I was hanging out with Joel Arquillos of 826 Valencia / Once Upon a School today, and we got to talking about establishing community and norms in a classroom. I shared that I’m not very good at implementing group work or building the interactions between students into positive, academic relationships. (And that there are infinite demographic complexities with all of this, quite different at different places I’ve taught.) Having computers in front of every kids opens up opportunities for online collaboration and communication, but also makes the in-person stuff a little more difficult. And none of this inherently does anything to build trust in the room or create community. That’s not really my strength — I’ve always had an aversion to anything that feels contrived, like icebreaker games or group projects that don’t really require group participation. But some of that is my bias, and I’ve learned over the years that I can’t just teach to my own learning style.
Joel suggested that focusing on ways for students to work together (possibly through well-structured projects, as difficult as those are to build) might be beneficial, and I agree that a lot of knowledge could be shared this way. Some students are a lot more facile than others with using the computer and thus more able to teach themselves and get even further ahead. Those skills could be shared directly — they don’t require a teacher to provide analytical insight. Kids teach each other how to do stuff all the time in social contexts: How to set up your MySpace profile, how to get a new ringtone without paying for it. But it depends a lot on a feeling of community and trust, a feeling that there’s a socially meaningful place for doing that sharing, and I’m not sure how to build that in the classroom. To pull it off, the activity has to be something I genuinely believe in.
One thing that I recognize as having advanced my teaching practice a lot is seeing other teachers do things that I didn’t think could work or that I couldn’t imagine myself doing. After watching them, either in person or on video, ideas I’ve read about and can’t see myself trying suddenly seem a lot more possible. Joel pointed out that teachers who apply for National Board certification have to submit a video of themselves teaching. Where do all those videos go? Some of them have got to contain good practices we’d all benefit from seeing. Is there some secret video archive of examples of master teaching techniques? If you know, share.
Another thing I realized about this issue of building community and trust in a class is that it happens from day one. Something that would help me grow quite a bit would be to see how a teacher successful with this stuff runs the first few days or weeks of class. Where are the key moments that help form student perceptions of how the class works? What things need constant reinforcing? What’s the teacher’s style? I know this would help me a lot. It’s also a time of year that most teachers don’t want to be observed or videotaped. I know I’d prefer someone to come in when I’ve got things settled and we’re doing an impressive-looking project. Still, there have to be some Jedi knights out there — I want to know what you actually do, not what you think I should do. Talk to me.