Category Archives: Random

Beyond Blogging? Student Choice

If I were to write this post how I feel it needs to be written– long, comprehensive, timely and engaging, then it would never be written. So instead I am going to try a quicker, choppier, more get it down approach. Going to try some Guerrilla Blogging . (I might have just made that term up, because when I looked it up there were little to no references.) But what’s up with this lengthy, rambling, irrelevant intro. This is not Guerrilla Blogging! Get to it.

What You Need To Know:

I haven’t blogged professionally since September when I Backed Away From The Edge, and consequently upset a few people in the process. But I am back now. I am revamped, energized and seeing things with a fresh outlook.

I’ve just returned from Japan, where I facilitated a two day EARCOS workshop with Rebekah Madrid called Beyond Blogging.  We were primarily looking at why shared online school spaces like class blogs and portfolios seem to fall flat. We decided that we knew, or at least thought we knew, what these spaces could do or have done for adult learners, but we were flummoxed, like many of you, as to why  K-12 spaces looked more like glorified teacher created worksheets, than dynamic authentic student created spaces designed for identity exploration, content creation and community building.

Big questions I know.

Everyone I spoke to before I left said, “Looking forward to seeing what you find!” And upon my return? “So what did you find out?

Here goes:

I started by talking with some students who I knew were active online. Two successful Youtubers from our school. I chatted with them for two forty-five minute sessions and this is what they said.

I was struck particularly by the key words which I highlighted in the video.

These words seem pretty straightforward. I think most teachers would like to think that they attempt to incorporate at least a few of these ideas into their daily teaching. But listening to the girls, it is pretty clear that they do not see the work they are doing in school at all similar to the work they do on their own.

This discrepancy, to me, seemed like the crux of our issue. The dichotomy between school generated curriculum and what kids w0uld choose to do if given a chance appears to be wider than many of us think.

You can take a look at the agenda from the workshop and explore some of the work the participants did here, but I wanted to take some time in this post to try and consolidate some of my own thinking. I thought about the Do’s and Don’ts we generated, and wondered what next. Here are some raw thoughts fresh from the weekend:

1. Choice matters– No one likes to be told what to do, and we like it less when we are told when or how to do it. Kids are no different. True, we are all working with a written curriculum which needs to be taught– a set of skills, concepts and understandings that we have pre-determined are vital for learning, but kids will always see this as “work.” It will be rare to find kids enthusiastically reflecting or sharing this type of teacher assigned work. When kids create or share online on their own accord, they seem to share ideas, skills and understandings which they choose an care about. No amount of forced reflection will make the work we assign authentic. Blogs will not magically make students care about what you want them to care about.

2. An Audience Matters–  Kids are not worried about being exposed to the world, but they are aware of who might be watching, and they want feedback from this audience. Perhaps, the idea that every kids has the same method of sharing (a blog or portfolio) with one massive audience (The world their school or class) is false. It is important that students create their own spaces and connect to smaller interactive audiences that give them feedback, instead of sharing everything with everyone and never connecting in a meaningful way with anyone. The tools learners use to create these spaces and communities must be chosen by the user.

3. Diversity of Tools- Kids need to create their own unique audiences and choose the methods and tools with which they connect to this community. Perhaps the readers in your class connect to other readers using Goodreads, but the actors choose Youtube as a place to connect with other actors, and the writers use a blog designed for Harry Potter fans. We cannot expect every member of our school community to use one platform to share their learning.

4. Being Open Requires Trust– Students have to know that their teachers are not looking for reasons to doubt or question student choices. They have to feel free to be themselves even if their identities do not always illustrate the perfect student. Life online requires risk taking, exploration, and the awareness that sometimes we all make mistakes. If we want students to be authentic we must allow them the time and space to find out for themselves what that means–without our own systemic institutional expectations.

5. Time– True student interests often exists beyond the curriculum. Kids need time to explore questions and solve problems of their own choosing. We need to make time for students to think, play and learn beyond our curricula. Things like the MYP Personal Project or Google 20% time could be key areas to allow for real blogging and online sharing. Allow students the time to learn, create and share the things that are important to them. Beyond assessment, school and work might be where students can share their learning. Take a look at this great pitch by Madeline Cox:

The problem, as I see it, with student blogging is not technological but curricular and institutional. We are expecting students to be excited about content they never chose to be excited about, and then we are disappointed when they are not super keen to write about it or share it with people who are not really their friends and who also lack interest in said content.

Share everything with everyone will never work. The better model is share what you love with those who care and can help you.

What does this type of sharing and learning look like in our schools? Most teachers do not work in student-centered, problem-based, inquiry model, project based institutions. No matter what we tell ourselves most of us are responsible to a curriculum and all the restriction it includes: explicit instruction, assessment, and reporting.

I think we need to think about what the learning looks like beyond our curriculum, so that it makes room for looser, freer, student choice. I have been hard on curricula in this post. I do not mean to say that students do not need the skills, concepts and understanding we teach them, but perhaps they do not see the value in sharing their school work in the place that we tell them to.

In a perfect world, we would see evidence of the curriculum in these more independent projects, and like Sidney said, the teacher can build the learning around what has already been done by the student. I am not sure what this model looks like in different schools or different subjects, so I can only share  examples of what we are doing in our MS English department at UWCSEA East.

We are using the Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Workshop. Coupled with our benchmarks, we have a pretty solid set of skills we are responsible to teach. I think these skills are important and I think teaching them explicitly is valuable. I also feel that assessing these skills, offering feedback and reporting on student progress is crucial for their growth as readers and writers. But I do not expect them to share their reflections of their learning on a blog. Who would want to read that?

I do see the value, however, of offering them choice in content. The beauty of the workshop model is that it offers absolute choice of what they write about and what they read. The units do focus on certain text types and this can prove problematic for everything I have mentioned in this post, so what we have done is intersperse independent writing units in between the more prescribed units of study.

For our last unit, students were given the choice to write about any topic or issue in any style or text type they found relevant. They wrote a range of pieces from cookbooks, to Rubic’s Cube tutorials, poems, songs and short stories. The next step is to coach these kids how to create communities around the content they create. Instead of publishing their assigned article on a blog, they need to learn how they might create a space to share their independent work, in hopes of finding other chefs or musicians.

As adults, we build communities around the content we create to express our passions and foster our learning. Why then do we not allow students the time and space to do the same? It’s not that blogging is dead or that we need to find out what lays beyond.  Schools as we know them are dying and we need to look beyond them.

This what I am thinking so far. What do you think? Share some thoughts and let’s see if we can’t figure this out together.


Back From The Cutting Edge

Been a while huh? You still there? How did you end up here after so long? Is RSS still a thing? I don’t know about you, but I haven’t read a blog post in almost six months. Have you? Did you follow the Twitter trail here? Are other people still blogging? Are you? Did I miss anything?

I am not even sure who you are, and to be honest, these days I am having a hard time knowing who I am, and what I am doing here. Blogging. Writing. Sharing. It has been so long since I did any of those things that I feel I have lost what it was I wanted to say when I started. Have I turned my back on whatever audience or community I spent so much time and energy cultivating? Do you care? Does it matter?

Yeah, I am and have been having a bit of an existential crisis since the end of the school year last year.

What have I been doing you might ask? I have been spending my time reading every Young Adult book I can get my hands on. I’ve been falling in love with #TCRWP (Reading and Writing Workshop), to the point that I even have grade eight kids writing in notebooks. Pen and paper old school. Pages and pages of it. And it feels great. I am hand writing charts on flip chart paper for goodness sake. And to be honest, I feel I am doing some of my best teaching in years.

What else? I spend some of my energy on the plants in my classroom. I’ve also been playing open mics in the hope that I will be able to sing a full set of songs without tabs and lyrics by Christmas.

Not sure how or why I fell into this new territory. There was no conscious choice to turn my back on ……What do I even call it? What exactly have I turned my back on? Is there anything at all to be named? My PLN? Blogging, Ed Tech? These labels seem so simplistic. Have I turned my back at all?

My thoughts have drifted I suppose and my priorities have shifted, but what really happened is that I have grown bored of my own shtick. Digital stories, sharing, sharing, sharing and networks– round and round left me dizzy, till I just had to get off the ride. I have forced myself to name what I value and why? In short, I know that I still value open networks and community learning. I still value expression and stories and the magic of the web. But what that looks like in my classrooms these days? Your guess is as good as mine.

Things have been feeling stale for me for a while. After a decade of being on the cutting edge, I need a break. Maybe, for the time being I need other people to be the innovators. I need some time to reassess what I value. What felt new and transformative when I started, feels stale and unimaginative.

This re-evaluation reminds me of the value of having people on campus who sustain the momentum when some of us lose it. Every school needs people on the edge, so that when the rest of us need to move back from it, they can push us back where we need to be.  I’m talking to you Digital Literacy Coaches and Tech Facilitators. Thank you for the work you do, to keep the rest of us on our toes. So that when we hit a rut, like the one I have described, you can rejuvenate us and remind us of what we value that we may have forgotten.

Which brings me to Learning 2.014. Feels like I have gone full circle in the last decade. I feel like the doe-eyed n00b again this year. I am very much looking forward to seeing what everyone is excited about this year. I have no role to play at this conference other than open-minded learner. I am looking forward to having energizing conversations. I am hoping to creep back to the cutting edge, or maybe share the view from the way back.


Teachable Moment

Today, as my grade 7 students were working in small groups, I heard someone say,”Stop being such a homo. That is so lame and gay.”

I walked over very calmly, sat down and said:

Can we have a very quick but serious conversation? I heard you just say, “Stopping being such a homo. That is so lame and gay.” I just wanted you to know that I would  prefer that we didn’t use that kind of language in our classroom. I don’t think it is very kind to use words like Homo or Gay or even Retard in a derogatory way, do you know what derogatory means? It means to use it in a negative way. To use those words in a way to be put someone down. I don’t think it is okay to use words like Homo or Gay or Retard to put people down. There are most likely people in our class who might be homosexual or know people who are homosexual and if we use it as a put down, then they feel badly about themselves and that doesn’t seem fair. I know from experience because many of my friends who are homosexual have told me that language is powerful and the words we choose affect people in ways we cannot always see. Does that make sense? So please do not use the word Homo or Gay or Retard as a put down in our class again. OK? Thanks.



Blogs from the Mouths of Babes

As we continue to explore the rich world of authentic student blogging, it is important to stop and listen to feedback and criticism from time to time. It is important to understand the apprehension that some stakeholders may have when it comes to open online publishing.

You can read more about how we have been blogging with our middle school students by reading some of these post, but let me give a very brief synopsis of what our program looks like up to know. (Before I start, let me clarify that when I say we, I am referring to myself and Paula Guinto who is my teaching partner in grade 7 & 8. We both teach English; I blog here with my students and Paula writes at Meta.)

The basic manifesto as it stands, looks something like this:

I want my students to feel confident about who they are through critical and artistic exploration of their identity. I want them to learn how to clearly articulate this voice in a variety of media in order to find a network of like-minded people in order to create a community of learners that will help them learn during and beyond school.

We hope that blogging will help our students achieve this goal. The system we have set up is pretty simple: We coached every student in our class to set up a blog through blogger, explained basic etiquette and gave them freedom to own the space. We are not formally assessing anything that goes on the blog, and there is no obligation to blog at all. We are hoping to see what kids write when they are given a space and freedom to write.

Like any process at a school, there have been mixed feelings from students, teachers and parents. There have been some accurate criticism and others based on misunderstandings. As a community, we are in the process of figuring out what blogging looks like for us. We are looking to make sure that there is a clear understanding of the what and the why and the how by all the stakeholders involved.

As part of this process, I asked my students to write a short paragraph agreeing or disagreeing with this statement:

Blogging is an important part of an English classroom.

I was floored by the results. You can read all of the answers here, but let me give you some highlights:

The freedom to express ourselves is important; providing a medium and nurturing the usage of that medium improves our skills as writers and removes some of our inhibitions of writing.

Blogging is a fun way to write. It can be used for educational purposes and it also helps the student to think when they are writing “who is my audience.” Sometimes having students writing on a blog will increase a students motivation to write.

Blogging is useful. No scratch that out, Blogging is necessary. With teenagers [us] being young minds full of innovative ideas, thoughts and views, our generation needs to share them to audience and blogging enables us to do that.

It wasn’t all positive, many students had valid concerns:

Some people don’t like having their personal thoughts online because it is a public space.

The notion of writing online to a worldwide audience was not quite thrilling.

Expecting a bunch of insecure teenagers who aren’t quite sure who they can trust in the constantly moving sands of social media to write about whatever comes to their mind is asking for a lot.

Sometimes people are not able to get the time to read the blog posts with all the homework we are currently getting.

I hope you get a chance to read all of the response and maybe add some thoughts in the comments on our class page. But what does this all mean? What did I learn?

The fact that we have chosen not to force students to blog has been invaluable, however, there is still a pressure to share and this is making some kids uncomfortable. There is a lot involved in this process:  from self-esteem, to trust, to community. The notion of sharing publicly is still a major hurdle for many students and their parents. What is the point? What are the benefits?  What are the problems and the issues? I am not sure if this post is designed to answer questions. I was hoping to ask some and have you, dear reader, answer a them. What are the benefits of public sharing for students? Why go global?

I also noticed that many of the students might be blogging more if there was more structure. The total freedom, seems to have frozen some kids into inaction. They simply don’t know what to write, when they are told they can write about anything. This has me thinking of designing lessons or activities that guide students to come up with ideas. Which is interesting, because one of the questions that comes up repeatedly during reading conferences is, “How does the writer come up with ideas for his/her stories.” It is clear that middle school kids need a pool of ideas and/or prompts to get them started. Sites like this and this are great, but perhaps kids need more of a push toward them. How do you help students find things to write about? How can we foster creativity and imagination?

Ironically, many of the students who are not blogging, said they are not writing because it is not graded or part of school, so they don’t have time to waste on it. Which makes me wonder if they would write more if I forced them and graded it, which leads us back to square one that school writing is not always authentic. Or is it? How do we find this balance of what is expected and graded and what is free of choice? Still struggling with that one. How much of this is explicitly for school and how much is bigger than school? Hoping to have a good conversation about this idea of academic relevance in the comments. It is a major talking point at our school at the moment? How do we assess this stuff? Should we?

It was great to see so many students make the connections between Voice, Trust, Writing and Community, because these themes are at the heart of what we do. This is the culture we are trying to create; one where students feel comfortable and safe enough with their peers to be able to share their ideas regardless of their writing “level.” 

We have a long way to go, but I feel pretty good about where we are after only six months. Cultures take time to build, and we  need to be cognizant of the people they affect. We have to stop and ask stakeholders what they are thinking, how they are feeling.

Next step for us, is to ask parents to articulate what they know about blogging. Ask them what they value and what they fear. It is an intimidating conversation to have, but an important one. Perhaps, showing them what their kids are saying would be a good first  step.


Thriving Eco-System of Ideas

Some stuff has been happening. Oh boy has some stuff been happen’n. Every few days after I come up for air and try to stop myself from drowning in the sea of life at my new school, I notice that something magical is happening with my students. Not all of them, of course, but why do teachers always judge achievement by whether or not everyone succeeds? More importantly why do we spend so much energy on words like achievement and success, when really we might be better served to look for the little things that blossom and bloom around us everyday. Lately, I’ve begun to take comfort from the turning of corners, the shedding of inhibitions, the sharing of stories and selves and ideas and dreams.

I often use plant analogies when I write. I am comfortable with the seed cycle. Reaping and sowing. Tending and pruning. These actions are just as applicable to teaching and learning as to botany. In this post, I want to share my excitement about the things I’ve found sprouting in my garden (student blogs). Every night before I sleep I take a stroll through the garden (read my RSS feed) to see if there are any new buds.

Let’s take a quick look of what I have found recently. Shall we?

A student who has been struggling this year because he is a boarding student wrote a post about missing his parents. This tender and vulnerable post came off the heels of an equally thoughtful poem which is still in draft form and not yet ready for publishing. It was so nice to see this sapling break through the dry soil. So often we assume that an empty garden bed means there is no life, but if we are patient and we tend the soil, we will surprised by what may be quietly germinating beneath the surface.

Another girl who has been quiet and shy in class- an observer-  a lurker you might say– poured her heart out in a beautiful poem, another one not yet ready for sharing, but just two days later she shared this quirky and brilliant video about a failed art project. In the clip she demonstrates her fantastic ability to manipulate a camera while telling her story. Behind the lens she is an expert, but the beauty of this video is her self-conscious and self-deprecating honesty in front of the camera at the end.

A few weeks ago, Michele shared her thoughts on Introverts and about the awkwardness of adolescence. Perhaps her posts were what inspired Solal to write his Edublog Award nominated post Being a Social Outcast which has to date over one hundred comments from people all over the world who relate to his plight.

Over and over these kids are saying that they want to be heard, even when they don’t know why or how. These kids want to tackle complex issues. They want a place to find and share their voice. Maybe they are great poets, or perhaps they want to publicly and socially contemplate happiness. They are understanding that their spaces can be used to promote their projects, or share their moments of peace and excitement during school trips. They want to change the world and understand themselves. They write novels, make cup music and just play around. They are learning about voice and online etiquette in conversations like this one.

Not a bad harvest right? I could go on and on. Every week, more and more students begin to break ground and grow. Obviously blogging has been a big deal for me this year. I have been exploring the art of blogging since August. Writing about it here and talking about it here. And so I think it is a good time, as the mid-year break is upon us, to take a look at why and how we are still talking about.

Too often I feel like I need to defend why I value blogging. There is this nagging need to constantly justify the purpose of these spaces. This post is meant to share the fruits of our work, but I also wanted to try and clearly articulate the value of student blogging.

As is clear from the example above, teenagers grapple with several issues: identity, expression and community. These three concepts drive my pedagogy. People sometimes criticize the value of teenagers exposing themselves so publicly.  Claiming that perhaps I only share the most vulnerable examples. The purpose of blogging is not to bare your soul in some kind of open diary journal. The purpose of blogging is to share your voice with a community. My job as I see it is to help student understand how to navigate, understand and employ identity, expression and community. I use these spaces and the conversations that happen on them as key teaching spaces. I offer formative feedback, I guide, I mentor. I teach. When people ask me why I spend so much time on these spaces, I want to point them to this post and this simple manifesto:

I want my students to feel confident about who they are through critical and artistic exploration of their identity. I want them to learn how to clearly articulate this voice in a variety of media in order to find a network of like-minded people in order to create a community of learners that will help them learn during and beyond school.

Blogging is just the soil to achieve these goals. Take a look at our learner profile. How many of these qualities are obvious in the examples I have shared?

  • Critical Thinker, Problem Solver, Inquiry, Questioning, Connection, Analysis, Synthesis, Evaluation 
  • Concerned, Committed, Stewardship, Caring, Empathy, Compassion, Open-minded, Service, Sustainability
  • Creative and Innovative, Originality, Imagination, Curiosity, Adaptability, Connection, Persistence Risk-taking
  • Principled, Integrity, Honesty, Responsibility, Respect, Fairness
  • Collaborative, Cooperation, Participation, Leadership, Flexibility, Adaptability, Responsibility, Trust 
  • Resilient, Optimistism, Confidence, Courage, Diligence, Perseverance
  • Communicator, Communication, Interpretation, Perspective, Intent 
  • Self Aware, Self-discipline, Self-esteem, Self-confidence, Reflection 
  • Self Manager, Metacognition, Independence, Perseverance, Diligence, Organisation, Responsibility

Nearly everyone quality can be traced back to a the examples I shared above. Blogging is a way that my students are negotiating and understanding the learner profile in an authentic and discrete manner. They are practicing the skills and exemplifying the qualities although they might not be aware of it. The next job is to help them become metacognitively aware enough to see where and when they are demonstrating these skills and qualities. Another garden ripe for exploration.

I hope the examples I shared prove that students are not afraid to explore themselves and their peers publicly. Contrary to what most adults think, these kids if made comfortable, will use their public spaces to find their voice. As I mentioned earlier, of course this is not true of every kid, and I am not here to push every kid to open up. Some seeds need time. And perhaps the soil does not have the right nutrients for every child. But I am seeing that blogging is contagious. As the plants begin to grow, they shield and guide and support the younger saplings. Suddenly we find ourselves in a thriving eco-system of ideas. So I will till the soil, add fertilizer when needed, consider the amount of water every seed will need. I will find sunlight or shade as needed for every fragile sapling. I will wait patiently and stare at what appears to be barren soil. But like every successful gardener I have faith and I have patience. I will wait for every seed to grow.