Sunday, February 03, 2008

Baseball, blogs, and teachers, in no particular order of importance

I know today is Super Bowl Sunday, but baseball is on my mind. That and a two-hour teacher professional development I'm scheduled to give next week. As I sit here thinking about how to do it, I keep thinking of my son, CJ, and his love for America's pastime. He's always liked to play, but lately he's shown a growing interest in the history of the sport.

What does this have to do with web 2.0 tools in the classroom?

Last year, I gave a professional development class to fellow teachers about web 2.0 and using blogs and other collaborative tools to help instruction. The hour-long session, which focused on the blog I use in my English 10 class, went over well. It lasted longer than an hour, which means teachers stayed well beyond the 3:30 pm requirement to talk about the topic. Many teachers expressed interest in doing something similar.

Unfortunately, few actually followed through as far as I can tell.

Anyone who is reading this probably knows the same - or more likely more - about the most effective use of these read/write tools in the classroom. Or at least, if you are reading this blog, you have a fundamental grasp of the medium. It seems to me that understanding the blog as a medium, as opposed to, say, a newspaper article or non fiction book, is crucial to effectively employing it in a classroom. That idea has to be a basic step in anything I do with teachers.

Often, the word blog conjures up images of partisan political hitmen spreading gossip and innuendo about their opponents. And a wiki, well, that's equal to wikipedia, that hell-spawned repository of false information that's clawing at the very fabric of our culture.

If teachers are going to use blogs and wikis in classes, then those impressions need to be modified. And the place to start is helping teachers understand just what a blog is. How it comes to be. I can worry about the specifics of what to teach them, but for now I'm thinking through the pedagogical foundation of why and how it needs to be taught.

That's where my son, age 7, comes in. We've been reading books together lately on the history of baseball. He has taken a real liking to it and enjoys thumbing through some of the coffee table size books that contain numerous pictures and some lengthy descriptions of old time players and teams. He can read and occasionally reads the text to me. However, there were several times he'd come to a page and look at the picture and ask me: "Who's that daddy?" or "What are they doing?" I would point out to him that there is a caption underneath that explained the picture. Read it, I told him, and he could learn about the photo. He didn't really know to do that. Simple lesson.

It took him a while, and he's still learning. Then it got me thinking. All the books he's read up to now had pictures, but not captions. He regularly reads story books, where any pictures natually complement, or illustrate, the story. A book of baseball history, on the other hand, is non fiction. Both the pictures and the text work together to provide information, and often the photos (with the help of the captions) help tell some piece of the story. To get the most out of the big books we thumb through, he needed to better understand how to read a nonfiction text, figure out the characteristics of that medium. Of course to him, he was simply learning about all the great ballplayers of the past - Ted Williams, Christy Mathewson, and Walter "Big Train" Johnson, which happen to be two of his favorites. (Me, I also like the guy pictured at the top of this space.)

Anyway, that's what I'm thinking about as I work to try and help my colleagues discover the benefits of using things such as blogs and wikis in class. The first step is differentiating what a blog is from what a website is. Based on anecdotal evidence from conversations I've had with teachers, I'm under the impression that posting student writing on a blog is viewed the same way as the idea of creating a class website was 10 years ago. It's a finite undertaking, with a final, concrete product put together at a specific point in the process. That's not a blog. Blogs are more dynamic. They change as the content gets added. They grow as more information and/or ideas are added, both from the writer and readers. Hyperlinks help enhance the reading and writing process. Both teachers and students can - and must - participate in that process of creating content or writing on a blog. There's a not so subtle difference there that is fundamental to understanding the best way to use a blog in a classroom.

Of course that means that reading and comprehensions skills play a prominent role. Anyone reading this blog, for example, would need to know something about me when making a determination about my credibility. That can only be gleaned by reading old posts, viewing information I choose to share on the site. But if I write that Babe Ruth is the greatest player of all time, followed distantly by Ted Williams and then Willie Mays, well you'd have to determine how much to value that in comparison to, say, a columnist from the Sporting News who may hold a contrary view.

But the extension of that idea in a class is that the technology that makes a blog a blog, is what makes it so useful in a class. The same for a wiki. Instantly posting ideas and writing. Leaving comments. Having an easy to access menu of drafts for a piece of writing. Accessibility from almost anywhere. But before you use it in a classroom, you need to better understand it.

This week will be another step in hopefully spreading that word in my school.

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