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Not Just a Class: Creating a Learning Community

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Social studies has always been my favorite subject. For eight years, I taught third grade in Missouri, where the state's curriculum expectations in social studies mainly focused on communities. While this covered a wide spectrum of topics, we always came back to one central idea: what is a community? Our working definition was a community is a place where people live, work, and have fun together.

Now I teach fourth grade and this word community still pops up in our discussions. At the beginning of this year, I asked my students to create a list of beliefs we could agree to follow throughout the year.  One of the beliefs my students created for this year was, "We believe our classroom is a community of learners." We have continually referred back to our beliefs (especially during the last week before winter break) and this one always stands out, which has made me reflect on the definition I taught my third graders all those years and how it can apply to my teaching.

The best way I've found to consider the importance of creating a learning community is by thinking back to my time as a student.  We've all been in classes where we didn't feel a connection with the teacher, content, or even our classmates. I don't know about you, but I learned less in those classes than I did in classrooms where I felt connected and at ease. Any collection of teachers and students can be a class, but the most effective educators always seem to create a feeling of collaboration, safety, and comfort that transcends the normal classroom experience. Over the past few years, I have set the goal of creating this feeling.  Following are a few ways I have worked toward creating a learning community.

Share ownership

It may be a hackneyed expression, but sharing really is caring. When teachers stop referring to their classrooms as "my classroom" and start calling it, "our classroom," they communicate to students that they care about them and their learning experience. It's amazing to see the power in changing that one little word. After I stopped calling the classroom my own and let students share the ownership, I saw quite a transformation. Students took pride in their work, held each other accountable for behavior, and celebrated the success of the class rather than the individual.

Learn with your students

Last week I was talking to a family about how much fun these last few months have been for me and their child said, "Yeah, he learns with us." This was possibly the nicest thing a student has ever said about me. I believe it is important to show kids we are not just another random source of information. We are human beings, and as such we are just as curious as our students, why not jump in and learn with them? Design learning experiences that allow students' learning to be self-directed through Genius Hour, PBLs, inquiry, or makerspaces. Then sit down with students and ask them questions about what they are doing. Pose these questions as "I wonder..." statements and students won't even realize you are gently guiding them. They think you are simply part of the learning process - and you are.

Actively teach collaboration

Students at the elementary level often need to learn how collaboration works. Perhaps this is even true at the secondary level. Some do not always understand how to give or receive constructive criticism from their peers. When setting up a learning community, it is important to keep this in mind and give your class opportunities to practice academic conversations early in the year. With younger students especially, it is helpful to give them language frames. Sentence starters such as, "One thing I like about your work is..." or "I can see you have worked hard on _____, one revision you might try is..." are like training wheels for giving peers feedback, which improves their academic interactions.

Remember the importance of authenticity 

Authenticity in the classroom should be considered from two different perspectives. First, there is the importance of creating authentic learning experiences. Students will connect to you, your subject, and each other if they are learning something that matters in the real world. Last year, my colleague Jackie Pickett and I joined our classes together (she taught third grade and I taught fourth) and asked them if a K-12 education should be guaranteed to all children. They learned about schools in Swaziland, held a school supply drive, and shipped eight boxes of supplies to students in Africa. This was powerful for all of us, and while the kids learned plenty of math and ELA skills, they also learned much more important life lessons.

The other side of authenticity is to actually be authentic. Take time to laugh with your class, let them know who you are, and get to know who they are. As adults we rarely work straight through the day. We take time to visit with co-workers and connect with them. Kids are just like us. They can't be expected to work silently for a disciplinarian. They need to connect, too - with each other and with their teachers.

By giving students ownership of their classroom and learning, teaching them how to work together, and being authentic, we create more than a class. We create a place where students live, learn, and have fun together.

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Brian McDavitt spent ten years teaching elementary students in Pleasant Hill, MO. He taught third grade for eight years and has taught fourth for two. In addition to teaching in the classroom, he has served as vice-president and president of his district's professional development committee, been a team leader for third and fourth grades, and is the chair of his building's standards based grading committee. Starting in August, 2016, Brian will be taking on a new position as the Technology Integration Specialist for Millennium @ Santa Fe Elementary School, part of the Hickman Mills C-1 School District in Kansas City, MO.  He holds a BA in Elementary Education from Graceland University and a Master of Education in Technology-Enhanced Teaching from MidAmerica Nazarene University. Brian is passionate about creating authentic learning experiences for his students, technology integration, professional development, and improving classroom management. Connect with Brian on Twitter: @bmcd25.

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Guest Sunday, 17 February 2019