Want to create a vibrant school community to help your students engage in learning? Join us in conversation with Jacob Runyon and Marcella Baker of Paulding County to learn more!

Jacob Runyon and Marcella Baker in Classroom Conversations

Want to create a vibrant school community to help your students engage in learning? Join us in conversation with Jacob Runyon and Marcella Baker of Paulding County to learn more!

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Ashley Mengwasser: Hello. Hello. It's a great day to be an educator in Georgia. Thank you for listening to Classroom Conversations, the platform for Georgia's teachers. I'm Ashley Mengwasser, your host. Classroom Conversations is a joint production of the Georgia Department of Education and Georgia Public Broadcasting, produced to be a place for teachers to share and learn. If you build it, they will come. Classic line from the 1989, Kevin Costner's smash hit, Field of Dreams. It's a beautiful mantra for today's episode about building school community. This one is for the hobbyist teacher among us, the activist, the planner, the collaborator, the originator, the participator, the one who doesn't just go home at the end of the day because school can be home too. I'm about to provide evidence that these types do exist. In fact, they're in studio with me. Marcella Baker is not your everyday school psychologist who says people know who Mrs. Baker is. She's the school psychologist for Paulding County School District in her 15th year in education. Marcella serves Austin Middle School and East Paulding High School students alongside colleague and friend, Jacob Runyon. Jacob is in year nine as a classroom teacher teaching eighth grade English at Austin Middle School. Jacob knows and shows the value of play in drawing people close. Marcella and Jacob unite the entire school community at various points throughout the year, and these fast friends are here to tell us how school community can be built intentionally. Hi, Marcella and Jacob.

Marcella Baker: Hi, Ashley.

Ashley Mengwasser: How are you?

Marcella Baker: I'm doing great. Thanks for having us.

Ashley Mengwasser: I'm glad you're here. How are you, Jacob?

Jacob Runyon: I'm doing good. Thanks for having us.

Ashley Mengwasser: Doing good.

Jacob Runyon: Yep.

Ashley Mengwasser: You have a massively majestic beard right now. I want the audience to know. We talked about it briefly, but I wasn't prepared when you came in here, it was going to be so beautiful.

Jacob Runyon: Yeah, over the summer, I just let it go the whole time.

Ashley Mengwasser: Let's dive in with you first, Marcella. What does building school community mean to you?

Marcella Baker: Thanks for asking, Ashley. It's so important because nowadays, think about it. Kids spend so much time at school, right?

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes.

Marcella Baker: They're always at school. It's like a second home. And so you want to come to school and feel like you've got somebody there that you can trust. You've got somebody there that you can talk to and that you have resources available. And so building school community means we're coming through the door and we're building relationships with kids. We're building relationships with the staff members, with the teachers, with the administrators, everybody in the building. And that includes the cafeteria workers.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes.

Marcella Baker: And the janitors too.

Ashley Mengwasser: I love that. Everybody.

Marcella Baker: Everyone.

Ashley Mengwasser: What impact does your role have on the school community, a psychologist?

Marcella Baker: Yeah. Like you said, I kind of feel like I'm not your everyday school psychologist at this point because I don't just walk into a building and test kids. Those days are long gone for me. Absolutely, that's what I was trained to do, but it's really important to get into the building and get to know who you're working with. So working with teachers, like Jake, you're finding out what they're passionate about. You're finding out what kind of makes them tick and what makes them work really hard for the kids. And you're collaborating with them, you're working right alongside them. And so I don't feel like I work in a silo anymore on my own. I'm a part of the school, so I'm a part of those team meetings that take place. We're able to have conversations about what needs to happen and what's going to be best for kids. And I'm not on the outside looking in.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes, I like that very much. And Jacob, I know you guys work closely together. What is your role in building community, especially as an English teacher, you're in the classroom.

Jacob Runyon: So just community is so important in school. Like Marcella said, we have kids that spend more time at school and my philosophy is that every single kid should be able to find their place in the building. So with English, a lot of that does come down to some of the things that we read. We try to keep it multi-literacy. We read things from all sorts of different perspectives. It's not just from one perspective of history. We'll look at many different avenues. If we're doing argumentative, we'll look at all sorts of different viewpoints on something, not just one and saying that this is the right answer. Every single kid is allowed to have their own opinion and being able to find their place in the classroom and then also in the school itself.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes. And one theme that you really push among your students, Jacob, is don't be afraid to play. Tell me about that.

Jacob Runyon: So, play is one of those things where it can be your greatest friend, or it can also be your greatest enemy because we've all seen and had those teachers where it's like all they do is play. And it's like, well, you didn't really do a whole lot of learning either.

Ashley Mengwasser: The objective is to learn and to teach.

Jacob Runyon: The objective is still to learn. But what I mean with that is there is a time for play, even in school. And I know one of the greatest books I ever read, it was called The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey. She had an entire section in that book about how kids don't really have the opportunity to just be kids anymore. They're coming into sixth and seventh grade and we're kind of already preaching, you better know what you want to do with the rest of your life. And it's like they're in sixth and seventh grade.

Ashley Mengwasser: They're like employees at that point, yes.

Jacob Runyon: Right. And it's like I remember being in sixth and seventh grade, we're just like, I just want to go play basketball and throw a ball as hard as I can at a wall. That's the only thing that I want to do. So I really try to make time in my classroom for that. So we do have some academic play that I like to kind of engage with the students in and some of that competition, but also just going and playing with the kids outside of the classroom. You will not connect with a kid nearly as effectively as if you go and do what the kid wants to do.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yeah.

Jacob Runyon: So sometimes during gym, I'll go and play basketball or go play whiffle ball with the kids.

Ashley Mengwasser: Are you a good basketball player?

Jacob Runyon: No, no.

Marcella Baker: He's not.

Jacob Runyon: It is kind of the where you can truly put a kid first is if you go to the things that they're interested in and play with them in their realm of what they Want to do.

Ashley Mengwasser: Because we all know that question when we ask a student, "Hey, what's your favorite subject in school right now?" And they say, "Recess." And you're like, wait a minute. You're missing all that goodness. So you're saying put academics first, but you can also make academics playful at times.

Jacob Runyon: Absolutely.

Ashley Mengwasser: And make them fun. For sure. How did you both land in education? Marcella, did you know you were going to be a school psychologist?

Marcella Baker: No idea at all, Ashley. Not in my wildest dreams, honestly. I started out school telling everybody when I graduated from high school, I'm going to be just like my mom. I'm going to be a registered nurse. So I go to school and I'm taking all these math and science classes, and it was like, hold up, girl. This is not working. You got to take some time and step back and reevaluate what's really going on. And it didn't feel right. It wasn't right. So I ended up changing my major to psychology just kind of on a whim. I knew I needed to just kind of finish that degree. So I took those classes and one of my very last courses was on assessment and measurement and testing, and I absolutely fell in love with it. And so that's kind of what led me on the path of school psychology, that love of assessment and measurement. And I chose school psychology and the rest is history.

Ashley Mengwasser: Jacob, how did you land in this profession?

Jacob Runyon: Well, so I got into this profession, and I knew I was going to be an educator at a young age. I wanted to do it for a long time. In eighth grade, I was really into band and different things like that and so I set out in my high school years knowing or wanting to be a band director. And by the time I got to the end of high school, I realized I really like music, but I like music to be my stress reliever, not my stress causer. So with that, I decided, I was like, I still want to be in education. I used to tell people, I was like, I am at school and I can't really imagine myself anywhere else. So I actually went and interned with my eighth grade English teacher my senior year of high school. And she was my all-time favorite teacher. Her name's Ms. Moyer now. I think she's in Iowa, so she's kind of traveled all over and been to Germany and all that. And I also had a really cool youth pastor. So I was kind of in my senior year of high school going, "I either want to go into the mission field and be like a youth pastor or I want to go into education." I told my teacher that, who I was interning with, and she looked at me and said, "Jake, there's not a bigger mission field than public education." And that just solidified it for me. And so, I went to college to be a history major, and then in the few English classes that I had to take, I realized I really liked English too. And so then I kind of went to my advisor and she was like, "Well, go be a middle grades education major because you have to get concentrations in both." And I was like, "Cool." So it was awesome because then middle school to me is also, they're the most undefined. That's not the word. They're the most misunderstood people group in the world. I think middle school kids, people just kind of view them as like, ah, yeah, you just need to survive until high school.

Ashley Mengwasser: This transitional space called middle school.

Jacob Runyon: That's right. I ended up falling in love with middle school, which was perfect because I interned in my senior year there, and then I had middle school internships in college throughout as well.

Ashley Mengwasser: It is nice to have a psychologist around, Marcella. What's the lay of the land for students in your community today? What are they going through? What trends are you seeing?

Marcella Baker: So pandemic, thanks.

Ashley Mengwasser: Thanks a lot.

Marcella Baker: We are behind in math, we're behind in reading. And we're educators, so we're working on that. The part that we are seeing that's ticking up is that mental health piece of it. Kids are really struggling with their mental health for a variety of reasons. And so we're seeing a lot of things like lack of focus and impulsivity, but you also get that irritability and that isolation and withdrawal. And these are common problems that we're seeing every day with all of our students and their families, are working to work on it. We like to focus on student wellbeing, that it's okay to feel a certain way. It's okay to think one way or another, but to just work on developing those skills and understanding your emotions. Understanding-

Ashley Mengwasser: It's a process.

Marcella Baker: Yeah, process, absolutely. And what that looks like and what's appropriate and inappropriate when you're at school and how to work through it.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, very good. I'm so glad they have you, Marcella. You too, Jake. I felt our school psychologists would love to engage in a couple of community building activities for the three of us. So would you indulge-

Marcella Baker: Absolutely.

Ashley Mengwasser: Engage with me? Okay. First, I want to do this one. You guys could maybe try this for community building. It's the conversation game. It's just conversational. It's, I like you because-

Marcella Baker: Okay.

Ashley Mengwasser: So, I'll start, if I may. So Jacob, Jake, I'm leaning closer. Jake, I like you because you are so funny. You are so funny. I love that about you, Jacob. And Marcella, I like you because you have just an indefeatable spirit. You are so persistent and positive with students. I like that a lot. How did that feel? Did that feel good?

Marcella Baker: It feels amazing.

Ashley Mengwasser: Thank you. I'd love to hear why you like Jake over there, Marcella. She's like, is she making me do this?

Marcella Baker: I like Jake a lot, because-

Ashley Mengwasser: I thought she was going to say, but.

Jacob Runyon: The but would be a more fair conversation, but it's okay.

Marcella Baker: Because he bonds with his students.

Ashley Mengwasser: I can tell that.

Marcella Baker: When I walk down to the end of the hallway and get to his classroom, he is so keeping it real with those kids. It's like, did I walk into a classroom or am I someplace else? But he keeps it real and they connect with that. And that's why I like Jake, because he's not feeding them hogwash at all.

Ashley Mengwasser: No, the real deal.

Marcella Baker: The real deal.

Ashley Mengwasser: Jacob. Jacob, what do you like about Marcella?

Marcella Baker: I'm afraid.

Ashley Mengwasser: Marcella-

Marcella Baker: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: I like you because of your determination. I think that you're one of the most determined people in Paulding County, for sure. And anything that needs to be done, you get it done. And that's very uncommon in a school psychologist.

Marcella Baker: He said that before.

Ashley Mengwasser: Well, he's saying that again. It must be true. I like that.

Jacob Runyon: I practiced it.

Ashley Mengwasser: He practiced it. It he's like he knew that was coming. Back on to building school community, which you two are experts at. Why do you think it's important for schools to provide a safe environment and a sense of community for students that they serve? I know you teased us a little bit, Jacob, which is what they might be going through at home, but just what is school supposed to be? Why is that so important?

Jacob Runyon: For me, students deserve the right to feel like they are a part of the school that they attend. And that, to me, is why school community is very, very important. And it's why middle schools, and high schools, in particular, that kind of don't get the same community support from parents of elementary kids really do deserve the opportunity to explore different things that they could be interested in. I know since moving to Georgia, one thing that I've kind of tried to say a little bit more is middle school is supposed to be the time where a student can figure out what they like and what they want to do. And I don't know that there's a whole lot of space for that. So that's why as educators, we really do need to make sure that we're doing everything that we can to provide those explorative things for students to figure out what they do and don't like, what they believe and don't believe and those kinds of things. And obviously, putting on events where people feel like they're a part of the school. And I know not every Georgia county is like this, but I know in Paulding, we don't have middle school sports, which is weird, but it might be kind of weird to bring up middle school sports in the middle of a conversation about community. But that means when students get to middle school, they care more about what the high school they're going to than they do about their own school.

Ashley Mengwasser: Where they presently are.

Jacob Runyon: And so, all of those athletes that are going and playing in these feeder programs, I'm sure the high schools love it because they get to kind of basically groom who is coming up. But at the same time it's like, man, I remember being in middle school and it was like, man, we're the CC Griffin Griffins. This is awesome.

Ashley Mengwasser: It's part of your identity.

Jacob Runyon: It's part of your identity. So I think that schools just really need to make sure that they're building things in place for kids to be able to find their spot in the school. And so I know one thing that we've started doing as a school is really encouraging teachers to do clubs. And so we started a run club this year. I'm a really big runner, and so I basically got the kids out there. We have a half-mile track around the school, and it was just like we went outside and we just ran. And some of them really, really, really got into it. And I know one of our teachers started a gaming club this year.

Marcella Baker: A baking club.

Jacob Runyon: There's a baking club.

Ashley Mengwasser: Baking club.

Jacob Runyon: There's a whole-

Marcella Baker: They're selling cake pops, Ashley, like walking down the hallway.

Ashley Mengwasser: I only thought Starbucks knew how to make those. Those look difficult.

Jacob Runyon: Ms. Bristol-

Marcella Baker: Middle schoolers are really good at it.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yeah. That's impressive. So you're giving them opportunities to understand what community feels like-

Jacob Runyon: That's right.

Ashley Mengwasser: At your school so that they can recreate that and find their own place as they go on. What do you have to add to this, Marcella? Why is it important for students to have a safe environment and community where they go to school?

Marcella Baker: It means everything. Again, it's their home away from home and they've got to feel like people care about them and people are rooting for them to be successful. So like he said, we're trying to give them everything we possibly can so that they feel comfortable and they feel like they're at home. And all types of clubs that you wouldn't have even thought of, like you said, the gaming club and the baking and things like that. I started, and this again goes well beyond what your typical school psychologist would do, but I ended up sponsoring an academic club and we started doing a Black history bowl and we've gone to all these competitions. And I tell people, "I'm not a teacher, you guys. I have no idea what I'm doing." But we're legit just getting into a room and we're studying all these facts, all these things that none of the students knew, half the things I don't even know, and we're going to competition.

Ashley Mengwasser: That's amazing.

Marcella Baker: And we're winning.

Ashley Mengwasser: That's incredible.

Marcella Baker: It's really cool because they feel like I'm a part of this, I'm a part of something bigger than me.

Ashley Mengwasser: They are. And how is that meeting their basic needs, the need for connectedness that all students crave, to be part of a positive school community?

Marcella Baker: We've got all this technology in our lives,

Ashley Mengwasser: So much.

Marcella Baker: And they're playing games on computers with people that they've never met before and things like that. And it really just gives them an opportunity to connect with a classmate, to connect with maybe somebody who they would've never been friends with. And we kind of push them to their limits, get comfortable with each other, get comfortable, get in there, meet each other, find out new things, and you'll probably bloom this whole relationship out of the run club or baking together.

Ashley Mengwasser: Instead of being dissociated, really, and engaged in only digital mediums and not interpersonal ones. That makes a big difference. What do you have to say to that, Jake? How is it meeting students basic need for connectedness to be part of a community?

Jacob Runyon: I think everything that we've kind of been saying is that it just gives them a place. And that face-to-face interaction is so much, to me anyway, it's so much more important than being able to do something on your computer. I kind of even think about towards the end of the year, did you know chess made a comeback?

Ashley Mengwasser: Did it?

Jacob Runyon: Chess made a comeback-

Ashley Mengwasser: I don't know if I like that news.

Jacob Runyon: ... with vengeance. Oh, I did. It was great. I'm terrible at chess, but it was cool.

Ashley Mengwasser: Me too.

Jacob Runyon: I had a few kids that got really into chess. And so one thing that I did was like, well, instead of playing other people online, here's a chessboard.

Ashley Mengwasser: This Is where it originated.

Jacob Runyon: This is where it originated. And so I was getting beat by eighth graders playing chess the last few weeks of school. But it's one of those things, one of our former principal used to say it all the time, and I'm sure it's a cliche thing in education, but it's true. It's like kids won't remember what you taught them, but they will remember how you made them feel. And that last two weeks, when they left it kind of being like, oh, I remember when Mr. Runyon did that. And that's kind of the impact that you're going to leave regardless of whether or not you taught them well or not.

Ashley Mengwasser: And there can be these trends that are actually, use your brain can catch wildfire in the school, like learning chess if you don't know how to play. What are some big events that your school hosts annually that nurture a community for students, for teachers, maybe for parents too?

Marcella Baker: Well, Ashley, you said it at the beginning. If you build it, they will come.

Ashley Mengwasser: They will come.

Marcella Baker: And so, we have been having lots of school events that involve, really, bringing dinner to the families.

Ashley Mengwasser: Love it.

Marcella Baker: If we're able to have our STEM night or our curriculum night and we can weave in a meal with that, it just makes the parents' lives that much easier.

Ashley Mengwasser: Easier.

Marcella Baker: Right, because I've got to feed these kids. We've got all kinds of things to do in the evening, but if I can get to the school and connect with the STEM program, and so the science teachers are putting together all these cool activities and it's something as simple as making ice cream.

Ashley Mengwasser: So, they'll do an experiment approach to-

Marcella Baker: Absolutely.

Ashley Mengwasser: STEM night.

Marcella Baker: Absolutely. I think the last time my girls showed up and they had ice cream and I was like, "Where'd you get ice cream from?" "We made it."

Ashley Mengwasser: We made it. I see.

Marcella Baker: But of course, again, along with that, you've got dinner. We're serving dinner, and we use it as an opportunity to do some fundraising for our PBIS team. The STEM nights and the curriculum nights are huge. They're kind of a part of what we have to do anyway as educators. And so we want to be able to pull those families in and say, "We've got something for you. Come learn something new with your kid and have a good time. But we can kill two birds with one stone and have dinner too."

Ashley Mengwasser: And then that's one less thing that the parents have to do in terms of feeding their students, their kids, your students. What about you, Jake? What do you have to add to this in terms of, I know you mentioned there's these behavioral celebrations at your school.

Jacob Runyon: So, we have behavioral celebrations once a quarter. So Marcella and I, one of our main parts where we collaborate. She's actually the behavioral specialist on the PBIS team. So when we sit down and we look at all that data, she's kind of able to sit and be like, all right, well for this student, I think that they need to go on this kind of intervention because of this root cause. She does a lot more than I do on that team, but one thing that I've done over the years is we've created a behavioral celebration where there's a certain criteria and you can't have any office referrals, bus referrals, or I think, it's more than three unexcused absences in a quarter. And if that's you, then you get to go and participate in a Eagle Buck Celebration is what we call it. So for four times a year students get to go and they literally just get an hour and a half to just go and be kids. So kind of going back to that idea of play, it's like that's a fun time to go play with the kids because they are literally on the Connections Hall doing whatever they want for an hour and a half.

Ashley Mengwasser: Fun.

Jacob Runyon: There's a little bit of structure there, but you get my point.

Ashley Mengwasser: You mentioned that in your school that there were referrals for disrespect, that that was something that was coming up. And research shows us that creating a positive school community reduces behavioral problems. So what do you think has been the impact on students' academic performance when they had this feeling of community in your school?

Jacob Runyon: I think definitely if you show students respect, you will get more respect in return. And I think it's really easy. I think a lot of times teachers go into the day, what can my students do for me? How are they going to respect me? And that's never a conversation, that should never be a thought that enters our mind. Our idea should always be, what can I do for the student? If a student is showing you disrespect, a lot of times it's not personal. There's nothing personal that's happening there. What's happening is they're responding to something either in their environment that you can see or can't see. And so of course, teachers deserve respect, and I'm not sitting here saying that when a student cusses us out the next time, we're just like, that's okay. Obviously, it's a little bit more than that. But at the same time, when a student meets an educator with disrespect, if the educator responds disrespectfully, that's only going to set things off in a more terrible motion. So if we can do a better job at making sure that, my wife calls me a topper, making sure that my emotion doesn't end up topping the student's emotion, who's showing me disrespect, then you're going to have a much better outcome in handling that discipline situation. And it might stop at, "Hey, here's your warning today." Instead of, "Hey, we got to go get the assistant principal or principal to remove you."

Ashley Mengwasser: It can stop at a warning. Because like you said, you both are building relationships with these students. So I almost feel like when you put that energy and that effort into them to play with them, to see where they're coming from in school, Marcella, and what their background is, they don't disrespect you because they trust you and they want to please you. Is that what you're seeing, Marcella?

Marcella Baker: Yeah. And I was going to say, what you find out is when you give these kids just a minute to cool down and to just breathe, half of the time, probably more than half of the time, really, they just want to be heard. They want somebody to listen. They want somebody to know that they're going through something.

Ashley Mengwasser: Something.

Marcella Baker: And sometimes, it's just a matter of just go take a seat. Dude, chill. And then when they come back, they're ready to talk and they're ready to explain to you, well, yeah, I was upset because before I left the house, X, Y, and Z happened. And it's like he said, it has absolutely nothing to do with you.

Ashley Mengwasser: There's a root.

Marcella Baker: There's a root cause, right? And so we've got to be the bigger person, and we've got to learn to be the adults and let kids be kids and be vulnerable sometimes, but give them that opportunity to breathe, let things die down, and then you can actually work on what needs to be worked on. And that puts you right back into the classroom and it puts you back into a place where you're learning and you're not missing instruction.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes. Thank you. A message from your school psychologist. How about a bulletin for those community builders listening now who are just at the beginning of the process of building a positive school community? What do you have to say to them?

Marcella Baker: Get out there. And for the school psychologist, get out there and get to know your school. Become a part of your school. Do not lock yourself away in an office, which is really easy to do with the caseloads that we have. There's all kinds of paperwork to do. There's all kids to be tested everywhere, but get out there, get into the building, get to know your administrators, get to know what their needs are and just ask, "How can I help? What can I do? What can I do to support your school?" And the answer's always going to be different depending on what your school needs, but find out where you can find a place and become a part of that team because they want you, they need your expertise, and they're kind of itching for it. They're looking for something different. And if you just put yourself out there to say, "Hey, I'm available. I'm a resource." Oh, trust me, they'll use you.

Ashley Mengwasser: They'll use you. Jacob, what's your message? What tips?

Jacob Runyon: I would say if you're just getting started, I think one thing that a lot of times we don't do in education or we kind of neglect it is to remember that our team, as a team of educators, has to be a well-oiled machine, and it has to be a place of community first before we can really truly reach out. And so I would give the advice, if you're just starting, get to know those people on your team. You can even look at, I feel like, any of the biggest corporations in the world, and it's like they spend a whole bunch of time on community internally before they start reaching their customer.

Ashley Mengwasser: Know who we are.

Jacob Runyon: Know who we are. And so I think that a true community really does start with the, I guess you could call it collaboration or the team building that happens as a school and as a staff because if the staff is all aligned and they're all on the same page and they're all being able to kind of point in the same direction of this is what we want, then you're going to have much better success when students arrive and you'll be much more open to being community building with students.

Ashley Mengwasser: If all the staff are upholding the same message and the standard of positive community, then that's infiltrating the classroom and reaching every student and instilling that in them. Do either of you, or both of you, have a favorite tale? A story about how building a sense of community has positively impacted your classroom or your school?

Marcella Baker: Jake's always got a story.

Ashley Mengwasser: He's got tall tales. I know he does. Always got a story.

Marcella Baker: Tall tales.

Jacob Runyon: Nine years in education. I got all the tales. So one year, I think it was my second year, it was my second year at Austin Middle School, it was my fourth year overall teaching. We had a guy in my homeroom, and I don't think he'll mind mentioning his name. He's got his own brand and everything. He literally, he's really good at basketball and he was in there with three or four other kids who are also really good at basketball. And so every single year, we have a big field day competition, and one of the events is basketball. And we had a student in our homeroom who was special needs. And so he would come to my homeroom every day and he would go back to his classroom and that was what he did. But he played with us on field day. So the boys in the corner specifically signed him up for everything that they did, and it was one of the coolest things ever. And so we're sitting at the basketball game and I had to monitor the basketball game as it's happening and keeping score and stuff. And seriously, the boys that I have, they could have played college basketball in eighth grade. So they literally ran up. They ran up the score, they got up to 20 points and there was still three minutes left in the game. And they put that other student in there and they just let him literally get the ball and shoot it, and they would pick him up and put him next to the basket to get it in. And it was like, that's cool. That's school community. And so one thing that I would just like to leave with is just if you have those students who want to make a community, let them do it.

Ashley Mengwasser: Let them lead.

Jacob Runyon: Let them lead. Because if it's led by students, students are way more likely to latch onto it than something that an adult's trying to do.

Ashley Mengwasser: Very, very nice. Thank you. Jake. Marcella, what about you? Do you have a story that illustrates this?

Marcella Baker: I was thinking about his story. Most of my stories are confidential. I can't be telling all types of things.

Ashley Mengwasser: I signed a disclosure. Yes.

Marcella Baker: However, I was thinking back to that time period during the pandemic when I served a different high school, and we had our group of special education students who would come into the building to get additional instruction at the high school. And all of a sudden, it went from one day playing basketball in the gym, just kind of some free time, to the next thing I know, every week, every Wednesday, there was a whole basketball tournament that included the Paulding County Sheriff's Department-

Ashley Mengwasser: Stop.

Marcella Baker: And the fire department. There are YouTube videos out there of all the kids playing hoops with the fire ... It was pretty amazing. And it went on for a whole semester and every week it was like, "Y'all coming down to the basketball game or what?" And I'm like, "I'm in here working." But it just was amazing because, again, talk about community. They showed up and they're like, "Heck yeah, we're coming back next week. We're playing again. We're playing all semester long." And they had a great time, had a great time. And even throughout all of the terrible things that were happening during the pandemic, and they showed up and they were there for each other.

Ashley Mengwasser: Beautiful. I've got an eighth grade English teacher and a school psychologist who are torch bearers for the idea of building community, and you're doing a wonderful job. Thank you for a beautifully constructed episode, Marcella and Jacob, I really appreciate it.

Marcella Baker: Thank you.

Jacob Runyon: Thank you.

Ashley Mengwasser: Thanks for being here. Teachers, let this information build you up as you develop your own custom-fitted techniques to turn up the togetherness. You're like Kevin Costner's baseball legends and Field of Dreams, you're legendary educators coming together as a community of dreams. You're a great teacher, and I'm a great fan of that film, which I'm heading home to watch right now. I'm Ashley Mengwasser. Thank you for listening to Classroom Conversations. We'll be back next week. Goodbye for now. Funding for Classroom Conversations is made possible through the School Climate Transformation Grant.