Lately I have spent a great deal of time thinking about the idea of community. In part because my current research focuses on that topic and I’m fortunate enough to have a great group of likeminded friends and colleagues with which to collaborate (my own little research community about community) but also because this is the time of year when I am building my fall courses. I have always included ice breakers and various “get to know your classmates” activities. I am not alone in this effort. Just last night I helped my 10-year-old son fill a paper bag with items to share with his fifth-grade class for precisely that purpose. I imagine all across my county (and beyond) there were school children engaged in similar activities.
Of course, simply placing people in the same room and sharing a few facts about each other does not a community make. It certainly relaxes the classroom atmosphere and helps the teacher learn names, which are of course worthwhile results, but what does make a classroom community and why should we care?
I care for two reasons. In the short term, I believe that creating a learning community supports writers and writing and fosters learning. Rovai (2002) reports that studies have shown that strong feelings of community increase persistence in courses, flow of information among learners, availability of support, and satisfaction. In addition, according to Rovai, students who are part of a classroom community are less likely to cut class or come to class unprepared. Finally, Rovai says community decreases student burn out and increases overall retention. Obviously, classroom community can’t replace teaching and learning but my own experience (as well as the research) tells me that it makes teaching and learning more fun and everyone benefits.
In the long term, I am also interested in helping my writing students understand how communities shape the communication that takes place within them. I am not interested in teaching my students context-less forms and rules. As NCTE’s position statement about the teaching of writing notes: “Literate practices are embedded in complicated social relationships.” I want to help my students learn about the ways that different communities use communication (written communication in particular) and how writers can learn the rules and expectations of those communities. This is our class project. I hope that by making the goals of my classroom activities and assignments explicit and discussing the formation of our own classroom community as well as their developing knowledge will help them negotiate future community memberships and communications.
However, before we begin with that challenging work we will need to work to become a community. This, of course, does begin with those ice breakers and introductory activities. As my class is online and asynchronous I have chosen to use Twitter and the six-word memoir as our initial activity. Then, during the first weeks of the semester, we will Tweet about our lives and activities and thoughts. In the past when I have used Twitter this has been one of the ways that I have developed a sense of my students as people. I hope encouraging (requiring) this activity will help us get to know each other and lay the foundation for our classroom community.
Of course, to truly become a community we need more than “mutual engagement” (which I suppose is pretty expected of any class), according to Zucchermaglio & Talamo (2003). We also need joint enterprise. I hope that my planned ongoing discussions of our class project and the continued sharing of the individual projects that contribute to our larger work will help us create and sustain a classroom community.