I am sitting on the floor next to a grade eight student discussing the elasticity between fiction and truth. She wants to know how far she can test “the facts” while writing a feature article about child-soldiers in The Sudan. She is thirteen years old, looking at me in the eye asking if she will lose creditability if she fictionalizes too much of her story. We discuss the gray area between fiction and non-fiction, the possibility of understanding truth, and how text is meant to entertain and inform. The worlds we create as writers, in a sense are all fictional, but our ability to trace our “truths” back to credible corroborated sources is a way to maintain our integrity. Does that make sense I say, doubtfully. “Yes,” She nods her head. “Yes,” she says and with a furrowed brow returns to the sofa and begins to type frantically.
Like a dutiful bee, I move to the next student, this one in a bean bag and we discuss how to maintain an ongoing, moving, linear back story to anchor the raw data and information he wants to convey to his reader. He decides he will begin his article at the beginning of a cattle raid. After his lead, he will share the information he found after weeks of research on the value of cattle for Dinka culture. He tells me that he will return to the cattle raid now in progress- back to more information about the economy of cattle, and end with the aftermath of the raid. This is one of my learning support students who struggles to remain engaged. That sounds great, I say and leave him to wrestle with the words. The room is silent as the entire class stares at their laptops, fingers gingerly dancing on the keys.
You can either think of yourself as thirteen year olds writing for a teacher in English class, or you can think of yourselves as writers who demand to tell a story. There is a difference.
A few of them look up and smile awkwardly to acknowledge what I have just said, but most continue to write. I am not worried about distractions or Skype or Facebook or kids gaming. These guys are busy and engaged. They have assumed the identity of citizen journalists.
Being labeled a tech savvy teacher I sometimes feel pressure to always use technology. I don’t even know what that means any more. I sometimes feel guilty when I notice how “traditional” our curriculum has become. On days like today, however, none of it matters. Technology shouldn’t be a gimmicky lure we use to “engage” kids. We use it when we can, when we must, when it makes sense. Otherwise we talk about writing. We write. We explore. Engagement is about passion and love for what we do. It is about getting on the floor and talking to kids about their ideas and giving them immediate feedback. 1-1 means that we try to spend time with each student discussing their work, not speaking at a class about what they all should be doing. No amount of technology will motivate kids, if the pedagogy and the content and the teachers love for the material is not there.
Our activity this week has little to do with technology. Sure we are using Google Docs to draft our work, giving me access to their on-going work, and yes we used Diigo to annotate and tag all our research, and yes we hope to publish these articles on a blog called Stories from The Sudan and maybe even publish a selected few in an iBook of the same name, but really we have been focused on text and conversations about text and fiction and truth and justice and genocide and stories and voice and empathy and understanding.
I have been incredibly proud of our students. For the last several weeks they have read What is the What by Dave Eggers, a dense 500+page novel about the Sudanese Lost Boys. They have researched a variety of topics for their feature articles. Ranging from The Sudanese diaspora, to gender equality, to child-soldiers, to slavery, to cattle culture, to the socio-political causes of the regional conflict. As their summative assessment they are writing a 1500 word feature article which attempts to entertain and inform, assessed by a rubric they wrote as a class.
Sometimes I cannot believe they are only thirteen years old. So often we underestimate what student are capable of, or worse we set the bar too high, but do not invest enough of our own passion to carry them through. The formula for engagement is simple- Students need high expectations and challenges, but they also need every ounce of energy we have to maintain enthusiasm and love for what we teach. We need to prove to them that we value what we ask them to do. We need to give them enough choice and autonomy to take ownership of what they do, then we need to support their choices with fluid and constant feedback.
How do you maintain engagement? What are your tips or formulas?
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.
Fancy yourself a storyteller, a writer, a creator, a tinkerer, an artist, a child at heart? You like to play and sculpt and shape and remix and mashup? You like photos and stories and music and art and never ending searches for meaning and beauty and things that give you pause and gratitude and feelings bordering authentic? You feel connected, disconnected, isolated, surrounded, loved, ignored or necessary?
Wanna make some art?
For the last year, I have been taking photographs. For each day of the 365 I have chosen one photo to be the photo of that day. The photos can be found here. Or I suppose if you want, you could flip through them here:
But I want you to do more than just view dear reader. I want you to absorb and internalize, synthesize and make your own–the emotions and ideas that consume you when you find a photo or photos that speak to you. Look for themes or colors or people and — Write a poem. Scribe a song. Create a short film. Write a short story. A newspaper article. Blend the media and tell the story digitally.
Whatever you do, please link back to this post with a URL of where your creation lives online. Please also add the link to the Flickr photo itself. Perhaps you can also scribble some lines in the comments of the photo, where someone else can take the lines and move them forward or backward to wherever they needs to go.
You can also share this set with your students, your peers, your administrators, your grandmas and grandpas. But, if, however you do not feel artistically up to the challenge, then send me some ideas and I will do it for you. Fill out this form to give me some direction:
If you have any other ideas, please share. I am curious to see where these photos will go, who they will come. I am giddy to see my life told back to me by you, with you through you. Last time we did something like this, we ended up in some interesting places.
So come on…the least you can do is write the first thing that comes to mind on a photo that grabs your attention. Your random dribble thoughts, could ignite a fire some place else.
I remeber being nervous and stingy and naive when I first joined Flickr nearly five years ago on February 3rd 2007. I knew little about networks or online sharing or photography or copy right or Creative Commons, or much of anything. I was, believe it or not, more self-obsessed than I am even now, and I felt that my ideas and my work and my photos were more valuable than they were. I had at the time sold a few photos at some coffee shop, and I remeber thinking, if I post them online then anyone can take them and do whatever they want with them. I contemplated watermarks and other such silly things.
I am not sure what changed my thinking, but the shift was simple: I understood that the photos, like much of my work would be more valuable, would reach a wider audience, would have a richer life if they did not belong to me, and were set free–so to speak–to roam the Internet. Perhaps, through osmosis or early contact I began to understand and appreciate the concept of the commons.
I don’t think my work is anything special. I do not want to own it. I am not interested in commercial gains from what I share online. I have a salary. I am a teacher. Everything else is who I am online. I share my work, because it brings me in contact with amazing human beings and ideas. So since that day in 2007, I have posted nearly 2000 photos on Flickr. I have since learned about Creative Commons and licensing. It’s pretty straight forward:
You are free:
to Share — to copy, distribute and transmit the work
to Remix — to adapt the work
Under the following conditions:
Attribution — You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor
Noncommercial — You may not use this work for commercial purposes.
Share Alike — If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under the same or similar license to this one.
In short, it’s yours. Use it, do what you like with it, just don’t make money off of it, and please let people know where it came from. As simple as that sounds, Facebook and Instagram’s new terms of service are quite different. Sounds more like this:
We will use what we want, in order to make money for our selves and we won’t tell anyone where the images come from especially now you.
I have had a love/hate relationship (haven’t we all) for years now. I have written at length about the many times I have deleted my account. If reading pages and pages of ripes and excuses about Facebook is not your thing, here it is in short form:
I don’t like how sneaky Facebook is about the content I produce or what they might do with it. I don’t trust them. Who cares? You might be asking. Didn’t I just say that I am no longer attached to my work? The issue here is not the content per se, but the comodification of our communities, of our lives, of our experiences beyond our control.
I thought I had solved my Facebook problem. I decided to simply post updates to stay in touch with friends and family and never post any content. This was great especially when a young start-up names Instagram came to the neighborhood. Sure she was vague about ownership and licensing too, but she was sleek and sexy and look at all those filters! I could post my pics on Instagram and cross post to Facebook, without FB getting their hands on my content. Or so it seemed.
What was even better was the dynamic and organic community that was forming around photos on Instagram. It was perfect. I loved it. Until Facebook bought up my “favorite place online.” Like most people, I knew they would ruin it, and it was only a matter of time. There are already countless articles about What Instagram’s New Terms of Service Mean for You and Facebook’s Extensive Network of Worldwide Affiliates, but here is the heart of the matter:
You agree that a business or other entity may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos (along with any associated metadata), and/or actions you take, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you.
We will use what we want, in order to make money for our selves and we won’t tell anyone where the images come from especially now you.
Now that doesn’t sound very nice. That doesn’t sound at all like the things I was saying at the top of this post. So… I am deleting my Instagram account, not because I am afraid the pictures I take of clouds and my dinner will end up in some commercial, but because I just don’t like how Facebook does business. I don’t want people doing business with what I love, with what I create and share openly. I invest a lot of time and energy and love into these communities. They are valuable to me and I hope to others, but it is clear that our communities are also valuable to companies like Facebook. They want to know where we eat, what we do, what we like etc… I for one am choosing not to give it to them for free.
The Internet and the communities we build on? In? Through it, belong to us, and we should be able to choose how and where they are shared and on what terms. For me, at this time Flickr and Creative Commons are the best choice. They have both been around, relatively unchanged for a while. I like that I pay for Flickr. When services are “free” they are most likely bleeding you dry from some place you might not see. I will pay my yearly $24.95 and I will use the beautiful new Flickr App to try and rebuild my community where I started.
As a tool it is not perfect. It is a bit slow and not as comfortable as Instgram, but isn’t change why we are all in this game? To be adaptable and fluid?
I know that it is scary to leave a community you have built and in which you feel comfortable. That is what Facebook is banking on. That you won’t leave, but if a community is valuable and truly connected, it should be connected beyond a single app or tool. Thee more time I spend online, the more I see that we cannot, should not invest too many of our eggs in single baskets. Especially the one basket that seems to be buying all the other baskets.
I know I will miss certain people and events and expereinces being away from Instagram, but hopefully the people I care about will find me and who knows I may meet someone new. What are you waiting for? Are you leaving too? Do you have similar reasons? Better ones? Are you staying? Am I over reacting? Let’s turn the comments into a dynamic conversation about community, content and commodity.
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.
Some days you walk out of your classroom feeling that nothing spectacular happened that day. Nothing was learned and even less taught. A lingering cold, wrapped in exhaustion, wrapped in lethargy, wrapped in an overwhelming sense of banging your head against so many walls that you’re not sure where you are or how you got in. Forget about any notion of getting out.
The room is dark and empty, but still heavy and slipping away from you. The classes came and went, their opaque faces drab and reflecting your frustration. You ever try to teach a group of thirteen year old boys the power of metaphor? The subtle beauty of poetry, the understanding that beneath their carefully constructed shell of angst and machismo, there may just be a tinny furry animal waiting to sing. Might be whimpering now, beneath the dirge of braggadocio and false self-esteem, but if you can convince them, they may perhaps hear a more authentic Yawp, but on days like these there are few rooftops, and what little plateaus may glimmer in the fog are tame and totally translatable into words like defeat and failure.
They didn’t learn today. Words were exchanged, ideas shuffled, you sang tired song and danced a sad dance, but they saw right through you. They saw through the mask and realized that the clown was only human and the lessons he was selling were false and trite and unnecessary. You could see the words dribble from your lips, as your convoluted ideas grew higher and higher drowning you both in wasted effort. Thesis statements, understandings, abstractions, imagery, truth. What do you know of such things to have the gall to teach? Each child struggling with his or her own inability to comprehend or grow or learn. Your teaching rather than act as a life preserver, awkwardly transforms into anvils of confusion, which you carefully tie around each ankle and watch them sink.
Sure there was the literal kid, confessing his in ability to see what could be. Trapped in a world of what is. His young brain, trained by rulers and numbers packed so snuggling into his perfect little box. His eyes looking into yours, cold, “I don’t know why the world is beautiful.” Even after the claim of the worlds beauty was one of his professed truths. “Let’s make a list of things you find beautiful,” you reassure him. “Mountains okay! That is good. What do mountains tend to represent?” Blank stare. Quiet. “If mountains were people, how would they act, how would they look?” Whispering. Unsure. “Yes good– strong, wise, old! What else is beautiful?” We are getting somewhere. This is scaffolding. This is teaching. “Rivers. Yes! Sure they are fast and flow and change. What do they do to mountains? Shape them! Perfect.” High fives. “Have you ever been to a mountain? Swam in a river? No? Oh….” The high is low. Poetry without experience is nothing more than empty words. You both stare at dead letters blinking on the page. You google a few images of mountains and rivers and ask him to write a poem about a little boy who sees the beauty in the world, but has never felt it. You hope for the best. How do you teach what could be, when we live in a world of what is?
People criticize teachers, bloggers, writers who only promote and share their success stories. Claiming that by sharing what works we set the bar too high. Perhaps they are right. Maybe we do need more posts sharing the days where it just didn’t feel right. We tell our students that they cannot hope to achieve at the highest level all the time, but we hold ourselves at this high standard. We are so afraid to admit that some days we just don’t have it. It feels good to admit that. Because after all, we have been doing this long enough to know that these days come and go. We know we will head back into the classroom, we will look back into those eyes, we will sing the song, we will dance the dance and we will teach kids poetry god damn it, because if we don’t who will?
I just finished another round of parent teacher conferences. For two days and approximately 13 hours, I met with the parents of nearly one hundred students. They came in one after another every seven minutes. After the fortieth or fiftieth conference, I had fallen into a routine. I was working with a manageable and effective script:
Rather than tell you a bunch of information you may not read or want to hear, I would love if you would tell me a little about your child in these three fields:
- Have you heard anything from him/her that would be cause for celebration? How are they feeling overall about our class and his/her progress?
- Are there any concerns or questions you have about his/her attainment or skills?
- Is there anything about the curriculum which you might need more clarity?
While our model was far from ideal, it worked. Most parents found an area on which they wanted to focus, and I tailored my comments based on what they wanted to hear. Some parents were excited by the work we are doing at The Table. Some were proud of their kids for publicly sharing their voices on their blogs. Some parents were concerned that we weren’t reading enough classics. Some were concerned that we weren’t reading enough. Full stop. Some where concerned with our approach to teaching English. Overall, I felt very positive about our conversations. I felt that most parents were happy with our progress as a class, most parents were happy with their child’s progress and grades. Most parents were satisfied.
Later that night, on Twitter, I bemoaned the stress of grades and skills and attainment when it comes to schooling and wished that I had had different conversations. I was having the wrong conversations. What made it worse was that I realized that I had framed the conversations myself, because that is what I felt parents wanted.
After the conferences, we sat as a department for a quick debrief, and I excitedly shared my script, mentioned the positive feedback, while we absorbed the negative feedback. I felt quite pleased with myself. I had had great conferences, even though they may not have been the ones I wanted.
Then Ian, our Fearless Leader, mentioned a conversation he had with a mother who had not been concerned about grades at all, or skills or classics, but wanted to ask Ian about his values. She was a former UWC graduate, and for her the most important thing was whether or not her child’s teacher had values that matched the UWC ethos. She wanted to know what kind of person was sitting in front of her child and what types of qualities and understanding he valued.
I got to thinking–So many parents asked me what their child can do to improve. No matter how they were doing, no matter the grade, no matter the comments– nearly everyone asked me how their child could improve. Where does this need to achieve and compete and become perfect come from. Is improvement the same as growth, do either correlate with learning? Does improvement in a skill lead to understanding? Does improvement in skills lead to values? Do attainment and grades, skills and improvement always indicate learning in terms of values. What is the purpose of school? Skills or values? Both? How do we balance the two? When do we talk about how or when students are being concerned or committed, principled, resilient, self-aware? Communicators? Collaborators? Thinkers, Problem Solvers, Creative or Self-Mangers? Do their attainment grades in single subjects reflect their learning in terms of Service, Outdoor Ed, Activities, Personal and Social Education? What I am trying to say is that we all tend to focus on the Academic?
I framed my entire conversation around the things I value least in hopes that I would satisfy what parents wanted, but is that really what they wanted? I hope parents who are reading this will contribute in the comments below, so we can extend the conversation. I hope we can find better ways to talk about what is happening at school in regards to their kids. The conversations can be, should be much deeper, than a seven minute discourse on why he/she received a number or whether or not they can use a comma.
I am purposely being a tad flippant, of course I understand that each conference is based on what happens in that single subject. I also realize that teachers are ultimately responsible for conveying a set of understandings and developing a skill set. We are accountable for a set of standards and benchmarks and our assessments should reflect improvement in these skills. I also know that parents want to be informed and included on talks about choices we make about curriculum, but like Jeff Plaman said, can’t these conversations happen as a group, in public, on blogs like this one?
My qualm is the amount of focus, time and energy we spend solely on attainment and academic grades. Skills and grades are a reality. They are based on rubrics, but no matter how we try to justify how they come to be, they can often be arbitrary and subjective. A grade tends to a very ineffective method to share student learning.
So what is the answer? What are the conversations we could be having? How do you do parent conferences at your school? (Before you say Student Led conference, yes that is option, but I know of few schools who have perfected that model either. They still tend to be parents looking over the shoulders, looking for the teacher to talk about that pesky math grade. We will have SLC at the end of the year, but most schools still feel a need to have parent conferences in addition to SLC) As a parent, what are your thoughts? What would you like to see? How do you feel after a talk with teachers? What is important to you?
I hope this post generates some fruitful conversations and possible ideas for future conferences.
A few weeks ago, right around the time I started to really get to know my students, a shy girl–the brooding artistic type lingered after class, nervously asking me if I had read The Perks of Being a Wallflower. When I mentioned that I hadn’t, she insisted that I should “definitely check it out.” She assured me that I would love it.
Coincidently, a short time later my wife read the book, and I began to hear about it from different people everywhere. It has since been passed around the grade eight and several of my students have taken to blogging about it. My wife was surprised that so many grade eight “kids” are reading it, as some of the main themes are “inappropriate.”
Since I am still mired in Infinite Jest, I haven’t had time to read the novel, but I just returned from a movie date. Yup you guessed it: sex, drugs and rock and roll and suicide and sexual molestation, and mental illness– it is all there. I would have loved this book in grade eight, so why do I feel nervous talking about it with my students? I have a book that kids are exited about it. They are asking me to read it. Isn’t this what we want?
Realistically there is nothing new here, nothing that wasn’t covered in Catcher in the Rye, but for some reason, anything that veers ever so slightly from the sterile narratives of life as puppies and rainbows makes us nervous. We pretend that young adults and teenagers do not swear, they don’t think about sex and they don’t drink or do drugs.
We tell them not to do these things, without giving reasons why, only to act surprised when they experiment and get lost, but here is the thing–whether or not we admit that kids are thinking about these big ideas, they are! They want to talk to us about drugs and sex and alienation. We owe it to our students to meet them at the edge of tension and their interests or we will lose them to sanitized versions of life that bore us all. Kids gravitate toward the dark frayed edges of life and we owe them literature, culture and media that helps them navigate these edges, but how do we know when is too soon?
I hate to pin everything I do based on who I was in middle school, but it is my main point of reference. I know that I really could have used some adults to talk to about so many topics deemed inappropriate. I figured it out on my own, like most of us do, but why do we force kids to do that? We have been there, don’t we owe it to them to help?
Experience has taught me that we underestimate kids at nearly every turn, but what do you think? I know many grade 11 and 12 teachers who are not shackled by taboo themes in literature. But what about middle school? How do you decide which themes are age appropriate? How do you know how far to go down dark paths? Can we teach this novel? Should we? Talk to me people…
I started writing, blogging, whatever you want to call it nearly seven years ago. I started with some important questions,
What if we are English teachers and we talk all day about why writing is important and we want to prove that by actually doing it? What if we tell or students that writing helps us learn how to think? It helps us break down the world and recreate it in a way that makes sense to us? What if we believe that writing is the last form of communication, and that the freedom on the Internet and Blogging may help us connect with ideas we never knew possible? What if we believe in the honesty of the Blog as a venue to connect and share? What if we are tired of cynicism? Read more
I’m not sure if I’m closer to finding any answers, or if I have become lost or more deluded. Sometimes it feels like I have been spewing the same sermon for nearly a decade? Perhaps, but I still believe– I still believe in the power of Internet; this power of sharing. I still believe in fostering creativity, empowering students and creating spaces where they can shine and share and connect and grow.
The problem is that student blogs don’t always achieve this utopian wonderland of blissful connected learning. As a matter of fact, blogs often become dull, boring, dead spaces weighed down by the institutionalization of school environments. Dumping grounds for forced reflections, glorified worksheets, and poor writing no one but the teacher reads– these potentially vibrant spaces are transformed into vacant shells of what they might have been. So how do we create authentic spaces for students to reach their potential? This is a question I have been trying to answer for seven years, but never more urgently than now, as I prepare for a webinar later this week and a presentation next month on this very topic. I hope this post helps me narrow my focus and gain some clarity for myself and for you.
As soon as I saw the potential for in blogging as a tool for myself, seven years ago, I began experimenting with student blogs. I began under the tutelage of Kim Cofino and since then I have worked with Edublog, WordPress and now Blogger in a variety of schools and platforms. But not until this year, have I felt so excited about where my classes are heading. Things seem to be happening. I am not sure what is happening exactly, or where we are headed, but something feels different this year. I don’t want to jinx it, because like a young sprout our program is still very tender and potentially susceptible to failure, but many people have been asking me what is different about this year.
This post is meant to highlight some of what we have been doing and why it seems to be working. The following ideas are not ranked by importance and may not even be fully thought out or accurate. This list is that I came up with as I brainstormed the reason why we are finding success this year.
We Are A Team On The Same Page
I chose the word we, when I referred to some of the things we are doing intentionally. I have been on teams before, all wonderful in their own ways, but this is the first time in a long that I am in a group of teachers who are not only passionate about online sharing, digital citizenship, blogging, but skilled and well-versed as well. What’s more we understand that we, as a school, are at the early stages, at least when it comes to blogging, so we are not encumbered by system-wide guidelines or restrictions. We are free to experiment and let the dog loose on the leash so to speak. Furthermore, our skills and expertise are spread out across the school. Some of my most successful bloggers have had exposure to many of the ideas and values surrounding blogging earlier in their schooling. They were taught things like Creative Commons, design principles, and online etiquette by Keri-Lee and Louise in our Junior School. When they get to us, they are well versed in the basics. I cannot overstate how important this early exposure is for students, if you want them feeling comfortable sharing online.
Here in the middle school, I feel blessed to work closely with Paula, as we begin to lead the vanguard forward. It is crucial to have a few peers with whom you can exchange ideas. We also have Ian, who is new to blogging, but along with his enthusiasm brings a critical eye to help make sure we are blogging for the right reasons. I have spent so much time being the only person on a team trying to change minds and convince others of the value of blogging. It is so important to have a few team members who get it and are ready to push the possibilities. We also have an amazing librarian resource in Katie who helps us both on and off line create a literate and text rich world. . Add to this mix a tech coach who is not only on board, but can make things happens with the higher ups, and one who allows you the freedom to run, unafraid that you might trip up once in a while, for that we have Jeff! Finally we have an administration who trusts us and is steered by the excitement and potential of blogging and not held back by the fear or anxiety. I could go on and on, (Sorry if I forgot anyone) but staffing and like-minded teams really help.
It is difficult to succeed when you are the lone voice in the wilderness. A supportive vertically spread-out team and a supportive administration are key components to a successful student blogging initiative.
I get blogging. I know how to do it. I understand the purpose of commenting. I know the value of RSS and can set up 22 feeds in reader with my eyes closed. I understand design. In short, I have been doing this for a while. At any given time I am administrating four to five blogs at a time. This experience comes with time. It is difficult to build organic student blogging environments, if you don’t have at least a few people on your team with this experience. I am not saying you can’t do amazing things when you are just starting out, but it takes time to get to a point where the small hiccups do not become major obstacle to your success. It takes time and practice to to gain this invaluable experience.
The best way to mentor others is to do yourself. If you want to create a student blogging environment you HAVE TO blog yourself. Write, read, immerse yourself in the blogosphere and play. The fact that you are here is a great first step, now join the conversations. Leave a comment, get involved. Your students will not blog successfully if you yourself do not blog!
Expectations vs Possibilities
Don’t start with what a blog must be or what it can’t be, but focus on what it might be. Give students freedom at first, let them drift and open up and build faith and trust. Don’t even mention the word portfolio. Instead exploit their natural tendency to share in other social network sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I explain to my kids that a blog is just a deeper version of what they already do. Teach them to take time in explaining why they share photos or video clips.
Blogging is about trust. Trust takes time. Students must feel safe to become vulnerable and open up. This trust is not built online, but in your classroom, when you are together, as a group, face-to-face. It is built through effective classroom discussions at the table and understanding the power of commenting and conversations. It is building offline spaces that are fun and creative and open to new ideas and projects. It is built by sharing as much of yourself with your students as you can. Share your music, your ideas, and texts that move you. Share your contacts and friends and model what you teach. Use your network to show the power of networks. Before you know it your students will be writing about all kinds of things:
Home- a poem by Myra
Blogging is Like Minecraft- by Kaymin
Illustrations- by Wendy
Japanese History- by Keito
F1 Fever- by Ananya
Focus Africa- by Max
Slam Poetry and another one on Imagination – by Aditi M
What Am I Doing With My Life- by Aditi P.
Basketball- by Glen
Music is My Life- by India
Sharks- by Pavitra
Mad Dogs (Book Review)- by Shashu
Food Questions- by Rohan
If you want your students to blog effectively, give them the freedom to experiment and write about what interests them. Stay away from portfolios and forced reflections on their learning, at least until they get the hang of it. Wait until they find a voice, find an audience, and become involved in the conversations around ideas, before you push your agenda of meta-cognition and reflective learning.
Playground vs Classroom
Kids play on playgrounds. They take risks out there– jumping off monkey bars, going down slides on tummies. They bully each other and form friendships. They get dirty. They have fun. They learn to stand in cues or get in fights. They learn not to go up the slide. It is not always easy being out there, but they stretch and learn and grow. Kids need playgrounds. Sometimes these spaces are supervised. Sometimes they are not.
I see social networks as digital playgrounds. Our students are out there. They are playing and experimenting. They are learning social norms: bullying and forming communities. They are sharing with positive and negative results. Sometimes these spaces are supervised. Most often they are not. Just as we need “real world” playgrounds, we need these online spaces as well. Kids need to have places where they socialize and learn without supervision. They need to jump off the monkey bars and figure things out on their own.
But they also need a classroom space to unpack and articulate their playground lessons. I see the blog as this space. While they play on cyber-playgrounds like Tumblr and Facebook, they need a middle ground to process what they do. I try and convince my students that they need a space of their own to explore their thinking and get constructive feed back from the community we are trying to build. We all play with our own friends out in the playground, sometimes crossing paths, but we meet in the classroom. We share, expand and really open up on blogs.
Students need to understand that there is value in an online space where they can have some structure in order to learn how others socialize online. A place they can practice lessons on digital citizenship and build community. They need to understand the role of the blog before they are asked (forced) to share. I find this playground and classroom model is a good way to get my head around it.
Space of our Own
Student understanding of the why of blogging is vital to successful student blogs. They will often think that blogs are just another school chore they must complete to appease the teacher. Another hoop to jump through. Another place to dump homework. I mentioned earlier that we did not start with portfolios or reflections or anything mandatory this year. Instead we are selling the kids on the values I have mentioned above. We are trying to build an understanding of the value of constructing an honest and authentic digital footprint. I think Jeff P. said,
We visit other places online, but a blog is your home where you invite people on your terms. You decorate and entertain and store yours stuff there. You live there. Without a blog you are cyber-homeless, simply wondering or couch surfing.
I love this image. We have found that helping students understand the homely feel of a blog has been invaluable. We encourage kids to share and find their voice and to house it on their blog–a place they hopefully feel comfortable.
There you have it. I am by no means an expert, but experience has taught me some lessons that I have shared with you. I am not sure where our blogs will go this year, but things are happening and we are excited. I just hope we don’t over-think them. I feel like they are young saplings at this time, I just hope we don’t over water them.
What have you done to create authentic student blogs or online spaces? What questions do you have? Let’s start a conversation and see here it goes. See you in the comments.
If you are interested in this topic, please join us this week at , Authentic Student Blogging: Empowering Student Voice in the Social Media Age. I could not be more honored and humbled to be presenting with Alec, Jim, Bud, Melanie, Alan and Howard. I am thrilled to be involved in this event with my heroes and mentors. You want experts? I am sure they will have a lot to say on this topic. See you there.
This project grew organically from a quick exchange of ideas on Twitter with Paula, John and Ari, and now it may have become the cornerstone of my Learning 2.0 presentation on digital storytelling. I am not only excited about the process to generate this story, but I am also thrilled by the possibility of what something like this might look like in my classroom.
Started like this:
Ari was excited about using #visualwritingprompts. He began to experiment with the form on a blog for his Freshman Comp students. I mentioned that he should take a look at what John has been doing on his blog for #visualwritingprompts. We began to discuss the possibility of students finding their own photos, adding texts and creating their own prompts. Perhaps, one student could find the photo, while another added the prompt and a third student did the actual writing. We then thought maybe a fourth student could Digitize the text. (Create a digital story)
We quickly divided up the roles:
Paula suggested a few photos she had taken herself. John chose this one:
He added the prompt:
To which Ari added the text:
Finally, I digitized it:
I used the Cartoonatic app for my phone to record the footage and added simple voice over of Ari’s text and layered it with Creative Commons music–Feeling Dark (Behind The Mask) by 7OOP3D which I found on CC Mixter.
Paula and I will be starting a new unit soon about societal ideas of what it means to be normal, and we will use this process to help students visualize and critically analyze aid theme. Here are some skills that I think this a project fosters:
- Metaphorical thinking
- Ability to fluctuate between text and imagery
- Ability to create mood based on text, imagery and digital storytelling
- Ability to build ideas and construct meaning based on ideas of peers
I am sure there are more. But I will ask you to help ask and answer these questions:
What does this all mean? How does this sort of collaborative interplay between photography, text and digital story telling help student writing? I am not sure, and honestly I have had a crazy day, so I will leave it to you to extrapolate on this project in the comments below.
Once the process has been completed, perhaps the participants can switch roles. So someone else adds a new prompt to the same picture, or another member writes the text, and yet another person creates a new digi-story?
What do you think Paula, John and Ari? Want to switch this up? Who is doing what? That means you too reader. Take the photo, change the prompt, write a text based on the existing one, make a different digi-story–join the party.