Leave No One Out: Attending to the Classroom Learning Community and its Goals

A couple of online moments during this spring-break week have me thinking once again about the crucial role of the classroom learning community, the environment set up by the teacher–see George Siemens’ 2003 article on learning ecologies— in any discussion about using Web technologies in the classroom. I think we must start from a place of understanding how classroom communities succeed or fail in teaching our students how to learn and how to want to learn and how their lives benefit from the learning. Then we can look at how blogging helps us with those goals by freeing our communities to interact more informally, and thus engage in a practice of writing-to-learn and writing-to-engage-with-other learners rather than writing as object to be delivered as a measure of the learning (see Sarah Lohnes’ recent post “Friere on Writing,” making sure you take a look at her slides from a recent conference presentation in which she examines the difference between classroom and “authentic” blogging).

Bringing blogs into a classroom is a complex business for sure. As we open our classrooms to an emphatic use of connectedness, of collaborative learning, we have to look carefully around us to make sure that we aren’t getting carried away by the “newness,” by our own passions; we must check the compass, evaluating the impact on the community and the teaching/learning objectives. Is anyone getting left out, or left behind as the conversation over on Will Richardson’s blog is asking. Will observes,

“But I don’t read much about the kids that aren’t engaged. And I’m wondering to what extent that happens as well. And further, I’m wondering to what extent they compare to the adult educators we’re trying to teach about these tools who choose not to engage.”

Even where I sit, in a liberal arts institution that attracts students who already do well in a heavily text-based, traditional curriculum–students who are well on their way to achieving their life goals– I have to ask if blogging privileges the natural writers, the confident and quick expressers of ideas through text, those who have had access to computers, or those who are accustomed to having their voices heard. Does blogging leave anyone out? I have to read and think about articles such as “Women and Children Last: The Discursive Constuction of Weblogs” by Herring, Kouper, Scheidt and Wright in Into the Blogosphere, and blogposts such as danah boyd’s from a couple of years ago in which she writes:

Take a look at the public self-referential blogging culture. We’ve often noted that there are few women. Yet, what percentage are people of color or queer? More notably, what percentage are of working class? And btw: the goal isn’t to be able to successfully name one… but when i look around the blogging world, i will think that it is an equalizer the day that people are represented at least proportionately to their representation in the rest of the world. Until then, i’m committed to my belief that there are factors embedded in the blogging culture that only draw specific types of people. And that those factors edge along notions of privilege. Until we decipher how our technologies promote privilege, we cannot create equalizing technologies.

I have to think about how a balance of approaches and tools can have positive impacts on the learning of all my students. I try to think along the lines of a Mike Rose–am I attending to the digital divide in my classroom, the many faces of it, including a rural/urban divide noted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project (which I found thanks to Bryan Alexander) while I ask my students to blog merrily along?

Teaching is never about a single approach, a single strategy–it is constant improvisation, a constant questioning. The learning environment is naturally fluid, and I must be hyper-aware of what’s going on at all levels of the learning, ready to respond with an adjustment here or there. It’s how I cook, and how Darren Kuropatwa reminds us, the tango is danced , in a run of very interesting posts on his blog, Ole — Orchestrating a Learning Ecology (or Learning to Tango). He quotes from Planet-tango to describe authentic learning:

“At the end of the day, there is only one way to dance tango: the way YOU like to dance it. And there is only one style: the one YOU choose to be your style; because a tango dancer never copies, never imitates, never conforms to an established pattern, never follows the trends, never talks about his dancing. A tango dancer dances …. out of a finite number of recognizable body positions for the couple, it is possible to improvise a countless number of patterns, steps and figures.”

And so we teach those “recognizable body positions” and give students the freedom and the coaching to explore their combinations according to the student’s own style, body, interests, goals–and according to the learning community itself. We ask students questions, we model thinking and expression, we point to other models and resources, we put students together to learn from one another. And we remain self-aware. When kids don’t engage with the blogging, we have to look into what else is going on in a classroom (how is blogging being used and to what end) and what are the goals of teachers who do not choose online tools in their work.

It reminds me of a conversation I listened in on couple of weeks ago, (and asked questions via the chat room) over at Barbara Sawhill’s languageunleashed show with David Rose, the founding director of CAST, talking about his Universal Design for Learning, both in CAST’s work and his Harvard School of Education course. UDL is compelling and speaks to all of us invested in student-centered learning. He argued that computer technology affords teachers the opportunity to attend more easily to the varying learning needs of every student–allowing students to learn how they learn best, painting a picture of a classroom ringed by learning stations of all kinds, using a range of technologies–one student using images, one auditory software, another text, etc, everyone engaged. While I agree that in the perfect classroom such a set-up would be a brilliant use of time and space, I have a really hard time bridging the reality of what our teachers face in our schools (isolation within the classroom, overcrowded classrooms, students from a multitude of backgrounds with as many different learning needs, inadequate teacher training, inadequate incentive for change, etc. etc.) with such individualized learning strategies–I think many teachers would be overwhelmed by such a vision. How can they possibly add more to what they already do? And so some students continue to get left behind or bail out.

I don’t completely individualize my courses not because I think everyone learns the same way but because I want my students to experience a range of learning situations–everyone is expected to complete the same assignments (though they are hopefully loosely structured enough to allow everyone to find their own way to complete the assignments in as meaningful a way as possible) . Everyone blogs, does digital stories, writes poems and stories, etc. etc. In my five years of classroom blogging, as I’ve observed here many times, not everyone takes to online work. Some of my students really dislike it. So? Do they all like giving oral presentations? Taking tests? Doing group work? Podcasting? Writing poems? Of course not. Is it important that they do all these things? Yes. Why? Because they have to get a taste of all the options open to them–I talk about equipping them with tools in their toolbox, and then they have to figure out what they’ll make with the tools. And the tools are all these strategies and means of expression. As many as we can cover in a semester. It’s important that they keep an open mind about what they can learn through trying things that are hard for them–we talk about WIlliam Faulkner’s “glorious failures” about learning means making mistakes.

This is where the formation of a dynamic, strong, committed learning collaborative is essential. If students enter a community in which every member is viewed as a critical cog, or as one of my students put it,

“I feel this class is like that game where everyone tries to sit down on each other at the same time, in a circle, and if they do it correctly no one falls because the weight is evenly spread around.”

Other students have written on the blogging-community such reflections as,

As one student wrote in her final reflection: “I finally figured out that I could contribute something to the class, be an expert of sorts, and the more I raised my hand to answer questions the easier it became. I’m still shy in class, but I have four years to improve, and I still don’t think I would have taken that first step if Contemporary Ireland hadn’t forced me to participate in discussions and the blog.”

or this onewho wrote:

“The biggest thing that stands out in my mind when I think about the work we have done is the way it all flows together. We really were all experts and apprentices in this class, we chose our own area of expertise and taught the rest of the class what we learned as we managed the blog, posted our work and reflected on each other’s progress. ”

This is where we teachers-with-technology remind ourselves of the principles of Deep Learning and the role of the community on the learning–it takes a village, yes? And if we remember that, we won’t have students left behind; we won’t have teachers left behind at least in our own villages. But it takes commitment, energy and the willingness to make mistakes as we move forward –as Samuel Beckett said, “Try, Fail; Try again; Fail Better.”


Creative Tensions: New Books, A Video Conference and Classroom Lessons

Going without posting for a couple of weeks while trying to keep up with my ever-lively Bloglines feeds creates an interesting tension, underscoring for me what Michael Joyce has said in an interview:

“Technology threatens our sense of presence yet at the same time offers unprecedented modes of presence to us.”

One of the most important literary hypertext pioneers and theorists, he no longer keeps a public Web presence. So interesting. And when I leave my blog for a spell, I see why one might like to let go of it altogether. And yet knowing it’s there, waiting, anxious, pushes me to explore and develop possible posts–but slowly, building up pressure until I find myself tapping away here. On the one hand I like resisting the urge to post all the time–instead I try to take a slower route, finding correspondences between what I read online, in books, what is evolving in the classroom, and in my thinking. But potential posts grow shaggy and complex as the days tick by until I find myself in a kind of limbo between the informal, conversational post and the formal, researched essay. Hypertext both liberates my thinking and holds me imprisoned within the responsibility to think it out carefully and thoroughly by linking to more interesting and thought-provoking discussions than my own. It’s easy to get lost in the labyrinth. It’s hard to find the time to find my way out.

It’s a different kind of blogging, for sure, than the more conversational sort that I also like to read, but the Chris Sessums-type essay post suits me more than the short update or the quick take on an idea. I found that out a couple of weekends ago during the Edtechtalk Barnraising. I felt scattered and pulled in too many directions– I had little to add to the blogging thread when I both had to be in the chatroom and posting to the wiki–I don’t work all that well that way. I couldn’t figure out who was where and what we were doing–I was downright disoriented. Basically I am not a multi-tasker. To contribute to the edublogging discussion, I usually do it in slow-time by immersing myself in my classroom, thinking, reading offline more extended discussions of my fields of interest, chewing on the ideas. Yup, I’m slow.

And yet I see, too, the value in frequent push-the-idea-out-there blogging. It’s very much what I ask my students to do–both to commit to a daily writing habit–as my colleague, John Elder, has said, “Writers are always talking about getting struck by lightning, and so if you want to increase your chances of inspired writing, you had better be out there in the field every day.” At the same time I ask them to resist the first easy discovery when they are circling in to the pieces they want to stay with for a while. Early on in the semester, I talk about sentiment vs. sentimentality, earned vs. unearned revelations, discussing James Baldwin’s quotation:

“When you’re writing, you’re trying to find out something which you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway.”

Flannery O’Connor said much the same thing, that if the writer doesn’t discover something through the act of writing, how can the reader be expected to discover anything. I scare my students silly by asking them to dare put out their earliest forays into an assignment while urging them to go deep. Floating ideas out on blogs to one another in their tender, unformed state has been harrowing for them: naturally they feel vulnerable and inclined to make disclaimers and explanations to one another during the early stages of writing. Some of them really don’t want to put anything unfinished onto their blogs. But they do, they do, and the written feedback is, of course, invaluable. Already, within five weeks, they have come to realize that they put their raw experiments and first stirrings out there to get word back for themselves, and they put their finished pieces out there to give to their readers. They crave the conversation–they crave the connections to one another on the blog and in the classroom. They are linking to writers, to specific poems, essays and stories they have found on the Web and in books–extending one another’s reach this way. They dive back into past course blogs for inspiration and models. Their writing grows, the community sinks roots, and the students forget about grades and tidy schedules. They begin to be playful with language, with story, with themselves, with one another, with learning.

I want to be more playful here– to learn how to cast the idea out there before I have it so tangled up with all manner of linked threads the way I am doing here today. That’s a blogging goal I have for this spring–to do short jabby posts as well as these long discursive ones, to explore the tensions lying between these two kinds of posts. We’ll see… But today’s post is certainly the meandering kind, looking at the impact of connective writing on communities, and the impact of a community on the writing and the learning experience. I have three books in front of me that I have been reading and thinking about: Michael Joyce’s superb Moral Tales and Meditations: Technological Parables and Refractions, George Landow’s massive and essential update, Hypertext 3.0: Critical Theory and New Media in an Era of Globalization and Will Richardson’s wonderfully accessible, useful Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms.
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Will invites teachers into the world of Web applications in the classroom in his friendly, patient, energetic way–this is the book for teachers intimidated by but interested in blogs, wikis and podcasts. George Landow provides the theoretical as well as practical base for this work in about as approachable a way as I’ve seen. It’s a wonderful book for anyone thinking about hypertext in education. And Michael Joyce’s slim volume, as Helene Cixous writes in her Afterword, is filled with

“narrative cystallizations,” or “epiphanies [which] have an interrogrative rather than a conclusive form. They tell of the emergence of moments in which the characters’ lives are destabilized…What is at issue is the elasticity of time, as if it were possible to space time, that is, to space time out, to stretch time or to cut time with space….”( p.145)

And this is, in large part, what we are trying to do with blogs in our classroom–both to cut into space and to extend time through connectedness in the hopes that the learning experience will be enhanced, and the students better prepared to use the Read/Write Web well in their lives.

I’ve been thinking, too, about the experience my students have just had with digital storytelling at the opening of the Intro to Creative Writing course (A unit no one else in the department teaches, which in itself is rather disconcerting to the students, at least at first) –and how bits I read in these three books describe both my aims with the unit and the outcomes for the students as individual learners and as a community.

In Joyce’s “almost essay,” “The Persistence of the Ordinary,” he discusses the artist, Bill Viola’s work, “The Crossing,” holding that “the expectation of event plays off our own weariness with event.” Further on, he writes,

“The net dislodges the quotidian and diurnal by occupying it in every sense of that word, filling space and time alike…The hypermediated surface, the slow, tropic flow and swirl across the face of the soap bubble, is where we withstand the concurrent and concussive blast of immediacy, the onrushing nextness of unmoored life.”

The tension, the tension–and what I hope my students experience as they blog and as they make digital stories. It is not our job as educators to tell our students what or how to think–but rather to introduce them to situations in which they have to put their skills to use, meaningfully, authentically, and then reflect on the experience, on the learning. A bit of discomfort in the classroom helps. Students are so bombarded with language and image all day, all night; and in higher ed, they are wrapped up within the cloak of academic language–how can they possibly shift gears as quickly as I ask them to? I think it is the most difficult endeavor for college student or teacher to undertake–to make language fresh and true–to try to make art out of words. Paint–sure–it is an unfamiliar, strange medium… the same goes for musical notes. But words? And so I ask them to make stories first from image, music and text–their own photographs, their own scripts, and if they can, their own music. Through writing in multimedia, they become startled by words, by what they do and do not do, what images do, what sound does. Language becomes strange, and they crack open the imagination.

Indeed, this group of students created some powerful digital stories and learned a good deal about writing in three short weeks. And at the same time, the process of engaging with one another through the process of the making the digital stories wove them together into a dynamic community of practice. I am convinced that blogging’s most powerful outcome is the building of community through links and comments and an open presence to one another—-the students are learning how to use their virtual presence to amplify their learning and to give to the rest of the community.

All educators should, I think, read George Landow’s chapter, “Reconfiguring Literary Education,” (which goes far beyond a discussion of the literary in education) — he covers the changes and the pressures, the failures and the future of hypermediated education better than just about anyone. I love how in the section (pp. 312-313) “Answered Prayers, or the Academic Politics of Resistance” he writes about why teachers have “objections to the new technology and its associated pracitces”–that we are sure that students just don’t know enough to be left on their own with the tools of learning (he points to the concerns in the eighteenth century that students shouldn’t be allowed to read books freely without the professors’ control–library access was strictly limited.) And of today he writes:

” What more terrifying for professors of English, who have for decades called for creativity, independent-mindedness, and all those other good things, to receive them from their students! Complaining, hoping, even struggling heroically, perhaps, to awaken their students, they have nonetheless accommodated themselves to present-day education and its institutions, which include the rituals of lecture, class discussion, and examinations through which they themselves have passed and which (they are the evidence) have some good effects on some students.”

Indeed. And our students, having heard all about the rituals of the university classroom, expect this behavior from us. It takes a lot of energy on our part to break out of the ruts.

I’ve been marveling, too, at how different the world is and how the same from when I was the age of my students and my daughters–how traveling to India is both absolutely the same for my daughter as it was for me some twenty-five years ago and so different due to this machine. She and I send photos back and forth–within a couple of hours of a phone conversation we have with her boyfriend’s parents here in Vermont, we can hear her thoughts about that conversation from what I thought was a remote part of India. She has to make a deliberate decision not to be in contact in order to immerse herself completely in the experience. When I was travleing about after college, we couldn’t be in contact for long stretches of time even if we had so desired. And that made a big difference in how we saw ourselves in the world–we could get lost forever. We felt both insignificant and absolutely free. Overwhelmed and exhilarated by ourselves and the world. Now we find ourselves wondering why we haven’t heard from her for a week–ha–my parents had to wait a month for letters to arrive and by then they had no idea where I was in real time. My daughter revels in her discoveries perhaps because she has to seek them out — that’s what I want my students to do within the classroom, sometimes through embracing the connectedness of the blogging, and sometimes by turning away from it altogether. A little bit the way I am trying not to blog too often, but also to blog more freely (if that makes any sense at all).

Take the blogging of a Middlebury student on a research vessel in the Antarctic Ocean–she’s blogging as a way to chronicle her trip for herself, her friends and family–she’s getting no course credit for doing so. One of the most powerful outcomes for her, I think, has been that she has attracted a couple of fans whom she has never met–a ten-year-old with a passion for Antarctica and his grandfather, who with old-fashioned pushpins and a map taped to the wall, are tracing her voyage that they read about daily on the computer; they leave her wonderful comments, asking questions which she answers within 24 hours. She touches them and they her, opening their sense of community to a virtual one with people who share interests. It reminds me of how Barbara Sawhill talks about how she likes not having met the bloggers she has grown to know so well online–I think what she means is that having a single-minded kind of relationship without the complex layers of a fully articulated relationship means she can get right to the ideas, her perspective on this work online. We can engage with groups of people intensely online but not necessarily invite them into our full lives. Interesting–these defined communities are growing increasingly important in our work and our leisure lives–our students need opportunities to explore the grammar of online communities.

And that brings me to the video conference I sat in on for an hour last Friday, organized by university students around the country on Katrina SIx Months Later–a report card from New Orleans. A professor in communications from Tulane said that her research has shown that the most reliable indicator of how successful people were or were not in pulling through after the hurricane’s aftermath was communication within a community–people who had a way to communicate to a community to which they belonged fared much better than those who did not. She said there is a lesson in this for us all–to be in touch with one another, to form tight communities and to use whatever tools we have to stay in contact. It made me think about how my students are faring with the challenges I set before them–finding their way to their imaginations, their creativity, their stories and voices through the tight connections we form inside class via discussion and workshopping and outside of class through the blogs. Our students need opportunities to communicate within and between groups, to connect with one another and the world. Students who blog as a part of their education have their parents venture onto their blogs, friends, teachers, peers, experts out in the world–and each of those ties grounds them within communities and opens them to new groupings and ties potentially to more people rather than isolating them within themselves. And if we’re lucky, our blogging students will come to their own epiphanies that are interrogative rather than conclusive, that keep them creative and interested in the wider world, making deliberate decisions when to immerse themselves online and when to step away, understanding the notions of balance and tension. And then maybe they’ll help me figure out how to write short, interrogative posts that do not move in too many directions.

International Edublogging Women’s Day 2006

Josie Fraser has put out the call for us, in honor of “International Edublogging Women’s Day 2006,” to point to the women edubloggers who have informed our practice. It’s a great idea, especially since quite a few of us have been observing how inspiring so many women eudbloggers have been over the past couple of years, but how little we hear about them. Blogrolls and RSS feeds abound with the same dozen edubloggers, only a smattering of whom are women.. It’s a shame. Well, I for one, am deeply influenced by a community of women edubloggers–so much so, in fact, that along with my NITLE edublogging cohorts, Laura Blankenship and Barbara Sawhill, I’ve proposed a session on edublogging at Blogher this summer.

I’ve touched upon the topic of the relative quiet of the women edubloggers in a couple of recent posts, teachers who use blogs in the classroom but do not necessarily blog out into the world. Now I want to devote a post to the women out there who have meant so much to my own blogging practice.

First off is Sarah Lohnes, many years my junior, who brought blogs to my door, really, in the fall of 2001, and although not as regular a blogger as others, has taught me a tremendous amount about technology and its place in our classrooms. She is now a graduate student at Columbia, and I’ve been reaping the benefits of her grad education by reading along as she grapples with the theory and practice of technology in education.

Catharine Wright and Mary Ellen Bertolini, my Middlebury blogging colleagues have also taught me a good deal about using technology with students. Mary Ellen is fearless when it comes to technology, and she is blogging away on several fronts on her own, in the classroom, and with Middlebury’s peer writing tutors. Catharine is a writer and a multimedia artist exploring the lines between personal and edublogging, and mentoring/editing one of the best group blogs I have encountered in Higher Ed, Dis.course, a blog to which students and faculty post (through her editorship) on issues of identity.

Moving out from my own shores, I have also felt a special kinship with Laura Blankenship, Barbara Sawhill, and Kathleen Fitzpatrick–all liberal arts edubloggers, whose blogging could not be more different one from the other. Laura, aka Geeky Mom, as I’ve pointed out before, has figured out how to thread in all of her life (or most of it) into her personal blog. She keeps a couple of other blogs as well. Barbara blogs a bit, skypes a great deal, hosts languagelabunleashed on Thursday evenings, and is doing a terrific job blogging with her students in Spanish. I love her understanding of the tensions faculty feel as they move toward technology–she’s smart and funny, energetic and committed–now if she’d only blog more often! 😉

Every day when I check my Bloglines account for new posts, I hope to find something from Josie Fraser in the UK, as she keeps her eye on the full edublogosphere for us; Barbara Dieu in Brazil, on her own blog and dekitawhere she works hard to keep the EFL community up-to-date with developments in educational technology; and the tireless, inspiring Anne Davis in Georgia who points to examples in classrooms, news in the world of education, and her own musings on this work. I don’t know how she does it all.

What I particularly love about their blogging is these bloggers’ ability to post entries that move the conversation–they do not repeat the posts of others; they think through the thorny issues facing us, always giving me something to think about and techniques to take with me. I highlight these women because they are in the trenches–the classroom with students and with teachers, and they are making quite a difference for blogging educators trying to open up education on both sides of the Atlantic, both sides of the Pacific, both sides of the equator.

There are others, of course, bloggers from libraries (Joyce Valenza and Jenny Levine, The Shifted Librarian, for starters) the researchers such as Jill Walker, Jean Burgess, danah boyd (and there are many others I read), and those bloggers from the wider world of educational practice, such as Nancy White who blogs about distance learning and communities of practice and really gets it about creativity in the workplace and about connectivism in the classroom. Lovely blog.

Kudos and thanks to all of you!

A Topic Worth Returning To: Teachers and Fear


Over the past year I’ve posted several entries on what student blogging means for the teacher: the actual practice versus the theory of using social software in the classroom and fear’s crippling effect– I’m not talking about the fear factor Will’s been covering (schools shutting blogs down for fear of students abusing one another or being abused by the outside world via the internet) but the fear of change–the fear of free-falling, of moving away from the known, of relinquishing control and of the impact on our time and the resulting pressure on how we train our teachers. It’s one thing to talk about subject-centered, collaborative-centered, connected learning (via blogs or not); it’s another thing altogether to make it truly a reality in classrooms employing blogs in ways many edubloggers write about, including me. And if a teacher/researcher as insightful and open-minded and influential as Jill Walker is pulling away from having her students blog (also see her response to my previous post here) because blogging seems unscalable to large classes when she’s trying to balance the demands on her time (personal life, teaching, research and administrative responsibilities), it makes me stop a moment and wrestle with the topic once again.

First off, the time issue. No teacher ever has enough time. We are asked to cram whole lifetimes of learning into ten-twelve-fifteen weeks, and we wonder why we feel like zombies and our students are increasingly stressed out. Taking on one more thing, one more approach, tool, pedagogy seems like madness when we’re already teetering on the brink of losing any time to ourselves much less time to make it through the course requirements. And on first view, collaborative learning approaches that focus on each student’s ability to contribute to group according to his/her learning style and learning interests seem to demand more time on our part managing, overseeing, leading, planning, and modelling. And that’s the problem–if we only kinda sorta adopt the tools and the approaches, while hanging onto our need to be in control of the learning situation and outcomes, then we’ll surely dive headfirst into the sinkhole of the teacher-as-everything model. I do not believe that classroom blogs are more time-consuming than any other effective teaching approach–once you know what you’re doing with them. And that’s the problem–new approaches take more time initially, and are risky because we’ll make mistakes along the way. We have to look closely at the FEAR factor and find ways to help our co-horts and ourselves dare to move into teaching & learning as a collective intelligence activity.
An interesting article on the terrific Tomorrow’s Professor Blog, a collaboration between MIT and Stanford, Preparing Faculty for Pedagogical Change: Helping Faculty Deal with Fear by Linda Hodges, outlines underlying fears that make shifting to new pedagogies, including collaborative and problem-solving learning, so overwhelming to many teachers. If we want to bring about widespread reform —really do it instead of thinking we are doing it, we must address these teacher fears and help with concrete, non-threatening steps. Dave Cormier’s one-day virtual conference next weekend to fire up “a mass curriculum plan” on “how to use Social Media that uses Social Media as a core part of the teaching.” seems to me a brilliant step in the right direction. Teachers need help! Instead of adopting an attitude of, well, good teachers will get it just as they have always gotten it, and bad teachers will not or can not, I’m determined to take a page from Anne’s blog, and focus as much on ways to move into this work as on the outcomes as experienced by the learning collaboratives in my classrooms.
Conrad’s recent posting about how he has learned to comment on student writing rather than mark it because he has learned to include the student in a conversation (versus the teacher monologue), is a brave post: his transparent reflective practice gives us all a view into the impact a blogging practice can have on the teacher, even away from computers altogether. And there’s Tom Wright’s post on “Blogs and Learning Communities, that points out the difference between commenting and marking. Any teacher who has read Lucy Calkins or Donald Graves or Peter Elbow or Mina Shaunnessey, etc. knows about the conversations that must occur in writing classrooms, that the most important aspect of teaching is, perhaps, listening. The research tells as much: “The Instructional Conversation: Teaching and Learning in Social Activity, by Tharp and Gallimore, in 1991, for example. We talk about Dewey’s “learning as a social activity” but are we really doing more than holding classroom discussions that often look a whole lot like the teacher talking and the students listening, or the teacher asking pointed questions that have the students jumping over one another to deliver THE RIGHT answer? Most teachers believe they give the students a part of the conversation. And yet doing so means giving up control of the conversation and re-envisioning the way time is spent in a course. Giving up control, some believe, means time is being wasted, material isn’t being covered, we are shirking our teacherly responsibilities. And, furthermore, in a classroom that values emergent learning, you never know exactly where you’re going until you get there. With standards to meet and tests to pass, how is it that any teacher would dare bring blogs into the classroom if they mean that students might digress or even meander down the wrong road altogether? Blogs do NOT take more time; they do, however, demand a new view of how we spend our time in the classroom and out. Ah so, we teachers must reorient ourselves to the entire learning process, to our relationship with our teaching, much the way my students have, through writing with images and sound as well as text, recently shaken up their whole sense of who they are as writers and what discoveries lie just below the first outpourings of language onto a page. And that’s scary.

Here are more questions related to the topic of teachers and fear that have surfaced in my blog/email/phone and in-person conversations this week:

What does it take for a teacher to bring blogging into the course in the first place?

What keeps a teacher blogging with her students?

Is blogging scalable to a large class (versus the 15-18 students classes I teach)?

I’ll tackle these questions over the next few posts, but for now I want to point to Francois Lachance’s response to Jill, and how he reminds us that it is NOT blogging per se that is the key, but having our students “network and discuss” and taking responsibility for tracking their own development in whatever form it makes sense to do so according to the learning situation and the learner:

“I wonder if “It’s helping them use their blogs to discuss and network that’s the challenge.”
could not be restated to “help them network and discuss” _tout court_ and thus evidence of blogging experience is but one of the criteria for students to demonstrate that they have indeed networked and discussed. i.e. with a larger number of students, stand back from the process and assess a selection of products that they have submitted in portfolio form to you as prof. The spin off value from such an approach is that students become responsible for their own personal archive (i.e. documenting their own interactions blog and otherwise) and such personal archives are vital for networking and discussion. It might be worth investing a little time in creating a portfolio of examples that students can review as they build their own.

Such an approach doesn’t replace a sense of being there when they actually take those steps in their evolution as social and intellectual beings. But from a phenomenological perspective that was all it was, a sense of being there.

And this is what Dave’s idea for the mass-generated curriculum is, I think, and what I hope we all do on our blogs–begin to compile the resources and to articulate clearly the reasons for time-stressed, anxious teachers to step into this work fostering strong learning collaboratives within their classrooms.