Communities of Practice: A Room for Ourselves

Graphic illustration by Nitya Wakhlu, produced at the Experience Engagement conference in October 2015.

A reflection of NADE 2019 by contributor Phip Ross

When we started our shift to a dynamic* sequence of developmental English pedagogy and structure in 2014, I started using the phrase community of practice (CoP) during our meetings. While my use of the term has flagged somewhat, I hope in the work I do with colleagues it has not.

At NADE 2019 in Atlanta, Dr. Carolyn Denard, associate provost for student success and professor of English at Georgia College and State University, refreshed my conviction in the term and the importance it has played in our department and also in our efforts to build a statewide network of English teachers through the Nebraska Developmental English Consortium.

Denard, who oversees her institution’s academic advising center, writing center, first-year bridge scholars program, honors programs, and leadership programs, named CoP as a critical piece of an instructor’s toolbox and outlined its central tenets.

Communities of Practice

“COP are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” Lave and Wenger 1991

Components of CoP:

  1. The domain: Identity defined by a shared domain of interest
  2. The community: members of a specific domain that interact and engage in shared activities, help each other, and share information with each other. They build relationships that enable them to learn from one another
  3. The practice: Members are practitioners who develop a shared repertoire of resources which can include stories, helpful tools, experiences, stories, ways of handling typical problems, etc. This kind of interaction needs to be developed over time.

Adopting this CoP philosophy involves working together, collaborating and cooperating, sharing and engaging one another, shouldering the load not in isolation but alongside our peers. I’ve confessed that much of my teaching career has been in fairly isolated practice with some wonderful side tours with a few folks. It’s been rather like my reading and writing experiences, frankly. I do not belong to a book club or a writing group, so my work has often not fulfilled its full potential or mission, I believe. It’s one key reason I pursued a doctorate degree; I wanted more “collusion” in my work. Not with Russia, however. Just with fellow educators.

Oftentimes, my social needs have been fulfilled by my work with students. That is where our emphasis is in terms of work, I rationalized. But to improve as a teacher, I realize that I need more regular exchanges with my peers. This has been healthy in terms of my professional well-being and also in terms of sharing and solving challenges. Working with others also clarifies commitment and purpose in the domain of teaching college English in a diverse student classroom.

In the past several months, we launched an in-house online resource for professional development, particularly aimed at a CoP of teaching integrated reading and writing. As a piece of this, some faculty have shared lesson plans, encouraged to “cross-pollinate” approaches, and perhaps generated some consensus about effective design.

Colleagues in the San Francisco area at Ohlone College shared two critical pieces that reinforces a CoP around IRW at SCC and perhaps in NDEC. First, Rick Flynn and Alison Kuhner shared principles that guide their integrated approach. While our SCC department does have seven principles, I like each of these, some of which overlap with ours. I would like to think that ours includes the Ohlone principles implicitly; I imagine there’s room for revision along with discussion.

Here are Ohlone’s IRW principles with each having a student explanation:

Integration of R/W

“I am so happy I was able to take this [IRW] class, as opposed to taking separate reading and writing classes like I did last semester.
What I have enjoyed the most was how straight-forward this course was. There were no pop-quizzes or regular tests. Just an essay at the end of each unit that would sum-up everything we have learned from the articles we read.” – Student

College-Level Work

“I really did enjoy this type of English class [IRW] more than the other English classes I had in the past. The other classes would be such a waste of time and would teach irrelevant topics/readings to us. I really felt like I was dumb in those classes, they were just horrible and boring.  . . .
I highly prefer [IRW] English classes that involve critical thinking and reading because I feel they are more relatable . . . It was challenging at some times but it was a good type of challenge.”  – Student

Low Stakes Collaborative Practice

“I really enjoyed the whole [IRW] class, but what I really enjoyed was some of the class activities we did. Vocab games, working in groups to come up with good quotes and sentences was really fun for me and it really helped me out in my writing and how I word things.”  – Student

Individualized Instruction

“I also appreciated all of the extra help that was offered to us, such as: an outside tutor and how available you made yourself to accommodate our needs. I really enjoyed having the option during class time to have our peers edit our essays or just work on our own. The class time we were given to work definitely motivated me to better my essays and not wait the last minute to work on them.”  – Student

Support for Affective Domain

“I doubted myself a few times because I was never certain whether my essays were convincing enough, but the grades I received on each one showed me how complex my writing has gotten. I like how focused the class was on improvement.  You did not expect us to write award-winning novels on our first paper and told us that growth was a much more important take-away from this class.”  – Student

The second critical piece that connects with the lesson plan sharing at SCC is the instructional mode Ohlone shared in the graphic below. It is more global than a daily lesson plan but a model that can guide daily, weekly, and “unit” planning. If a CoP adopts this as a guideline, or something derivative, it provides a common vocabulary peers can use to help shape questions of the “where?” and the “how?” of most discussions around IRW teaching. I would expect that my colleagues and I will use this as a starting point for possible adoption of an instructional framework for an IRW principle. An instructional framework such as this should provide support and flexibility for instructor use.

A community of practice that pulls us out of our offices and into dialogue about our shared work is a development process—tentative and unsure at times and comfortable and solid over time. Its value to participants should become increasingly clear. So much of this process advances, I realize, with a shared vocabulary that enables each unique individual, who has their own practices and strategies, to feel comfortable “walking” these shared bridges of vocabulary to other colleagues and crossing it regularly.


* “Dynamic” was a word used by our co-presenter at NADE, Alex Goudas, to describe our SCC developmental English, which has attempted to provide several options for our students: more traditional developmental, accelerated, support options, and skipping the sequence altogether.


Phip Ross, Southeast Community College Developmental English Department Chair and NDEC Leadership Member, can be reached via email here.