We talk about Performance Walls, and “Bump-it-Up” walls when we start thinking about how we can display exemplars for students to gauge what they need to do in order to improve their work; the idea being that if the students can see the target, and it stays in one place, they should be better able to hit the mark.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about blogging in the classroom. It comes part-and-parcel with being neck-deep in the launch of a new blogging platform for the school board. This is nothing new: students could blog in our First Class email system; they could message each other; they could chat; they could post work in groups (conferences). But somehow the Commons — the medium — has changed the message.
It may have something to do with the huge social component that pulls all of the blogs together into one massive activity feed. You can “follow” other members of the community easily. Collaboration is suddenly easy(ier). The fact that it looks like facebook, and utilizes the same infrastructure used to power Edublogs, Kidblog, and millions of other commercial blog sites around the world (it’s WordPress: you can read more about it here), means we can compete with the commercial entities and their shiny interfaces that engage the students and draw in the educators in our board looking to integrate the newest web 2.0 tool while it’s still free (don’t get me started on the ever-changing TOS contracts on these commercial tools).
Those early adopters — the ones who already have blogs running in their classroom and understand the ways they can engage and connect the learners in myriad ways — are the first ones we need. A solid foundation of teachers who understand how to blend the learning going on in their rooms with this online space. Teachers who realize that a blog isn’t an additional thing that you do when all your “real” school work is done. Teachers who perhaps initially saw the blog as a replacement for the things that they were already doing (sending home a duotang reading response assignment every week? There’s a blog for that), and then finding ways in which this new space will shape an entirely new way of approaching the learning; one where students are more easily able to learn from each other, as well as from you.
Yes it’s another “classroom management” space. You can’t just unfurl your students into a platform without setting out how it’s going to be used. I don’t mean this to sound derisive: but students left to their own devices, with no one leading their learning, or modelling, or TEACHING them how to navigate, will descend into silliness on a platform like this. The same way you let them go on the playground, but give them context when the bell rings and they come into your learning space, you need to set out the collaborative norms for how you will use blogs when you start out down this path. Even in problem-based learning settings, where you are letting students take a bit more of the lead (co-learning along with them), you are still the “guide on the side”. We know that line. We’ve heard it before. We’ve all played the sage on the stage at one time or another.
Students need guidance to be successful.
So once you get those teachers in. The ones who are easy to convince, and are already on the path; now how do you start making headway in other venues, and how to do you move the early adopters forward? I sit in meetings around school self-assessment, around TLCP/Collaborative Inquiry models of instruction, around the School Effectiveness Framework and how it can shape what our learning spaces should look like, and how they should operate, and I see blogs all over the place: I wear blog-coloured glasses. You talk about descriptive feedback, and I think of a blog with students and teachers commenting on each others output. You talk about cross-curricular collaboration, and I think of a group blog. You talk about making thinking visible, and sharing student work, and I see it published online. You talk about data, and I see a students e-portfolio containing all their output from years past.
But where do you start when you’ve never done anything like this?
You start with a website. It’s the easiest way in. You need a website for your class. And that website may start out as a “it’s-pizza-day-tomorrow-don’t-forget-to-bring-your-permission-forms-in” site. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s a necessary communication home to parents, but on the “Bump-it-up” wall, it’s the lecture-style classroom of the blogging continuum. It’s interesting how the WordPress Codex user role applies in this theory. The teacher is always the Administrator, but in this iteration, the student is merely a Subscriber.
But you have them now (that sounds like a trap). You’ve provided the platform. So you look for opportunities to help the students graduate toward Contributor status. Enable comments on the site and you’re there. The teacher still controls the discussion; but the students can add their voices. Those voices are carefully moderated. The content they post is vetted before it reaches its publication. This is gradual release. Implementing a new form of interaction within your learning space should be gradual.
Show them how the parachute works before you throw them off the edge of the cliff, hoping they’ll find their wings.
Now they are contributing; set them as Authors. Empower them to post and publish. Warn them it can be taken away. Warn them that if they can’t contribute constructively their publishing license will be revoked, and they will have to ask permission to publish, while their peers feed off of their new-found voice. Find ways to let them start conversations, instead of just answering your questions. Don’t do the same thing you did on a black-line master on a blog. There’s little opportunity to show higher order thinking on a multiple choice test.
So now that they are all Authors on your blog, it’s getting a bit crowded. It must be time to give them their own blog, where they can be Administrators. Let them find their own voice. Let them write about the things they are passionate about. Put them in a space where they can think about those last steps in the writing process that we struggle with making authentic in the classroom: writing for an audience, and publication. This isn’t to say that they aren’t still working on curriculum. Don’t misunderstand me; the learning goals are up on the wall; the students know what they need to do, what they need to accomplish and demonstrate in order to be successful; but you are giving them choice around how they are going to demonstrate this learning goal, and whether by song, film, poem, slideshow, or interpretive dance (filmed and shared on youtube of course), this learning is demonstrated with the blog as their stage; with comments enabled to receive the feedback we all need as artists (and the greatest scientists and mathematicians are artists of their medium, as well as the painters and wordsmiths you knee-jerk to) in order to move forward and grow.
Bump it up.
As somebody that uses the Commons both for professional blogging purposes and for my students to blog, I absolutely love what you’re saying here. I think that seeing this progression is so important. I’m going to share your post with the teachers at my school: many of which are already blogging, and others of which are considering starting. I think that this will help all of us!
Great advice…I am just leaving stage 1…
Which is awesome. We all start somewhere, and we all have different ideas about how we can use tools effectively to reach our students. That’s why this is a profession: professional judgement, and a willingness to learn and try new things, modelling that life-long learner mentality to your students, are the paths forward. Starting a blog with your students isn’t a switch you turn on one day, it’s an ocean tide (to steal an analogy I heard today): we move forward, then fall back, pause, and reflect, then we move forward again.
You’ve made some excellent points here jarbenne and I would like to highlight a couple that I think are key. Firstly, this platform must be a means to an end, not an end itself. Planning and programming are paramount and it is crucial that teachers do not see this platform as a way to circumvent that. As you say, the Commons is a great tool for engaging students, for providing a venue for ongoing teacher and peer assessment, and for incorporating a variety of media in student learning but it is still just a tool and should be seen as such. It is robust enough that it can shoulder the weight of virtually any task you set to it but you need to know where you’re going before diving in.
Also, the need for student guidance is key and while students can learn from other students online about what is appropriate and what is not in this environment, it is ultimately the teacher’s responsibility to model, to teach, and to set the standards for their students’ conduct. Blogging platforms provide the teacher a potentially excellent medium to constantly and reiteratively teach audience and purpose in student writing and reading but again, it has to be understood that these are concepts that need to be explicit in the classroom when using this medium. They are not intuitive. Indeed, the students’ natural intuition will be to bring the medium down to a base pop culture level a la Facebook or MSN. It is our job to raise the level of expectations in this online atmosphere.
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