What does it mean to connect our classrooms to the community?

Every year, in every school I’ve ever been in, we spend a full week before students arrive to reflect on one thing — goals. It therefore wasn’t a surprise to me when I found myself in a twitter chat last night having to frame my priorities for the academic year into one word. Having had the last week to think about it, I quickly typed in the word- community.

Now what I found interesting was that for the rest of the twitter chat — well besides all the new terms and hashtags I had to Google — was that community seemed to mean very different things to different people. I began to wonder — does community only mean staff, students, and parents for most educators? When I had written the word community I had meant much more.

In education, it often seems that we throw these seemingly simple words around that actually mean very different things to different people. If we say we want to connect our classroom to the community, what does that actually mean to most folks?

To me, a community is an ecosystem. It’s a set of moving parts that need one another to thrive. It goes beyond our classroom community; it goes beyond our school community.

The world is so much bigger than just our classrooms and our schools, yet both often operate in silos disconnected from the other aspects of our lives. Perhaps it’s because enormous pressure is placed on teachers to successfully prepare students, but all the responsibility shouldn’t be on us. It takes a village, right?

When we say we want to connect our classrooms to the community it should signify building bridges between our students and the outside world. It should mean taking advantage of the many opportunities we have available to work with others to provide our students with a range of resources, tools, and experiences that will improve the quality of their education. Community is something we shouldn’t just talk about with our students, it’s something we should let into our classrooms. Our students need us to branch out and make those connections so that we can equip them for the future as best as we can. We need to those connections so that we build a community of supporters to help us with our work.

Now, if you’re like me, your response might be — That sounds great, but when am I supposed to do that? Teachers are busy people and it’s not hard to get caught up in the daily grind of planning, prepping, and grading. Building relationships and branching out can take time, which is a commodity in education that always seems to be in short supply.

Although it might seem overwhelming at first, in the long-term building relationships within the community could actually save you time and provide you and your students with an array of benefits.

How you say? Well, give it a try. If you’re strategic with the community partners you choose to reach out to you have the potential to:

  • Share the workload! - Keep your sanity this year and let someone else take the reigns. Many organizations offer amazing opportunities and programs for your students. If an organization wants to come in and work with your students on a STEM project let them! It’s enough that you’re helping to facilitate this experience and coach your students through the exercises. There’s no need to feel guilt over not having designed every little thing yourself.
  • Personalize learning!- You have one student super interested in coding, another is coming in with a new business idea every week, and another who inspires everyone with her slam poetry. You can’t do it all. Bring in or develop community partners that can work with students to develop their talents or interests. Trust me — they’re out there!
  • Give real experiences!- Did you see that Skype in the Classroom video where students practiced their language skills with retired folks? I was practically in tears by the end. Whether you take your students on class trips or bring the community in through technology, these connections making learning come alive and feel real.
  • Build character!- We often talk about social emotional learning, but building empathy and compassion for others often takes exposure. Get students out there volunteering. Connect with organizations that allow students to work with people different from themselves. You can tap into organizations like DoSomething.org that get your students to take action and do for others.
  • Stay inspired! - Teachers tend to be naturally curious and exemplify what lifelong learning is all about (go us!). By connecting our classrooms to the community we stay avid learners ourselves. Everyone has something to teach us, we just need to let them in.

I really hope that this year you strive to take building community to the next level. Community matters. It has so much to offer if you just let it in. This year I challenge you to build new relationships and connect your students to the world. Remember, we go farther together.

Written by Michelle Blanchet, The Educators’ Lab