Imagine the scene: It’s the first day of school and students are walking into the classroom. Most of them have never interacted -- it's a mix of grades 10-12. The glorious awkwardness of first conversations between teenagers ensues. Then the screen turns on and images and videos of their new teachers' life and work pop up. I tell them the story of why I became a teacher and what I hope we can all achieve as a class. And then I task them with telling the story of who they are, where they come from, and what makes them unique.
That’s how we started our Digital Journalism class. Before we went over the course goals, before we dove into the syllabus, and before we discussed what assessments would look like, the first step was to learn about each other. Rooting the classroom in the background of our learners is an essential practice because it creates human connection and allows us all to know we are going on a journey together.
After we collected and curated multimedia that represented the why, what, where, and when of ourselves, we spent an entire class sharing. The class learned about DJ’s background in Hawaii, the videography skills of Michael, and May-Jay’s ancestry. We were astounded by Sacha’s reflections of his boat-making Turkish father and how his own love of craftsmanship came from watching his father build tremendously large sailboats. We were awed by the photos and video Gabby shared that showcased her spiritual connection to nature.
This was more than just an icebreaker. We were going far beyond our names and 3 fun facts about ourselves. The sharing of cultures and experiences allowed us to better understand who we were learning and working with. The images, video, and writing offered insight into each other’s background and created trust and visibility. We were constructing a foundation of connection that would prove an important thread throughout the school year. Each week we tapped back into the essential practice of sharing out more about ourselves, allowing the cohort to feel more and more comfortable being vulnerable, and modeling the jedi skills of inquiry and empathy. We were building up the muscle memory of community and culture.
Before you dive into the content of your class, know and celebrate your learners' backgrounds. An authentic classroom is rooted in trust and learner agency. It is imperative that learners feel represented in the content, skills, and methodologies which they are actively engaging in. The best way to do this is to embark on a shared and equitable learning journey together. Learners need to trust in each other, feel comfortable being vulnerable, and know who they are partnering with. This helps build a cohort which embraces the mantra of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development: students teaching other students and becoming partners in learning. In turn, this helps foster confidence and a sense of belonging in your learners and creates a communal classroom environment.
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