How We Teach is the Message

Beyond Icebreakers: 3 Structures for Building a Community of Learners

This is Part 1 of a three part blog series exploring structures for building a community of learners in professional development sessions. Parts 2 and 3 are coming soon…!

How might we purposefully launch professional development sessions so as to create a community of learners within the first 10 minutes of our time together? What structures might facilitate this work? How do these structures compare to and/or extend beyond traditional icebreakers?

In my work as a regional math specialist, I co-develop and lead a number of professional development sessions every year. One of the most important parts of each of these sessions is the launch. How we begin our day sets the stage for how we will learn, share, grow, reflect, revise, and celebrate together throughout the day. Who we become as a community of learners in our first 10 minutes together lays the foundation for who we will become as a community of learners throughout the day and afterwards as we return to our home schools.

Throughout this blog series, I will share three of my current favourite structures for launching professional development experiences (from conference sessions to all-day workshops) that focus on building a community of learners.

Beyond Icebreakers #1: Math Talk + Community of Learner Introductions

My team and I are committed to starting every mathematics professional development experience with a Math Talk. Seriously—every one.

Algebra workshops: check.

Source: Open Middle

Geometry workshops: check.

Source: Fraction Talks

Statistics workshops: check.

1-hour conference sessions: check.

Here’s a GIF animating the actions that learners were noticing and noting about in the Math Talk above:

Source: TI Building Concepts

We believe in the value of the Math Talk structure not just for its mathematical purposes (which include important mathematical content and process standards), but also because of how Math Talks foster a community of learners—a community of practice—where we are collectively and actively doing mathematics together.

If you’re interested in learning more about how we plan, structure, and lead our Math Talks, check out some of the other blog posts here on this site. Explore this overview post and/or these examples of Math Talks for solving equations, geometric representations of fractions, and fractions, decimals, and percents.


Math Talks in Practice

So, when we say we start a session with a Math Talk, what do we mean? Literally, we start right away with this structure. The opening vignette of the workshop goes something like this:

“Welcome! We’re so glad you’re here for [name of workshop]. My name is Michelle and we’re going to start our time together with a Math Talk.”

Boom, we’re in. Just like that we are doing mathematics together. We do come back to group introductions later in the session (more on this in a minute), but we deliberately delay the introductions so that we can start with mathematics first.

Through this opening Math Talk we are actively setting norms about what it means to do mathematics together in this space—specifically, that in this professional learning time we will be:

  • thinking deeply,
  • making connections,
  • considering other strategies,
  • justifying our thinking rather than explaining our process,
  • making our thinking visible,
  • being vulnerable,
  • taking risks,
  • making conjectures,
  • sharing with the group,
  • making mistakes, and
  • growing in our mathematical knowledge.

YES, all of this (okay, okay, most of this) can come out in a 10 minute Math Talk where we facilitate and model what it means to do mathematics together.

Side note: We always select a Math Talk that is aligned to the content standards we will be exploring in that particular workshop or session. We really do feel like the Math Talk structure can be applied across grade levels and topics within mathematics, so we always design and/or select Math Talks that tie to the specific standards of the professional development experience.


Introducing the Community of Learners

After our opening Math Talk, we move into a time of introductions, usually with a slide like this:

Note the intentionality of our language: Who are we as a community of learners? I am a huge believer in the power of language and the importance of choosing our words carefully. Our words create the vision of what we intend our work to be. I was blessed to learn from Liz Murray recently as she shared about her incredible journey “from homeless to Harvard” (see a snippet of her story here). I was struck by so much of what Liz shared that evening, but this one statement has stayed with me and continues to challenge, push, and encourage me:

How does using language like Who are we as a community of learners? fuel a conversation that we want to grow into as educators? This wording might seem small, but it is very intentional.

The last prompt in the Welcome! slide above (in this case “Something you are thankful for”) varies depending on the time of year or session. This particular prompt was used during workshops that were held right around the US Thanksgiving holidays.

We ask participants to consider individually how they would respond to the final question and jot something down if they would like. Then, we (the facilitators) deliberately move to sit with a table group and then verbally orient the group to each other:

“We are introducing ourselves to each other as a community of learners; you are not introducing yourself to me.”

We then sit at one of the tables and introduce ourselves first to the group to provide a model of the process.

“I’m Michelle and I work and serve at… I teach… and I am thankful for…”

Our workshop participants are usually from a number of different districts each in a different town (and usually different counties), so we truly are often introducing ourselves to each other as a new community of learners. Every time we have spent 10 minutes on this community building we have invariably always smiled, laughed, and celebrated with each other throughout these introductions. We have also grown to know a bit more about each other (professionally and personally) which has served as a wonderful springboard for the rest of our time learning together. It is time well spent.


Benefits of this Structure

Through the combination of these two structures (Math Talk + introductions focused on the community of learners) we invariably feel and act like a learning community with the first 20 minutes of the start of the workshop. As Liz said, we grow into the conversations that are created around us.

The benefits of this structure are (at least) twofold: we set and implement mathematical norms from the beginning of the session (what it looks, feels, and sounds like to do mathematics together in this space), while also setting social norms for how we will value, celebrate, encourage, and learn together as a group of adult learners.

This is one of my favourite structures for purposefully launching professional development sessions so as to create a community of learners!


Watch for Parts 2 and 3 in this blog series, where we will look at two additional structures with different foci for creating communities of learners: one that focuses on why we do what we do and one that focuses on how we might agree to grow as learners throughout a professional development session.

Michelle Rinehart

Add comment

Share your thinking

Michelle Rinehart

Follow Me

Follow me on Twitter

Currently Reading