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

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