Tear Down the Walls: The Problem with One-Way Communication 

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the importance of communication. As teachers, we are tasked with communicating expectations and standards with students, with communicating student progress with the school, and with communicating instructional plans and resources with parents. And because we are careful to meet all of these communication objectives, it feels like we are doing a great job keeping everyone informed. And we are. But, ironically, all of this communication may have the unexpected effect of building walls, not bridges, between us and our community. That’s because everything I just mentioned is one-way communication: we are talking at, rather than with, others. The result is that, despite all the communicating we’re doing, we still feel very, very isolated. There are teachers. And administrators. And students. And families. And we’re all seemingly separate entities. Looking in from the outside, you’d never know everyone was on the same team working towards the same goal. Perhaps we need to rethink communication to ensure that, in addition to communicating to others, we are also collaborating with others, bringing the stakeholders together to build a thriving classroom community. 

Beyond Professional Learning Communities: What Classroom Collaboration Should Look Like 

A classroom community is strongest when it’s built on collaboration, not just with our colleagues as so often is the case, but with the broader community including students, families, clubs, and community partners. While your planning should begin, of course, with a focus on the standards, your pacing guides, and your Professional Learning Community objectives, design your plans to be flexible enough to allow input from students, families, and the broader community as well. For example, when sourcing paired texts, consider reaching out to families to see if they have any resources that may fit your instruction, or ask students if they would rather learn the current skill by doing x or y type of activity.  

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I know creating these types of collaborative activities can be easier said than done. So here are some fun suggestions on how to engage the community in your yearly planning that won’t dump piles of extra work in your lap. 

Bridging the Gap: Construct a Thriving Classroom Community by Collaborating with Stakeholders 

Dream Big: Start the year strong by tapping into your students’ Funds of Knowledge during your back-to-school activities. Give students a piece of craft paper and ask them to design their “dream” class: what topics would they explore and what questions might they ask? What do they want to know and why? Where and how do they feel you can best help them?  

  • Why: While we often ask students to complete surveys to respond to some of these questions, surveys that ask, for example, what content students feel confident with and what content they struggle with, surveys can feel like work, and the close-ended questions can stifle student responses. Asking them to design a “dream class” instead will reveal a lot more about your students and be more engaging for them to work on.  
  • Example Extension Activity: Use this activity to encourage socialization and collect informative data about your students.  
  • Step 1: Once they finish designing their dream class, have students conduct a gallery walk. Give them a scavenger hunt form where they need to write down the names of students who included certain qualities in their dream design (for example, find a student who is interested in a similar topic to you, or write down the name of the student with the most interesting question). This activity allows students to quickly meet others with shared interests and to learn more about their classmates overall.  
  • Step 2: After completing the gallery walk, ask students to select one topic or one question from any of the dream designs around the room. Then, instruct them to craft an original piece of writing (a personal narrative, a poem, a short story, etc.) inspired by that topic or question. Use their responses to gather informative information about each student’s current level of writing proficiency. 
  • Community Connection: Be sure to use the information you glean from this activity to learn what your students are most interested in learning and what skills or concepts they feel they need the most help acquiring. Adjust your lesson plans for the rest of the year to accommodate their interests and their needs, making sure students see the connection between their own responses and the direction your instruction takes. They will recognize that you care about them as individuals and that you are seeking to build a collaborative learning environment for them to thrive. 

Get to Know Your Students; No Prep Required!

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Promote Family Connections: Reach out to your students’ families at least once per quarter not simply to tell them what you have been working on and what you will be doing in upcoming units, but to ask for their input in student learning.  

  • Why: All too often, we engage in one-way communication with families. We send a newsletter telling them about upcoming units. They reach out to us to share a concern about their student's progress. Rarely do we engage in true communication, the kind of back-and-forth discussions that can lead to real collaboration. This has the unintended effect of creating a barrier between the teacher and the families with each side talking at, rather than to, one another. But inviting parents and guardians to play an active role in the lessons their students engage in creates bridges, promoting a shared sense of purpose that builds a positive sense of community. And did I mention, the more you are able to rely on your students’ families for lesson resources, the less sourcing of resources you will need to do yourself . . .? 
  • Example Collaborative Communication: Reach out to families in advance of an upcoming unit (with sufficient time for you to update or tweak your lessons). Ask families if they have resources that can support the learning topic or if they’d be willing to share, either in person or via Zoom/pre-recorded video, a story connected to your learning topic. For example, if you will be reading food narratives with your students, send out a fillable form in advance of the unit asking for family recipes and, ideally, a story connected to that recipe. Then, use the submissions you collect to create a classroom recipe book.  
  • Community Connection: Create an expansive classroom culture by sharing (with appropriate permissions) the recipe book with the broader school community and/or by encouraging families who are willing to share photos of themselves on social media trying out the recipes. By doing so, you will create a bridge between school and home, promoting stronger ties within your classroom community as well when students experiment with the treasured recipes of others in their class.  

Collaborate with Clubs: Bring the broader school community into your classroom. Many schools have a wealth of clubs, teams, and organizations that would love to extend their reach. And chances are, you have students in your classes who take part in these clubs, teams, and organizations each year. A great way to build a thriving classroom culture is to create collaboration opportunities that bridge during- and after-school activities in a meaningful way. 

  • Why: While athletics, drama, and band tend to take center stage in a school’s cultural energy, the truth is there are many students who participate in clubs and activities outside of the big three that often go relatively unnoticed. Finding ways to invite members from a variety of interest groups into your classroom allows students to feel they are part of something larger and they appreciate feeling seen and heard. This is a great wayto create a positive classroom culture and to extend that positivity beyond the four walls of your room into the larger school environment. 
  • Example Club-to-Class Connections: Invite members of your school’s cultural or hobby clubs to speak to your classes about content that connects to your core instruction such as storytelling traditions from those cultures or the narrative techniques that are woven into a game of Dungeons and Dragons. Have your students collaborate with the photography club to create photo essays or the true crime club to experiment with different genres of writing such as journalism or digital media. Better yet, bring your students and members of the clubs you invite in together to brainstorm their own curriculum connections. That way, you know they’ll be engaged in the topic and all you’ll need to be responsible for is moderating their choices. 
  • Community Connection: The passionate students who dedicate their free time to their clubs often have no one other than themselves to speak with about their interests. Designing instruction in collaboration with school clubs is an engaging and culturally responsive way to highlight the relevance of your curriculum to students’ everyday lives and to support the work of the students who take part in these afterschool activities. Once you get comfortable incorporating content from the clubs into your instruction, take the collaboration up a notch by extending the audience beyond the school population. Host an annual “student showcase” that is open to the community or create a digital magazine featuring highlights of this collaborative student work that can be shared with those outside the school. Families love to see what their students are doing, and what better way to showcase student growth than to let families see them applying their learning in new and meaningful ways. 

Get Local: Your school doesn’t exist on an island. No matter where you teach, your school is part of a broader community. Perhaps your students work at a local shop, or perhaps a local business sponsors school events. Maybe there’s an art show taking place soon or a community theater hosting a new performance. Get to know the community that surrounds your school and either invite that community in or encourage students to head out into the community to allow them to fully connect with their local community.  

  • Why: When we confine education to the walls of the school building, we can inadvertently send the message that school is separate and apart from the real world. We often use this very language when we speak to our students: “In the real world you’ll find . . .” Rightly or wrongly, this can signal to some students that what we do in the school is somehow artificial, an imitation, rather than a reflection, of the “real” world. Bridging the gap between the school and the world outside makes the relevancy of their learning clearer. 
  • Example Community Connection:  
  • Community-to-Class: Seek out local authors or artists (they’re easier to find than you’d think) and invite them into the classroom either in person or via digital conferencing to speak to your students about the creative process. As part of the discussion, invite them to speak to students about the “business” of creation: the importance of developing rhetoric skills to target their audience, understanding the connection between visual and print media, comprehending the complexities of the written language used in contracts. In the process, your guests will reveal the relevance of your instructional content to people’s everyday lives. 
  • Class-to-Community: Design activities that encourage students to explore their world by, for example, going on a writer’s walk around their neighborhood or attending a local theater performance and incorporating their experiences into a piece of writing. In my classes, I assign students Seasonal Writing Menu Boards, such as Writing into Fall, encouraging them to engage in community-based activities in order to inspire original writing. 
  • Community Connection: Actively involving students in their local communities not only demonstrates the relevance of their school learning to the “real” world, it also promotes a sense of belonging and encourages civic engagement. As students feel more connected with the world around them, they will begin to care more about their environment, participating in local activities, encouraging their families to check out community offerings. Consider sharing a list of upcoming community events on your class page and in your email newsletter. Connect the activities to your core instruction by including prompts encouraging those who attend to share their adventure with the class somehow such as by writing a review, creating a photo essay, or drafting a blog. At the end of the year, have your students work together to create a digital “Classroom Yearbook” highlighting all the great activities your students, your school, your families, and your community have engaged in this year. 

Building a Thriving Community

Bridging the gap between teachers and the community doesn’t have to require a lot of extra work on your part. There are so many ways to bring your community into your classroom in ways that require little to no prep on your part (asking for family recipes for example, can be as simple as a one-sentence request added to the newsletter before you hit “send”) that there’s no reason to feel stress as you journey towards greater collaboration. And remember the Plus One strategy: you don’t have to try all the things all at once. Pick one or two activities to try this year, see how they go, and add more collaborative opportunities to your instruction each year as you grow more comfortable with the process.  

Do you have community collaboration strategies that work in your classes? Share them in the comments below so we can all grow our toolbox of strategies together! 

About the Author

Andrea Yarbough is a National Board Certified Teacher and the author of Artfulness: Formula-Free Creative Writing Explorations for Secondary ELA Classes. Trusted by major organizations with curriculum design and professional workshops, she has extensive experience developing meaningful, effective instruction for students and teachers, resulting in better outcomes with less work. 

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