Community Under Construction

All, Teaching, Writing

Last week Edutopia blogger Rebecca Alber wrote a terrific post, Relationships Matter More Than Rules, about a topic near and dear to my heart: classroom community. Her opening paragraph sums it all up for me:

Learning doesn’t happen without relationships. In the classroom, rules matter, but as many of us have learned after a few years teaching, relationships matter much more. One way we can deepen our relationships with students is to share a bit about ourselves with them, and create opportunities for them to share with us—and each other.

It is important to introduce rules and procedures for younger students at the beginning of each new school year and, let’s be honest, our older students will have panic attacks if we don’t cover at least the basics. But Chronicle of Higher Education blogger Anne Curzan notes in When Will We Talk About the Syllabus? that spending too much of that first class, day, or week on policy and procedure is wasting an important opportunity. She says: “I believe the first day sets the tone for the semester” and practices what she preaches by spending at least half of her first class focused on exploring (playing?) with the content they will focus on rather than the rules.

Curzan’s post challenged me to think about how I spend my first week with my students and how I can do better next semester:

  • I greet each student as they come in to begin the slow process of learning names and faces (and, of course, take attendance). This also gives me a chance to tell students that we will begin our first class with a bellringer prompt just as we will throughout the semester. Because my general education classes are all focused on comics, the prompt asked students to write about their superpower and kryptonite. This prompt is fun and provides a great icebreaker which is essential to building community. Three birds, one stone, happy teacher.
  • Then I shared my plan for that day’s class as I always do – explaining that this is my usual procedure – then I launched into a quick overview of the class explaining the basic structure and how my class is set up (because gamification! I feel the need to explain how and why). I covered achievements and microachievements and explained that we are a paperless hybrid class — and how that can help them as well as me. I shared the theme for the class and how that theme supports our learning goals. Then I wrap up the business portion with a quick makeover of the Gremlins warning (things that can turn their friendly instructor into a monster). Typically this part of class is always more business-like — the time when I handle announcements and teach my mini lesson for the day.
  • I also ask students to fill out 3×5 cards with some basic contact info (and the name they prefer) as well as some key info about writing and comics – then use those cards to begin matching names and faces and discuss comics.
  • I wrapped up class with sharing our superpowers and kryptonite. We laughed, we commiserated, and we began to form bonds — ending the day on a high note.

In recent years all my face-to-face classes have been held once-a-week (not always at night) at a regional campus and so I have chosen a hybrid delivery format for several reasons. This means that our work for the week continues after class is over. I asked my general education students to complete four microachievements during our first week:

  1. Orientation: Review syllabus and Blackboard shell then post questions in Information Booth
  2. Community: Review Community prompt, write blog post, and comment on a classmate’s blog post
  3. Introduction: Create and share six word stories and me museums then respond to classmates’ introductions
  4. Badging: Awarding badges to recognize their classmates’ contributions for the week

Then they wrapped it all up with a self-assessment journal post.

Students report to me that they enjoy the icebreaker, community blog, and introductions (most like at least one of these things – some like all). I learn a lot about my students and have multiple opportunities to engage with each of them individually – even if I fail pretty spectacularly to match names and faces they usually appreciate that I am trying. But, perhaps most important, we provide a model for future classes and lots of ideas to build on for the work to come, so I suppose I do OK, but there is room for improvement. I need to use that Gremlins warning poster as a model for an infographic next semester.

Do you agree that it is more important to spend time building relationships rather than establishing rules? How much do you focus on content over procedure? How do you start off a new semester or school year with your students? Do you think I need to rethink my first week plan?

Artwork by PublicDomainPictures.net

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