Inspired Ideas
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Inspired Ideas

Community Learning: A New Approach to “Extra-Help”

Thomas Whaley, Kindergarten Teacher

“Tommy, can you come up to my desk, please? I need you to give this to your Mom and Dad when you get home. Have them sign it. You need to come for extra help.”

As a young child, I dreaded those awkward moments. The slow, painful trek up to my teacher’s desk, which seemed miles away from mine. Dozens of eyes following me as I fetched the brightly-colored, oh so OBVIOUS, extra help slips. I wasn’t the only one, but when it was my turn to get it, I felt embarrassed and alone.

Now, it’s been way too many years to believe or even admit, but I remember those moments clearly — instances that changed the way I felt about myself, challenged my love of school and altered perceptions of the teacher(s) I trusted. Yet, for the last 18 years, I realized I had fallen into the same pattern as an educator — sending letters home to parents, inviting their children in for extra help.

Now, mind you, in all the years I have been teaching, I’ve never asked a single student of mine to traverse the linoleum landscape to subpoena them with an extra help slip in front of their peers. Extra help invites were privately tucked in their folders for the parents to look over, sign and return to me. The philosophy behind extra help was one I always presented, discussed and revisited during classroom meetings. I wanted my students to understand and be aware of how extra help could benefit them and why it was so important to come if I invited them.

As educators, we know that a child should never feel ashamed to attend extra help. Nor should they or their parents be avoidant if invited to come. Going above and beyond is part of the contract we sign when becoming an educator. It is our duty to assist those struggling and challenge those who excel. It’s intimate differentiation.

I sent the invites and reminders home weekly. Some children came, others did not. Over time, I realized there were some things I did not take into consideration:

  1. Did the children I invited to extra help, self-label in the process? How did they feel about coming?
  2. Had extra-help become stigmatized?
  3. Had attending become a challenge at home, causing unnecessary friction between parents & child, ultimately ending up with frustration and anxiety every time I wanted them to come?

As an educator with elementary school-aged children of my own, I knew it was time for me to dismantle MY extra help framework and remodel it. My own sons had been invited to extra help many times since starting school. I thought about their experiences and the battles I encountered from time to time. I asked them to share their thoughts and experiences with me; their likes and dislikes. Without realizing, Andrew and Luke’s opinions helped me see what was missing in my approach. Extra help needed to be less insistent, more desirable and presented enthusiastically. More importantly, to eradicate the stigma any of my children or parents associated with “extra help”, it needed to be inclusive.

Welcome to Community Learning!

Last year, I implemented the new, improved approach to extra help halfway through the year. At first, many students and parents still perceived Community Learning as “extra help” with a fancier title, however, as time went by, parents and children shared their thoughts with each other and the stigmatization lessened. Ultimately, more children came, curious about what was happening and who was going. More importantly, they were happy to be there.

The most important and successful component to the new approach, were the invites ALL children and families received. I needed the parents and my Kinders to understand the new policy and philosophy: Community Learning should be a time and place for everyone to come and learn because everyone has the ability to learn something new. The key word was “everyone.” It was now a place for children of all academic abilities to come and learn; a place where some children could help each other while I helped others. Peer learning became a regular part of the educational framework, reinforcing friendships and strengthening abilities to accept constructive criticism.

Variety makes Community Learning desirable. Children have goals they need to meet, but I provide them with an array of options to meet those goals. Children can work independently, play structured learning games in small groups, read on tablets, or work with me. Very often, their desires change, exposing them to a bunch of different learning styles.

Unlike my older, outdated approach of sending home extra help invites to children, Community Learning was a kinder, subtler suggestion. It offered all students an academic setting, before school, twice a week, that was serendipitously blended with social-emotional learning. Children could come when they were able to. It relieved the pressure and defeat some parents felt when manic mornings made it virtually impossible to get there. For me, a no pressure approach continues to yield positive results.

FACT IS…I’m already here. Why would I limit that time to just a few when I can allow all children the opportunity to challenge themselves? As educators, isn’t it our goal to guide children and offer them the resources to become risk-taking, lifelong learners?

Now, after reading this, you may still think that Community Learning is just a fancier, glorified title for “extra help”, but isn’t your classroom a community of learners?


Thomas Whaley has been teaching elementary school for 20 years. He is the recipient of the New York State Elementary Classroom Teachers Association Teacher of the Year. His teaching has been profiled for NPR 50 Greatest Teachers for his work with Latinx students. Thomas lives on Long Island with his husband and two children, Andrew and Luke. He is the author of the novel Leaving Montana and is working on a second novel. Follow him on Twitter at @AuthorTomWhaley.

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