If you have followed the #flipclass journey that Cheryl and I have been on, then you know two words show up over and over and over again in our speaking and writing and tweeting: collaboration and community. Many educators would call these soft skills--skills to ignore/gloss over in service of more rigorous academic content.
However, we believe that collaboration is critical to explicitly teach, and that true collaboration can't happen outside of a community-like classroom atmosphere. Building classroom community is something that I have traditionally been very good at, but for the last couple years, I have really struggled in this respect. In years past, I have had entire classes almost completely based on discussion; however, many of my recent students have been in really awkward, slightly antagonistic groupings that don't have a tremendous amount of investment in anyone but themselves. And this had to change.
Yesterday in my English class, we had the first real discussion of the year--10 weeks into the semester. We've done a lot of work with informational texts around brain science, cognitive psychology, fixed/growth mindset, and the ways in which people learn. We watched the video about the Independent Project (which you need to watch if you haven't)--the story of a group of students who have a self-run, self-taught semester as a school-within-a-school.
My students initially reacted much in the same way as previous classes had when shown the video: "That's really cool, but I could never do that." So we had them brainstorm a list of the academic/personality characteristics of the Independent Project students. They came up with things like "creative, visionary, determined, hard-working, self-directed." I then asked them how many of those characteristics applied to them individually and the class as a whole. Not surprisingly, they said "Not that many of them."
This is a class, mind you, of some extraordinarily talented artistic spirits. In that one class (of 34), there are graphic artists, a calligrapher, guitarists, athletes, pianists, writers, coders, mechanics, actors, and a ton of singers, including a new student who introduced herself to the group less than a week after she moved by shaking the walls with an a capella rendition of "House of the Rising Sun." The point is, these are exactly the kinds of students the Independent Project was designed for--students who are creative, visionary, and incredibly driven when talking about their artistic passions.
But they didn't think those terms applied to them. And worse, up until yesterday, they have been completely unable to have any kind of meaningful conversation with each other about anything as a whole class. So what I was working with was a very full classroom of individuals, all very talented, all pretty isolated in their own bubbles. And the type of class that Cheryl and I want to run is completely impossible without a community at the center of it.
Which is why what happened yesterday was so important. They sat in sort of a circle. They talked to each other. They got frustrated with each other, they aired grievances, they self-policed. They kept each other on topic, for the most part. We talked about how frustrated some of them had become with the class culture, the noise, and the lack of care they had demonstrated for each other. We talked about how most of them had come to view school as a competition, as a zero-sum game.
So there has been a lot to overcome. Many of these students had come to 11th grade having gotten through previous years without a whole lot of mental engagement, and they were used to just looking out for themselves. They were used to the zero-sum game, where one person had to be diminished in order for another to have an A. And our class demands of them that they engage; it demands that they are present; it demands that they work together in real and meaningful ways, ways that are loud and messy and chaotic and completely antithetical to that kind of toxic competition.
And that's really difficult. But yesterday, we took a step. Communities are not built overnight, and I'm glad we're finally moving in a positive direction.