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Create Community (In Any Learning Space)

As an alum and coach in Seth Godin's altMBA I experienced firsthand the power of collaboration with people I never met in person. Somehow magic was able to happen on the screen, in between sessions, and on message threads between these strangers turned collaborators in just a few weeks. I'd like to share a few of the secrets about how the magic was made. Before drafting this post I worried I would be banned from the "club" like a magician being shunned from their peers for showing how a trick works. Then I realized that Seth himself has been showing us how it works every day for years and years now. If you read his blog and take the time to see the patterns in his work he has been preparing us for online community spaces this whole time. For those who are now teaching online and forming new relationships I'll share a few ways we can prioritize community-building that I learned or adopted from what I learned in the altMBA experience.

Be generous.

When we have a scarcity mindset, we falsely believe that information and ideas are in short supply and we need to keep them for ourselves. Instead, when we adopt a posture of generosity we realize that knowledge and ideas work best when they are shared. Seth once told us the story of walking in New York City and being asked directions. He paused, explained the steps, and then continued on his own way. What Seth wanted us to know is that by giving that person directions he lost nothing himself. They were both going to different places and were not in competition. He went on to explain that being generous means we adopt this posture in all that we do. We are always moving in different paths toward different places and don't need to withhold from others, thinking we are in competition. Later I learned that this posture also ties to the research on happiness and is a proven way to boost your own sense of joy. So you do not lose anything and you also gain a little "joy burst" by being generous.

Some ways to create spaces that embrace a generosity posture:

  • Make dedicated and consistent times to check-in with students and ask them what they need. Prioritize sharing needs as a normal aspect of being in a safe learning space.

  • Have regular sharing times for students to teach one another what they are learning. Explain that when you learn something it is an opportunity to pass that gift of knowledge along. This could be in a whole class discussion, a breakout room discussion, a class blog or doc, a short video demonstration, etc.

  • Discuss the many ways people can be generous so that students know they can adopt this posture without having to always be the one speaking up front and center. Chart the many ways generosity comes into our lives in unexpected ways. This might be followed up with a week of paying attention to and journaling about moments where you were generous or witnessed it in others.

Practice empathy.

I thought I understood empathy until I studied it with my peers in the altMBA. Empathy is not just putting ourselves in the shoes of the other person. It is realizing that "if you believed what he believes, you’d do precisely what he’s doing.Think about that for a second. People act based on the way they see the world. Every single time." I learned the difference between agreeing with someone who I held a fundamental different view of the world through and being able to see the world the way they do. Agreeing with and learning to see are two totally different things. It is the ability to understand someone else's story. As a teacher this might be one of the most important practices we can hone. When we practice empathy we are showing that we care enough to listen, to understand, and to know.

Some ways to practice empathy:

  • Listen.

  • Ask questions that create space for others to open up and share a bit of who they are.

  • Ask yourself, "Whose lens am I framing this through? Is it my own lens or theirs?" When in doubt, get perspective from others.

  • Read widely from various author's lived experiences.

  • Seek understanding instead of resolution.

  • Distinguish between feelings and thoughts.

Make feedback a part of all you do.

Every project we shipped in the altMBA was given the gift of feedback by at least three others. Imagine getting all of that perspective on something you worked on and cared enough about to share. As a participant we also gave feedback to three of our peers so everyone both gave and received feedback regularly. To be honest, some of the feedback was not easy to hear. But even if some was hard to receive it all helped me grow. I began to realize that feedback was a way of being generous. Taking the time to give and receive feedback means I care enough about you that I will read and respond and then meet with you to continue the conversation.

The best way I know to give feedback is through regular, conferences with students. Read anything Carl Anderson has published on writing conferences and you'll learn to give feedback that lifts writers up. Renee Houser and I have published extensively on reading conferences and you can join our newsletter with a weekly tip here.

Don't forget that feedback also needs to be given to us teachers. Ask for it often in multiple ways-- surveys, discussions, reflections, etc. And feedback almost always involves conversation. Peer to peer, student and teacher, caregiver and teacher... when we frame feedback as conversations we can all lean in with an openness to work together.

Want to learn more and discuss more about how to build community in hybrid, online or in-person classroom spaces? Join me for a webinar on October 5th at 7 pm EST. Sign up here. We'll dive deeper into some of these concepts and a lot more.