Relationships + Empathy = Learning Community?

imageI just finished reading John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, one of the many books students have written on a whiteboard in my room devoted to suggestions for reading. It is the fourth book on the board I read this fall. I love having the board in my room; it generates conversations about books and reading. It also helps to create a connection between my students and me.  I have really enjoyed reading the different books, some I knew about already and some that were new to me.

This board is part of my very conscious and open effort to create a community of learners in my classroom, myself included. The more I think about it, the more I believe that relationships are at the heart of successful learning communities. Teachers spend an enormous amount of time looking for engaging lessons and activities, but those tend to be short-term, individual successes. It can be exhausting to try to make the material you want students to learn, in some cases material they need to learn to be able to perform more intrinsically interesting tasks, exciting and dynamic. I have come to believe that a more fruitful approach is to make my classroom a place students want to come. The heart of that is relationships. I want my students to come in to class early, engage in conversation with each other but also with me. I want students to see each member of the class as a resource, someone they can learn from. I think that this promotes student-centered, inquiry-based learning at its best. Relationships build trust and trust brings openness; an open mind is ready to learn.

Crossing the divide between teacher and student is a critical component to the relationship. I decided to read what my students love to get to know their world a little better, and because I want them to know that I think I can learn from them.  I have been enriched by the books they suggested. Another step I took last year was to shadow a student for a day to walk along with him, experiencing the day as he did. Both have helped me develop some understanding and empathy for my students. Now I am ready to try to take this experiment one step further.

I plan to invite my students to craft a mini-curriculum for me second semester. They can suggest homework assignments for me to do. They can provide due dates for me to finish reading books. For those who enjoy learning in other ways, they can assign me movies to watch. I am plenty busy already, so I will need to put some limits if they try to go over board. I teach a few different courses, so it will take a little creativity and cooperation to get all of my classes involved. I have been a student, but not in their world and not of their world.  I  was feeling a little nervous about this, until I remembered – I trust my students.

Looks like I need to get a new whiteboard over Winter Break!

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