User Generated Education

Education as it should be – passion-based.

Posts Tagged ‘learning communities

Beginning the School Year With Connections: 2018

with one comment

I have written before about the beginning of the school year, Beginning the School Year: It’s About Connections Not Content.

I begin all classes focusing on having the students make connections between each other and with me.  I want students to learn about one another in a personal way. I want to learn about my students so my instructional strategies can be more personalized and tailored to their needs and interests.

As we begin this new school year, I want to share my own ideas for what I believe represent best practices for doing so. I have the following goals for beginning the school year:

  • To have the learners get to know one another and if they do know one another, to deepen that understanding.
  • To have the learners get to know me as an educator.
  • To set the climate that the classroom will experiential, engaging, fun, and student-centric.
  • To begin the process of having learners learn to solve problems as a group and work cooperatively with one another.
  • To begin creating a supportive climate – where learners support one another and I support their learning efforts.
  • To give the message that social-emotional learning is important.
  • To give the message that we will use our bodies, art, team building, problem solving, and interactions with classmates in the classroom.
  • To have the learners take ownership of their classroom.

What should also be obvious from this list is what is not on it – namely a focus on content-driven instruction during the first days of school.

These are the activities I used on the first day of school with my 2018 gifted classes of 2nd to 6th grade students (some similar to past beginning of the year activities and some new ones):

Thumball Ice Breaker

Learners arere asked to form a circle to participate in a Thumball Ice Breaker.


A learner tosses it to another learner. The catcher then responds to the prompt closest to her or his left them. After doing so, the learner throws it to another learner. I typically do two to three rounds where each learner gets the ball during a round. Example prompts include:

  • Three Wishes
  • Happiest Memory
  • Three Yummy Foods
  • Three Gross Foods
  • Favorite TV Show or Movie
  • Best Book or Author
  • Great Vacation Place
  • Funniest Cartoon

Warp Speed

As a former adventure educator, I have a fondness for team building and group problem solving activities, and regularly incorporate them into my classroom. A good list of these types of activities can be found on Teampedia.

Toss the ball around the circle until everyone has caught it once and it is returned to the leader. For Warp Speed, you need to establish a pattern of tossing one object around the group. Once the pattern has been established, ask the group to see how quickly they can move the object through the pattern with each person touching it in the order that has been established. Time this, and give the group several opportunities to improve their time (


As each effort is timed with the 3 second penalties per drop, I have them practice mental math. I show them their times as recorded via my iPhone, ask them to multiple the number of drops times 3 and then add this total to their time. On subsequent efforts, I ask them to subtract the difference. Later they compare their improvements.

Time to Take a Selfie Icebreaker

I found this activity via Caitlin Tucker’s post Padlet: Time to Take a Selfie Icebreaker

First, teachers create a Padlet wall, title it “Time to Take a Selfie,” and provide a prompt with questions for students to answer. Below is a list of questions I have used to encourage students to share something about themselves.:

  • Where is your happy place?
  • What is the most adventurous thing you have ever done?
  • What is the furthest place you have traveled?
  • What is something you like about yourself?
  • What is your favorite story (book or movie)?
  • Do you consider yourself an introvert, an extrovert, or a mix? Explain.
  • What is one thing you wish you had more time for in your life?
  • What do you do to relax?
  • When you are not at school, what do you spend most of your time doing?
  • What is your most prized possession? Where did it come from and why do you love it?
  • If you could only listen to one genre/type of music for the rest of your life, what would it be?
  • Think about the best class you’ve ever had. What made that class so special?


(from my student teachers)

Jenga Ice Breaker

This is the Jenga game with the addition of icebreaker questions. It’s very simple to make. I used the Giant Tumbling Timbers for increased suspense but a smaller, generic Jenga game can be used. I found and typed up some icebreaker questions (examples can be found at, and taped them to the game pieces. It’s played like regular Jenga, but you have to answer the question on whatever piece you pull.


LED Enhanced All About Me Posters


I like using the All About Me posters at the beginning of the school year as it lets me know a lot about the learners in a very short time. I also use them to decorate my classroom walls. Since I have been involved in maker education, I show the kids how to use LED lights creating circuits with copper tape. They use these materials to create LED enhanced All About me Posters.

Eggbert the Slightly Cracked Egg: A Breakout Game

Story: Uses the children’s story, Eggbert: The Slightly Cracked Egg. Cast out of the refrigerator because of a small crack, Eggbert sets out into the world, using his talent for painting to try to blend in. Eventually he realizes that cracks are everywhere and reminds us all that our flaws are perfectly natural.

Topic Theme: This cross-curricular BreakoutEDU activities incorporates English, Math, and Social Studies standards as well as skills such as problem-solving and team building. I use this in the beginning of the year with my gifted students to reinforce that being different has its advantages.

Here are the specific details how to set-up and facilitate this Breakout Edu game:


DIY Operation Cooperation Classroom Quilt

This kit can be purchased from Oriental Trading Post – Students get their own individual squares and are asked to decorate their individual pieces with symbols of their personal strengths. The class then figures out how to combine all of the pieces to form a class quilt.





Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

August 12, 2018 at 6:28 pm

Educators Teaching Learners; Educators Teaching Educators; Learners Teaching Learners; Learners Teaching Educators

with 4 comments

Google has an initiative entitled Googlers Teaching Googlers:

Googler to Googler places employees from across departments into teaching roles. Classes taught Googler to Googler—everything from kickboxing to parenting— are initiated and designed by employees. Telling your employees that you want them to learn is different than asking them to promote that culture themselves. Giving employees teaching roles makes learning part of the way employees work together. It’s a remarkable thing to put someone in teaching mode. In a way, you get to see the best of them. (Here’s A Google Perk Any Company Can Imitate: Employee-To-Employee Learning)

In other words, Google has embraced the idea that their employees have valuable skills and expertise to share with other members of their community. Within many media outlets, there’s a lot of positive acknowledgement and discussion of the power of learning communities where all members of the learning community are both teachers and learners. Current thinking about communities of practice, teachers as lead learners, and networked learning support the idea of learning communities. I advocate for and practice identifying the expertise in any given learning environment and setting up the conditions for having those experts teach the rest of us that skill. The benefits are limitless. Expertise, especially in this age of information abundance, is often not determined by age. If learning communities, both formal ones such as school and informal ones such as community center classes, want to take advantage of and leverage all available resources, then they would embrace a culture where educators teach learners, educators teach other educators, learners teach learners, and learners teach educators.

Educators need to explore with people in communities how all may participate to the full. One of the implications for schools is that they must prioritize instruction that builds on children’s interests in a collaborative way. Such schools need also to be places where ‘learning activities are planned by children as well as adults, and where parents and teachers not only foster children’s learning but also learn from their own involvement with children. (Jean Lave, Etienne Wenger and communities of practice)


Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

May 8, 2015 at 10:52 pm

Learning Communities: The Future (the Now?) of Education

leave a comment »

I am lucky to have found a great passion in my life (in addition to being an educator) and that is pottery making.  Due to local opportunities, I have mostly worked on my pots in community pottery studios.  The key word is community.  We are more than a group of potters working in the same space or room.  We ask and share information about techniques used to create the pots.  We are a learning community.  What strikes me most about this pottery learning community is its diversity in terms of gender and age range – from mid-teens to late 70’s.  The experts are not necessarily the elders of our group.  The expert is the person who understands and could explain a technique about which another member wants to know.  It is situational expertise.

A useful and descriptive definition of learning communities comes from Etienne Wenger in his discussion of communities of practice:

Communities of practice are formed by people who engage in a process of collective learning in a shared domain of human endeavor: a tribe learning to survive, a band of artists seeking new forms of expression, a group of engineers working on similar problems, a clique of pupils defining their identity in the school, a network of surgeons exploring novel techniques, a gathering of first-time managers helping each other cope. In a nutshell, communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.

Some of the characteristics of  learning communities include:

  • Self-organizing
  • Not limited by age barriers
  • High levels of interaction, sharing of resources, and collaboration
  • Driven by intrinsic motivation


What happens when groups of people gather together to provide mutual support for learning and performance? How would that work? Rather than being controlled by a teacher, learners might “self-organize” into functioning communities with a general goal of supporting each other in their learning. That is to say, the function of guidance and control becomes distributed among group participants. Specific roles of group members are not assigned but rather emerge from the interaction of the whole.

Not Bounded By Age Level

Grouping students by age and advancing them in lock step is an artifact of the agrarian calendar and factory model of schooling that emerged in the late 19th century. That it is still with us is a commentary on just how conservative schooling is.  As every parent and teacher knows, children’s developmental trajectories vary widely, and the notion of grouping children by age is a convention without meaning.

Currently, our society is mostly marked by age segregation –  both imposed (in school) and self-selected (through leisure time pursuits). A major advantage of learning communities driven-by-interest is that members of all ages choose to join.  Young people learn from the life experiences of elders,  Elders learn to view things from the fresh eyes and often idealist thinking of young people.  Online learning communities organized through Facebook, forums, and massively multiplayer online game have dramatically increased these mixed age groupings.

High Levels of Interaction, Sharing of Resources, and Collaboration

The ultimate payoff for involvement in a learning community is developing more expertise in one’s area of interest.  As such, there tends to be an ease of sharing knowledge, information, and resources.  A simple example is when a request for information is broadcasted on Twitter or Facebook with the result often being a poring in of information to address this request.  This is why I believe concepts-areas such as crowdsourcing and the open education movement have become so popular.

Intrinsic Motivation

As stated, the payoff for being involved in a learning community is increased expertise and skills – and the possibility of leveling up.  Intrinsic motivation as discussed in the context of learning communities can be viewed as the following:

  • Anticipated reciprocity. – A member is motivated to contribute to the community in the expectation that he or she will receive useful help and information in return.
  • Increased recognition –  The desire for prestige is one of the key motivations for individuals’ contributions in a learning community.
  • Sense of efficacy – Individuals may contribute because the act results in a sense that they have had some effect on the community. (Adapted from

Learning networks have always existed with groups of people organizing around their interests and passions within community centers and  clubs focusing on books, games, sports, etc.  How the Internet and Web 2.0 have changed learning communities is through the ability to announce face-to-face meetings and through online forums-networks. As such, one of the greatest gifts we could offer to our learners is how to find, join, and interact with their own personal learning communities – online and face-to-face.

As kids have more connectivity and access to resources than ever, one challenge is to develop new practices and tools to support them in how they choose to manage learning opportunities.

The challenge presented to us (as educators) is to empower them to consistently share those interests and activities that happen elsewhere and that paint a fuller portrait of who they are as learners.

Some resources for assisting students in learning about and developing their own learning communities:

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

August 29, 2011 at 2:54 am

%d bloggers like this: