Making personal connections to help with content exploration and working together

Last night I…
A highlight from my weekend would be…
My favorite color is ___ because…

I often wonder about…
A memorable holiday would be…
I admire this person because…
The latest book I am/ have been reading is…

I like to use these sentences starters for personal connections when inviting learners to work in pairs or threes. I frame the construction of working in small groups in a way that invites the learners to work with a different person – often someone who is not sitting on the same table cluster, or even someone who an individual has not worked with during the actually time of the class or in past sessions. Each time we are together as a class group I encourage all learners to work with someone different, to support connections personally and as an introductory discussion that is short and guided before then head into a content question for discussions to continue. Collaboration, community building, participation, and sharing are key outcomes and drivers of this approach to learning. This makes for interesting dynamics in the classroom and provides opportunity for learners to work with others so when moving into larger groups it is more likely diversity appears and friendship groups do not dominate the construction nor is the same individual left out.

The main pedagogical decision underpinning this type of approach to working with others is that I want to form a community in the classroom where everyone has the chance to meet each other, that links can be made personally and academically, social skill development can be supported, and exploration of how others (and this means everyone not just friends) can be valued for their successes. I highlight when working this way that everyone in a classroom can bring interesting ideas, backgrounds and experiences that can contribute to content exploration and that we can ALL work together. Scaffolding this approach throughout the subject or course means that expectations are set for this to occur regularly and that the learners know they need to work with different people and get to know each other. It’s an inclusive approach to highlight flexibility, development of we can all learn something from each other, and extension of social skills such as communication, mutual respect, listening, thinking, problem solving. The interdisciplinary skills, if you like that the curriculum often stipulates, but more importantly the skills we need when interacting with others in life, no matter the context. This focus in my classes more importantly it is the holistic approach that supports developing individuals for life outside the classroom – we all need these skills and need to be able to enact them in our personal and professional lives. No matter what content I am teaching I utilize this approach.  It is a simple but effective way to support working with different people and getting to know those who often we don’t know or haven’t had the opportunity to connect with.

How do you establish connections with learns? What strategies or approaches do you apply? What have you noticed in your own classrooms when it comes to extending how learners work together?

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