Integrating Learning Communities into the Classroom

In the first week of the semester, I noticed something odd in one of my classes. Rather than spreading out over the entire room, as students usually do, a large group of students clustered together on the left side of the room. All females, this group seemed to be self-contained, and staked out a clearly defined space of their own. The other students—about half a dozen—sat scattered in the seats on the right. Things felt lopsided.

I quickly learned that this group of students all shared the same major. This, I thought, explains their cohesion. They paid attention, but seemed hesitant in their responses and maybe a bit guarded.

During the first week I realized I would need to create a unified class that would engage both sides of the room. Given the shyness of the students on the right, I worried that I might pay the cohesive side too much attention. I also sensed that it might not be a good idea to force a separation immediately. Their solidarity seemed important. I didn’t want to disrupt their comfort zone right away.

I remember telling a colleague about the group one day in September when we were comparing notes. “It’s like they’re surrounded by a force field,” I said. “I can’t explain it.”

While I gained the attention of the group and managed to navigate the class dynamics, I still didn’t learn the extent of the group’s connection until weeks later. One student then volunteered that they comprised a learning community, which meant that they all lived together, took all of the same classes together, and shared vocational goals. This seemed ideal, in some ways, for a college freshman—power in numbers—an automatic peer group with which to confer about assignments and career issues.

After I found out about the learning community, the students and I had a short discussion about its merits. They agreed that it was enormously helpful. One concern I had was that the students would not experience as much social variety in their classrooms, but they said there were plenty of other opportunities to socialize outside of class. The homogeneity ultimately seemed a small price to pay for the security of having a defined peer group, especially as first-year students.

Finally, I found a strategy that seemed to congeal the class. First, I had students form groups away from their usual seatmates. They counted off in numbers 1-4 which forced them to move around. This worked well. The students finally mixed and the small group work that day was much more lively. Interestingly, before I created these numbered groups the learning community never ventured to the other side and vice-versa. It was as if they belonged to separate countries, the divide seemed so impermeable.

I also conducted “mini conferences” to touch base with each student. It was too early in the semester for regular conferences, so I briefly discussed developing drafts individually while the rest of the class worked on a their own projects. After these conversations, I noticed a major shift in the class. The learning community no longer felt like one large student but rather a group of individuals. In just five minutes of talking, we at least had one conversation in common, and discussions felt more open.

I wondered what other strategies I would have used if I’d known about the learning community before the first day of class. Would I have designed a few lessons differently? Different icebreakers maybe? I’ve had classes full of students who have known each other and other classes full of strangers. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages.

Even though most first-year writing courses are collaborative, writing ultimately involves a solitary relationship to the page. The final work is the work of each student and each student alone. To progress, a student ultimately must separate, in some sense, from the pack, to identify his or her own learning points and strengths. In the case of this particular class, I felt that to truly have a “new pair of eyes” on their own drafts, the learning community students needed to mix with the others, and each student needed to work as an individual.

Now that we’re nearing the final weeks of the semester, I’ve finally gotten to know each student a bit more, even though the strong learning community group dynamic remains. I had a wonderful conversation this week with one of the students in this community during conferences and was happy to see that she seems to have developed her own distinctive voice in the class.

Do learning communities in writing courses present unique challenges? Have any of you taught classes that were difficult to unify?