Thursday, February 3, 2011

The importance of community in the classroom

This week the same scenario took place the first day of class in the two community colleges  I started teaching. As I arrived, students were sitting at their desks in silence. Some were checking their cell phones, others were staring into the void. After greeting them I started to unpack and get ready for class, just to become aware of the eerie silence. Somehow the opening scenes of the video of the VOST project cam to my mind. After a while, I could not take it anymore. "It is too silent here," I said. "Please turn to the person closest to you and introduce yourself. Talk about why you are in this class."
After a second the floodgates opened, and the room was filled with animated conversation as students chatted with each other. By the time class started, the temperature of the room had increased from frigid to cozy.
For a long time content delivery (transfer) was my main concern in teaching. I was used to lecturing, coming from a background where power point presentations crammed with information were the standard. Even when I had started using more active approaches, such as problem-based learning, I would still have my reservations.  I was once chastised by one peer/supervisor for "wasting my time" making students discuss case studies and the like in small groups. For a long time there was this nagging concern in the back of my mind that maybe I should not "play" in the classroom and just stick to the serious business of lecturing. 
My turning point happened last year, when taking the Building Online Community with Social Media course through @One Institute. Skeptical me first rolled her eyes at the amount of community building exercises/activities of the first week. Then, as I read the other participants' discussion board and blog postings, and watched their pictures and videos; I started to find those little things that make people connect. One participant spotted a bumper sticker on a picture I uploaded that reminded him of his hometown. Another shared my passion for figs and pomegranates (discovered also through a picture). A third was from a country I lived for many years (Sweden). And so on. On the side of the course tasks, small conversations started online. I began to feel as I knew the other participants, which meant I felt more confident to discuss topics and post my ideas. The epiphany came when I had to write an essay about community building: I realized that the best study groups I had ever had (college or work) were groups cemented by friendship and community. Study was much more efficient when we did it as a group of friends.
So these days I try to incorporate ways to make my students connect and form community as early as possible. In a face to face class that may sound easy, but it is not- students live hectic lives, they run from class to work or vice versa, often they have families to take care of or they commute long distances. Ice-breakers the first day of class and early group assignments help students find others to study with. As the days pass, I see friendships blossom in class, and I overhear conversations that reveal stronger groups. While I do not claim that this is my doing, I have noticed that giving students the chance to interact with each other and form community is very helpful. 
I have introduced a twist to a group project evaluation based on a case study recommendation, in which students complete a quiz on the questions of the case first individually, then together as the group. If the group score is higher than the average of the individual scores, then the difference is added to the latter. Most groups score higher as a group so it helps individual students. I have consistently observed that the best-collaborating groups (subjectively judged by their cohesion in class, time spent together before class, or just by their interactions) have better group scores. 
I have never been a group cheerleader or one of those parents who are great at devising and directing kids' sometimes I am a bit out of my comfort zone. But I do know that it is worth to spend the extra time and effort to build community in the classroom from the very beginning. And it is more fun too :)

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