Tag Archives: Changing Schools

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.


Fun and Games

A few days ago, I was bemoaning the existence of exams,  (Glad to see I am not alone in my dislike of exams by the way.) when Adrienne, bless her heart, said something like:

Reality is not all fun and games.

The conversation continued with a bit more detail–about the need for balance of assessments, the value in creating timed conditions for students to illustrate learning as a way to deal with future anxiety and stress, so on and so on. It was a great chat as usual, but I won’t say much more about it here, in case I misquote what was said. The gist of it, at least for me, the part that stuck in my head, was the quote from above: Reality is not all #funandgames.

My first reaction, the one that sprung from my gut was, “Sure it is.” Or “It should be!” or “You wouldn’t say that to a six year old.” At which point, I remembered that I have a six year old at home, and I often catch myself saying things like Reality is not all #funandgames to her all the time! Reality check. Damn!

It is okay to make a huge mess, but we have to cleanup afterward.

Sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do,  so we can do the things we want later.

There is time for play, but there is also time to pay attention and work hard.

You get the point. I get the point of balance and hard work. I have swallowed the bitter pill of reality my fair share of times. I have sat through meetings. I have wallowed in bureaucracy. I have given exams; I have taken exams. I get it–life can suck, but we learn from it. We just have to do it.

We all know that as mature, competent, “successful” adults we need to balance our fun and work. We know, usually, when to suck it up and just do it, so we can kick back and enjoy other things. We have learned, through years of schooling and work and university and exams and tax papers and bank accounts and DMV lines that reality is not all fun and games. We have learned to navigate this reality, and for better or worse we function in it. We thrive in it even. But why do we compare learning with reality? With work? With chores? Why does learning become another chore we must slog through to get to the good stuff? Why can’t it be the good stuff? What if we created schools that exuded the idea that Learning is all fun and games and kept reality out of it all together? I know, I know balance, quantifiable results, assessments of learning, test scores, GPAs, university, back to reality!

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by rolfekolbe

I guess what I am grappling with is–How successful are we as schools, teachers, and parents at instilling this balance in the people with which we interact? We can all litter our walls with Learner Profile posters and scream till our voices are hoarse about balance, but do we practice what we preach? For me, school has always been a place where Reality is not all #funandgames, and I have always wanted it to be Learning is all #funandgames. I hope I have been clear that I understand the value of both, but I think schools spend more time preparing students for a reality of exams and bureaucracy and work and taxes and things we dread, than inspiring in them a love of life and learning and creativity and art and fun. Not all schools, obviously. And yes, of course schools are doing amazing things like service learning, outdoor ed, drama, art and music programs, sports and many other things, but for some reason in the end, it all comes down to grades, achievement, scores, exams- preparation for Reality. We use words like rigor and excellence and college entrance to convince ourselves and our students that they need this, but do they really?

Can’t we teach students the value of hard work and learning and education free from the grip of academic reality? Can’t we focus on learning and fun and games and leave reality on hold for awhile, because let’s admit it, they will be dealing with it soon enough and for long enough. I think children who are confident, passionate and creative do not need exams to show understanding; they usually succeed anyway. But too often, we use academic rigor as the most important criteria for learning and success, and this leaves many children behind. I know, because I was one of them.  I never took the game of school seriously. Yes, I took the exams, I played my part. Some I passed, some I failed. In the end I got a 3. something from some Ivy League school, but that was reality and it was not fun for sure. I played the game to get the degree, and now have over $30,000 of debt to show for it. The learning, the who I am, has always been from from doing. It was all fun and it still is.

How long before we can look back on this system of preparatory education and create institutions where students are not preparing for a reality they find boring and riddled with anxiety? A place where they are not taking exams, but traveling, building, creating, living. Where in short they are having fun and playing games, but at the same time working hard and learning? I want a new concept of school. I think this new school needs more fun and games and less exams.

How do you find this balance in your classroom, in your school? Am I wrong in devaluing academic rigor and examinations? Why do you find it valuable? Curious to hear your thoughts on any of my ramblings. Sorry it took me a while to find my point. Good thing this wasn’t some English exam, I would most likely have scored low for not having a clear thesis and topic sentences.

People say I’m lazy
Dreaming my life away
Well, they give me all kinds of advice
Designed to enlighten me

When I tell them that I’m doing fine
Watching shadows on the wall
Don’t you miss the big time, boy?
You’re no longer on the ball

I’m just sitting here
Watching the wheels go round and round
I really love to watch them roll…

John Lennon