Justin Riddle | July 2019

Learning Communities:
It Takes a Village

There are moments during the school year, usually deep into the cold, dark, no-man’s land stretch from February to Spring vacation, that I begin to feel like a lost penguin on an ice floe: cast off, adrift, and alone. Although educators work in close proximity to each other and the larger community, separated only by thin concrete walls, the isolation of the classroom can, in fact, feel like an exile from the rest of the colony.

It Takes a Village

It is at these times that I remind myself of the ancient African saying: “it takes a village to raise a child”. Children learn best when they are exposed to multiple role-models, diverse perspectives, and a network of committed educators.

The National Board of Professional Teaching Standards outlines five standards that effective teachers should follow. The fifth standard states that “Teachers are members of learning communities”. Traditionally, this has meant being a collaborative co-worker within the confines of your school or engaging in professional development opportunities.

But this is also a narrow definition of what a “learning community” can be. Indeed, the village is much larger than the four walls of our classrooms. It should also include local organizations, professional groups, universities, museums, and neighborhood businesses. An “educator” can mean so much more than just a certified teacher! There is a plethora of members of the village (or rookery, if I am sticking to the penguin analogy) willing and able to pass on their much-earned knowledge.

Incorporating the 4 Cs

For 3 years, I have served as the Lead STEAM Teacher at an under-resourced high school in Pittsburgh, PA. My program focuses on Digital Media, specifically Video Production and Music Technology. (Although I have also coordinated cross-curricular project-based learning modules with the entire school, connecting the seemingly disparate content of various disciplines.) Additionally, as a STEAM teacher, my goal has been to incorporate the 4 Cs of 21st Century Learning into all of my projects: Creativity, Critical Thinking, Communication, and Collaboration. These are the skills that students must have to succeed in a rapidly evolving modern workforce.

To support these four major skills, I invite the outside community into my classroom whenever I can. Especially professionals in industry. Why? Because that is who is able to offer students authentic mentorship and feedback. For two years, a local filmmaker’s organization worked with my students three days a week for the entire year. This year, a local hip-hop movement called Krunk pushed into two of my classrooms to produce a music video about social justice and student voice. Moreover, these have not been afterschool activities or school clubs. These organizations are embedded into my classroom during the school day, offering students new and exciting experiences and learning opportunities.

Open Your Door

In her book Educational Partnerships: Connecting Schools, Families, and the Community, Amy Cox-Peterson writes that “education is not an isolated experience but an interactive endeavor that takes place over the course of a persons’ life.” (1) The greatest successes in my career have come by opening my doors to community partners and organizations, with the understanding that “school” need not be confined to the four walls of a classroom. Indeed, it is essential that teachers break the fourth wall all together! This also ensures that we create learning spaces that invite in the outside community as education partners.

Jean Leave and Etienne Wenger support this philosophy in their concept of “situated learning (legitimate peripheral participation)”. It is their belief that learning and community should be seen as a social activity that develops from multiple experiences and different types of participation. (1) Wegner advances this idea by formulating three successful components of “Communities of Practice:”

  1. Joint Enterprise: The Overall Purpose and Mission of the Partnership
  2. Mutual Engagement: Formulating a Common Goal
  3. Shared Repertoire: Resources, Routines, Artifacts, and Style that Develop Over Time

In all of my partnerships with community organizations, the importance of a shared mission and goal has proven to be the surest sign of success. When all parties can benefit, from the students to the teachers to the school to the partner, a more successful community partnership is achieved.


In her book, Amy Cox-Peterson discusses the work of Veigel who outlines five different types of collaborations between schools and community partners: (1)

  1.     The No-Collaboration Collaboration: Temporary; mostly serves as superficial support of classroom content. Example: Traditional Field Trip
  1.     The One-Time Collaboration: Temporary; services rendered. Example: Donation from Local Restaurant
  1.     The Arms Length Collaboration: Limited; Creating shared values together. Example: Local Health Group School Vision Testing
  1.     The Arm-in-Arm Collaboration: On-Going; Complementary Resources; Common Goals. Example: Year-Long Consultation with Professional Organization
  1.     The Hand-in-Hand Collaboration: On-Going; Shared Values; Embedded Partnerships; Comprehensive Plan for Shared Goals. Example: Teaching Artists Working with Students in a Classroom

So what is the primary goal in every successful community partnership? To facilitate a hand-in-hand collaboration, ensuring that all parties gain a rich learning experience. Every time I begin a community partnership, I ensure that there are shared values and common goals, both for the students and the partner. Ideally, teachers should aim for embedded partnerships by inviting teaching artists, professionals, or university students into the classroom for an extended period of time.

How to Create Effective Community Partnerships

Connect with Local Organizations

No matter where you live, I guarantee there are multiple community organizations interested in partnering with your school. So start with your content and curriculum and work from there. For example, are you teaching a science lesson about ecology? Contact local non-profits dedicated to issues of environmental preservation and see if they have an educational program. Or maybe you’re starting an elementary art lesson about collage. So call a local museum and see if they have teaching artists willing to work on a collaboration with your students. (Note: I have coordinated both examples in various schools.)

Connect Classroom Content to Real-World Professions

Inviting professionals into your classroom enhances student buy-in more than any single teacher can accomplish. For their entire school career, students have only had classroom teachers from which to gain their knowledge and build their skills. While teachers are obviously valuable, opening the classroom to other diverse perspectives, different connections and multiple role-models creates an atmosphere of rigor and authenticity. And this type of connection does not have to be in person! I have used teleconferencing and Facetime in my classrooms to put students into contact with professionals in the film industry, such as a screenwriter from Brooklyn or an animator from Los Angeles.

Present Student Work to the Community

Not only does allowing students to have an authentic audience but it also raises the bar for their work’s expectations. In her article “School-Community Learning Partnerships: Essential to Expanded Learning Success,” educational research and strategy consultant Priscilla Little writes that presenting student work to the larger community “improve[s] school culture and community image through exhibitions and performances that help “shine the light” on students whose talents may not be apparent in the classroom.” (2)

Additionally, to ensure your collaborations are successful, Edutopia columnist Joshua Block offers five valuable pieces of advice: (3)

  1. Establish an Environment of Shared Leadership and Ownership
  2. Plan Together and Create Common Goals
  3. Communicate Regularly and Reevaluate
  4. Value and Celebrate Student Work
  5. Fundraise Together

By adhering to these suggestions, teachers can, as Priscila Little states, “facilitate access to a range of learning opportunities and developmental supports, providing opportunities for students and teachers alike to experiment with new approaches to teaching and learning.” (2)

Partnerships in Action

  1. At the Science and Math Institute in Tacoma, WA, physics teacher Johnny Devine invites professional engineers into his classrooms in order to judge and evaluate his students’ Mission to Mars Project, which challenges students to design a lander to put on the surface of Mars. (4)
  2. In Melbourne, Australia, university students concerned about the low rates of women entering STEMM fields founded an organization called Sisters in Science. The organization pushes into local middle- and high-schools to educate teenage girls about careers in STEMM fields. (5)
  3. The Normal Park Museum Magnet School in Chattanooga, TN has transformed the Non-Collaboration Collaboration of the field trip into an exciting new form. Students at the school engage in Learning Expeditions with local museums that are on-going and comprehensive. This Hand-in-Hand Collaboration also allows for more focused learning and rigorous curriculum connections, emphasizing the belief that learning happens everywhere. (6)
  4. At Hood River Middle School in Oregon, WA, teachers put an emphasis on Learning Partners in the classroom, which then increases teacher content knowledge and provides students with an authentic audience for their work. (7)

A Village of Teachers

In conclusion, there is no fundamental rule that says teaching and learning must begin and end within the four walls of your classroom. If it takes a village to raise a child, then the village should be invited into schools to serve as true educational partners. “More drilling, more practice, more planning, more meetings, more lesson plans, and more of everything,” Amy Cox-Peterson writes, “are not necessarily the best ways to tap into the full academic potential of every child.” (1) So open your doors to the community and invite the village in!

  1.     (https://www.sagepub.com/sites/default/files/upm-binaries/33868_Chapter1.pdf)
  2.    https://www.expandinglearning.org/expandingminds/article/school-community-learning-partnerships-essential-expanded-learning-success)
  3.     (https://www.edutopia.org/blog/on-collaboration-joshua-block)
  4.    https://www.edutopia.org/video/outside-experts-boost-project-authenticity)
  5.     (https://www.sistersinscience.net/)
  6.    https://www.normalpark.com
  7.     (https://www.hoodriver.k12.or.us/hrms)

About the Author

Justin Riddle is the Lead STEAM teacher at Perry High School in Pittsburgh, PA. He focuses on project-based learning and cross-circular instruction through digital media, video production, and stop-motion animation. He has taught STEAM art classes in animation and teen filmmaking at Sweetwater Center for the Arts in Sewickley, PA. Justin holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English, Philosophy, and Film Studies from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ, and is working towards a Master of Science in Teaching, Learning, and Curriculum from Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA. He lives in Pittsburgh, PA with his wife and two children.