While what happens in the classroom is unquestionably important (Hattie, 2009) (FA: 1.2), I think it’s also important for teachers to engage with parents, and the broader community, beyond the school. Teaching practice already bleeds out of the confines of the school day and the schoolyard in the form of teacher professional development opportunities and parent/carer-teacher conferences (FA: 3.7, 6.1). To truly orient the school as an important hub within a local community, however, teachers can and should undertake relevant activities within the wider community, both sharing their expertise and learning from their neighbours (Imtoual, Kameniar, and Bradley, 2009). This community-minded approach helps strengthen relations between the school and the community it is there to serve and models the so-called “real world applications” that are increasingly the focus of authentic learning activities and the curriculum (Wiggins, 1989; see also Lightner and Wilkinson, 2016; and ACARA, 2022).
As someone who came to secondary teaching later in life, I have the benefit of leveraging career experiences outside of teaching. As an author, critic, and academic, I’ve engaged with my community in several ways: by publishing novels, book chapters, and reviews; by running public workshops and delivering public lectures; and by supporting various community Arts organisations (Appendix 1). As an example of how such activities can link back to teaching and, more specifically, provide tangible benefits in the classroom, I’d like to focus on a recent public lecture I delivered at a local library shortly after I moved to a new school.
This free lecture was pitched as an introduction to video games for parents and covered the gaming landscape in 2022, the benefits and potential hazards of video games, and how best to support children to develop healthier gaming habits (Appendices 2 and 3) (FA: 7.3, 7.4). Because the session was free and hosted at the local library (already a popular community hub), it allowed parents who may have had a problematic dynamic with their child’s school to participate fully (for a discussion of the problematic relationship between some Indigenous peoples and the Australian education system, see for example, Beresford, 2012) (FA: 1.2, 2.4). It was, in essence, on neutral territory. It also gave the parents and carers of my own students a chance to engage with me outside of school and beyond the context of reporting on student behaviour and progress (FA: 5.1).
The session was intended to address concerns parents often have about video games, but it was also a part of a larger strategy of mine to promote student health and wellbeing more broadly (Appendix 1) (FA: 4.1, 4.4). During my talk, I focused on how video games can affect a student’s health, particularly their sleep patterns and physical activity, and on the flow-on effects this can have in the classroom and on their learning (see CDC, 2020). I was, in essence, drawing specific connections between “home” and “school” life in an attempt to improve both. I also used the session as an opportunity to engage parents in a conversation about how to tackle those problematic gaming behaviours. I wanted to help improve their children’s health and wellbeing, but I also wanted to address issues of immediate concern in the classroom; that is, students not getting enough sleep and struggling to focus in class, and students playing video games in class instead of engaging with their learning, both of which are actual problems I deal with every day in my teaching (FA: 3.7). We also touched on cyberbullying and how to approach online gaming safely (FA: 4.5), and how to leverage video games to improve literacy (see for example, Chandler, 2009; and Chandler, 2008) (FA: 2.5, 3.7). In short, this activity was about connecting with a new community; communicating with parents about non-academic issues that impact on their children’s learning; and engaging parents and carers in strategies to help support their children’s health, safety, wellbeing, and engagement at school (FA: 3.5, 7.3, 7.4).
The immediate response to the lecture was very positive. Parents who attended mentioned they felt better prepared to engage their children in conversations about healthy gaming habits and were more confident in setting appropriate boundaries that would help improve the wellbeing of their children (Appendix 4) (FA: 7.3). The response from the host library was also positive, with the librarians indicating they would be keen for me to rerun the session and bring it to other libraries in their group (Appendix 5) (FA: 7.4). This mirrored the responses I received from other teachers at the school. They immediately saw the value of such an activity and thought it was a great way to engage with parents and students over healthier online habits, with many encouraging their own students to tell their parents about the lecture, as they were also concerned about overtired and distracted students (Appendix 6) (FA: 6.3).
This activity had further tangential benefits. Once my students knew I had an interest in video games, many of them started paying more attention to what I had to say in class, and when they saw it was possible to take video games seriously and think about them critically, some began making connections between the curriculum of the classroom and the things they were interested in beyond school (i.e. in the “real world”). It was a powerful hook that led to increased student engagement (FA: 2.1, 2.6, 3.4, 4.1).
I would like to report that all the students whose parents attended the session immediately started to go to sleep at a reasonable hour, show up to their classes refreshed and alert, and refrained from playing video games in class forever more, but of course that is not possible. Years of experience working in public health communication has taught me that community-wide behaviour change takes a great deal of time, persistence, and ongoing engagement, and that it is often quite difficult to measure the specific impact of individual activities (Appendix 1). Rather, it’s important to continue such efforts and try different types of activities to ensure you are connecting with the whole community (FA: 6.4). I can say that I was successful in introducing myself to a new community and in beginning to establish connections between myself, my new school, and my new community.
While it can be difficult to judge any immediate results of community engagement activities and behaviour change, the responses I received after the lecture suggest I’m on the right track. For the children of those who attended this talk, changes may occur relatively quickly, but that’s not really the point of these types of activities, especially when you consider that not all the parents who attended had children at the school I was teaching at. It takes time to build (or join) a community. No single activity is sufficient to achieve this. Indeed, this single activity would not have been possible without the many things I’d done in the past to build up to it. It’s doubtful any parents would have shown up if I didn’t have a background in education, health promotion, student wellbeing, and critical media studies built up over my career. Ideally, those parents and carers will implement some of the things I suggested, and if they work might start to share them with their friends and family. Word may start to spread, and more people may come to my next public lecture. This is how you build community and, ultimately, behaviour change.
The key to making these types of community engagement activities work, and worthwhile in the context of education, is to ensure they are relevant to the needs of the local community, linked to educative outcomes, and ongoing. As such, I have committed to further public activities in my new community that will, over time, help establish stronger connections between me, my school, parents and carers, and the wider community (FA: 6.4, 7.3, 7.4).
• Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) (2022). Australian Curriculum. Retrieved from https://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/
• Beresford, Q. (2012). Separate and unequal: an outline of Aboriginal education 1900-1996. In Beresford, Q. (Ed.) Reform and Resistance in Aboriginal Education: The Australian Experience(Revised Edition). UWA Publishing.
• Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (2020). Sleep in Middle and High School Students. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/healthyschools/features/students-sleep.htm
• Chandler, B. (2008). Predictable Plots and Secondary Worlds: Teaching Creative Writing through Modern Fantasy. The Creativity and Uncertainty Papers: The refereed proceedings of the 13th conference of the Australian Association of Writing Programs. Australian Association of Writing Programs (AAWP). Retrieved from http://aawp.org.au/creativity-and-uncertainty-papers
• Chandler, B (2009). Barthes’ Final Fantasy: Final Fantasy VII and the Writerly Text, In Blahuta, J. and Beaulieu, M. (eds.) Final Fantasy and Philosophy. Wiley-Blackwell.
• Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. Routledge.
• Imtoual, A., Kameniar, B. & Bradley, D. (2009). Bottling the good stuff: stories of hospitality and yarnin' in a multi-racial kindergarten. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 34(2), pp. 24-30. doi/10.3316/AEIPT.176905
• Lightner, S., and Wilkinson, I. (2016). Instructional frameworks for quality talk about text: Choosing the best approach. The Reading Teacher, 70(4).
• Wiggins, G. (1989) A True Test: Toward More Authentic and Equitable Assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 70(9), pp. 703-713.