A Framework for Classroom Community

Parker Palmer (b. 1939) is an American sociologist and philosopher. He is the founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal and the author of several books, including The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life (Jossey-Bass, 1998). 

In The Courage to Teach, Palmer articulates a framework for classroom community that relies on the instructor’s internal, authentic motivations and intentions to create that feeling of community. In his view, a well-functioning educational community:

  • Invites diversity
  • Embraces ambiguity
  • Welcomes creative conflict
  • Practices honesty
  • Experiences humility (p. 107-108)


What are the characteristics of an instructor that might allow such a community to flourish? Palmer suggests:

  1. A capacity to combine structure or intentionality with flexibility in both planning and leading the class; clarity about objectives but openness to various ways of achieving them.
  2. Thorough knowledge of the material assigned to students and commitment to helping them master that material too.
  3. A desire to help students build a bridge between the academic text and their own lives and a strategic approach for doing so.
  4. A respect for students’ stories that is no more or less than the respect for the scholarly texts assigned to them.
  5. An ability to see students’ lives more clearly than they themselves see them, a capacity to look beyond their initial self-presentation, and a desire to help them see themselves more deeply.
  6. An aptitude for asking good questions and listening carefully to student responses — not only to what they say but also to what they leave unsaid.
  7. A willingness to take risks, especially the risk of inviting open dialogue, though we can never know where it is going to take us. (p. 69)


Practical approaches to building this community

  • Create opportunities for your students to reflect on the learning environment, their role in supporting it, and how it might be improved. Mid-semester feedback is effective for this, as is occasional reflective writing.
  • Call on students by their names, and have them learn their classmates names as much as possible. 
  • Assess prior knowledge and prior experiences. This helps you get a sense of what students are bringing to their learning experience, and can prepare you to better navigate a discussion or activity that requires significant collective participation.

Educational Tools at UD to Help Build Connections

  • Perusall: Perusall is a social annotation tool that allows students to read collaboratively while annotating readings. Comments are automatically graded and can be passed back to Canvas assignments. Learn more about using Perusall in Canvas.
  • Poll Everywhere: Polls have the power to pull your students into the conversation, no matter how large the class is or where your students are participating from. With Poll Everywhere, students can respond to polls synchronously or asynchronously, in the classroom or from home. Learn more about Poll Everywhere.
  • FeedbackFruits: Both tools in the FeedbackFruits toolset can be used in courses being facilitated in the classroom or online to aid in the process of students providing feedback to one another. These tools can help increase student engagement and interaction among peers.
  • The Group Member Evaluation tool streamlines the way students assess their peers’ collaboration skills.
      • The Peer Review tool allows for students to provide feedback to their peers on deliverables.
      • To learn more about FeedbackFruits, contact ats-info@udel.edu.
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