Wednesday, May 30, 2007

It's still above the water

Can't say I've gone completely under yet, but I did take quite a break from blogging, at least here. However, I've spent the last two weeks immersed (drowning?) in my student blogging experiment. Much of my time has been spent reading student postings via Google Reader and leaving comments to them. Meanwhile, my bloglines blogroll, which was malfunctioning the last few weeks, is chock full of unread postings. Today there were 756. I'm still afraid to clear it for fear that I will miss some nugget of learning previously undisclosed and containing the answers to all my web 2.0 questions. I need to get over that.

Normally at this time of the year, I'd be drowning in last minute essays and stuffing paper into my briefcase to carry home, ignore, and then lug back to school. At least with the blogging, my briefcase isn't as full.
However, that's not the reason I'm sitting in front of a laptop trying to piece together a blog entry. The real reason is that I've felt yet another noticeable shift. I have witnessed students talking to one another - sometimes naturally, sometimes a bit contrived, but talking nonetheless, on their blogs. I'd like to see more, but it's amazing when I consider where I was just 9 months ago. This end of the year blog experiment has provided me some wonderful insight and fodder for next year. There are two weeks left in this year, and students will spend a bulk of that completing their final portfolio project. In past years, I've kept class writing assignments in a folder in class and divided them into formal and informal writing assignments, essentially those typed and assigned long term, and those completed in class or impromptu. This year, much of the student's work can also be found online - as comments on the English 10 blog, as pieces of a wiki entries, and lately as their own blog postings about 1984 or Fahrenheit 451. Thanks to Google, I've also been able to share highlights of some of the more interesting entries.

Eventually, I should probably sift through their work and render some kind of timeless and essential learnings, which I can then pass on to the rest of the edublogosphere. Don't know if I quite have it in my right now, but I'm going to start with a list of "What did I do & What should I do next?"

What did I do?

  • Introduced students to blogs
  • Showed students how to comment on a blog
  • Walked students through setting up a blog on blogger
  • Taught a lesson on blog safety, using the blogs
  • Assigned students topics to write about
  • Commented on individual blogs
  • Assigned students to comment on each other's blogs
  • Showed students how to label their blog postings
  • Asked students to link to each other's blogs as part of one posting
What should I do next?
  • Everything from the above list, but do it during the first quarter
  • Spend more time giving an overview of what a blog is earlier in the year
  • Research if Blogger or another service (Edublogs?) offers better options for classroom blogs, complete with more oversight capabilities etc...
  • Require students to revise some of their entries with specific requirements in mind
  • Teach more lessons on creating blog posts and comments to one another
  • Emphasize tagging or labeling and introduce more possibilities there
  • Get students reading blogs from outside the building
  • Remain up to date and vigilant in terms of new issues that will invariably arise
  • Connect with another class somewhere else in the world

That last point is my ultimate goal for next year. If we are serious about 21st Century skills, then we need to embrace the kind of teaching and collaboration that will bring it to our students. It would be great to hook up with another teacher and connect our students, commenting on one another's blogs, collaborating on a joint wiki project, sharing drafts of writing.

As I have discussed before, I am lucky enough to have a new classroom set of laptops for next year. If I do nothing more than plop my students in front of those laptops and ask them to write their papers in Word or whip up a PowerPoint, then I am not doing my job. In fact, with this 1:1 computer opportunity, I have a much greater responsibility to bring those flat world possibilities into F14. What would be worse than if the students left my class thinking that school computers are only good for nothing more than old fashioned writing tasks and finding ways to bypass filters to access their Myspace accounts?

I know I'll have more at some point, but it just can't be right now. Stay tuned.

Photo credit: Head Above Water by Finiky on Flickr

Monday, May 14, 2007

First days of student blogging

The first few days of blogging have had their ups and downs. The biggest problem I've encountered are the technical issues, and ideally I wish I had more time to help students learn the ins and outs of the blogger interface. That just takes time. I've already made a note for next year.

Another big surprise came when several students found comments on their postings from some of the edubloggers who are readers here. It prompted valuable discussion in class. Honestly, there was some concern by students who did not know who was responding to their ideas and for what purpose. It was also intriguing to many of them that there are actually people out there who read these things. Again, I am forced to consider all this brand new stuff from the eyes of my students (that's a good thing, by the way). For many students, discovering comments from strangers makes them leery. And maybe it should. Most of what they've heard about blogging and the Internet comes from news reports warning of online predators or detailing various dangers. There is a learning curve here, and the students are not as familiar with the etiquette and rules of blogging that I am. And why should they? That's my job: to teach them and to help them be responsible in how they do it.

That was also today's lesson, which resulted in a draft of blogging guidelines. Thank you to Stephen, by the way, for the lesson idea. A big part of the lesson was reviewing the importance of keeping personal information off their blogs. And finally, I suggested to them that when (maybe even if, considering timing at the end of the year) we leave comments on other blogs, that it would be important to provide more information about how they came across the site and for what purpose they are posting. As I've said, it's a learning curve, and for right now I think they would feel more comfortable if any comments left on their blogs explained who was posting and for what purpose. They have a right to know that.

Although we must focus on the positives and potential of this technology, we must not discount the potential pitfalls. I'm right there with my students, learning too.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Off the ground and running - kind of

Today I brought my period 6 class into the computer lab and walked them through the process of creating a blog. Tomorrow, the same for periods 1 and 4. After that? We'll see.

As I have said before, I'm undertaking this new venture as an experiment, a twist on a Literature Circle unit with the novels Fahrenheit 451 and 1984. I want to see how it works on a class wide scale, what kinds of issues can arise, and what kind of adjustments I may need to make in the way I teach writing. There was a poignant reminder during today's lesson. First the students all set up their blogs pretty easily. No shock there. Yet, after doing that, their next question was: Now what? What am I supposed to write? That's where we as teachers come in. And I need to keep reminding myself that just because the technology allows anyone to instantly create a blog, it takes something a lot more to make the content desirable and worthwhile. For me right now, sudent blogging can be another format for them to compose their traditional school writing assignments. I hope it can become much richer, and to that end I'll mix in a generous portion of reading and commenting on their classmates' work, and I think I'm off to solid start.

I encourage anyone to check out what my students are writing - I linked them all through Google reader here and here and here. And if you think there might be an opportunity to collaborate in some way, please let me know. Maybe it could be as simple as directing your own students to my students' blogs and having them post comments. It's the end of the school year, but never too late to utilize the potential of this web 2.0 tool.

I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

A burning dilemma

It's happening again. A compelling idea from a text we're reading in class has tracked me down and found me at work, where I am preparing to start my students blogging more.

The idea escaped from the pages of Fahrenheit 451. There's a memorable episode in Ray Bradbury's classic science fiction novel when the main character, Guy Montag, comes home and discovers his wife has overdosed on sleeping pills. It seems his wife, like many of the population portrayed in Bradbury's dystopian novel, is completely engrossed by the talking walls in her bedroom, which are described as interactive tele-screens which allow viewers to interact with the creators of the "television" programs. It is this reliance on and addiction to such technology that dehumanizes Montag's wife and makes her susceptible to the book-burning tendencies of the government in the novel. It consumes her life.

So let me get this straight. In essence, Bradbury describes a world in which the viewer can alter the message, which in the novel's case is a form of entertainment television. Technology that allows people to become part of a digitally-connected cybercommunity in which they interact and influence one another's ideas... Bradbury published Fahrenheit 451 in 1953.

Do I mention this because of how eerily similar the technology predicted by Bradbury is to some of our current web 2.0 applications? Did Bradbury warn us against what we have come to know and extol as the read/write web? MySpace, Skype, PDAs? I'll be honest, I am not as well versed and knowledgeable in the subtleties of today's latest technology to be able to provide a smartly-drawn answer, but there is a tinge of irony in the fact that Fahrenheit 451 is one of the books I am teaching as I prepare to do a little more experimenting and implementing with student blogging. As one of my colleagues pointed out the other day, it's possible I could have all my sophomores in the same room communicating with each other from in front of a tele-screen and no one is saying a word. Face to face human social interaction replaced by a computer screen.

There's a dilemma in there somewhere.

It's worth mentioning and it can't be discounted as I continue to explore my role in implementing new technologies and tools into my classroom. Allow me to back up a bit and reflect on how it all fits together. First, I've decided, in light of my ongoing reflections over the last months and my pending online writing grant, that I will sign up each and every one of my sophomores with a blog. Simple as that.

We are beginning the aforementioned unit, one in which they can choose to read 1984 or Fahrenheit 451. Unfortunately, the way the end of the year schedule goes, there is less than a month in which to complete this unit. That's not much time, especially if you pile on top of that the fact that I am unveiling a brand spanking new web 2.0 venture. The students, who are used to simply posting comments on prompts I give them, will now be required to post and record their own ongoing thoughts related to their novels.

So what do I hope my experiment will look like inside F14? Here are some random, think aloud type ideas for how I want/need/hope to proceed:

  • First, walk each student through the set up process for a blog using blogger. It's the one I use and am familiar with. An added bonus is that the students can use their Google sign in, which many of them may already have if they have a g-mail address.
  • The first posting they will be required to do will be: reflect on the beginning of your novel. How is it fit the definition of a dystopian society we discussed in class? I know, it sounds more like online journaling at this point, but it's a start.
  • Some future topics could include posting a significant passage. Finding a link to a current event and posting it up with a brief summary. Giving advice to a character. Asking the author some questions about his novel.
  • I'm thinking that a majority of the writing and posting will need to take place in school. In fact, the process will likely eat up a good chunk of class time from now until the end of the year. As a result, I need to embed into my blogging assignments some of the reacting-responding-connecting-evaluating skills I strive for in the classroom. Dilemma alert.
  • It may seem like a bit of a chore to the students at times. Oh well. What isn't?
  • I will link all their blogs on my English 10 homework blog so they will be able to easily access and read each other's writing.
  • Some of the classroom activities will involve actively commenting on each other's work, whether it's through the use of sentence starters or other guidelines to spur appropriate commenting.
  • Their culminating activity will involve gathering and compiling their writing into a final product of some sort, along the lines of a portfolio to showcase their work.
  • The bottom line is that this venture is made with the future in mind. There's an opportunity to experiment and implement, which means the next time I do it I'm that much more familiar and comfortable with the pitfalls and benefits.

Here's where the dilemma returns. Practically speaking, I need to spend class time teaching students the use of these valuable digital tools. I know that, ideally, these kinds of digital conversations and connections should occur more often out of the classroom than inside. After all, I know that the underlying purpose of all these technologies is to break down the classroom walls and provide our students with richer, extended opportunities to share ideas, beyond just what we offer between the bells of a school day. That's where I want to be, and that's where I hope I'm going.

It's either one of those delightful little ironies of life, or something a bit more sinister and foreboding. I wonder what Ray Bradbury would think?

photo credit: Frozen Fire / Fuego Congelado by Don_Gato on Flickr

Saturday, May 05, 2007

The teacher workshop: reflections and FAQ

If there's nothing else I've discovered this year during my web 2.0 journey it's that we, as teachers, have to be just as willing to learn as we expect our students to be. How can we promote 21st Century learning if we don't model it? What I've seemed to discover is that there's limitless possibilities on how these digital tools can be used. We need to experiment and implement.

Like most things in education, it needs to be done deliberately. My recent professional development venture went over well. I spent about an hour with 20 or so teachers; first we viewed Karl Fisch's Did You Know video and then discussed some possibilities for student writing using web 2.0 tools. At first, the conversation in the room was a little defensive and a tad negative. During and after the video, there was the typical teacher fear factor of "Oh no, more scare tactics about how things are changing so fast" and even a few "Oh my gosh, I'm so far behind when it comes to computers." Both I expected. However, what surprised me was that many teachers thought the video had a nationalistic bent, as if its purpose was to lament America's fall from premier position in the world, and how we need to regain it in the face of the surging populations of China and India. Some of my students made similar comments when I showed it to them.

The mood began to change when they saw my homework blog, where my sophomores had posted responses to Fisch's video. Using the SMARTBoard, I scrolled down through the student responses in the comments section (maybe some teachers were surprised to see so much writing) and read the teachers what Fisch had posted to my students in response. It was a powerful moment. Many teachers caught a glimpse of some of the possibilities out there.

That's when the workshop got more interesting and the teachers more enthused. I focused on my homework blog, where my sophomores were in the midst of posting comments about A Midsummer Night's Dream. I know it's not an ideal use of the blogging technology, but as I've come to realize it is a great entry point for newbie teachers. So I showed them what the students were writing. It prompted an interesting discussion on technology and student writing, and more important it got me thinking about how this might play out, or the best way to handle it in a 21st Century classroom.

After some initial discussion on the logistics, some interesting conversation emerged during the workshop. It went something like this:

What about grammatical and spelling mistakes? The kids still make them, just like they do on old fashioned paper. However, I haven't seen too much "text-speak" in their writing, using u for you and other common abbreviations. The reality is that the students know everyone is reading (theoretically). Just like any student writing, there are endless possibilities for mini-lessons. What's great is that the student writing is easy to access for use in a future lesson, whether it's cutting and pasting it into another form or simply sending the students back to the postings with a task that requires them to re-read, revise or re-think what they or their classmates wrote.
What about commenting on student work? As far as I know, there's not a way to do it like we are used to the old-fashioned way, the way many teachers envision it: taking out the red pen. Maybe that's a good thing. Maybe it will open some of the teachers up to looking at the student's writing more holistically at first, instead of instinctively tracking down errors. Maybe it will encourage students to write more, eliminating the fear that whatever they do will just come back marked up and looking like Sonny Corleone at a Long Island tollbooth.
But how can we as teachers provide constructive feedback so they can learn and improve? I agree that having students post comments on a blog limits what the teacher can do when you compare it to traditional in-class essay writing. For me, it has meant I've looked at the comment writing as more of a place to "deposit" homework. It is by no means the only place students write. In fact, it has forced me to constantly rethink what I ask the students to do so that they are reinforced that what they write is not simply being checked off and ignored. I take their ideas and incorporate them into class discussions. I've projected their words onto the SMARTBoard as part of class lessons. From a teacher's perspective, I think I've done a better job at that most basic of pedagogical requirements: making learning relevant to the students and connecting new knowledge to prior knowledge. There's limitless possibilities in how the technology is useful in this area. Konrad Glogowski, for example, offers an innovative way to "comment on" and assess his students' work on their blogs. What he describes is more like conversations with the student writers as a way to encourage their growth. Isn't that where we should be striving as teachers?
Aren't the questions supposed to be asked in bold face? Sorry. I just got carried away.
How do students revise their writing? They can't change their comments. However, there's nothing says they can't take their comments and use them as part of another, longer, more formal writing assignment. This is where the limit of using the comment section lies. And this is where more discussion and experimentation needs to take place in the classroom. Discussions about providing students the means in the class to set up their own blog, link to one another, post regularly as part of class. Use the comment section to respond directly to a student's writing. This might address some of the feedback issues raised in an earlier post. Again, there's limitless possibilities on how to move in this direction.
But how do we tackle the larger issue of using blogging to improve student writing? That's the big question. And that's where many edubloggers spent a lot of time discussing and exploring. It takes time. It takes initiative. Ideally, it should not be done in isolation.
So what's next? That's an important question. Ideally, I'd like to get my students set up with their own blogs. With individual student blogs, some of the questions regarding individual teacher feedback and collaboration can be addressed. It's not easy and it requires some planning ahead thinking. We as teachers need to be experts (of sorts) using this technology or else we run the risk that what we do in the classroom will be nothing more than playing around with cool stuff. Ms. Sigman and Clay Burrell have recently address this issue. (Thank you Clay, for directing me to Ms. Sigman's new blog). In a recent post, Ms. Sigman says "In other words we can teach in a very techno-rich environment, but unless we put the tools in their [the students'] hands and teach them not only how to use them but how to learn the skills themselves what we teach in class will be irrelevant to their lives." I agree. It can't be in isolation and the purpose of blogging, or using wikis, or any other web 2.0 application can't simply be to just use it. Otherwise, we run the risk of making the use of some of these powerful applications seem like nothing more than things that are used only in a classroom, like writing a five-paragraph essay. The skills behind them have to extend beyond the classroom. As with anything in education, that growth and that learning starts with the teachers. It's no secret that we have to be willing to grow and learn along with our students. Here's where I think I'm echoing the general sentiment of what I've been reading these last several months. Patrick Higgins, in discussing virtual schools, says it quite succinctly but right on the nose: "Teaching will be different, and this will happen very soon. Teaching will require that we are risk-takers, savvy, and cavalier. Teaching will be different, or it will be irrelevant."

We need to let that motivate us, not scare us.