Teaching Tips

A – Z for community

Sometimes as teachers we may be thinking we are teaching one thing when we are actually teaching another. I realized that lesson again this week in the country studies course I’m teaching to prepare a group of 11 diverse students for the Slovenia Abroad.

I had seen a gap in my curriculum; I had not focused as much as I had wanted on metaphysical and spiritual preparation for the group, as a group. When I found a blog post on the Christian Science JSH-Online website called “A Different Kind of Packing List” by Cindy McLeary Marston, I knew exactly what to do. In the post, the author shares how before family trips her parents asked the children to develop a packing list of spiritual qualities. They would share these lists, and healings came as a result.

So in class I read aloud Marston’s post and challenged my students to fill out the alphabet with qualities to pack for our trip to Slovenia, which departs in just a month. Next, we took turns sharing aloud, first the A’s, then the B’s, and so on. Great qualities appeared: adaptability, buoyancy, creativity, dominion, endurance, flexibility, grit, and more. That could have been enough, right?

But here’s where I learned my lesson. I thought they would be developing individual packing lists and tucking them into their travel notebooks. Instead, I witnessed a class of laughter and joshing, encouragement and compliments. “I have that too!” “Good one!” “I hadn’t thought of that!” “What does that mean?” I saw the students interact in just the way I hope to see on the abroad. It wasn’t about school; it was about learning and supporting each other’s success. A learning community solidified, or at least on the right track.

Certainly I’ve been aiming to establish a learning community and have seen evidence of one developing, but when I created my plan for Thursday, I thought my goals were different. It may seem like I was aiming for community directly, but in my head that’s not how it went down. I was thinking too pragmatically about having them develop a resource for their notebooks.

Now I’ve used the alphabet idea before in creative and academic writing classes, and there has been laughter and spunk. But now I know that when we list a verb for each letter of the alphabet—and when we try to be sure our lists our different from everyone else’s—I can be doing more than letting them demonstrate that we are underutilizing our vocabulary. (So many verbs are left to rot! Nouns and adjectives too!)

While I get revved up about covering content, I need to embrace the fact that I can at the same time get the students revved up about our community. I hope you can find a home for this idea in one of your learning communities too.


Ellen Sprague is an assistant professor of writing in the Principia College Center for Teaching and Learning. She trains and manages Principia College’s peer writing/research tutors and their blog—Write Here, Write Now, Write On at www.principia.edu/writeon. In May/June 2017 she’s traveling with students to Slovenia to study “A Homeland of Shifting Borders.”

One thought on “A – Z for community

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this idea, Ellen. I think I can use this in my class next semester!!!!

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