What is Community? | Facing History & Ourselves
Students move around the classroom in conversation with each other. One student looks directly into the camera with a smile on their face.

What is Community?

Students answer the question, "What is a community?" by writing their own definition of the word and identifying what characteristics make their classroom a community.


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • Civics & Citizenship




One 50-min class period
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement


About This Lesson

With Lesson 6, students move away from the study of individuals to the study of groups of people. An investigation of world history is ultimately an exploration of how groups of people formed communities, cultures, and civilizations. Communities are distinguished from groups by the fact that they share a common interest, background, or purpose that gives them a sense of cohesion. Although any collection of people can be called a group, not all groups could be called communities.

Throughout history, groups of people have formed communities to increase their chances of survival. They may have shared an interest in providing food for their families so they joined with others to hunt or farm. Or they may have formed a community to protect themselves from other groups that wanted their resources. Often people shared a common interest, such as a religion, which gave them a sense of community. Members of a community typically feel a sense of responsibility to one another.

In this lesson, students will analyze one definition of community in order to construct their own definitions. Students can refer to these definitions throughout the year as they think about how and why people throughout history have formed communities and consider the factors that have caused communities to break down. As students explore the meaning of community, they will reflect on how their class is a community with a shared purpose in promoting the learning and achievement of all its members. The explicit designation of the class as a community can build the sense that students are responsible not only for their own learning but for nurturing the learning of their classmates as well.

  • Students will distinguish between a community and a group.
  • Students will be able to define the word community.
  • Students will identify what makes their classroom a community.

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-min class period and includes:

  • 4 activities 
  • 1 teaching strategy
  • 1 handout

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before you teach this lesson, please review the following guidance to tailor this lesson to your students’ contexts and needs.

Teaching Notes

Chunking is a particularly useful strategy to help students understand excerpts of primary documents. Initially you can chunk the text into smaller sections for students. After students have used this technique a few times, they can chunk the text on their own.

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Lesson Plans


Begin class by reviewing the homework from the previous lesson. If you had students interview members of the school community, students can share their interview data. Then the class can create an identity chart for the school. Not only does this activity help students become familiar with a school that is probably new to many of them but it also reinforces the distinction between a group and a community. Because groups of people come together in a school for a specific purpose—to learn—this gives them a sense of community.

You could also begin class by having students share their responses to the following journal prompts: Do you think this class is a group? Why or why not? Do you think this class is a community? Why or why not? What is the difference between a group and a community? If students answered these questions for homework, they could meet with a partner or small group to discuss their answers. If they have not yet responded to these questions, you could have them do so now. They can return to their answers at the end of class after they have thought more deeply about the question, “What makes a group a community?”

In her memoir, A City Year, Suzanne Goldsmith offers her own definition of the word community:

Communities are not built of friends, or of groups with similar styles and tastes, or even of people who like and understand each other. They are built of people who feel they are part of something that is bigger than themselves: a shared goal or enterprise, like righting a wrong, or building a road, or raising children, or living honorably, or worshipping a god. To build community requires only the ability to see value in others, to look at them and see a potential partner in one’s enterprise.

Goldsmith’s definition raises many interesting questions that can help students refine their understanding of the word community. To be a community, must members like each other? Do communities always serve a purpose? Are those who do not contribute to this purpose still considered members of the community? Goldsmith’s words introduce the idea that being a member of a community comes with responsibilities—members are “partners” in a common “enterprise.”

Curriculum connection: Students can apply this definition of community to cultures they encounter throughout world history. Ask students to identify the shared qualities that give the peoples living along the Euphrates River a sense of community.

Because this quotation contains language and ideas that may challenge students, you may want to use a chunking strategy to help them decode the text. Chunking is a literacy strategy in which students break complicated text into smaller, more manageable sections. After reading the quotation one time through, anticipate the lack of confidence some students may feel that they could ever understand such complex, “grown-up”–sounding text. Reassure students that once they break the quotation down into smaller sections, they can master the language. If this is the first time students have used this strategy, we suggest doing the worksheet together as a class so you can guide students through paraphrasing key ideas.

When students understand Goldsmith’s definition of community, they are ready to evaluate it. A four corners discussion is one strategy that helps students express their opinions. Here’s how it works:

  1. Label the four corners of the room with signs reading “Strongly agree,” “Agree,” “Disagree,” and “Strongly disagree.”
  2. Give students a specific statement to which they respond by standing in the corner that best represents their opinions. Providing some quiet time for students to respond in writing before they have to move reduces the likelihood that they will simply follow a classmate to a particular corner.
  3. When all students have moved to a corner, ask a representative from each corner to explain his or her opinion.
  4. After someone from each corner has explained his or her opinion, facilitate a discussion among students from all corners, encouraging them to ask each other questions and to challenge each other’s ideas. Inform students that it is perfectly acceptable for their opinions to change as they listen to the arguments presented by their classmates. Tell them that they can switch corners at any time to reflect their revised opinions.

Below are several prompts you can use for this activity: (Note: Before students respond to these prompts, remind them that there are no right or wrong answers. They should respond based on their own opinions, not based on what Goldsmith believes about the definition of a community.)

  • Communities should only include people who are friends and who like each other.
  • Unlike Goldsmith, I believe that communities are sometimes made up of people who are not working toward a common goal.
  • Members of a community feel responsible to one another.
  • Communities are a kind of group. But not all groups are communities.
  • Our classroom is a community.
  • A community has certain rules about membership. Not everyone can belong; some people must be excluded in order for a community to exist.

Have students respond to the following prompt in their journals:

Write your own definition of community. Based on your definition, write a list of the communities to which you belong. Pick two of these communities and answer the following questions for each: What do you have in common with other members of the community? What responsibilities or obligations does membership involve? Who is not part of the community? Why?

In preparation for Lesson 7, ask students to bring in an artifact (e.g., a newspaper article, postcard, photograph, or souvenir) that represents the community to which they all belong: the city of Memphis.

Materials and Downloads

Quick Downloads

Get the handouts that students use in this lesson plan in PDF or Doc format.

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