A Community of Practice

Fall 2019
My first day of 9th grade English was as terrifying as it was exciting. Despite being a self-acknowledged book worm, I was coming from a mediocre public school system that valued and rewarded my ability to be quiet and listen. I had mastered the art of fading into the background while completing my written work well. This method, honed over the years of middle school, helped deliver me into the hands of an independent prep school, a prep school that was not only academically rigorous, but expected me to actively think, speak, read, write, and listen every day. A lot. The classes were small, the teachers rarely stayed behind a desk or podium to lecture, and my classmates asked questions all the time. I knew that I was in uncharted waters and about to experience a totally different way of learning.
 
Teachers are always being approached with new ways to do their jobs: backward design, project-based learning, kinesthetic learning, and flipped classrooms are examples that scratch the surface of the various pedagogies. These methods all have merit in their own ways, but none of them are a panacea for every child because there is no such miracle methodology. In the five years I have worked at Brimmer, I have seen how the School, its teachers, administrators, and staff work to serve every student, to meet all the students where they are, and to get every one of them excited about education. There is no single way this is done, nor is every attempt a perfect success. However, what I have observed is how the foundation upon which these attempts are made is so unifying, and that is participatory education.
 
Participatory education means that students and teachers have a shared and equal voice in the classroom when it comes to determining curriculum and how material will be examined. Students help teachers to identify the skills, information, and methodology that will be most useful to them as well as what goals they have for themselves. The purpose of this educational style is to not only improve the students’ own lives through a promotion of equality and justice, but also to help them learn how to make the lives of others better, to make the world better, through these same values. It is not a pedagogy, but rather a world view, in which all opinions are valued and helping others is as important as helping one’s self. In my own classroom this means implementing a primary educational tool in the exploration of English: the Harkness discussion method. 
 
This method, which was developed by Phillips Exeter Academy in the 1930’s, often takes the form of a student-directed, student-led discussion that is evaluated by the whole class. This means that students learn how to carry on a discussion with little or no input from the teacher. They learn how to actively listen and take notes on what their classmates say, rather than to just be quiet. They learn how to use evidence from their texts to support their opinions, how to disagree in a productive way, how to offer ideas that further a discussion rather than end it. Students take turns being the moderators of these discussions, thoughtfully guiding their peers to expand upon their ideas and to ask new questions. 
 
While the discussion might be about last night’s reading in Othello, it may evolve into an examination of how films like Get Out subvert racial and gender tropes common in the American popular culture. I set no topics or themes, nor do I ask them to discuss what I think is important; rather, I ask them to tell me what they think is important. My favorite part of this process is the day when the students sit down to talk and not a single one of them looks to me to start the discussion. This process can sound simplistic and rather amorphous — letting students talk about whatever they want — but the rigor and the reward is found in the way the students talk, if they can listen to a differing option with compassion, if they can learn to make room for each other, and if they can value their own contributions as a part of the whole, rather than as singularly important. These skills are also where empathy, collaboration, and engagement are built, refined, and reinforced.
 
The 10th and 12th graders put what they learned during the year into practice in a different format through the writing, recording, editing, and publishing of podcasts. Using equipment purchased with an EE Ford Faculty Innovation Grant, the AP English Literature class produced three year-long podcasts: a fictional thriller, interviews with Brimmer community members, and a current-events discussion. The World Literature II classes created investigative journalism podcasts related to their reading of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Both of these projects required the students to work collaboratively, articulate what they found meaningful and worthy of discussion, and to learn how a new media format like podcasting utilizes the very low-tech skills we worked to refine in class.
 
Brimmer students are actively engaged in participatory learning across all levels. In Kyla Graves’ middle school English classes this year, students were introduced to free reading and writing workshops. In the reading workshops students chose any books that they would like to read, and they read at their own speeds. The delightful outcome of this program was students reporting that they ended up reading more books than they had in previous years. Several students reported reading as many as 50 or 60 books! When asked to reflect on the experience, Oliver Baggett ’24, Annika Walker ’24, and Baden Howard ’24 spoke about how they have learned that there is no single way to read or to write literature, which has freed them up to explore new ways of expressing themselves, and they have gained confidence in their own voices. This confidence was helpful when each student taught the class lessons on how different genres work, including everything from graphic novels to personal memoir, and when they led book talks where they shared the books they had read and loved with their peers. 
 
This is an elegant illustration of how participatory education can work; the students are helping to create the curriculum, to offer ideas about what they think they should learn, and almost without realizing it, they are working hard and working with joy. We are moving away from passive learning by lecture and towards a more active style of education in which there is less exclusion or marginalization because the system does not allow for it. There are dozens of other examples of this kind of learning at Brimmer: Fashion Design students creating a runway show of their clothes, the students in Computer Science coding and creating apps of their own design, the student-directed play that ends every academic year.
 
Interestingly, one of the summer-reading choices for the Brimmer faculty this year is the book Participatory Culture in a Networked Era. It makes the argument that with the advent of the internet our culture has become one that is inherently participatory, a “community of practice,” as it were. In this new world, there are very few lone geniuses speaking down to us from on high. Rather, we are all content creators, and we are all reliant on others for successful progress to occur. If I could, I would go back to that fist day of high school and tell my ninth-grade self to put down the burden of doing everything alone, that we are all in this together.
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