Teaching Today

Community Building in the Community College Classroom

It aids in the retention of students and in their overall college experience, but it is difficult and requires some creative thinking, writes Sean Gerrity.

January 7, 2020
 
 
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One challenge every community college instructor faces is building a sense of community for students who are all commuters. Those students frequently have jobs and other outside commitments and may only be on the campus to take their classes. By a sense of community, I mean, first, a sense of community within the classroom itself and, second, a sense that they are a part of a larger campus community.

The second sense of community comes naturally for students who reside in dorms on their campuses. They have a built-in opportunity to form relationships with other students and can establish a feeling of connection to the college not only as a physical campus but also as an idea. But to establish a similar sense of connection among community college students -- which aids in retention and the simple enjoyment of classes and the college experience over all -- is difficult and requires some creative thinking.

I have spent a lot of time mulling over these issues and speaking with colleagues and our provost about them at my community college, where I teach a two-course freshman composition sequence, as well as a first-year seminar course. As we college instructors look ahead to a new year in our classrooms, I’d like to share what I’ve learned about building both forms of community.

Create icebreakers in the first few weeks of classes. Icebreakers evoke a knee-jerk sense of revulsion and anxiety in many of us, as well as in many of our students -- sometimes for good reason. They may feel forced, awkward or like a waste of time that could be better spent on what we perceive as our primary job in the classroom: instruction. But I would argue that frontloading one’s course with carefully planned and orchestrated icebreaker activities has immense payoff for the rest of the semester -- and that introducing them early on will actually enhance instruction and course outcomes in the long run.

I can’t provide empirical evidence, but I’ve consistently found that when students have the chance to bond over the collective silliness of icebreakers and get to know a few other students in the class personally, they are more likely to feel an investment in the course and in their success in it. They feel a sense of camaraderie rather than competition -- because after all, theoretically everyone can get an A in such activities.

We can also enhance student buy-in by making these icebreaker activities related to the course, however tangentially. I have recently created a small group “syllabus scavenger hunt” activity to replace the standard class-long presentation of the syllabus that tends to put everyone to sleep. (Credit here must go to my colleague Alex Milsom for designing this assignment that I’ve adopted.) Students work together to search through the syllabus for answers to 20 or so questions I pose and then present their findings to the class -- at which time I can interject to add or clarify things. This helps students take ownership over the course expectations and content, and performance in the scavenger hunt counts as a nice little early quiz grade that everyone inevitably performs well on.

Use small group activities from the outset of and throughout the semester. Small group activities are perhaps the most obvious way to create a feeling of community within the classroom. They require sustained interaction among groups of students and allow opportunities for them to get comfortable with each other and to build a network of friendly faces they will encounter in the college hallways. I organize small group activities in the first weeks of classes, setting the tone for what will be a collaborative atmosphere. I have the same groups work together several times and then switch them up so that everyone can get to know each other. I offer students a small amount of extra credit if at any point in the semester they are able to stand up in front of the class and name every one of their classmates. I find this also demonstrates the extent to which I value them as individuals in classes that can often contain almost 30 students.

Create a virtual extension of your classroom via Slack. Through no fault of their own, some students have no time to be on the campus other than when their classes meet. Recently, I’ve been experimenting with using the free app Slack to create a virtual extension of our physical classroom. Essentially, the app allows an instructor to create a workspace under which channels can be created for each class. Students sign up for Slack with any email address, and then they can join your workspace and the appropriate channel for their class via an invitation link the app generates for you.

I have experimented in the past with other high-tech apps for similar purposes, but I’m trying out Slack specifically for two reasons. First, it has applicability outside of college, which can create initial student buy-in. Slack is enormously popular in the corporate world as well as within education -- in fact, anywhere groups of people are working together on projects and could benefit from a dedicated channel through which they can communicate instantly with their teammates. It is useful in the career fields many of our students are pursuing.

Second, Slack is free and extremely user-friendly. It essentially creates a large group chat for the class. I ask students to create usernames that are their real names and to add a picture of themselves to their profile. (I’m hoping this will also help me learn all of their names faster.) I anticipate using the Slack channels as a way for students to communicate informally with one another outside the classroom; to ask questions related to the course; to share links, ideas or content related to our course material; and to generally feel as though they have an open line of communication with me and with each other.

Create extra-credit opportunities for students that involve attending campus events. Some colleagues and I were joking recently that maybe we should refer to every assignment in the class as extra credit, since those words inevitably get students’ attention. But joking aside, I think extra-credit assignments can be valuable as a way to help students feel more connected to the campus, the college and each other. Every semester in my English composition courses, I offer students the opportunity to earn 10 points of extra credit (my courses are worth a total possible 1,000 points) for attending any event on campus and sending me a 250-word description of their experience of it.

Sometimes students push back because they don’t have the time to attend campus events. In that case, I also offer them the chance to read material on the history of the college and write a 250-word response reacting to what they’ve read and learned. Our college has a rich history of activism, protest and community affiliation that students often find quite compelling, and much of it has been digitally archived. By reading and reflecting on that history, I invite them to contemplate their own student life as part of a long, rich tradition at the college. I hope in some small way it makes them feel like part of a community, a network of like-minded students, alumni and faculty.

Ask students to familiarize themselves with campus resources and bring such resources into your classroom. Every semester, I try to bring in visitors from the accessibility resource center, the library and the educational technology office, and I’ve been considering asking someone from the counseling center to come in, as well. I’ve found that people from those offices are happy to visit the class and spend 15 minutes or so talking to students about the services they offer and answering questions.

Community college students often don’t have time to attend freshman orientations, so it can be hard for them to know about and navigate the many resources that are available to them as students at the college. Along with including as much specific information as I can in my syllabus about all the available services and resources, bringing representatives to class puts a friendly face on these resources -- increasing, I hope, the likelihood that students will take advantage of them.

Similar outcomes can be achieved by giving students assignments that ask them to actually engage with such campus resources. I have experimented with a few such assignments. In one, I ask students to learn everything they can about a specific campus resource -- by looking it up online, by visiting the office and speaking with staff -- and to then produce a written reflection that summarizes what this resource has to offer and what the student experienced finding out about it.

I have also done the same with campus student clubs. I’ve asked students to write a summary of what the club does and has to offer, and why students might want to join it. These are extremely low-stakes writing assignments designed to get the students into the habit of researching, reflecting and writing -- three things that are clearly associated with learning outcomes for freshman composition courses.

Some other faculty members may view these kinds of activities and assignments as a waste of time, someone else’s responsibility at the college, or antithetical to rigorous college writing instruction. But as freshman composition instructors, we are often one of the first points of contact for students at the community college -- students who are anxious, overwhelmed, fearful and often feeling alone without their tight-knit high school friend group around them. We have a responsibility, as another colleague, Cynthia Jones, puts it, “to meet the students where they are.”

Where they are is often in an extremely unfamiliar and entirely overwhelming place. And if I can pass on the knowledge about the inner workings of the college that took me years to acquire, why not try to give my students a head start -- knowing that it will increase the likelihood that they will not only complete my course but also succeed in it and hopefully see that success translate across their classes? What’s more, whether they realize it or not, students improve their writing skills through these activities simply by engaging in the practice of writing, something that most of them haven’t done much before enrolling in college.

I hope that some of my suggestions might be adaptable outside of English departments and would welcome conversation about that -- as well as other ideas to encourage a sense of community among students.

Bio

Sean Gerrity is an assistant professor of English at Hostos Community College of the City University of New York.

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