When the Community Becomes the Classroom

By Jay Hoffman

Jay HoffmanThe view changes dramatically when you take down the walls of the classroom. You and your students become magically transparent. Students’ work takes on meaning and relevance to them. They become engaged and before you know it they are learning and demonstrating higher order skills and becoming proficient with technology as they work seamlessly to meet needs in their community. Imagine community guests sitting in your classroom at any given time while other students are leaving the campus to meet with a client downtown. Your classroom looks like grand central station. To an outsider it looks like chaos. To other faculty it may even look like chaos! In our room we call it focused chaos. So much is going on at the same time. Students are taking on projects that ultimately challenge them in every respect. Giving students autonomy helps to insure what they choose will be attended to with enthusiasm and passion. Now all they need is time to master their craft and complete the mission. How often do we give students a media based project experience without allowing them sufficient time to complete it or to even become comfortable with the skills required to produce a good quality piece that they can be proud of?


It is important to develop and nurture community connections. One great way to accomplish this is by word of mouth. Many years ago I joined our local business Chamber of Commerce. They were pleased to have k-12 representation and became very helpful in my next steps. One season a national figure Van Jones came to our community to speak at a business lunch on the topic of Green Economy. My students were given special access to interview Van Jones on the premise. Over the years I have been active in our local Public Access Channel RETN Ch. 16. They guided me in setting up our first broadcast studio ten years ago. Today I chair their board of directors and help them set course for the future.


Once you set out to establish connections in the community doors begin to open for you. It is as though the universe knows your intent and actively sets out to make your plans a reality. I consciously think about connections no matter where I am. I remember once I was being honored by the National Cable and Telecommunications Industry in Washington DC. Because I happen to live in the Comcast Cable region I was assigned an escort for this gallant affair. Dan Glanville Comcast government affairs lawyer and I became fast friends. When I felt the time was right I asked Dan how Comcast could help my program financially. He explained their foundation grant program to me and the rest is history. With some creative planning the Comcast foundation accepted my request for $42,0000 dollars over three years.


They became our sponsor and helped to fund our work with another community partner; “Teenluresprevention.com”. My students teamed up with TLP to become the first students in the United States to teach their peers about sexual crime prevention via news broadcast. It has been five years since teaming up with Teenluresprevention and we are still going strong as we work together to protect our youth from sexual predators. I submit student accomplishments to our local newspaper whenever we have a news worthy event. I encourage my students to compete on a national level with their work whenever I see a reputable competition come along.


Through competition I learn where our weak spots are and what skills I need to focus on to best equip my students for their work. Over the years we have won national competitions such as C-Span Student Cam, eSchoolnews.com, and local competitions as well. We have been flown to DC on several occasions to honor our students’ accomplishments. You are probably catching on by now and realize these too are opportunities to leverage your position and make further connections. Our community work nurtures higher order skills such as; civic engagement, leadership, teamwork, global awareness, information assessment, problem solving, just to name a few. When you plug into your community opportunities for your students to serve become abundant.


My students recently started an effort to help senior citizens with limited mobility to cross the digital divide. They collaborated with 4th grade students from another school. Imagine middle school students and 4th grade students working together to make a difference. Here is the real reward though. Fast forward to one of my students Neel who recently graduated from high school. Before graduating Neel started a non-profit to help community members become digitally literate. My middle school students recently combined their efforts with Neel’s organization by placing iCareVT under their 501c3 in order to take advantage of nonprofit status and provide opportunities for high school students who ultimately sustain the organizations day-to-day training activities. The stories go on and on.

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Now that we are better known it is not uncommon for community organizations to approach us to discuss a possible collaboration. One often asked question is how do we acquire needed equipment and sustain our studio infrastructure. We do it through a combination of district program funding and a lot of public donations and grants. Over the past decade I have raised over $500,000 grants and donations. The hours are long and the time required to sustain community partnerships is significant.


Present school systems need to be transformed in order to promote on going community integrations efforts. I often meet with my partners during my planning time. That means after school hours to make up the planning time lost during the day. As the saying goes the ends justify the means.


My students prove their skills when they build blogs for non profit community groups or small business owners. They prove their skills when they produce commercials for Comcast to benefit community organizations such as youth crisis centers or the state business group promoting the use of digital access. Middle school students that produce commercials to be aired on national networks is some of the finest examples of students demonstrating proficiency in college and career ready skills.



I will leave you with this final story. In the past two years my school program budget has been cut 70%. Such a loss of funds would normally be the end of anyone’s program. You can imagine I was devastated by this reality. I had to be willing to let go of what I had built over the last decade. One day one of my students Sam informed me of a family friend who he thought could help us out. I thanked him and left it at that. Sam’s dad emailed me this past summer and verified Sam’s claim and added that his friend had a foundation and I should submit a proposal for funding. I did so and the next day I received an email from him. He stated that he had been following my class happenings of the past years via our local newspaper and he was a fan of our work. He apologized and stated quickly he had no idea we were in need and felt embarrassed not to now. He asked how soon I needed the funds and after promptly mailed me a check for our program.


There is a lot to be said here. Your community wants to help you. They cannot if you are not transparent. We need to cultivate a community presence. It really does take an entire village to raise one child. Working hand in hand with our community yields positive benefits beyond what we may have imagined. When you involve your community you give them a gift as well. You provide them a way to give back to their community and make a difference. Be sure you maintain a win win relationship! Life is a two way street. Ask how you can help them as well.


Jay Hoffman is Vermont’s 2013 State Teacher of the Year and has been recognized through numerous award programs for his innovative incorporation of technology into instruction.

A middle school technology and design instructor, Jay has participated in elite NASA training programs for educators and is  the first teacher in the state of Vermont to design and send an experiment to space on the space shuttle Endeavor (STS-88)

He was appointed by the Governor to the state Standards Board For Professional  Educators, overseeing the training, licensing, and professional standards of teachers/administrators.

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