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Community building through shared practice.

Ron Colbert, Vice President Representing Intermediate/Middle Childhood, submitted the following article, written by Susan B. Rosa of Fitchburg, State College.

What is "community"? Webster (1976) defines community as a unified body of individuals ... an interacting population of various kinds of individuals in a common location ... a group of people with a common characteristic or interest," but can it be fully achieved or is it merely a "will-o'-the-wisp"? If we believe that building a cohesive education community matters, then how can we motivate individuals to participate in this process? Moreover, how can we get educators to buy into the construct? Maslow, Adler, Dreikurs, and other behavioral psychologists suggest that what motivates human behavior is the desire to truly feel part of something greater than yourself. Motivation comes from believing that who you are and the contributions that you make truly matter to those in the group, that your presence and expertise increases the productivity and accomplishments of those involved, and that a group can often achieve more collectively than through individual efforts.

I have come to realize the importance of building and sustaining a genuine sense of community with faculty and students in educational settings. As a Behavioral Sciences Division Chair and subsequently an education faculty member, I often have pondered whether we could build a true community with our students if we did not have "a unified body of individuals" within our own departments. If community is the vehicle for purposeful interactions and genuine progress, then how does one go about building a cohesive community of educators within a division or department? As Chair, I considered an approach to building a greater sense of community within my division. I began by asking faculty to consider their personal goals for the academic year ahead.

At our first Division meeting, each member of the group received a handout asking them to list their personal goals for the academic year. Each member then chose one goal that had the greatest meaning for him or her and reflected his or her vision as an educator. I collected the handout and explained that I would compile a list of their goals, looking for common themes/threads, and share it at the next meeting. I also wrote that I considered our division a community. To be part of a community means to know each other in the truest sense (i.e., know our hopes, dreams, and aspirations). It is through knowing that we can support each other and deliberately help each other achieve our goals. While compiling the lists, three common threads emerged: 1) personal and professional growth, 2) goals related to teaching students, and 3) goals related to department websites and technology. Goals relating to teaching our students seemed like the right place to start. So the next step involved teasing out the commonalities of our teaching practices.

As a division chair, it was my responsibility to hold monthly meetings that included all five departments--anthropology, criminal justice, psychology, social work and counseling, and education. Although varied in their focus, these departments all consisted of educators who needed to prepare and conduct weekly lessons for their students. Clearly, this was one aspect we shared. Therefore, I added "Sharing our teaching practices" to the monthly agenda, allowing time for teachers to discuss the activities in their classes that they considered most effective. When I first approached the division about adding this new component to our meetings, the response seemed complacent but not reluctant. That was all the incentive I needed.

Providing a framework for this sharing would be helpful in developing a focus. The first topic was: "What strategies/activities do you include at the beginning of the semester to engage and excite your students?" I put aside 15 minutes at the end of our meeting to address this first topic. Here's what happened next.

The first few seconds were painfully silent, and then one faculty member, "J," said that he provided each student in his Intro classes with a 10-question questionnaire that assessed what they I<new about criminal justice to serve as a springboard for continuing discussion. "K" responded that he wouldn't want students to feel "tricked" into displaying their ignorance, but "J" pointed out that their misconceptions could lead to a productive consideration of why we have preconceived ideas and inaccurate information. In the interest of discussing stereotypes, "L" sometimes showed up at- her first class in a dog costume. "M" also used a questionnaire for openers and asked his students, "What have you always wanted to know about psychology?" He sometimes gave short answers or let them know that he would be spending two weeks on the subject. "N" asked her students to imagine that they were teachers and to consider what they would like to know about their students. They were invited to brainstorm, make posters, etc., and then pick areas they were comfortable sharing out in class. "P" finds WebCT an exciting means of communicating with his students, especially introverts. "R" and "K" echoed "P" 's enthusiasm.

The interaction felt lively and meaningful. Some faculty wrote down the ideas being shared, and there were moments of laughter and lots of head nodding. Virtually everyone left the meeting smiling and chatting as they walked down the hallway. We included this item in the agenda throughout the rest of the academic year. Handouts pertaining to the monthly topic were put in faculty mailboxes prior to the meetings. Participation was voluntary, but I often asked faculty for input on topics they would be interested in discussing at our meetings. Attempting to take advantage of the positive momentum. I asked if faculty members would be open to the idea of going into each other's classrooms as a way of sharing styles, ideas, etc. and getting feedback, if desired. After a long pause, one faculty member recalled a time that she had taken a course at our college that had opened her eyes to other teaching practices and the student perspective. She called it "a wonderful experience." Five faculty members offered up at least one course and times when they would welcome visitors. These faculty members were called "Classroom Cohorts." Although this opportunity was not fully utilized, due to time constraints and perhaps a lack of comfort, I still believe that it is an option worth pursuing. As educators, we have a great deal of expertise to offer each other. "Classroom cohorts" can be a means of professional development for the seasoned teacher as well as the neophyte.

Whether or not this experience really established a strong sense of community within this division is unclear. But I am sure that faculty enjoyed interacting on subjects that were not tied to standards, revisions or accreditation, which are often the focus of meetings in the field of education. There was authentic interest and generosity when they shared their practices, techniques, and strategies. The look of curiosity and ever delight was refreshing and rewarding. It is my belief that we can build dynamic education communities that validate individual expertise, as well as create a purposeful group climate that is engaging in its design, and productive in its results. My observations give me confidence in the viability of this approach. I have experienced the excitement that it brought to my division and I believe that it can achieve its potential even more fully.

References

Maslow, A. (1970/1954). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper & Row.

Adler, A. (1938). Social interest: A challenge to mankind. J. Linton & R Vaughan (Trans.). London: Faber and Faber Ltd.

Dreikurs, R. 11937). An introduction to individual psychology. International Journal of Individual Psychology, 3(4), 320-349.

Webster, A. M. (1976). Webster's seventh new collegiate dictionary. Springfield. MA: G. & C. Merriam Company.

Alfred Adler's key publications were The Practice and Theory of Individual Psychology (1927), Understanding Human Nature (1927), and What Life Could Mean to You (1931).

--Susan B. Rosa, Fitchburg State College/Northeast Foundation for Children
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Title Annotation:Vice President's Vista
Author:Rosa, Susan B.
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2008
Words:1321
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