I really enjoy reading Clarence Fisher's posts about his classroom practice and how he sets up the "classroom as studio" environment. One of the observations I'd make about his practice from the other side of the globe is that it appears that the learning community he has nurtured has taken time and lots of personal input on his behalf. It is a testament to his vision that balances the possibilities of a connected read/write learning environment with the individualised care he has for his students. All of the hyper-connectedness and technology tools in his classroom don't matter unless the relationships... the trust... has been built with the kids in the first place. It's no accident that someone with this approach and foresight is invited to be part of and speak at one of the most innovative education conferences worldwide - a long, long way from Snow Lake, Canada. It's the positive relationships with his students that I can sense through his blogging that I'd like to reflect upon now.
That personal relationship that a teacher builds with his or her learners is a precious one. That relationship is the conduit to the learning potential for those students. (I'm speaking here in the primary / middle school scenario - I don't have the experiences with older learners to be so sure about my thoughts here.) I've often enjoyed taking a core group of students through from one year to the next, as I have this year with a number of the 2007 Year Fives in my 2008 Year Six class. They help to set a positive tone as they have the advantage of already being familiar with my quirks and tendencies and can continue to focus on their learning without having to learn a whole bunch of unwritten social rules that come whenever starting off in unfamiliar territory. Get this classroom chemistry right and I've usually ended up with very cohesive classes who support each other, who can voice ideas and opinions openly without fear and who are comfortable with newer ideas surrounding the use of technologies, the freedom to have input and a say in the projects that form the year's curriculum. Negotiating a set of ground rules for classroom operation at the start of the school year is standard practice in Australian schools but framing things up as a vision and a set of agreements ensures that my style of learner management does not slip into the dictatorial.
My students form a bond with me as the person designing and guiding the learning, and they form a bond with each other as they work their way through the year. As their teacher, there are expectations that my students have in terms of that I will know where we are heading, that I fix things quickly when they go awry, that I will be clear in expectations and consistent in dealing with their work. I have my expectations for my students that flow back the other way - but it is me, the teacher, who holds the responsibility for tending that bond and ensuring that it stays strong and not taken for granted.
Here's where I have to be careful. I am an experienced educator and it would be really easy to assume the role of the big boss, keeping kids on task and playing the game of school through the force of my personality alone. That's not the way I believe that serves my learners' best interests. I'm also a busy person in my other role within the school as coordinator. Without any conscious decision on my part, my students can start to feel as if they are playing second fiddle to my other responsibilities. Add in a few relief teachers for when I go down with illness and the kids will be wondering if the learning community is a fading ideal, whether they are actually the number one priority and their strong bond from earlier in the year could unite them in unintended survival mode as they sort through inconsistent expectations.
So, the relationship between younger learner and teacher is one that needs regular monitoring and re-visiting. Students need reassurance that their needs, their ideas, their struggles and their questions will come first. If I'm serious about nurturing my Year Six learning community, then taking any of this for granted is a risk that any successful teacher cannot afford to take.