My 4 Steps to Building Community-Responsive Lessons

by | 10.21.21

Jessica Peacock is a teacher in North Carolina. Follow her on Twitter @_jesspeacock.

As teachers, nothing matters more to us than making our students feel like their learning matters – because if they invest in their growth and believe in their abilities, they really can change the world. We educators know that the skills we teach are so important – but it’s not always easy for our students to make connections between their learning and their future. That’s why I rely on community-responsive teaching to empower my students’ growth – and I’m excited to share my approach with you.

Community-responsive teaching simply means basing lesson plans and projects in our students’ neighborhoods, experiences and identities. Just as we teachers need to connect learning to our students’ cultural identities and histories, I believe we need to connect learning to the communities they live in, too. To get students believing in the value and power of education, we need to go beyond reflecting and celebrating their worlds – we need to create opportunities for them to use their learning to impact their worlds. Every teacher will approach this a little differently, but here are the four steps I’m relying on to inspire my students this fall:

I use community walks to plan fall learning with fellow teachers.

My first step is to plan one or more community walks with local leaders and my colleagues. This might sound complicated, but it can be a simple process: To plan a new walk, I start by checking newspapers and social media for local topics that might offer some rich, standards-based learning opportunities for students. Then I reach out to whoever’s leading a project or tackling a problem! For example, you might read about a community garden campaign in a neighborhood lacking in green space – that could support learning in civics, English, math and science.

As soon as my colleagues and I get back from a walk, we draft community-based teaching plans to support the academic standards we want our students to meet. Sometimes, we’ll plan a single project for multiple classrooms; other times, we’ll plan separate lessons around the same topic. Either way is fine – because, either way, we’re centering our teaching plans in our students’ communities, and that means we’re creating motivation for our kids to invest in the learning ahead.

I use a “notice, wonder” structure to get students invested in community-based learning.

Not long ago, I noticed a bucket sitting upside down by a bus stop in a low-income housing community. A sign taped to it explained that an elderly woman was using it as a seat while she waited for the bus. From community leaders, I learned that some neighborhoods’ bus stops in particular lacked benches, and that inspired me and my students to take on a new project centered around improving transportation infrastructure.

Because my purpose in building community-responsive lessons is to make learning feel empowering for students, I always invite them into the planning process. That’s why my first step is to put them in charge of a “notice, wonder” activity. In this case, I asked them to observe what public transportation looked like around them – in their neighborhoods, on their commute to school, and around our school building – and to share the questions that came to mind. They noticed that some areas had a bench at every bus stop, some had only a few, and some had none. They wondered how much benches cost, who paid for them, who allocated benches to neighborhoods, and how allocation worked. Many students lived near the bus stop with the bucket, and they wanted to know why their elderly neighbor didn’t have a bench – and whether there might be a way to get her one. Together, we researched next steps, and they were so ready to get started, because they felt like the project was centered in their world – and because they felt like it might even offer them a chance to change their world.

I use students’ curiosity to put them in charge of building skills and achieving mastery.

Next, I invite students to find the facts that could equip them to make change. This is where I really start to align their curiosity with our mastery goals: For example, to promote math learning, I started by inviting students to dig into the data on our city’s bus-stop benches and look at the ratio of bus stops to benches in different geographical areas. To build in civics learning, economics and research skills, I asked them to find out what the role of local government is in public transportation: Which branch of our local government is responsible for providing benches? How much does a bench cost? How do officials determine how many are needed, and where, and in what priority order? By collaborating to compile and analyze their research, my students built up their writing abilities, too – and because they really cared about what they were studying, they invested more deeply in mastering each skill.

I use students’ learning to empower them to make change.

Finally, I ask my students to bring together what they’ve learned and what they’ve seen – so I can inspire them to take ownership of our next step, which is real-world application. In this case, my students learned that people in lower-income neighborhoods were more dependent on buses as their primary source of transportation to work and school, but they saw that most of the bus stops with benches were located in higher-income neighborhoods. They learned that the city’s distribution of bus benches was tied to the volume of riders who used each bus stop – but they saw that when their neighbor’s bucket disappeared, she and other community elders couldn’t use their bus stop, which drove the numbers down in their neighborhood. My students decided to try to get a bench placed at her stop. They wrote letters to our city council, but they didn’t just ask for a bench: They leveraged their learning and their skills to make a case for it. And it worked – four weeks later, the city provided a bench at that bus stop!

By mapping their learning journey onto the landscape of their lives, we can get our students to invest so deeply in mastering the skills they need.

Community-responsive teaching gives us a way to show students that their education is vital, meaningful and powerful – not just as part of a far-away future but right now.

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