BY JOE BROOKS
Sifting through themes that revolve around creating and supporting educational experiences that build community and foster meaningful learning, it’s connecting school work to a larger purpose, to the self, to experience that resonates. As it was “then” is how it is now and many of us remember our own school experiences as not so different, regardless of decade. But there ARE schools and teachers working to change the paradigm.
Most teachers, parents, and communities DO support students experiencing school as an early act of civic participation—especially if that participation is directly connected to academic learning. And, they DO value the local in learning, especially when they understand the effect. Service-Learning as a teaching strategy is a most direct way to achieve this.
(Interviewing community elders is one of the most obvious examples, among many. Pictured above “The Great Migration Documentation Project”)
From the social sciences, to language arts, to STEM, ELL, the Arts, and special needs, there is always a locally based curriculum connection. It often takes a trained eye, and practice, and sometimes support to find those connections. Focusing on the local necessitates connection and builds community in the process.
In my experience, the more obviously that community focused teaching’s impact on student achievement and community benefit is understood and publicly witnessed the better. As a teacher participant in a recent Community Works Institute (CWI) retreat put it, “Kids get that: When you ask what effect did this have, working together, the kids understand that it’s hard to work together, but they get that things really happen when you do.”
Working with K-16 and community-based teachers and schools around the globe, I’ve found there to clearly be a significant and growing number of educators and schools out there who are deeply committed to this kind of teaching—local community focused teaching. These educators tell me that they have a great need for the opportunity to connect with like-minded peers around the themes, work, and unique challenges intrinsic to using the local community in their teaching. In other words, they need more through connecting than simply gleaning new ideas and affirmation. The refrain is simple and clear, they need opportunities to actually work together, synergize, and plan together.
So, there is also need for “community” among our teachers, especially those focused on service-learning, sustainability, and place-based education. In other words, teachers say they wish to be a part of an ongoing community of educators who share their passion, belief, and experience. Not “community” as simply some sort of fuzzy warm gathering or conference buffet of topics—often informative but vague in direct outcome. Rather these teachers seek to share and provide peer to peer professional support.
Out-of-the-box curriculum surely dominates these days. But teachers who see community as the crucial organism we are all a part of—know that using the local community as a learning laboratory (as John Dewey saw it) is essential both to a healthy democracy, society, and our students themselves.