George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

Guest Blog: Building Communities in the Classrooms

February 18, 2010

Cheska Lorena (@MissCheska) is a self-described "twenty-something New Jersey native, certified HS biology teacher, and a huge ed-tech enthusiast." A native of digital communities, she was the natural choice for this week's #edchat. Feel free to share your thoughts in the space below this blog.

--Betty Ray, Community Manager (@EdutopiaBetty) and Elana Leoni, Social Media Marketing Coordinator (@elanaleoni)

What is community?

Twitter's afternoon #edchat session on February 16th was a flurry of great thoughts and conversation. Many tweeters gathered together to discuss how to build communities in classrooms in both online and offline settings. The conversation kicked off with an attempt at defining community:

@spedteacher: Community is a group of people cooperating.

@UltimateTeacher: Community is a group of like minded individuals who nurture and support one another.

With the advent of social and educational networking, communities have expanded from microcosms of local classrooms, to district-wide, country-wide, and even global interactions. Take the Twitter #edchat phenomenon for example! Jerry Blumengarten (@cybraryman1) made an excellent point when he applauded the efforts of our #edchat moderators, Shelly Terrell (@ShellTerrell) and Berni Wall (@rliberni), in creating a "great community of learners." In essence, a community is defined by its people and their collective, positive, and interdependent interactions.

Building blocks of community

There were many themes of community that unfolded throughout the edchat discussion, and building community was a major hot spot. Many tweeters agreed that building community requires first laying a strong foundation of mutual trust. I recall my student teaching experience with urban 6th-graders and my attempts to build student-teacher and student-student relationships. The students had been valiantly resistant; I thought my efforts were in vain until a substitute teacher came in one day and I overheard a student remark to another, "At least Miss Lorena is with us! She's someone I know and trust." Clearly without trust, there is no community.

It is this foundation of trust that allows teachers to effectively further the concept of community with ed-tech. Providing open multi-way channels of communication among students, teachers, parents, and administration can help align common goals, beliefs and values. It can also lead to edification of many classroom issues, most especially technology integration. Edification can, in turn, eliminate much of the fear and reluctance surrounding use of ed-tech tools in the classroom. The edchatters have provided a great list of suggestions and student-based practices to encourage community in, and outside, the classroom:

@jasontbedell: Before tech gets involved, we need to help the students learn to be supportive and want to help each other.

@andycinek: B4 using tech communities, we need to provide thorough instructions on how to use new tools and not let it affect content.

@wmchamberlain: Best way for students to collaborate is for them to talk to each other. Allow them time to talk.

@paulbrichardson: Get learners to make own resources, in groups. There are a million ways to do that. With simple or complex technologies.

@Oh_the_Places: Getting student work online and visible is a good starting point for the entire school community.

@saraebest: How to help students build community: Step back & allow them to be and have others be the evaluator, audience, giver of feedback.

@cybraryman1: Schools should have hands-on workshops for parents and show them how to safely use them.

Incorporating use of edtech can also help further community:

@bmontana: Get students to collaborate on a class wiki.

@malcolmbellamy: How about using wallwisher for collective electronic sticky notes?

A plethora of Web 2.0 recommendations were scattered throughout the discussion and includes teacher/student blogs, private Ning communities, Google Groups, Facebook, Etherpad, Wordle, Voicethread, video game examples, and Second Life just to name a few.

Importance of community

Community is not a new concept, especially in educational settings. Several pedagogical frameworks, such as social constructivism and student-centered instruction, advocate collaboration and cooperative learning. Personally I believe that learning is a social event, and it is through the network of interactions and participation of all community members that meaningful knowledge is acquired. There are many advantages of building community in the classroom:

@spedteacher: Community building is important because the wisdom of many is stronger than the wisdom of one.

@alexpickett: Community provides social, emotional, and intellectual support for learning for both students and teachers.

@goralkai: A community allows for students to be wrong and to learn. If they are uncomfortable, students can't push their boundaries.

A particular tweet by Sue Densmore caught my attention--

@suedensmore: If I am to build community, I must have personal investment in that community.

This goes all the way back to that foundation of trust. Building community together with students gives them a sense of belonging and ownership of their environment. When students and teachers feel good about their classroom, it boosts their self-confidence and intrinsic motivation. Increased motivation leads to higher student achievement, which feeds into the positive feedback cycle of synergistic community learning.

Barriers to community

Like all things in education, there are also barriers to building community. Alyson Patrash (@apatrash) aptly summed these barriers as "student motivation, access to technology, and parent/teacher support". Other concerns include:

@andycinek: What happens when your internet connection ends at school? How do we differentiate for this?

@Samm_CHS: What if the parents refuse to be apart of the class room environment?

@spedteacher: Its hard to foster community and collaboration when school procedures reinforce competition.

The greatest thing about community--especially that of the Twitter #edchat community--is its "think tank" brainstorming ability. These tweeters' concerns were immediately addressed with solutions, just seconds after their posts!

@ToughLoveforX: Consider smartphones?

@MissCheska: (On pairing Google Gears w/ offline Gmail/Reader) This would be great for stdts to use, if they can add wiki RSS feeds to their reader and access at home.

@TheNerdyTeacher: Schools need to be more accessible before and after school to accomodate students with no tech at home.

@jasontbedell: That's why my partner and I keep our library open 4 hours total before and after school most days. Lots of use from kids.

@yournotpeter: What about developing some sort of 'tech for non-techie' open-lab study hall?

@cybraryman1: Students can educate their parents on the use of (edtech) tools. Have student and parent create their own family wiki, ning, blogs.

The afternoon #edchat session on community was lively, and very enlightening. Towards the end, amidst the furious tweet updates on my Tweetdeck application, I spotted a tweet that stopped me in my tracks. This tweet said it all.

@PaulWHankins: You might not see it right away, but when students say, later, "remember when we. . .?" That's community.

What is your "remember?"

I remember my stubborn and unruly 6th-graders. I remember when they made me cry after my first day in the computer lab, and I remember when we all cried together when it was time for me to leave after my five months with their class. I remember when I first discovered Twitter and the Tuesday #edchats six months ago. I remember how good it felt to have a supportive PLN and to have a voice in something I am very passionate about.

What is your "remember"?

Cheska Lorena is a certified secondary science teacher in Albany, New York. Currently she is graduate student at The College of Saint Rose, where she is majoring in Curriculum & Instruction and Instructional Technology. Her interests are social media, teacher technology integration, and innovate new teacher professional development programs. Her blog is Teaching Miss Cheska.

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