Giving Classrooms A Purpose is the title of an older column I wrote for The Washington Post that summarizes a lesson I do during the first week of the school year (unfortunately, though, that column appears to have disappeared from their website). The focus of the lesson is to help students decide if they want to create a community of learners or settle for a classroom of students (I also talk about it a bit in a radio interview I posted earlier today).

The complete lesson plan can be found in my most recent book, Self-Driven Learning.

Last week, I was contacted by teacher Kristin Elam, who just used the lesson in class. Here is her description of how it went:

Community of Learners Lesson

This year we have eliminated tracking in our 9th grade English classes and as such we have sought out ways to help build community and reconnect our students who have been tracked since 4th grade. We are also working to increase our focus on group work as we integrate the CCSS and prepare students from the group work element of the SBAC.

Today in class we started with a quick intro to the CCSS and the increase in group work and critical thinking that will go along with CCSS, which easily led us to the “Community of Learners.” First, the students did a think/write – pair – share for each of the four categories. We then had a general discussion on the differences between a town and a community where we identified what makes a community different (i.e. knowing each other well and supporting each other). Next I projected the Yeats quote (note that my EL population didn’t know what a “pail” was!) [Editor Note: the quote often attributed to Yeats: “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire” is introduced in the lesson] , and had them think-pair-share what they thought the quote means. Finally they decided which part of the quote would go into which column of our chart.

We then further discussed the categories of a “classroom of students” vs a “community of learners”, clarifying the difference between the two. Once they seemed to have a clear understanding, I had them share ideas with their partner for each of the next three rows and then we combined their ideas into our class chart. Finally, they wrote a paragraph reflection on which of the two classrooms they would prefer and why. I collected the paragraphs as an initial writing sample for me to keep on file.

After completing our lesson and deciding that we would like to try to be a community of learners as much as possible, we moved into our first big CCSS lesson on “close reading” adapted from Odell Education in NY. The first lesson in the “Brain Gain” unit focuses on using guiding questions to analyze two photographs, which happen to be of a classroom 60 years ago and a classroom today. Several students made a connection that I had not previously made that one classroom looked like a classroom of students and one looked like a community of learners! Was great to hear them carrying over the earlier lesson to a completely different context and medium. I think the lesson was a great introduction to how I want my classroom to run without me just having stood up there and told them what my rules and expectations are for the year.

Kristin Elam is in her 16th year of teaching and her second year of 9th grade English after 15 years in middle school teaching U.S. history and 8th grade English. She teaches in a school in a very low socio-economic community (90% free and reduced lunch) made up mostly of Latino and Filipino students who are from families who are generally first and second generation immigrants.