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SEP. 19, 2018

The Art of Community Building

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During our Community Meeting on Monday night, we introduced the students to Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development. This tried-and-true model of tracking a group’s growth and struggles has been used for decades, and though it has its share of critics, it has reliably described a common arc of change from the beginning to the ending of a group. The stages are usually described as Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing, and Adjourning, though they don’t always follow such a linear path, and may circle back to different stages at different times.

After learning the stages, we reflected on where we might be right now as a semester. Some students thought we were still in the Forming stage, getting to know each other, figuring out social power, and learning how things worked here. Others thought we were in the Storming stage, where we had moved past the “honeymoon” and have started to interact more like siblings, including getting into disagreements and getting annoyed at each other.

Being in an intentional community is not easy. At OA, we focus a great deal of our attention on how we are interacting and growing as a community of students and faculty. How do we break down the “adult-student” barrier? How do we give feedback to each other in productive and growth-based ways? How do we create a safe space for individuals to express their true selves, while not having that expression make others feel unsafe? How do we share the student phone equally? By learning about how groups work and then turning our knowledge onto our own group development this semester, students will have a meta-analysis of how their contributions either bring the group forward or hold the group back. Students are empowered to steer the group development toward positive growth, such as in the role of leader of the day, the chance to run Community Meeting, cabin meetings, student-led trek, student meetings, and other opportunities throughout the semester.

One of the most challenging aspects of group development is balancing the individual’s needs against the group’s needs. This is an even more daunting task for an adolescent whose prefrontal cortex, in charge of a host of executive functions such as future thinking and determining right from wrong, is still developing. We often use the term “Tragedy of the Commons” to describe this dilemma. Do I take three cookies because they are right in front of me, or do I take one to make sure everyone in the group gets a fair amount? The Tragedy of the Commons gets played out in small and large ways throughout the semester, providing ample opportunity for the community to pause and reflect, provide feedback and establish new norms of behavior.

By the end of the semester, students should be able to determine not only stages of group development for the various groups they will join and create in their lives, but also be aware of what role they can play in a group to bring it forward in a positive way. For now, we will continue on our Forming/Storming trajectory, learning the skills of CFR’s (concerns, feedback, request) and VOMPing (voice, own, eMpathy, plan) to move us forward into the next stage and beyond.

By Susan Tinsley, Dean of Students