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Start with The Heart First

Community is everything. If you’re not convinced of that by now–in April 2021–principal Elias Villa and instructional coach Nicole Lalumiere-Weaving will make you think again. For these Weaver Middle School educators, it didn’t take a global pandemic to understand that everything must be built on a foundation of trust that is bolstered by evidence of care and concern. While this is always a work in progress for these educators, creating a thriving community is at the core of every decision they make.

Weaver is located in a rural community in Merced, California, which is part of a swath of agricultural land known as the world’s breadbasket. This diverse community is growing and Villa and Lalumiere-Weaving are poised to ensure that its diverse population of learners, 85% of whom are socio-economically disadvantaged, have every opportunity to grow and learn in a deeply caring community. 

As devoted as educators are to their students, Weaver leaves nothing to chance. “We are explicit about what we mean by a ‘culture of care.’ We have a group of caring educators, committed to meeting the needs of every student. We know that many of our families are facing challenges and our students will absorb the heightened anxiety.”

One of the driving strategies at Weaver is restorative practices. Every educator is learning how to facilitate conversations that offer students a chance to share what is happening in their lives in a safe and supportive community. Students are learning to articulate their emotions while building empathy for one another–the same is true for the adults in the room. 

“Our staff is not just learning about restorative practices, but they are using the strategies themselves. This is how we build community amongst ourselves. We’ve started book studies that deepen our understanding of a topic, then we get in a circle, just as our students do, and we talk. We bond. We learn how it feels to get vulnerable. At Weaver, we don’t ask our students to do anything that we haven’t done ourselves,” explains Villa. 

“We allow kids to have a space to talk and to hear each other. They will talk differently in a circle than they will on the playground. They need a safe space to have an opportunity to hear one another. We want everyone to know what it feels like to be in the company of good humans. This is a place where kids have respect for one another and most teachers seem happier. Our teachers model what a positive and respectful conversation looks and sounds like,” says Villa. 

“Connection before content is our guiding principle, shares Lalumiere-Weaving. We know that teachers are overwhelmed and kids have a whole new world to navigate. There’s a lot to do. So, we want everyone to trust that not only is it okay but it’s essential that you can show up as a human first. Trust that you have time to do the tasks that need to get done. Start with the heart first. The more heart, the more purpose and meaning,” she adds. 

“We give teachers permission to take time each day to make those personal connections. One of our goals is to continue to increase attendance. School has to be a place where kids want to go. A place they feel cared for–where someone is really listening, where they feel heard and seen. School should always feel like a comfortable place where our students want to be. When students connect with the adults, they want to do more work,” says Villa. 

Weaver Middle School is part of the “Schools to Watch” network, which is a program of the Institute for Excellence in Education (IEE). This national network provides an opportunity for schools to grow and share best practices as well as a supportive place to share challenges. As Lalumiere-Weaving points out, “The cool thing is that being recognized as a School to Watch is not an end point, it’s a beginning point. The message is: ‘We like what you’re doing and we want to join you and follow your journey.’”

One of the areas of focus for Weaver is engendering goals and future orientation among students. At the foundation of this is “Seeing that every kid is a person of worth and dignity and allowing them to make choices,” explains Lalumiere-Weaving. “Often, as adults, we want to control what is happening; we try to avoid that temptation and instead create an environment where choice is not only available but encouraged.” 

“In Homeroom, students reflect on their learning and take charge of what they need to do to grow. They write their own plan of action. This goal setting and reflection builds learner agency. Thrively has really helped students feel that they’re a part of the school. Our kids get to know themselves, which has been crucial for all that we do, from goal setting, to restorative practices. Our students have become much more self-aware and reflective, and our teacher uses this information to help students become more empowered learners,” explains Villa. 

Student empowerment is supported by several outlets for exploration in the arts and sciences. The award-winning band and the drama department, which sells out the annual Disney musical every year, are community treasures that highlight the persistence and drive of Weaver’s young performers. Students who do not find their passion in music or theater are encouraged to find their passion in sports, the Greek Olympics, and in hands-on science and math. Lalumiere-Weaving explains, “Our teachers are so passionate about their subjects that they have created a place where kids feel like it’s cool to learn new things. In English, the theme was window and mirrors–‘what are you reflecting to others and what are you seeing in another person’s world?’”

“We’re never just going to teach students and give them a quiz. We ask questions and provide the space to think about them, in writing and out loud. Think, talk, listen, triangulate who they are as they relate to others. Interactive conversations help students search for understanding and meaning. Our teachers have thoughtful, meaningful discussions that center on ideas that are relevant to their students and, in turn, students search for answers to big questions,” shares Lalumiere-Weaving. 

“Teachers want to be authentic, but they need a roadmap. We spend a lot of time recognizing one another’s contributions, listening to one another to seek understanding. We don’t have one approach for our students and another for our educators. Everyone is treated with respect and dignity. We are always in a constant state of growth and this can only be achieved with support in a nurturing environment that places a culture of care as a top priority for the entire community,” emphasizes Villa.  

Weaver is making great strides, but Villa and Lalumiere-Weaving emphasize that there is ample room to grow and to learn. Weaver educators are striving together to create a culture that reflects their shared values and goals and each day is a testament to that pursuit. Every child has a genius and they deserve to thrive!