New Teacher Toolbox: Push the Sage off the Stage and Activate Authentic Learning in your Lessons with Community Experts

During my first year of teaching, I bumped into our school’s high school physics teacher, Mr. X, in the teacher lounge. As he ate his leftovers, he was reading Albert Einstein’s book, Theory of Relativity.

“A little light reading?,” I asked.

“I’ve never read this book before. It’s pretty good!” he said.

“Is this just for fun or will your class be digging deep with relativity next semester?” I asked.

“Oh, we’re reading it right now. I only have to stay one chapter ahead of the kids,” he replied.

I was astonished. I was a first grade teacher and I was planning my content weeks ahead! What appeared to be a cavalier attitude didn’t match with my knowledge that Mr. X was a phenomenal teacher. Years after that conversation, I have even more respect for Mr. X. He ever thought he had to be the sage on the stage in his class. He didn’t have to be the Educator with a capital E. He just had to be the Head Learner as he lead his class through a journey of physics.

Making that shift from being the holder of all of the knowledge to a guiding learner in the classroom takes time. Teachers don’t just arrive to school on their first contracted day with that attitude. It takes many failures, helpful suggestions from peers, and a boatload of humility.

One strategy that helped me on this journey has been to highlight community experts to support science learning in my middle school classroom. Physics teacher Mr. X was comfortable making himself the community expert in his own classroom. But sometimes you need support from a specialist in an area to motivate learners in your classroom, and you just don’t have the background knowledge to be your own community expert. A community expert is not just a guest speaker who has a finely tunes presentation to teach your kiddos. Community experts may work so far behind the scenes and deeply in the trenches in their professions that they’ve never spoken to an assembly of students before.

So what is a community expert? How do I integrate a community expert’s visit into my classroom?

I’ve solicited the support of community experts in elementary classrooms and middle school classrooms, for science units, and math units. For almost any unit of study, there is a way to collaborate with members of your community to improve engagement in your classroom. Here are a few examples of experts and units that I’ve worked with in the past:

  • A hydrologist from our state’s Department of Natural Resources for a unit on watersheds with third graders.
  • A local children’s book author to support writing personal narratives in fourth grade.
  • Volunteers from a national fishing education program to support learning aquatic biology in sixth grade.
  • A geologist to analyze natural features on our school campus during a second grade unit on the natural history of our region.
  • Watershed managers to support my sixth graders in testing and analyzing water samples in our watershed.

The poster I’ve displayed above includes basic tips and tricks for integrating a community expert into your content-area classroom. Are you ready to bring a community expert into your classroom? Need support? Contact me or leave comments below!

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