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.


Bill said...

Thank you for this informative post.

In New York City, we are experimenting with a pilot program in 22 junior high schools that gives every student a laptop with Internet access. We are also developing models for how this might aid instruction.

In the literacy classroom, we are having students post their writing to a shared class blog, and then both the teacher and fellow students can leave comments providing feedback. We give the students sentence starters for this feedback, so we can focus them toward noticing the application of the literacy concepts we have been teaching.

Since they are publishing online, they are also able to create hyperlinks in their text, leading the reader to multimedia elements and primary sources that might support or otherwise provide illumination for student writing.

We're also having them use social networking sites like to share websites they find in their research with other members of their group, or others writing on a similar topic.

Lynne Crowe said...

An interesting post and something that I have been pondering about for a while.
Most of my students have their own 'school' blogs are posting most of their work in English on it. I am still grappling with the issue of showing students where their grammatical, editing ...mistakes are so they can work on these for their next piece and also leaving meaningful feed forward comments.
We have used rubrics for writing for the last few years and I'd really like to continue with, incorporating them into these blog posts but haven't as yet worked out how.
I also still have to have a 'paper' copy of their work for the students' portfolio so I don't want to be doing too much doubling up.
You have given me some food for thought.

Bing Miller said...

Lynne and Bill: Thank you both for responding and providing some information about what's happening out there. I think I'm at that point now where I want to - and I'm ready to - take that next step. Once the technological issues are worked out, it seems that student blogs can address many of the instructional and assessment issues that have been raised in past years: writing for an audience, editing and revising, and being able to look at growth over time.

Bill, I'd love to look at and read your student blogs to see some of the things you describe. I like the idea of sentence starters and other such ways to help prompt and teach student writers.

Lynne, keep me posted on your efforts and I'd love to see any rubrics or other materials you think might be handy.

There is some exciting potential out there...