After listening to Dr. Richard Schwier’s presentation last week I found myself struggling to understand a sense of community in this class. While I had no problem following along and even listing the features of a community, I noticed I was continually agreeing with these concepts but in other parts of my life. As most will know if you are reading my blog, I am new to this Web 2.0 stuff as well as blogging and learning online. My sense of community is with my family, friends, jobs and hobbies. Therefore, it was not surprising to me that a lot of these features were seen in my classroom, with grade 8 students, and in my mommy group. Yes, I have a mommy group – a tight-knit group of moms who met when our babes were in utero and have stayed close ever since, forcing our children to also be friends! More on this is a bit.
The features that I especially understood because of my students were authenticity, boundaries, intimacy, size, intensity, and trust. First, authenticity in a classroom is the “real stuff” according to Schwier. I think for me, this is the hidden curriculum, it’s the stuff we deal with on a daily basis that doesn’t have a ministry outcome attached. A classroom that is authentic, is a class of people, students and teacher, who connect and click. It means they care about each other in deep ways. I link this feature very closely with intimacy in the sense that we are working together on a main topic, but growing closer and influencing each others lives. I would have to say that I am lucky in my career to have 3 such classes, where authenticity and intimacy are present and visible to outsiders. There is a great connection for all involved.
Next, Schwier discussed boundaries. He stated that this is when we are in or out of the community and related this back to physical boundaries like fences. I started to wonder where in my classroom have I built boundaries. Sometimes they can be built or put up as a security mesure – they keep people in and safe. But, they also keep people out. I know teaching middle years, I am continuously struggling with the clickiness of the class or group of students. There usually seems to be a group of kids putting walls up everywhere to keep people out and usually to protect themselves from being on the outside. But, I really tried to think of times where I kept people out with my own fences. I find this difficult because I am such an includer on a basic level that I am constantly trying to include all and make sure everyone feels like part of the group. What I found interesting was that the three really authentic classes that I mentioned also had very few boundaries. Everyone seems to be loved, respected and included, which leads me to believe that these students had a strong sense of community long before they arrived to me in eighth grade.
I really liked the chat that came about with this feature as well. I loved the idea that community springs up out of fences and that life finds a way out of boundaries. Lisa even commented that children climb fences. Maybe these three classes had climbed their fences a long time ago? I also loved hearing how to teach community. It was suggested that we teach, model and ask for forgiveness. This is very important to me. In a world where we learn best by making mistakes, I am constantly reminding my students that making mistakes is a part of the learning process. Today, I even had to remind my intern, that at times we need to fall flat on our faces in order to pick ourselves up and try again. It is so important in a community that everyone be allowed to make mistakes. I demonstrated this to my class on the first day of school when I wrote 1 x 1=2 and left it on the board for a whole math lesson until a student pointed it out at the end. Now we laugh about this mistake any time someone else makes one. I guess it was one of those teachable moments!
I found the concept of size important and interesting as well. Schwier pointed out that we can have the best communities with a group of about 12-15 people. Considering my average class size has been about 24 students I started to wonder whether I was in fact close with all 24 or whether that was just my perception and I truly only had a sense of community with 12 or 15 of them. Even on my staff of 40, where I think we have a great sense of community, there are probably those with whom I am closer than others.
Intensity is one feature that I never really thought about before this class. I consider it to go along with morality in the sense that if a community loses intensity, it dies off. So in a class when the intensity is high, students and teachers are in. When it isn’t present the group falls apart. I am left wondering, what creates this intensity. I believe that it is both on the part of the teacher and the students. There has to be a buy-in at the beginning. Authenticity, intimacy and trust must be in place. In grade eight, the end of the year is difficult. My students are always sad to be leaving each other and moving on to different schools and I am left feeling empty, probably much like parents whose children have left the nest. The reality for other teachers is once the students leave their class, the teacher will still see these individuals around the school. For me, morality of a community has an end date that quite often sneaks up on me. It is sometimes really difficult to let these people, with whom I have spent 10 months of my life, just go.
Lastly, is the concept of trust. Students must trust their teachers in order to best learn from them. I think this is something that I do well as a classroom teacher. I know my students trust me and I make it clear that I trust them. I think I have to thank my parents for instilling in me such a high value on trust. It is a scary thing to do as a parent – for me I don’t think I will even fully trust my first born…he is always getting into trouble (he’s four). Back to the topic. In my opinion trust is integral to all parts and features of a community – trust in each other, the system and one’s self.
Earlier, I mentioned my mommy group. At one point, one of us named the group yummy mommies. Now that I think of it, I helped bring this group together by setting up a page where we could all chat and post questions. This was not all that different from reginamoms. This group had a lot of trust in one another, the authenticity was definitely present and it became a very intimate group of about 15 moms. We got together for coffee, went to mom and baby activities, but most importantly, as we were all new moms, we bounced questions off one another. The questions obviously varied from what food to introduce first to very personal questions like choice of religion, morality and depression. We were very tight for that first year of parenting- mainly because the need was there and I think also due to the fact that we were up all night long nursing babies while surfing the net! However, the thing I found most interesting was the concept of morality for this community. Schwier said that there comes a time when a community most change into something else or die. Well, this community died- more or less. All of a sudden, we were still moms, but we had to go back to work. Some of us were having second babies and some were not. As well, all the insecurities of that first year were over with. Maybe we didn’t need each other as much because we figured- if these kids survived the first year (and the hardest) we were good to go. Or maybe we were just less hormonal. Regardless of the fact, the message board no longer existed past that first year and the outings became less and less. We still have contact with each through the great Facebook and some have stayed closer to each other because of the bonds they made in our larger community. And, from time to time, we still force our children to get together and be friends.
Since this has all referenced my experience to community in my “other” life and I am relatively new to this online community concept, I would love to know how these features have applied to people in the world of technology. Is it easy to build a community when you have no physical connections, no faces and sometimes no names? Are there tricks to being part of the ECI831 community that those who have done this before would like to share?