It wasn’t an easy sale. Actually there was a year’s worth of insistence. I had joined the team having blogged with students in my classroom for a number of years in various grades within the elementary system. The role, having just been changed from panel-centric to support for K-12, brought with it some clear trepidation. Not only were there big shoes to fill, but the added Secondary facet was an additional unexpected element. Luckily, sharing an office and becoming fast-friends with Aaron Puley — former Secondary IT Team Consultant cum North Cluster K-12 21st Century Fluencies Consultant — meant we could compare notes and ease preconceptions about the panel of teachers we had not yet worked among. A common enthusiasm for blogging emerged.
I had spent the previous year with a class of Grade 5/6 gifted students, experimenting with an install of WordPressMU: which at the time was a separate project from the main WordPress software, supported by a small group that took what the WordPress.org core developers offered up and tweaked it to allow for multiple blogs on the same install. At the same time, a social networking plugin was emerging called BuddyPress, that added social features to that multi-site instance. I called the site litcircuits.com: a digital play on the literature circles I initially imagined would populate the site (at the time BuddyPress had a feature called the “Wire”, instead of an activity stream, which I also thought played in well with the “circuits” URL). There were a few teachers (my next door neighbor at the time Bill Hughey, who taught a grade 6 class at Cardinal Heights, and Aviva Dunsiger: I’m not sure how Aviva and I connected, probably through Twitter. If I ask her, she’ll probably blog about it) who ended up along for the ride. If you look at the user database of that site, Heidi Siwak was the second name I added after my own: we were teaching partners at the time.
I had met Aaron at an after school blogging in service while I was still a teacher in the classroom. He had used Blogger with his students, and as the IT Consultant had spent the previous year helping schools launch WordPress-based websites for Parent and Community communication. Putting us in the same office together was the catalyst for the HWDSB Commons.
It was showing Aaron litcircuits that led to him creating The Learninghood (I’m sure he’ll let me take the credit for that). Aaron’s partner Jen Faulkner was teaching Science at the time in the Grand Erie board, so we had a captive group of students in Secondary to test theories that I had attempted in Elementary. As is Aaron’s way, he took it in directions I had never thought of, culminating at the end of that year in an ISTE presentation with Jen on the power of WordPress and BuddyPress, The Learninghood, and Digital Learning Centres, to engage students and shift the learning in the secondary classroom in student-centric ways.
So we had our test cases, and we had a shiny new URL (http://theclassroo.ms) that we thought we could use to pilot a few blogging initiatives around the board. Just a few classrooms who we could monitor, that would provide some evidence on why we needed to move forward into this very uncharted territory (more on that later). Around the same time, Tumblr — which we had been endorsing as a possible platform for student collaboration — was blocked by our board filters. What we initially thought was an overzealous netsweeper turned out to be a necessary block: the commercial blogging platform that we had been sending teachers to was suddenly starting to fill up with pornography, and the owners of Tumblr were more interested in bulking up the number of sites they were hosting, than in moderating their community. Suddenly theclassroo.ms became even more attractive.
We started putting students and teachers on it: lots of students and teachers.
This was on a shared hosting server that was costing me about $10 a month. With one classroom of 30, that was okay; but with 1000 bloggers, the server started to strain.
We needed a more powerful server, and at the time there wasn’t an opportunity to house the site on internal board servers (that took a lot more begging and pleading and convincing to sway people towards our way of thinking: sometimes I still feel like someone could pull the plug at any moment and restore order to a world not ready for Open Source, but I’m just being paranoid, right?). Luckily we were working with Delta Secondary on a laptop project, and we thought blogging might fit into the plans, so we approached Pat Rocco (then the North Cluster Superintendent) to help us move the site.
At this point it still felt like a rogue operation among a chorus of questions. We had First Class already, which had blogging functionality. We had a board Wikispaces account: why did we need a blogging platform as well? We felt strongly about the platform, and luckily we were vocal and stubborn about seeing it emerge.
It wasn’t until April of that year that it started to look like we might get a server within the board. We would still need to maintain the site, but we would get space within the firewall. Our principal at the time Lisa Neale, arranged for meetings with IBM (to ensure that we would be compatible with the my.hwdsb portal) and Howie Gardiner (to enlist the help of Miki Arifi in setting up the server, and linking the site to our Active Directory to help ease username management issues), and found the money in our budget to purchase the server on which the Commons would live. (She continues to support adoption among her principal colleagues, and models what blogging looks like at the administrator level.) Luckily June tends to be a bit quieter in the 21CF office, so we spent most of that month building the site.
Aaron and I would continue building over most of that summer break (2011), knowing that if we waited to launch the site until the middle of the year, we would lose the whole year. We had to have the site ready for a September launch.
The build was bitter-sweet, because Aaron had taken on a new role as the Student and Parent Engagement Consultant, and I was worried that without him around to help support the launch, we might lose momentum. I should have known better of course, because in that new role, Aaron found ways to integrate the Commons in they kinds of large-scale projects that have had a huge impact on adoption of the platform. I can hack away at it in my West Cluster role, adding students and teachers a class at a time, but it’s initiatives like the Bulldog’s Literacy Blog, the Director’s Student Voice Forum, the ecoschools initiative, the Bruce Trail Trek, that have penetrated corners of the Board we would not have reached as 21CL Consultants (at some point in there we changed our name to 21st Century Learning Consultants). As the Commons grew, it gained two other co-pilots: Thomas Ro and Tim Kivell. These two are staunch supporters of the Commons, and believe strongly in the ways it improves the learning here in HWDSB. They stepped in on that launch year and have been blogging missionaries ever since. In fact, it was Thomas Ro’s passion about the Commons that led to the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat deciding to make these videos that feature the work of Lisa, Thomas, Tim, and I, during the first year of the HWDSB Commons.
I’m not exactly sure what I would do out in classrooms everyday if I wasn’t talking about blogging. It informs so much of my work. From conversations in that corner office with Aaron two years ago, to a platform that in the next few weeks will break the 10 000 user barrier. Although his face is absent from the following videos, his fingerprints are all over the HWDSB Commons. It wouldn’t exist without him.
There are other videos peppered throughout this page, but at the time of this writing, most of the videos are about the HWDSB Commons: http://resources.curriculum.org/secretariat/snapshots/principal_digital.html