Tag Archives: Culture

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.


What It Might Be- Authentic Student Blogging

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.

Personal Experience

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. 

cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo shared by Daniele Rossi

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.

cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo shared by herefordcat

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.


Launch Forth

Did you know that Walt Whitman wrote a poem about social media and the internet? Yeah, I didn’t either, until Ze Frank told me in his video Thinks Like Me.

Side note… I am in love with Ze Frank. Not in a weird– please be my best friend, stalker sort of  way, although I did start digging through his online closet after he started following me on Twitter and sent me some great advice, through a spat of DMs, concerning my Daraja fundraiser,–but more in a, I really respect you man, sort of way.

Maybe in love is the wrong way to put it– I love Ze Frank? Still sounds weird. I respect, admire, am in awe of…no no love will do. I love Ze Frank. Perhaps my admiration stems from the fact that I am new to his work. Yes,  I knew of him through the Young Me, Now Me project, but I had never fully explored the extent of his work. Now that I have, explored, I  realize that much of what he does is everything I love about the web, about people, about life. His work is light, funny, deep, poignant, collaborative, beautiful, loving, self-deprecating, and true. While he doesn’t take himself too seriously, the work speaks volumes about the human experience in the digital age. …end side note.

Sorry this wasn’t meant to be a declaration of love to Ze, it was meant to be about Walt, Spiders, and The Interwebz. I love it when my passions collide: Poetry by ancient bearded queers, social media, arachnids, and online collaborative artists? Yes please. I am assuming you have already watched Thinks Like Me.

What you haven’t watched it yet? Decided to skip that hyperlink, cuz there were too many? I can’t say I am not disappointment in your lack of media literacy, but that is fine. You are learning and I am a teacher. I get that too many links can be annoying, but sometimes you need to stop and read the links that is what a hyperlink is after all: an embedded connection to other content to clarify and add context to existing text.

Anyway, watch the video, you need it for contextual reference if we are to continue. (Man! That is a lot of alliteration or is it consonance?) We will be dealing with the part around 2:3o where he casually mentions that (this) Whitman poem:

It’s about the web right? You and me? Connecting? We are the spiders right? Isolated exploring the vacant, vast surroundings? Launching forth filament, instagrams, filament, Facebook updates, filament, out of ourselves. Aren’t we ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding them. Aren’t we surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of (cyber) space. Ceaselessly musing, blogging, venturing, you-tubing, throwing, tweeting—seeking the spheres, to connect them. You to me. Us? Till the bridge we will need, be form’d—till the ductile anchor hold? Aren’t we hoping that flung gossamer thread will catch somewhere? That someone will read? Comment? Re-tweet? Spin the web of our consciousnesses?

O my soul indeed! I get it Ze. I get it. And so did my grade seven students when we looked at this poem and I mentioned it might be about the internet. They smiled, cuz it is that simple and clear and obvious. That technology and social media is not about technology or social media, it is about connection. It is about the human need to launch forth from itself! Whitman got it, over a hundred years ago. Only difference is that now, it is easier to find an anchor hold. The gossamer threads are  fiber-optic and packed with multi-media, which in and of itself adds layers of complexity, but the need to connect, to create, to share is timeless.

All of this philosophizing reminds me of a post I wrote last year, Far From Home on a Dark Night.

Maybe what you are feeling, someone else feels. Maybe what you are feeling, someone else feels.Wow! That is what I wanted all along.

Seems relevant somehow. Looks like more and more of us are feeling it. Interesting that Justin also uses the metaphor of threads. What do you think? Walt Whitman- social media expert? I can see his Twitter handle now:



It’s About Acculturation

Monday morning. Just got back from Yokohama/Tokyo and the Beyond Laptops Conference put on my Kim Cofino and the great people at the Yokohama International School. I have a million things to do, but I know that if I don’t pin this blog post, right now, onto some kind of solid wall in Cyber Space, it will will melt back into the ether with a million other thought and ideas. I need to strike the hammer while…..end cliche.

Conferences are exhilarating. Conferences are exhausting. They are empowering and frustrating. They can make you feel invincible, while somehow soul crushing at the same time. Before I continue, let me state that this post is not a criticism of the conference or Kim. She did an amazing job trying to satisfy a diverse group of people and our needs. She continually reached out for support and ideas before, during and after the conference and was more than flexible through the two day event. I had a great time and I learned so much. Thank you to everyone at YIS and all the participants. But you all now me well enough to know that I have opinions, and since I was not in the mood to elaborate in the feedback survey, I wanted to share my thoughts in the form of this post. I want to end on a positive note so I will start with the griping.

Not sure if you have heard, but technology is not about the tool. It’s not about devices or software. It’s not about numbers or proof. It’s not about, well apparently it’s not about a lot of things. We are all very good at pontificating what it is not about! Yet somehow, even though it is not about the tool, and even though we create smaller, more intensive conferences for people who realize that it is not about the tool, to discuss what it is about…we end up talking about the tool. We talk about BYOD, iPads verse laptops, or PD models based on– yes,  you guessed it, how to use the tool. We are very good about talking about the tool, while saying that technology is not about the tool. Hence the frustration.

My second gripe was data driven. I am an English teacher. I hate numbers. I hate statistics. I hate quantifying the unquantifiable things in life, like poetry, like nature, like learning. After speaking with so many IT directors and school administrators, however, I can understand the need for numbers to justify budgets to school boards hungry for charts and graphs proving that the millions of dollars they spend on computers are amounting to something, but that is not where I want to spend my energy. My problem is that the only thing I hate more than numbers and charts are budgets and money. I got into teaching to inspire kids, to create authentic learning communities and to change the world. I want to go to conferences and talk about these types of things. I will leave the graphs and charts to other people.

These are my gripes and by no ways reflective of the mood or organization of the conference.  Anyone who has ever organized any kind of PD, workshop, or conference know that you can NEVER please everyone. The small-group, hands-on, conversational tone of the conference was refreshing. It felt great to be able to express my viewpoint with so many of the decision makers from the major schools in Asia. It was valuable to be reminded that assessment of a program either for evaluation or justification has value. It was equally important for me to be the voice of a more qualitative look at the role of technology in our schools.

Throughout the conference, I was approached by several people who said they appreciated my frank, open and holistic look at educational technology. I want to spend the rest of this post trying to articulate just what that looks like. If technology is not about the tools, if it is not about data, then what is it about? How do we know it is “working?”

cc licensed ( BY NC SD ) flickr photo shared by superkimbo

We are immersed in a new culture. It is fluid, it is changing, it is evolving, it is breathing and dreaming and waiting for our input, and for the first time the we is all of us, the our is mine and yours. The involvement with, the creation of, the influence from, the participation in this culture is what concerns me. Acculturation is my focus. We are on a frontier. Pressed up against a fast moving edge to places we have never been before as a society. This understanding is what educational technology should be about: What does this culture look like? How does it affect each of us? How do we participate in it. Learn its language? Learn from it? Teach it? What happens to the me in we? What happens to you in the us? Where are we going? How did we get here? What does school look like in this new culture?

You want to see numbers right? How can we measure and quantify participation in a culture that is still forming? How do we know teachers and students are using technology to learn? Let’s start with the Horizon Report:

The NMC Horizon Project charts the landscape of emerging technologies for teaching, learning, research, creative inquiry, and information management. Launched in 2002, it epitomizes the mission of the NMC to help educators and thought leaders across the world build upon the innovation happening at their institutions by providing them with expert research and analysis.

Much of the work of the NMC Horizon Project takes place in a wiki where international experts across all different educational sectors openly exchange ideas and engage in insightful discourse. In this sense, the NMC Horizon Project represents a new ideal in education: free, open forums that facilitate global collaboration and encourage smarter discovery and dissemination of emerging learning approaches. All NMC Horizon Project reports and papers are published as open content, under a Creative Commons Attribution License, so permission is granted to replicate, copy, distribute, transmit, or adapt the content freely.

Not a bad place to start right? We spend so much time discussing the things that technology is not (a tool) that we never really talk about what it is. There is a nebulous list of 21st century skills that everyone seems to be referencing, but even that term is becoming laden with the heavy baggage of jargon. “Arghh, can we stop saying 21st century skills, it is 2012 already!” is the new “It’s not about the tool.” So what are we doing here? What are we talking about? Back to the Horizon Report. You can read more about the NMC or download the report on their website. I want to distill the key points from A Communique from the Horizon Report Retreat, January 2012. (One of many great resources from the Beyond Laptop reading list.) I have taken the already brief points and carved them down to a few free-standing words:

  • Global  
  • Collaborative
  • Diverse
  • Mobile
  • Access, Efficiency, and Scale
  • Redefining Literacy
  • Information Everywhere
  • Openness
  • Ownership and Privacy
  • Change

This is what our new culture looks like. This is what we need to prepare ourselves, our students, our teachers and parents, for. The question stops being about iPads or PCs, and becomes– Is your school a global, collaborative, diverse, mobile environment with access to people and information? Are you helping to redefine literacy, showing your stakeholders how and when to access information that is everywhere? Are you showing them what to do with it, once they find it, in an open community of learners who understand  the power of ownership and privacy? Most importantly is your institution not only ready for change but seeking it? Are you on the edge of your seat with your nose pressed up against the moving frontier or are you running to catch up, weighed down by stacks of charts and graphs justifying giving students and teachers access to a tool that is so unimportant that it doesn’t even warrant mention? Too simple? Perhaps, but if I could work at a school that understands these concepts and is working toward creating an ethos that values them, I would be a happy camper.

You want to know if your 1:1 program is working? Forget about in-house surveys and data, take a look at the ethos of your school, it’s online presence, its openness and connectivity?  Take a look at the list above, how many of those concepts are you actively promoting and preparing for? Are they part of your vision statement? How much of your professional development is skills-based training and how much of it is cultural understanding? Are these ideas disrupting your school in a good way? Are you embracing them? Are you redesigning existing traditions like reports, timetables and content management to make room for them?

My suggestions for the next Beyond Laptops is that we focus on this new culture. Sorry, Kim. I know this is too little too late, but I had to go through the conference to realize want I needed from it. How do we create schools that are relevant in the age we live in and beyond? How do we teach the Web Kids? How are we all participating in this new culture?