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Communities of Learning

Reflecting on Diane McGrath’s article, Developing a Community of Learners it occurs to me I have often been in situations as an adult where a teacher or instructor tried to facilitate group learning, but never really considered how to organize those communities.  Simply organizing at random or perhaps by looking at what each person did for a living and creating groups did just that, created a group, not a community.  Often, someone was motivated by an outside interest or agenda that stalled the group instead of moving it forward.  In addition, each group was expected to learn the same material, or segments of a larger concept and share that information.  The tasks and activities assigned were controlled by the teacher and the dominant members of the group.

In spite of these experiences, I have been involved in some wonderful communities of learning, but until very recently, never in a formal environment.   The most rewarding community of learners I was ever a part of was when I was a waitress.  We shared a common love for food and drink and  would discuss wines we tried, interesting recipes and suggestions for new restaurants to visit.  Each one of us brought our own unique perspective, and by working in a restaurant had the good fortune of having access to experts in the form of chefs, bartenders and bakers.  It was exciting to learn and grow as a “foodie”.  Not only did it satisfy a personal desire to learn, it made me a better waitress, which in the end, resulted in better tips.

The other experience has been the building of my own Personal Learning Network. I have searched for and found teachers and technology specialists who have common interests and I follow them through their blogs or Twitter as a means of learning more about technology and making changes to my own practice.  I am most definitely a novice, but I feel accepted by the community of learners I have adopted and am finding my voice.  This is something I want to bring back to my classroom.  I want my students to feel confident finding their own voice and making choices about what they learn,  and how that learning is measured.

Right now I’m finding myself in a transition period.  Instead of falling back into what is easy, or safe, and trying to control the learning environment, I am struggling with ways to create opportunities for my students to explore their own interests and learn from each other.  One of the areas I find myself rethinking is how best to allow my students to learn independently and collaboratively in an environment where they feel safe and respected and where their knowledge and expertise will be valued.  Certainly technology can provide  my students access to a vast community of learners outside of our classroom who share their passions, but how do I make them comfortable with the students sitting right next to them who may have similar potential?  How do I foster in my 8th graders the desire to step outside of their social comfort zone?  Certainly shared interest should be a great motivator, but sometimes being accepted by your peers and not being viewed as “different” has an even stronger pull.

I’m not sure just yet of the answer to this.  As the new year begins and a new group of students enter my life, not only do they each have a unique personality, but their group has its own dynamics that have settled over time.  There are certain expectations that need to be overcome as we work to build our own community. Many of my students don’t have a lot of  experience when it  comes to making decisions about school and learning.  In some cases, some of them have never had their opinions valued and are hesitant to risk being seen as foolish or even worse “stupid” as they learn to find their voice.  Still others are trapped by the expectations of their peers.  Students who previously were seen as class clown or “bad” struggle to step out of that role, and often, it is their classmates that are most uncomfortable by the change.   My role is to give them room to make those changes and find their voice, to teach them how to make their own decisions about learning, in essence, to become independent.

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