Building an Intellectual Community

My dream is for my classroom to be a place where students want to learn, where they are curious and open to new ideas. I want them to be engaged in the class because they are interested–not because I am marking points in my grade book or because they are worried about detention. And while I want them to do well on state tests, I don’t think that works as a primary motivation for my young adolescent learners.

Notice and Note

As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of the teacher books I am reading this summer is Notice and Note by  Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst (Heinmann, 2013). One point the authors make is that we need to build intellectual communities in our classrooms. Our classrooms need to be places where learning is relevant and student inquiry is honored. Students should be encouraged to experiment and they must be allowed to fail a few times–without penalty–because that shows learning is happening.

Consider this great quote by Daniel Pink, author of Drive, who explains, “When profit motive becomes unmoored from the purpose motive, bad things happen” (qtd. in Beers 25).  I love this quote because as Beers and Probst explain it,  schools tend to see their profits as the test scores. The problem is that when the entire school focuses only on test scores, teachers get frustrated and students tune out. It stops being about the learning.

Probst and Beers explain their solution this way: “But we can offer some ideas for creating an intellectual community so that students learn more and as a result pass the damned test. And we know intellectual, or otherwise, a community is formed with discourse…And if people understand how to conduct themselves in an exchange of ideas, if they know how to listen appreciatively, how to frame their own thoughts with evidence and examples, how to extend their own thinking and that of others, how to weigh ideas and reach conclusions, how to speculate and hypothesize, how to evaluate and analyze, and how to think independently while working collaboratively, then the community might become an intellectual one. But not without talk” (25-26).

Lifelong Readers

This is a poster I made one day at The South Coast Writing Project’s Summer Institute (2013). The title is a goal I have for my students to be “life-long, joyful readers and writers.” The post-its are ideas contributed by my colleagues.

I have found this to be true in my work with the South Coast Writing Project (SCWriP). I am a four-time participant in SCWriP’s “Invitational Summer Institute in Composition and Critical Literacy” held at the University of California, Santa Barbara (2006, 2011, 2012, 2013). For me, the strength of the Institute and SCWriP is the way it creates an environment where educators feel empowered to pursue their own learning goals. Teachers of kindergarten to college-level students spend four weeks writing, discussing, collaborating, researching, and exploring what it means to be a teacher of reading and writing. There is a lot of talk. No one is bored. No one is trying to get a good grade (there are no grades). Everyone is dedicated to learning as much as he or she can with the goal of improving student learning.

In my own English classroom, I try to emulate SCWriP’s methods as much as possible. Of course, it is different because the students are not volunteering to be there. Also, I am required to grade them and they are required to take standardized tests. However, I try to emphasize the learning, not the grades. I value student questions and observations. I build “legal talk” time into my classroom every day. We work diligently on how to communicate in the classroom setting.

Of course, my classroom as an “intellectual community” is the dream. It does not happen every day or even in each of the five classes I teach every year. Sometimes students don’t have any questions. Sometimes I can’t think of how to make a specific standard “relevant.” However, as an educator dedicated to student learning, it needs to be my goal and I will keep on striving for it.

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