Just Ask: Strategies for Building Community Partnerships
Whether through questionnaires to parents or networking through colleagues, you can build a resource pool from the wide range of expertise within your community.
A public audience is a crucial component not only for a PBL project, but also for authentic and relevant learning. We know that the quality of student work increases when we have students share their work with an audience outside of the classroom. We also know that it can help keep students accountable in getting the work done. While it's powerful to bring in the experts at the end of a unit or project, having them there along the way is helpful in providing authentic feedback. Of course, bringing an outside audience into your classroom can be a challenge -- not to mention finding them first. Edutopia recently updated its Building Community Partnerships resource roundup, which includes some great videos, blogs, and ideas on how to connect with members of the community in different ways. Here are some further strategies you might consider.
I know it may seem simple, but just ask! Sometimes there is a strange fear associated with asking. Yes, it can be a little awkward to reach out and connect with someone outside of the classroom, but we need to be willing to take the risk. The worst answer you'll get is, "No." The best answer could be, "Sure, and let me bring in 20 of my colleagues!" You never know what the possibilities might be. In fact, many businesses and organizations require that their members spend time doing community service or even specifically volunteering in a school. Start early -- the sooner you think you might need an audience, the sooner you should contact that potential audience member.
Ask Parents About Their Work and Lives
Parents are critical partners in learning, and they are also experts in their own right. One strategy I have employed is to send a quick survey home to parents asking them, "What do you do in your work or career?" and "What are some of your hobbies or other areas of expertise?" This gives me a list of parents that have at least two areas of expertise I can address. In fact, the more teachers in my building who ask, the more experts I have on my list. I encourage you to build a comprehensive list at the grade or school level. This list can be organized and curated by a teacher leader or even a parent community liaison.
Instead of asking parents or community members if they can come in on a certain day, be more specific. Tell parents and experts exactly what you would like them to do. Do you want them to provide feedback? Do you want them to ask questions to probe student thinking? Both? Either way, having very specific tasks and objectives for these community partners is crucial to making their connection not only more valuable, but also more meaningful. Provide a rubric or give them questions or prompts to drive feedback. Don't forget to give them a context for the visit. Also, offer time slots to make it more possible for a visit to occur. It's much easier to find an hour or two, rather than a full day. Instead of asking, "Can you come on Friday the 8th?" say, "I have six 30-minute time slots where I'd like to have students receive feedback. Are you available for any of these times?"
Technology can be used to make the walls of the classroom and school more permeable by way of virtual visits and meetings. Use message boards and blogs to get feedback as formative assessment from experts. Record videos from experts and from students, and exchange asynchronously if you are having trouble scheduling synchronous time. Skype is another tool that you can use to get experts into your classroom virtually. If you aren't able to visit the expert or parent at their workplace, then consider a virtual field trip. Even with minimal technology, teachers can connect with people outside of the classroom.
Have Experts Ask Their Colleagues
In your request to experts and parents, ask them to ask their colleagues at work. When one teacher was looking for a subject matter expert to support a wing design project, he asked his colleagues and got around 20 volunteers. Parents and experts have amazing connections through their friends, spouses, relatives, and colleagues. If you try this, you could build a network of audience members that you never thought possible.
Now, I'm not saying that these strategies will bring every expert or parent that you ask into your classroom, but it can't hurt to try. In fact, you should be excited even if you get just a few people to support your work. It's generous of anyone to donate his or her time to support student learning.
What are some of your strategies to bring outside experts and parents into the classroom?