BOOK REVIEW: TRIBES:  A NEW WAY OF LEARNING AND BEING TOGETHER by Jeanne Gibbs (Windsor, CA: CenterSource Systems, 2001)

In my experience as a counselor, students may drop out of college because they do not feel connected to the college, to other students, to staff or to their teachers.  On the other hand, I have witnessed situations where students felt energized to learn because of their sense of connection with and caring from even one person who shared membership with them in a learning community, and motivated their persistence to remain in school despite challenges. Therefore, I was interested in a book that provided both framework and means for creating a “positive and caring environment” for students inside and outside of the classroom.  College educators might overlook this book as a potential resource if impressions are based solely on its outside jacket and internal photographs as it appears to be geared only toward primary and secondary school educators.  However, college educators committed to applying strategies that transfer leadership in the classroom within the context of a “caring environment” will find this a useful resource.

The use of the word “tribes” began when teachers in California participated in a pilot program that focused on the use of “learning groups to increase participation and peer support.”  Teachers involved in this project referred to their training groups as “tribes” given the “appreciation for the social support, the respect for individual differences and the sense of belonging” that was experienced – similar to Native American tribal norms.

“Tribes” is a group process designed to develop learning communities in the classroom, school and community-at-large.  Applying this concept to the classroom, teachers “see themselves as learners, facilitators, researchers, and designers of curricula.”  In any environment where “tribes” is applied, the outcome is to “develop a positive environment that promotes human growth and learning.” The teacher establishes a “caring community” by deliberately moving through three stages of group development.  The three stages include:  Inclusion, Influence and Community.

During the stage of Inclusion, the teacher’s focus is on creating feelings of “inclusion” for all members of the group.  The teacher models appropriate behaviors of communication that are reflected as four agreements: 1) attentive listening, 2) no put-downs, 3) showing mutual respect, and 4) the right to pass. The teacher provides opportunities for the group members to internalize and enforce these agreements. Furthermore, the teacher deliberately chooses activities that allow students to feel heard and be appreciated. The book includes structured exercises that a teacher can adapt to have students share information about themselves that is applicable to each learning situation.

During the second stage of group development, Influence, the focus is on members’ feelings of worth and power while recognizing that each individual is a resource to the group.  Leadership is often shared so that each person has the opportunity to have his or her potential recognized.  As the group solidifies, misunderstanding and conflict are recognized to be a natural part of the process in developing a sense of community.  The teacher is responsible for resolving issues or concerns that arise.  In order to assist the educator, strategies to deal with conflicts are included. As I read through these strategies, there were commonalities true to my own experience as a counselor since I often help students or teachers work through misunderstandings that naturally arise in a classroom. However, my work in resolving conflict is done in isolation from the classroom itself. In the “tribes” approach, conflict is valued and recognized as something that can be handled appropriately in the classroom, in concert with subject-specific learning strategies and teaching techniques.

The underlying assumption of the third stage, Community, is “that interdependence and connection to others is key to human development, learning and accomplishment of tasks.” During this stage, the level of community development is assessed.  Specific questions are asked that include: “How well do we know the unique strengths and weakness of each individual?  Is responsibility shared for accomplishing goals?  Do we express caring and consideration for one another?  Do we tell stories that reflect on our experiences together?” (p. 83) Such questions assess the level of community that has been established.  The author notes that the development of community is a continual cycle of “renewal” so the three stages of development are never “done.”  While the group exists, all members must continue to feel included and valued while being committed to moving toward higher levels of positive interactions.

The Tribes process focuses on long-term learning groups, but if an educator values learning that occurs as a result of being “in community,” the strategies in this book could be applied and adapted to different contexts and time frames.  One example of a structured activity, designed to increase feelings of inclusiveness, is the “community circle experience” (p. 89 and p. 352).   In the classroom, a teacher would have students sitting in a circle and say, “During this semester we will be working in small groups so that we can learn from and help each other.  We will meet regularly as a whole class, talking together in a community circle like this.”  Another strategy that could be applied to a college setting is called “The Ideal Classroom” (p. 221).  Students are asked, “How would people act and interact in an ideal classroom?”  Students are paired and asked to create a list.  Students are asked to prioritize one to three ideas that they consider most important for this classroom. This activity transfers responsibility to the whole class with participants identifying and agreeing to expectations of behavior in the classroom.  This activity assists in establishing values of inclusion and influence within the community.

There is a “Strategy Index Grid,” including coded strategies and energizers.  The grid allows the reader to select an activity appropriate for the age or learning needs of a particular group.  I found activities adaptable for several group settings, including those appropriate for student orientations, classrooms, and committees where creation of a sense of community is desirable.  Each activity includes a suggested age range that could be from kindergarten up to and including adults.  There is also a comprehensive discussion of recent educational research that promotes student success and persistence.  If an educator is committed to transforming the traditional classroom into a cooperative, student-centered learning environment, this book is a resource that should be considered. 

Rating: 4 Stars (out of possible 5)  

–Reviewed by Deb Olsen, Counselor, Madison Area Technical College, WI

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