Our classrooms can be vulnerable places for us to share with other people. Fear that our lessons, classroom, or students aren't perfect might keep us from involving parents, experts, and others in the community. Or maybe it's not fear, but time. How does a busy teacher make the time to find a community member that might enhance the lesson? Will having someone else come in to the classroom take away from time already devoted to teaching specific skills or content? Whatever the obstacle keeping us from more fully integrating our classrooms with what's happening outside our four walls, the benefits of involving community members and experts are worth finding a way around what's holding us back.
There are ways to involve community members, especially in a project-based learning (PBL) unit, from the beginning to the end of the unit. You could get ideas for your project by discussing real-world problems with subject-area experts before the unit begins, and have community members serve as audience members for the final project presentations.
Who are these community members, anyway? They can be:
- Experts (people working in a specific field or discipline or those with a specific skill)
- Volunteers (parents, college students, retired teachers, business owners, etc.)
- Community Members (a wide array of neighborhood or community members who could be interviewed, surveyed, or consulted with on projects, those with life experiences that connect to the unit, or anyone invested in the students and the school from the community)
- Panel Members (those with the ability to speak to the topic at hand–they can be experts or community members)
- Audience Members (community members, volunteers, or experts that can listen to student presentations or engage with their final projects in a meaningful way)
Before delving into HOW this can be done (I'll do this in Part II in another post), let's start by considering WHY involving community members is so important, especially in a PBL classroom.
- Community Connections Increase Relevance: When we have our pulse on the real issues in the community, problems arise that students can act upon. Designing project-based learning units around REAL community problems helps students know that the work they are doing matters.
- Students Need Networks & Possibilities: Some students may only engage with an astrophysicist, an environmental lawyer, a city planner, or a genetic counselor because you have connected them with individuals in these fields, either virtually or in person. When students see a wide range of careers, especially at an early age, their ideas of what is possible expands. This is especially true if these individuals are representative of your student population, in both gender and ethnicity.
- Novel Adults Get Noticed: There's something about novelty that “sticks” in our mind more than the everyday. If you Skype in a paleontologist to speak about the finer points of fossils to help students in their PBL, students will remember that (and they might even tell their family)!
- Experts Bring…Expertise: We can't know everything, despite our best efforts. It's actually HEALTHY for us to admit that we don't know it all and that we're willing to share the burden with someone else. Veteran Arkansas Teacher Amanda Jones realized that as she taught multiple subjects and decided to include experts in her rural classroom through the “Phone a Friend” cards in her classroom. Whether it's how to produce an amazing podcast, what relevant problems there are in the ocean, or specific details about the rocks and caves in your area, experts can provide insights for both you and the students.
- More Adults=More Perspectives: Sometimes it just takes a different adult to give the feedback students need to hear. As a biology teacher with students competing in BioTech Expo and a Senior Project teacher, I gave detailed feedback to students that sometimes could get overlooked. However, if a student's mentor gave them the same advice, or if the final judges gave feedback about that aspect of the student's work, the advice became more seriously heeded.
It takes time to build up a network of ready and willing community members. It takes time to train them to engage with your students, and you must also prepare your students to interact with the community members. It takes time for you to find places in your curriculum where experts, community members, and other adults would have a beneficial connection and role. Non-profits like Seattle-based Educurious have considered the role of experts as they have designed their PBL units, and they have built an expert database for teachers to consult.
Now that you can see the benefits of involving the community, think about your upcoming unit. How might you consult with someone from the field? Where might students benefit from connecting with an expert? What audience will view their final products? Start small, prepare the students and the community members, and build your network and community involvement from there. You'll see an increase in student engagement and motivation, and you'll be benefitting your students in the long run.