for communicating."
Cameron, who has a
master's degree in adult education, says Tribes is based on well-established
research on how students learn. From her perspective, there is little
that is brand new in Tribes. Rather, it pulls together many critical pieces
of educational philosophy that have grown and taken root during the past
few decades. "Tribes really works."
With Brown and Cameron at the helm in this classroom, the place is electric
with energy. The students are grouped in their tribes with names like
Dream Team, Hardworking Hustlers, Silent Tribe and Mad Tavs. It would
appear that the constant collaboration is just the way they like it.
"We support each other, we help each other and share ideas,"
says Mano, one of the many very engaged students. "We can help people
who are quieter to express themselves... It works for homework too."
Brown is quick to point out that some teachers have misconceptions about
what Tribes is and what it can accomplish. She insists that it's not all
"lovey-dovey" but in fact a systematic approach to building
co-operation and esprit de corps in a classroom. And while Tribes is plainly
suited to the humanities like English or drama, it can be equally effective
in less obvious class settings like phys ed, math or science.
"In gym, we call it teams," says phys ed teacher Steve Gilles,
who says many of the strategies he learned can be easily transferred into
a gym where a co-operative spirit is so crucial.
For Dave Brinton, an English and drama teacher, Tribes has taken much
of the guesswork out of how to construct positive collaboration in his
classes. And because it is not a doctrinaire system, it allows for flexibility
in how and when to apply it so that it can work in very unique settings.
The teacher candidates who learned about Tribes alongside their more seasoned
counterparts were equally enthusiastic about the experience. Aaron Piercey,
who did his practicum in Brinton's classroom, says that learning the Tribes
techniques with the teacher he ended up working with for a month gave
them a shared focus and a common language to communicate with one another
about teaching. "There was already an environment of trust,"
he says. "We came in knowing at least 12 teachers... who have hundreds
of collective years of information among them."
As for Tribes training itself, Piercey says it has given him a head start
in figuring out what kinds of techniques might work for him when he becomes
a full-fledged teacher.