What teaching taught me about community engagement

October 5, 2021
Wall covered in handmade posters. Banner at the top says “CLEAR EYES. FULL HEARTS. CAN’T LOSE.”. Headings on posters say “Figurative Language”, “Part of a story” and “POEM STRUCTURE”. Below the posters are the tops of some bookshelves, covered in piles of books.

This World Teachers’ Day, our project and analysis consultant, Alix, reflects on how the skills she learned as a teacher in North Carolina apply to The Social Deck’s approach to community consultations.

She’s put together some tips for how effective classroom strategy can be effective engagement strategy.

1.   Change things up – give people chances to participate in different ways

I never thought I would become the cliché of the white, middle-class teacher going to an ‘urban’ school and connecting with her disengaged students by teaching them about how rap is really poetry. But when I started working with my students, I couldn’t ignore that it made sense.

I had students who enjoyed listening to and freestyling rap, so why wouldn’t I get them to listen for rhymes in hip hop music? Why wouldn’t I encourage them to write raps during creative writing time? Just like I encouraged others who loved to draw to make comics, or those who watched fantasy shows to write fantasy stories.

I did it because I knew the kids needed a different way to learn. Giving them the opportunity to work with academic material through the lens of something they enjoyed and were more familiar with helped them to absorb the information.

Writing on a whiteboard. It says “My name is Christian and I used to smoke wishes but now you catch me in the kitchen cooking and water wipen with the dishes”.
A composition from a student.

It’s a reminder that different people engage and learn in different ways. They are also motivated by different things, and present their thoughts and ideas in different formats.

If you narrow people’s options to participate, you won’t get the most out of them and you’ll miss out on what they have to share.

When The Social Deck runs consultations, we seek input from the community in a different ways and formats. Even within the one workshop, we always try to offer different options for people to contribute. We might capture people’s thoughts through conversation, or through interactive visual activities. We have offered options for people to talk one-on-one, leave an audio message on an iPad, share their idea or experience in a drawing, or use their smart phone to answer questions and rate ideas. And this applies whether we’re online or face-to-face. It’s important to us that everyone who has something to contribute has a chance to do that in a way that works for them.

2.   Plan to throw out your plan – don’t expect things to go exactly to design

I taught four classes a day, all covering the same lesson plan, although in reality each class was usually quite different. In a classroom, you need to be fluid and responsive in order to get the best out of students. There were plenty of times when I enthusiastically planned an activity only to discover that it was a bad fit for some or all of my classes and I needed to make a quick pivot to keep my lesson on track.

An empty classroom. Desks and chairs are set up in rows. The wall is covered in hand drawn posters. A set of cluttered bookshelves are against the wall, with piles of books on top of them.
My idea of a pristine, organised classroom was one of the first plans to change.

The best laid plans should also change when something promising pops up that you didn’t anticipate. My best memories of teaching are from times when my students came up with a whole new direction to explore our material, like holding spontaneous debates or taking over as teacher. I’m certain that those were the times when they got the most out of the subject and showed me what they were capable of.

Holding on too tightly to your perfect plan is likely to leave you, and your participants, frustrated. And you also might miss out on some great insights.

For The Social Deck, designing engagement activity doesn’t stop when the consultation starts. We pay attention to what works and what doesn’t, we look at how our participants are responding to activities and seek their feedback along the way. We also keep close track of whether we’re getting the insights we need and in the best ways.

3.   Allow for the human element – you’re working with people, who get tired and hungry and bored

Kids don’t want to immediately sit still and be lectured to right after coming in from recess. Leading up to lunch, students are hungry and restless. You can try to ignore this and make them fit into the efficient and convenient lesson structure you’d prefer, but that’s not likely to get results.

As adults, we may like to think that we’re more disciplined and focused than this. But we’re human too. We get hungry, we get restless, we get distracted.

If we take account of these human considerations and make them part of our planning, we can make the most of the time with participants.

The period after lunch is the perfect time to get people moving and interacting. If participants have been quiet for a while, follow it up with some collaboration. If things have been busy and interactive, give your participants a breather to do some quiet reflection.

A classroom pinboard. There is some coloured paper backing and border, but most has been torn away. The board is covered in colourful paper shapes with words like “boom”, “zap”, “pop” and “thud” written on them.
Colourful crafts were a great way to let students be creative and hands-on.
At The Social Deck we account for people’s needs and preferences, including in our online engagements. We think about when participants are likely to be feeling a bit of online fatigue and make sure we allow for breaks, or a chance for individual reflection. It’s also important to think about the different needs people might have in an online space. We allow for people to take moments away from the screen, or to turn cameras off for periods of time. We also use interactive tools to keep people engaged or to make sure we still collect people’s ideas if they miss the chance to speak up in the virtual environment.

4.   Engage everyone – recognise those with the quieter voices

In my classroom, some students were bold and disruptive, some were cheeky and cunning, some were reserved and thoughtful. It would have been easy to devote all my time and energy to those who caused chaos, who were more confident to ask questions, or always had something to say. But if I didn’t find ways to hear from the more reserved students, I would have missed out on many productive discussions and positive outcomes.

A classroom pinboard. There is some coloured paper backing and border, but most has been torn away. The board is covered with posters with colourful handwriting and paper cut-outs in the shape of Christmas trees, stars, and reindeer.
My students responded well to activities where they could workin teams or by themselves, like researching and making posters about differentcultural celebrations.

It’s a common challenge in a consultation event to make sure you’re not only hearing the loudest voices. We know not everyone will feel comfortable sharing with a group, or they may not feel confident that they understand what is being asked of them. Making the effort to support, encourage and hear everyone, lets people know that their input is valued.

Throughout our engagements, we monitor who is sharing and how, and look at the ways they seem to be most comfortable taking part, to ensure that everyone is welcome and heard. For example, we offer opportunities for people to bring a friend or support person. We also take extra steps to make sure we reach people in the community who may not put up their hands right away to be involved. Different and targeted ways of engaging – like small conversations, storytelling approaches or online written questions – can help to include those voices. It’s also important to reach people where they are, through networks and organisations they trust.

While in the end I took a path away from teaching, what I learned from my teaching experience makes me a better facilitator today.

Writing on a very smudged whiteboard. It says“Dear, Ms. Harrigan Thanks for Everything”.
Positive feedback is always appreciated.

How can we help?
Alix Harrigan
Impact and Inclusion Consultant