Last week I had one of those teaching days that puts a spring back in your step and reminds you that teaching is a wonderful part of the job. The funny thing is that this moment had very little to do with anything I did, though I want to understand the conditions that facilitated it so I can nudge my other classes in this direction.
My philosophy of education course has been a bit of a struggle this term. There are a wide range of students in that class in terms of philosophical background, writing ability, and general engagement with the topic. Discussion at the beginning of the term was often sluggish and superficial. However, last week my students had a frank and open conversation about higher education, its aims, what they were actually getting out of it, how it might be reformed, and about the history of our institution in general (the reading for the day was a journalist’s take on the history of City College). What was remarkable about the discussion wasn’t only the breadth of ideas and the depth with which students approached them, but the genuine appreciation students demonstrated for each other’s contributions. I find that students are often reluctant to really listen and engage with each other, and want the professor to take charge of the classroom and tell them what to think. But this class was markedly different. Students talked about how City’s admissions policy was critical to bringing more students like themselves to college and why being exposed to students from such different backgrounds was an important part of their education. It was interesting hearing students really bring to light how they saw themselves fitting into the college’s diverse community and genuinely acknowledge what other students in the classroom contributed to their education. Intellectually, this class was remarkable because students were building on each other’s ideas, asking good questions, and thinking critically about their own education. I was merely an astounded facilitator.
Of course, I would like to replicate this dynamic and so I’ve been thinking a lot more about what conditions facilitated this moment. I had being done more group work in this class and assigned permanent groups so that students could start building relationships with those in their groups. I also assigned a group to kick off the discussion each class, without input from me for the first 15-20 minutes. These were painful at first, but got better and better and I could see that students started taking responsibility for how good or bad the class discussion was. Some started the class with little skits while other groups came up with group activities or discussion games. I think the topic was also close to student’s own concerns and that must have had something to do with it.
This class has led me to think a lot more about how to build community in the classroom and how to foster a sense of collective responsibility. I have come to see this as a crucial step in fostering the kind of learning environment that can lead to fruitful discussion. But, my experience with this class, is that the process to get there can be somewhat painful, though well worth it at the end. In what ways do you foster community in your classroom? How long does it usually take?