By Sherri Spelic
As a blogger who often writes about education, I frequently extol the virtues of community. I’m fond of the word itself. I like the images it conjures in my mind of individuals joining forces to help each other. It’s a broad enough term to be used in a variety of contexts; suitable for formal and informal groupings alike. We frequently refer to our classrooms and schools as learning communities. It’s certainly no accident that Silicon Valley has expertly co-opted the word. Facebook, with over two billion users, depicts its platform as a hub of global community. It’s the same word that shares the same connotation, not the same reality, however.
Given the increased role of internet platforms as sites of connection for educators, it makes sense that we would interrogate what we mean when we talk about community. When I speak of my online communities, I describe the networks of relationships where I feel supported, worthy, and held accountable. I resist an understanding of community as a product feature. I do not mean community as a collection of incidental participants as Facebook or Twitter might. My notion and enactment of educator community in online spaces express a few central elements:
Community belonging is co-created by its members, not by a company’s terms of service.
In the educator communities I inhabit, my sense of belonging hinges in many ways on how I feel called to contribute. While I have learned to reach out for help in certain situations — I’m looking for a certain kind of book or article, for instance — I find it considerably more satisfying if I am able to offer a resource or a perspective that is of use to someone else. Twitter has been recognized as a great space for activists to find each other. Here are a few of the groups in which I engage:
- A group of literacy scholars known as the #DiversityJedi have helped me develop my own brand of advocacy for more diverse books, while also cultivating awareness of perspectives that were previously off my radar. As both a parent and teacher, I have been particularly curious about “#OwnVoices [which] means that the character shares a marginalised identity with the author.” The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline and There There by Tommy Orange are two examples of Native American #OwnVoices texts that lit up my fiction stack last year and informed my recommendations to others.
- #DisruptTexts discussions led by Tricia Ebarvia, Dr. Kim Parker, Julia Torres, and Lorena German comprise “a crowdsourced, grassroots effort by teachers for teachers to challenge the traditional canon using anti-Racist, anti-bias pedagogy and critical literacy to create a more equitable ELA curriculum for our students.” I cannot follow these conversations without reflecting on the impact of my own literary education steeped in whiteness and exclusive of nearly every other racial or ethnic perspective.
- Academics in #HigherEd who address the myriad ways that inequality manifests both on- and off-campus — in lecture halls, in research and scholarly publishing, at conferences, and in the popular imagination — insure that I do not fall asleep at the wheel while preparing the next generation of researchers and scientists. Essential here have been folks like Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab, Dr. Chris Gilliard, and Dr. Paul Prinsloo, to name just a few.
- Finally, there is a community where my particularly eclectic-reflective form of essay found a home: among the digital pedagogy folks (#digped). These are teachers, instructional designers, library and technology professionals, and others who embrace the use of critical digital pedagogy in the academy and beyond. On the ground this means providing forums for conversations that put critical race, feminist, and queer theory in the foreground when considering how we teach what we teach. Digital pedagogy also calls us to center human needs in the learning process regardless of its institutional location, understanding student agency as foundational for pedagogical initiatives.
These groups may connect under a common hashtag or gather for a scheduled chat, but that is not a requirement. Community may establish itself among overlapping networks of broader interest groups. When I look at where I choose to spend my attention online, a few things stand out: I value big-picture thinking, I prefer open fields rather than dedicated silos, I’m attracted to relationships and intersections. In my education communities, we name the inequality, white supremacy, and disconcerting technology trade-offs that we see. We can talk about ed tech applications in the classroom but not without considering questions of privacy, ownership, and profit. If I were trying to market the benefits of community to you, I’d call this synergy. In grassroots educator communities, however, it’s thematic crossover that brings topics and people not normally associated with each other (i.e., classroom read-alouds and racism, ed tech apps and privacy concerns) into view. We then create space for the conversations we want and need to have, which leads us to the next point.
Our relevance in the community flows from the quality of our engagement.
We don’t gain brownie points for showing up on our platform of choice. While our patterns of clicking and reading and linking become interesting data points for various advertisers, interest-based educator communities rely on what you are bringing to the potluck, not on how long you plan to hang out. When education speakers encourage teachers to get on the social media bandwagon, a lot of emphasis seems to be placed on what can be gained: lesson plans and ideas, supplementary resources, access to authors and experts. All true and certainly helpful in various ways, but I find this framing narrow and deeply consumer-oriented.
Not enough talk revolves around the act of creating, sustaining, and growing community. We easily refer to the need for community, yet speak far less about what is required to generate networks of belonging that foster reciprocity and shared leadership. Whether we choose to meet up with favorite colleagues on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook, if we want communities that embody the qualities we fervently wish for, such as equity and inclusion, then we have to build them ourselves, consciously and with intent. That includes thinking about how we choose the folks we’ll follow, how we’ll build relationships and on what basis. We need to ask ourselves: Which conversations do we urgently need to have? How can I contribute to these conversations? Which resources and forms of access might I be able to make available to others? How am I prepared to use my privilege to the benefit of this community? What kind of power am I prepared to give up?
As an example, I recently participated in the Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life Challenge. Participants agree to post a blog a day, blogging and commenting on at least three others for the thirty-one days of March. Now in its twelfth year, the month-long event draws primarily language arts teachers from around the globe into an encouraging writers’ community. This was my second year as a “slicer.” I used my tenth post to draw attention to the overwhelming whiteness of the community and asked fellow slicers to try writing about race during the month and to tag me when they did. I was nervous when I posted it and feared upsetting the organizing hosts. The response, however, was positive and heartening. Great conversations were launched, and the organizers were quick to engage me more fully in addressing the apparent lack of visible diversity among their participants and readership. I spoke up as a concerned community member, and my message was also received in that constructive and supportive frame. While I wasn’t sure what to expect, I also formulated my request as an invitation that supported that reception.
Invitation as a leadership strategy.
Online communities can be quite informal with few set norms of engagement. Among such groups, it may be rare to identify a particular leader. Anyone who initiates a hashtag as a gathering point for conversation or hosts a chat fixture can become a leader. But that leading is based on the act of inviting others to join you. Online community creators understand the power of invitation as a means of welcoming membership and sustaining interest.
The best example of leadership by invitation I have experienced so far has been Valeria Brown’s creation of the #ClearTheAir book discussion group on Twitter and Voxer. What began as a low-key chat among a few educators has grown into a deeply engaging, substantive collective of educators willing to examine race and racism, along with other forms of bias and how these interact with our lived experiences as teachers, friends, family members, citizens. Through invitation, Brown, who is a professional developer with Teaching Tolerance, has molded the group into a cohesive community that now boasts a remarkable profile of excellent dialogue reflective of deep personal investment among members while remaining welcoming of newcomers. Selected books for discussion have included Troublemakers by Carla Shalaby, The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein, and White Rage by Carol Anderson. Twitter chats with probing questions have been one avenue of connection, while on Voxer several members have continued the conversations and brought up other concerns in a group of educators specifically committed to creating the “beloved community.” On Twitter, applying the hashtag #ClearTheAir further enables community members to alert each other to relevant topics and questions happening on the platform and beyond.
Access to open communities is multifaceted, not limited to the digital, and built on an ethic of sharing information and resources generously.
I consider my online communities to be “come as you are” affairs. I don’t need special credentials to participate. I arrive prepared to listen, and as relationships develop, I show up for others. In real terms it means that I share interesting articles, blogs, books, videos, or other materials generously and aim to steer them toward the right people. When specific help is requested, I do what I can to respond positively — either by passing the request on to others who likely know more or by delving into my own archives. I participate in scheduled chats when time allows. I offer support in private when a public contribution may not be as helpful. None of these actions are particularly innovative or exceptional. Rather, they oil the wheels that keep communities in motion. Many of these happen online and are also entirely applicable in local, face-to-face contexts.
I choose educator communities with an ethic of sharing, supporting, and responding. I have found that the more I share resources and expertise, the more generous I become. We cannot lose sight of the fact that when we enter a community, we also make it — through our countless interaction decisions. To sustain community we need to do more than call ourselves members, we must catalyze and correct, offer and receive, and, above all, demonstrate and practice care for one another.
Whenever I have sought to explain or clarify my involvement on social media, to justify it even, I regularly come back to my understanding of community in these spaces. My online communities are more than collections of individuals, more than the thousands of data points we create with our participation. We represent webs of overlapping and intersecting interests, concerns, and relationships. In fact, the experience of affirming, inclusive communities on my social media platform of choice bolsters my fortitude for creating and sustaining community in my local contexts. I have grown braver on the ground because I know that friends in other places have my back. In a workshop I led a few years ago introducing teachers to Twitter I encouraged participants to “come for what you crave, stay to make the space a richer one.” I didn’t realize I was sharing my philosophy of community at the time. Now I do.
Sherri Spelic grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, studied in Providence, RI and migrated to Vienna, Austria which has become home after 30 years. As a physical educator, leadership coach, blogger and publisher she dedicates increasing amounts of time to observing and making sense of movement — in bodies, in relationships, in texts, in the atmosphere. Her personal blog, edifiedlistener includes reflections on teaching, coaching and the world in general. 2016 marked the launch of her online publication Identity, Education and Power which features writing from various authors offering insights on the intersections of those three themes.