Archive for January, 2010

On Their Turf: Making the Change To Student Blogging

This semester I’m teaching two courses for prospective teachers – Writing Pedagogy (4th-8th grade) and Language and Literacy (PreK – 5th grade). I’ve never taught the middle grades course and have taught the elementary course just once before. I’ve also never taught two groups at the same time – much less different courses (although I’ll admit that some of the content overlaps). Needless to say, here in week 2 it is already an adventure.

I am experimenting with many new approaches and activities in these courses this semester. I’ll be sharing more about these as time goes on, but for the moment I want to talk about blogging.

First, a bit of history. My students write weekly in my courses (after all, they are writing courses), and post their thoughts electronically. I read every word they write, and try to respond to each post. I enjoy the chance to keep up with their thinking this way, but after three semesters reading discussion threads in a course management system (CMS), I was tired. I wanted to make a change but just hadn’t done it for a number of reasons, until my university changed the CMS this year. One of the first things I found out about this new system was that students in my courses would automatically be wiped out of the system at the end of each semester. I guess this was supposed to make my life easy – hey, I didn’t even have to copy and reload the content (since, of course, I would be using the same content over and over and over again, right?) Just add a new set of names and away we go. (a joke.)

With the old system, students had access to courses for as long as the professor left us in the system (often years). Considering that I’ve been a student myself in graduate school for 5 years now, you can imagine how much information I had access to through that system. I referred to it often, even though I had downloaded much of the content elsewhere.

So, the new system and the default to purge students each semester bothered me, but I wasn’t sure why. After all, students could download content just as I had, as long as they did it before the end of the semester. What was the problem? Then, I figured it out. Wiping my students out of the courses represented something completely against my growing philosophy of education. In the past year or two, I’ve realized that my job as a teacher educator is not to cram my students’ heads full of all the knowledge they will need to be a great teacher for their entire (hopefully lengthy) careers. Instead, my job is to offer them the chance to engage with important experiences and ideas, to help them get to know themselves as writing teachers (both as teachers who write and as teachers of writing), and to start them on a path where they can continue to learn about language, literacy, and teaching long after my course is in the rear view mirror. As I told them on the first day of classes, the best teachers are learners, always.

Erasing my students from my course once the semester is over, then, didn’t line up with my ideas about my job as a teacher educator. I wanted to give them ideas and experiences that continued with them into the future. So, considering all of this, I made many changes this semester (basically circumventing the course management system in most regards). The one that has been the most obvious (and exciting) is the switch from posting their weekly writing on the course management system to posting on student blogs. I encouraged each of my students to start their own blogs. I gave them a range of sites to choose from – blogger, wordpress, posterous, edublogs, and the students also used tumblr of their own initiative – and had them link their blogs to our course wiki.

Why do blogs make a difference? Now, when I read my students’ weekly posts, instead of reading paragraph after paragraph on the gray, bland course management system screen, I go to each students’ personal writing space. Many of the students have chosen interesting, colorful designs for their blogs. Some have added photos and quotes. (By the end of the semester, they will each develop a blogroll as well, as part of creating their learning networks). Even at this early stage in the semester, each blog is already unique.

I realized last night that I was having the same reaction to the old CMS that my students often have toward textbooks. We know what a textbook looks like – it has a genre all its own, no matter how hard textbook publishers try to change it. The content, the pictures, the writing can be wonderful, but we still can spot a textbook a mile off, and get that same revulsion. My students were writing great things over the last semesters, but dealing with the system still made me impatient while reading their work. The container just didn’t appeal to me. It was a disservice to the writing my students were producing.

Now, reading their blogs, I feel like I am personally connected to each of my students – I am “on their turf” when I comment. I am the visitor in their writing space, not them the visitors in my CMS space, and I like that. I hope that this practice will encourage them to develop an online presence for themselves as writing teachers, as well as a web presence for their classrooms and students in the future. I also feel like their writing is improved. Is that just because I am more attentive? Are they really doing a better job? It’s hard to say just yet. But with their blogs, they have a chance to build their writing and work over time. And, it won’t disappear come summer semester.

I’ll admit, it was a scary risk to take to leave the security of the CMS behind for blogs (and the semester is still young), but it seems to be paying off so far. Sometime soon I’ll share my students’ thoughts on blogging. If you blog with your students (at any level), I hope you’ll share your thoughts and impressions. Or, I wonder, what have you done to give students their own educational turf?

Nearly time for the Caldecott!

Here is our vote!

(My daughter Anne decided to “Lion herself” – thanks to 100 Scope Notes for this great idea!)

I have favorites for several of the awards, but I am especially hoping to see Jerry Pinkney win for The Lion And The Mouse. It is a spectacular vision of a traditional tale. The artwork is exquisite.

Some of you may know that I have an interest in race and how race plays a role in library collections. There has been a lot of discussion about this topic over the years. Maybe some would say the race of the winner shouldn’t matter, but I’m with Nikki Grimes in her frustration that this medal has overlooked African American illustrators thus far. I’ll paraphrase her when I say, give Jerry Pinkney the medal already. He is more than deserving, several times over!

I’ll be listening in on Monday morning to hear all the winners!

just what the world needs….

another blog! (?)

yes, it’s finally time for me to start my personal blog. I’ve been itching to do it for a while, but haven’t taken the time.

Why is now any different? This semester I’m teaching two courses in Language Arts/Writing to future elementary and middle school teachers. Over my past semesters of teaching and learning, I’ve become an avid reader of blogs and have seen many examples of blogs used by students and teachers to enrich their educational practice. At the same time, I’ve become frustrated with the limitations and structures of course management systems and the like. So, with all that coming together, it was time to blog – for me, and for my students. I try never to give my students an assignment that I wouldn’t find valuable myself, so here I am, blogging along with them.

I’ll be adding to the “about me” page as the semester goes on, but I am guessing, as has been the case with my former students, that you’ll get to know more “about me” through my writing and thinking here than from any kind of thumbnail sketch I’d put together over there. I will keep the “about me” page, in case anyone stopping by needs a quick and dirty idea of what I’m doing here, but I’m guessing the topics will range far and wide. I’m sure I’ll talk about literacy and libraries, about my family and my students, about pieces I’m reading and about how I am developing as a researcher and as a teacher. I almost named this blog “both and” because I tend to refuse it when people ask me to choose either one thing or another. Instead, if someone were to ask me if I am a literacy person or a library person, a teacher or a researcher, I’d say I am all of those, plus a bunch of other things they forgot to mention. I refuse to decide, to boil it down to one thing, to favor one identity over the others. I am a web, a constellation.

I could go on but I’m going to keep it pretty short, as I’ve asked my students to do in their blog posts. I’ll share some of the other guidelines I suggested to them as time goes on, as well as some of the other parts of life that intrigue me. I’m happy to tell you that I am learning as I go.

In closing, I’ll welcome 53 new blogging teachers to the blogosphere this week. (And I count myself among that group as well, so call me #54.) It’s exciting to see so many bright young teachers develop an online presence and share their thinking in a different way. I’m already inspired.  Even with all the blogs in the blogosphere, I think that 54 more blogging teachers just might very well be what the world needs.


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