I can’t tell you how many times, while preparing a presentation or writing a blog post, I have looked up the definition of “community.” Although community is something that we all assume to understand clearly and want to create in various situations, a shared understanding of the concept and a practical application on how to achieve it can be elusive. Especially since in most schools, we are often lost in a series of concentric circles and Venn Diagrams of interwoven, intersecting and sometimes competing communities.
Before I continue, let’s drag out the definition for clarity:
Community is the condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common.
As a Middle School English teacher and Head of Grade and activities and service facilitator, I oversee several would-be communities. That’s not even taking into account my role as a grade level team member, subject teacher, and several other potential communities that I might be involved with at any given time.
And that’s just my professional life. I am involved with old High School friends on Facebook, my two best friends on WhatsApp, and a nebulous group of educators on Twitter to name a few others. At any given time I can be stretched quite thin.
There is only so much time and energy that any one of us has to distribute to the various communities that demand our presence. So while, we can all espouse the obvious benefits of creating and being involved with communities, there is little doubt that in this day and age, being included can be confusing and downright exhausting.
I’ve started with this lengthy introduction as a starting point to remember that what I am about to share with you about how I created and maintained a fairly tight knit community for two hundred grade seven students, cannot be, and really shouldn’t be, replicated on a large scale, because it is simply not sustainable to expect our students to manage a “community” for everything they do.
No student can, nor should be, expected to be part of online communities for all their subject classes, their activities, their service commitments, mentor classes, and/or grade level, not to mention their personal connections to friends and interests outside of school.
While, I hope there are some useful lessons in my work this year with Grade 7, it is important to realize that the things I tried, whether they were successful or not, cannot be seen as a template to be replicated.
I am sharing what we did in G7, as a way to get people to think about community in general. Here are a few questions I hope to answer:
• How might we create and maintain communities in online spaces?
• When (if ever) should the focus of an online learning space be community?
• What lessons might we learn from Social Media to help energize stagnant LMS (Learning management System) platforms to move beyond just homework distribution spaces?
After a year of being the Head of Grade 6, I realized that there was a large percentage of the two hundred kids I was overseeing with whom I was not interacting in any way. Not only was I only interacting with the three classes worth of kids I taught, but I felt that beyond assemblies, I didn’t have a pulse on how our community as a whole was interacting.
I wanted a way and a place to connect with the entire grade level and be sure that they were connecting with each other as well. I knew that through social media like approaches I could make this connection.
So at the start of Grade 7, I decided to use our OLP (Online Learning Platform) like a walled-garden giant Facebook group. Most teachers use the OLp as a homework delivery LMS. I was curious to see what else the OLP could do. Could I create content that would engage our community and make the G7 OLP feed a place where most kids would visit regularly?
I wanted to use some of the tricks I learned from years of being active on social media circles like blogs, Twitter and Facebook.
1. Create engaging content that makes kids feel included.
1. Video is gold.
2. How does the video add value to the community?
1. Gets kids “seen” who might not be seen?
2. Kids who might not be as vocal get an opportunity to be seen / heard
3. Visual engagement
2. Be consistent
1. Make it so that they know what to expect.
2. No changes until you’ve built an audience.
3. Make it interactive and give kids a voice.
My basic formula:
Every week I create a video that asks kids questions.
• What did you think about Spirit Week?
• What are you excited about during this final term?
• What do you think about the new Taylor Swift song?
• How can you know your mentor better?
• What’s your favorite sport?
• What’s your favorite class?
I shoot the clips at break and lunch and edit it quickly with some music and have them run at about 1 min to 90 seconds. I add a poll to the OLP to allow everyone in the grade to participate in that week’s question. I am able to later use this data if I need it. I might share the names of all the kids who said Science for example with their teacher. Then I ask kids to add a comment to expand on their thoughts if they want. In the beginning I might also have Weekly Challenges where I might ask kids to do something in the comments and then who ever garnered the most up votes would in a treat from our cafe.
I have been doing this since the start of the year and I have consistently had about 100 votes on any given video. That’s about half of the kids, checking in weekly and participating in a very simple way.
Shared experience is a key factor to building community.
As I write this, I’m left asking myself, “Is this significant? If so why?” As head of grade I feel it is important to have a space where we “hang out” as a grade level. Even if it is once a week and around content I have created. It gives us a common experience that we can refer to back in offline spaces. I think this shared experience is a key factor to building community.
So much of the web and social media is built around the shared experience of the world and online life. Did you see the game? The latest blockbuster? Did you hear the news, do you have an opinion on it. What I am trying to do is to build that connection to culture in a safe space for our kids, so they can learn how to interact in more public and crowded spaces on instagram, Youtube and Snapchat.
I’ve had kids leave critical or unkind comments and I have used this space to teach into why that might not be okay and how we might interact with more civility online.
As I mentioned at the start, no student at our school could handle interacting with kind of shared experience community building from every teacher, but I am curious if we can identify leverage points to help them have a few different circles of experience. Grade level is an obvious match, but I am wondering if a smaller community of mentor class might be useful and maybe a larger all middle school space with limited content.
Building the audience and fostering engagement with the community, takes time. As I mentioned earlier, it is important that the content is consistent and predictable. Let the kids know what is coming. I found it useful to let them interact in a variety ways: simply through a poll, or more in depth through comments or weekly challenges. You want to incentivise their participation in your space. After you have built a regular audience then you might start to see how you can distribute access. Perhaps working with kids to create content. Encouraging them to post their own work and ideas. The tricky part is always finding the balance between having enough consistent content to keep people coming back and when you might over saturate the audience and lose them.
An LMS like our OLP might not seem like the most dynamic engaging place to build this type of online community, but it is a tool that has worked for me. It can be more than just a place to post homework. I hope I have laid out a few ways to make it feel more human.
Please leave some comments about what you may have already tried, some ideas you are mulling over, questions you have, or obstacles you see. I would love to continue this conversation in the comments or in Santai.