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.”

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One Response

  1. It’s All About Engagement

    It’s been interesting reading the threads that have developed around my ” To Blog or Not to Blog…

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