Learning Communities pilot program yields positive results

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At the beginning of the semester two learning communities were implemented at JSC with the aim to build student connectedness and ultimately foster higher retention.
Learning Communities are small groups of students who take multiple classes together, while also spending time outside of the classroom for field trips and dinners.

Within the art learning community, “Art and Human Dignity,” Ken Leslie and Mary Martin, both professors of fine arts, have paired their courses. Leslie is teaching Drawing I, and Martin is teaching the first-year seminar Spoils of War.

Chair of the Business and Economics Department Henrique Cezar and Professor of Business and Economics Jim Black are leading “Go Globull!” the learning community for this year’s business students. Cezar is teaching Globalize It, a first-year seminar, which has been working in conjunction with Black’s course, Social Entrepreneurship.

The two learning communities are independent from one another.

Alongside the instructors, a student teacher, or “master learner” has been teaching a college success lab, attending class periods, and joining in on the meals and trips that the learning communities have been sharing.

Arts student Erika McCormick has been meeting weekly with Leslie and Martin throughout the semester to talk about student success and struggle.

The master learner of the business leaning community, Jennifer Stein, a Business and Economics student, has been doing the same with Black and Cezar.

The Art group visited Dartmouth College in October to view the Orozco murals, the exhibition “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties,” and an exhibit on African throwing knives. In September, they went to a Bread and Puppet Theater performance in Glover, Vt. The students have also shared monthly meals together, often hosted at their instructors’ homes.
Art students expressed that it was a great experience to visit Dartmouth and a strange and wild show that they saw at Bread and Puppet.

The Business group traveled to Montreal, where student teams gave presentations on the Olympic Park, the Biodome, Old Montreal, and the Latin Quarter. The business community have dined together monthly.

The time spent outside of the classroom has allowed instructors to know their students on a more personal level, and vice versa. “It gave me a chance as an instructor to be with students outside of the classroom, off campus, so I could get to know them better,” said Black. “You know, what they’re lives are like and what is important to them, which helps me be a better instructor because I can tailor to their specific needs and issues.”

Business students expressed that they wished their trip was longer, and that more funding should be provided in order to extend trips like Montreal into an overnight or multiple day event.

“Honestly, I have been [to Montreal] like 5 times and I didn’t do anything I’ve never done before, and didn’t actually learn that much,” said one business student. “I had fun, but I think if we had spent more money and got to do more things it would have been immensely more beneficial for everyone.”

Early in the semester, Black noticed the beneficial role of the off-campus meals. “The turning point for us was in September when we had a dinner at my house,” said Black. “It really cemented things. I saw the next day that the students changed. We began to interact as a team rather than an instructor and a handful of kids. I had no idea that just dinner at my house would do that.”

Business student Kamran Chaudhry feels at home with his classmates, and feels some of his drive as a student is because of the learning community. “The eating time created a sense of unity and mission of why we’re here,” said Chaudhry. “Eating together categorize us as business students and it gave me an understanding that we’re all chasing the same kind of goal as business students.

There’s a huge sense of unity. You can call it support, but I think it’s more like comfortability.”

Black didn’t imagine how much he would learn from being a part of the community. He spoke of a newfound respect for students and the modern challenges they face. “This has been one of the most wonderful learning experiences here at Johnson State College,” said Black. “The students, because they’re in two classes together, have formed a connection and the level of learning is much higher then it typically is. [It’s] because they’re interacting, engaging with each other, they ask questions, they talk to each other, they work together.”

Black told the story of a group of students who came to the aid of another who had forgotten about his presentation and whose teammates were out sick.

The students helped in getting a presentation together and presenting that class. “This is a community that bonded together in a way I have never seen,” said Black.

Black gave another example of how the learning community has workd: “We had a couple of students that were having some difficulties, so three instructors [Black, Cezar, Stein] sat down with these students and asked, ‘what’s going on? How can we help you?’” said Black. “[Usually] the student has to come forth and ask for some help and that doesn’t happen very often, but in this case we could identify the student and meet with the student right on. If I have a student that’s not doing well, and Henrique has the same student that’s not doing well, then we can get together.”

Students in both groups expressed that they feel most comfortable speaking their mind in the classes shared in the learning community.

“There are some classes where I feel like I don’t really want to [talk],” said a business student. “I’ll think things but I’m not sure if I want to say them because [I] don’t want to be looked at as a weirdo or idiot. I feel pretty comfortable saying anything with these people, I really do. I feel like they’re not going to judge me.”

Many of the art students have been enjoying their semester and spoke highly of Martin and Leslie. The shared meals seem to have created closeness between students, and their comfort to speak with their instructors.

“At first I was taken back by the idea of eating meals at my instructor’s homes with my fellow art students but once we actually sat down with food in front of us, it wasn’t too bad,” said art student Nathan Goncalves. “It just seemed so uncommon yet so inviting. In my high school I had the same teachers all four years and never imagined eating ice cream in their kitchen, so it was quite the experience. The field trips have been interesting as well. As far as openness and opportunity go, the learning community idea is solid.”

To some art students, the meshing of Drawing I and the Spoils of War is somewhat evident, while others had to stretch to see the connections between the two classes. “At times I am unaware that the two are joined together,” said Goncalves, “but through some of the lessons that Ken teaches I do see a connection.”

Goncalves commented on the balance that the student teacher creates. “Her role in the learning community is often times convenient,” he said.  “When the teacher’s busy with a student it helps that there’s an assistant available. She also provides a productive and humorous side by befriending the students and getting to know them.”

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