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How to Build Intentional Community

Who would have thought toothpaste could be a powerful learning opportunity? This month, our elementary students are taking part in lessons known as “Building Intentional Community”— lessons where they learn how to make and keep friends, and be positive members of a group. One of these lessons, of course, involves toothpaste. A student is asked to squeeze toothpaste out of a tube. Then, she’s asked to put the toothpaste back in.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. “It’s a really good visual on something very mental,” says Chris Ibarra, Special Projects Coordinator, who helps manage the Building Intentional Community process. Sometimes, when we’re upset and angry, we don’t stop to think about what we’re saying— but “once we say things they’re out there, they’re almost impossible to get back in.”

With that visual in mind, staff and kids enter into a lively discussion of what kind of comments they want to be adding to the classroom— what kind of community members they want to be.

These kinds of activities change things. They spark social-emotional learning, and create the distinctive Girls Inc. classroom culture where participants are not only learning critical grade-level literacy skills, but also learning to support each other. It’s why, in middle school, school-day teachers tell Girls Inc. staff they’re glad to have class members who are in Girls Inc.— because they know those girls have the skills to be leaders in the classroom.

Chris has already seen the progress, even this month. During an activity where students get to know each other by writing or drawing about themselves, then crumpling up their papers, having a “snowball fight,” and guessing whose paper is whose, one first grader started having a hard time. The paper was full of writing the first grader couldn’t yet read well. Quickly, a third grade peer came over, offering to help— and they read the paper together.

In that moment, Chris knew that staff’s painstaking efforts to learn, adapt, and roll out the curriculum were paying off. “It felt really special because this is what we do, this is how we build intentional community. This is a community that’s going to help each other out.”