The “You” in CommUnity

As I’m pondering my personal and professional goals for the year ahead, I’m struck by the interconnectedness of life these days. In the time of New Year’s resolutions, when many focus on personal goals and self-improvement, I’m thinking about collective success and how a large majority of our endeavors are not really individual at all, but collaborative and interactive pursuits of excellence. Furthermore, I’m thinking about the community that supports me and the role I play in communities of support to others.

When looking at education, the shift from isolated, independent practice to collaboration and shared responsibility for collective efficacy and success over the past several years has been dramatic. It’s not that we just realized that the highest levels of student learning and personal development require the support of many teachers and leaders, but collaborative practice has taken hold as a common way of working. We have embraced systems and protocols that embed collaboration into our daily practice. The PLC concept seems to have higher prevalence in schools these days than most other practices. The change from one classroom teacher taking sole responsibility for the learning of students in their classes to teams of teachers taking a collective approach and sharing responsibility for the learning of all students together is good news for our students. Beyond teachers pooling resources and working together to adapt instruction, respond to varying student needs, and provide multiple learning opportunities and assessment methods, I am also excited about the immense impact community involvement can have on student learning. What if students’ school experience allows them to interact with our world and learn from a larger community? This is also not a new idea. We’ve all heard the African proverb that was also used as the title of Hillary Clinton’s book, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Political biases aside, the idea is that to best raise our children, they need community support and involvement, as well as diverse experiences and opportunities. This just makes sense. So, where is the village in our schools?

As we grapple with providing students with choice in their schooling, integrating real-world project/problem-based learning, and customizing and personalizing learning for the vastly different individuals in our classes, how do we as teachers and leaders facilitate the benefits of connecting our students with the community? Technology has provided us with access to information that just a few years (or even a few months) ago wasn’t fathomable. Teachers and students can find facts, how-to videos, scholarly research, video lessons, discussion forums, directions, and networking opportunities that have never before been available to us. Advances in technology are simultaneously making our village bigger and smaller. We can connect with experts in almost any field and find vast amounts of information with ease. Limitations of time and space that have hindered our global connectedness are no longer as big of barriers as they were in the past. With these changes, our focus for student learning must include meaningful application and interaction with content knowledge. How can our students use the skills and information they learn to create something new?

While we work to build a community for our students in which they are connected with mentors, leaders, and experts and have authentic learning opportunities, we also must ensure that we are participating in a larger community ourselves. We must not only work collaboratively with our immediate colleagues and local communities, but also take advantage of the opportunities we have as professionals to develop our own PLNs (Personal Learning Networks). Through the use of digital tools and social media, we can increase both the size and diversity of our villages. We have the opportunities to exchange knowledge and experiences and engage in thought-provoking conversations. These types of interactions enrich my learning and change my perspectives and practices for the better.

The purpose of this discourse (for anyone still reading) is that when thinking about what’s best for our kids, our communities, and ourselves, it’s important to think about the connections and relationships that support our goals and our collective capacity. As we set goals for our students, our teams, and ourselves, we need to think about the networks that best support our goal attainment. How are we reaching out to and contributing to our professional networks? Where are we part of the community that supports the development of others? How can we facilitate opportunities for our students to make connections with others and with the world that will support their learning?

And finally, it’s important that we sift through the overwhelming amounts of information and connections available to us to find the ones that really matter. While we are building our communities near and far, we need to continuously assess where we gain and add value. As we filter the numerous inputs, we need to also teach our students to discern which information and interactions add value to their learning and personal development. 

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