All students who enter the classroom come as members of families, neighborhoods, religious groups, sports teams, clubs, and organizations--each of which is a community of practice. Communities of practice are places where human beings develop competence through their interactions with each other. Through these interactions, we define our identities. Classrooms are also communities of practice where each student possesses unique knowledge and perspective that pushes the thinking of every other student.
Elementary school teachers have many and varied opportunities to get to know their students on an individual basis--who they are as members of families, neighborhoods, religious groups, sports teams, clubs, and organizations--that will influence the instructional decisions, conversations, text selections, teaching points, and connections they make throughout the year. Middle and high school teachers have less time with their students, but still usually see them on a daily basis over a semester or school year. However, the need to know students' unique knowledge and perspectives doesn't stop upon graduation from high school. The instruction of college professors also benefits immensely from this knowledge.
I teach reading/language arts methods courses to graduate students who are becoming elementary teachers. These preservice teachers bring a wealth of knowledge, experiences, and perspectives to our classroom. However, time and opportunity to get to know each other is not on our side. We meet twice a week for a few hours and in that time we have to learn "everything-there-is-to-know-about-reading-instruction" in one short semester. Yet, if I do not take the time to get to know them and if they do not really know each other, there is little chance that we will develop a community of practice in which we are able to make the deep and meaningful connections necessary to push each others' thinking.
This is where technology can play an important role. At the beginning of the year, I asked my preservice teachers to each create a VoiceThread in which they told me and their classmates about themselves. "A VoiceThread is a collaborative, multimedia slide show that holds images, documents, and videos and allows people to navigate slides and leave comments in 5 ways - using voice (with a mic or telephone), text, audio file, or video (via a webcam)" which can be shared with other students and colleagues for them to record comments, too (from the VoiceThread website). After creating their VoiceThreads, the students also commented on their classmates' VoiceThreads.
After watching all of the VoiceThreads (26), I now know my students in ways I would have never discovered through our brief conversations/interactions in class. I laughed and cried with them, jumped for joy and despaired with them, celebrated, commiserated, and connected with them all. They are brilliant and passionate. Many are athletic, musical and very well traveled. But, the one thing that stood out--that matters most over all else--is their love and thankfulness for family and friends.
VoiceThread allowed me to take a brief look into my students' lives in a way that otherwise would not have been possible, which will make a difference in my teaching and in my students' interactions with each other.
Two of my students gave permission to post the links to their VoiceThreads as examples. Christine shares her wealth of experiences in China and with teaching preschoolers, as well as her loving family. Kristopher (Topher) shares the people in his life who have made him who he is today. I thank both of these amazing preservice teachers for their willingness to share their stories with others, and if you take the time to view them, you will too.
VoiceThread is free for K-12 educators and can be used by teachers at all grade levels to get to know their students. At the elementary level, parents/caregivers can create narrated slide shows with their children. At the middle and high school level, students can create their own or in collaboration with parents/caregivers.
VoiceThread can be used in many other ways, too. You can explore the possibilities for using VoiceThread here.