Thursday, September 30, 2010

Rethinking Student Blogging, For Real

         "So, does anyone know just what a blog is?" I asked the class.
           A student raised his hand,  "um, yea.  They are those websites where you respond to teacher's questions and stuff."

The blog has never made my ed tech "favorites" list.  Sure, I've had my students use web logs before, but I've never been that impressed with the thinking and learning that grew out of them.  At last year's end, the blog was no more than a rusty four letter word taking up space at the bottom of my toolbox. 

Recently, however, something happened that has caused me to rethink the blog and its potential in my classroom.  I started blogging for myself. 

Not the watered-down version of blogging that I had been having my students do these last few years.   You know the kind....where students write about what I tell them to and respond to each other because because I make them.  The kind they would never consider doing outside of school. 

No, the kind of blogging that I'm now doing is the kind that "real" bloggers do.  I write about what matters to me, and enter in to a conversation with others of the same interest.  I learn from these other bloggers and integrate their ideas into my own, composing my new knowledge in a digital space where writing is no longer constrained to a pencil and daybook.  A space without limits on who I can reach, where the world is my audience. 

In blogging for only a few months, I've felt myself become motivated to write, think, and learn on an entirely new level...the one of the digital learner.   The same level I feel responsible for taking my students.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the place I'm going to make for blogging in my class. I want to use the blog to empower my students.  I want to create an environment that facilitates my students' ownership of their blogs and identities as bloggers.  I'm still not entirely certain what that's going to look like, but I knew where we needed to start.  I had to introduce my students to blogging, the way it really is.


I began class by having students respond to Mike Fisher's last blog post, where he called on teachers to have their students answer several questions about teaching and learning on a Google Form, which he linked to his blog.  This only took my students a few minutes, and when most appeared done, I looked at them and asked, "isn't this cool?"

Silence.  One mumbled, "no," under his breath.  Several snickered.

 A student in the back commented, "well...I guess that the questions were kind of cool." Nobody else had anything to say.

This was going exactly as I had planned.

I turned to the student who last spoke up.  "Oh, I agree that the questions are important, but that's not what I was asking about."

I saw a sea of puzzled faces.

"What I thought was cool was that here you have this guy, Mike Fisher, who last week was sitting on his couch in New York, watching Oprah, watching these people talking about how schools needed to change.  It bothered him that nobody was asking kids, the ones who actually go to schools, about their thoughts on the topic.  So he got on his blog, asked teachers to have their students send him responses to a few questions, and now, the next day, he has answers from all over the world."  I pointed out how on the side of the blog is a little globe showing the locations of all of his readers.  "Don't you think that's cool?" 

Students perked up, some nodding their heads and others voicing agreement with Mike's position.  "Mike Fisher is a blogger,"  I said.  "What does that mean?"

A student in the back responded hesitantly, "he is a celebrity?"

"Um, sort of," I answered, then backed up a bit. "Does anyone know just what a blog is?"
A student raised his hand.  "Um, yea.  They are those websites where you respond to teacher's questions and stuff."  

Nobody seemed to disagree with the explanation, and at this point I realized the importance of this conversation.  If I tried to get my students blogging without first changing thier view of it, they'd never buy into it.

My students needed to see a different side of blogging, the real side. I let CommonCraft do the explaining:

This explanation, while simple, was not what my students expected.  They were interested, though, and I went on to share my own experiences, to give blogging a face.

I described briefly my interest in teaching and educational technology, how I found a lot of other people talking about these subjects in their blogs and started following them. 

I explained, "there are really a lot of blogs out there talking about cool technology to use in school, but I noticed that there weren't many people writing about how this technology actually worked in their classroom.  I figured that I could add this to the conversation, so in August, I started a blog."

I pulled up my blog for the students, showing them my last posts.  They saw how I was writing about what we had been doing in class, seeing in my blogs the YouTube videos I had shown them and even some of the work they had produced.

Students were leaning forward in their chairs.

I continued, "I thought that people would be interested in what I had to say, and I was disappointed when I realized that after a month, I was the only visitor to my page."  I demonstrated how Blogger displays the blog's traffic.

"I had put a lot of work into writing my blog posts, and I felt like what I was saying was important.  So, I decided to tell someone about it.  Two days ago, I let Mrs. Smith know about my blog because I thought she might like reading it.  She did, and she asked me if she could tell others about it. When I agreed, she sent out a Tweet about my blog to her Twitter contacts.  So, I looked the stats at my blog today, and look at this..."

I clicked on the "Stats" tab of my dashboard, opening a graph illustrating a spike in visitors to my blog.  I pointed to the steep line, " Tweet brought 40 people to my just a matter of hours....."

My excitement was transparent, and when I told students that today they would be getting started on their own blogs using the same site as Mike Fisher, myself, and real bloggers around the world, their's was too.

They were hooked.

Before I could finish getting the directions out of my mouth, their laptops flew open.  The sounds of intrinsic motivation, clicking keys and whispered ideas for blog titles, filled the room.   With a taste of what real blogging was about, my students were ready to dive into it head first.  They too wanted to be bloggers, to compose in new ways, to write and be heard.  An excited group of 8th graders is an awesome force; I could feel their momentum building; nothing could stand in their way.

Except for the one thing I failed to consider.

Blogger requires users enter a code before they could write their first blog post.  A code that gets texted to them after the useer enters a cell phone number into a box.   A task, of course, precluded by students not being able to have phones in school.

We collectively felt the impact of the wall we just crashed into.

Staying as calm as I could, I told students to begin drafting their first blog post in their daybooks, and to complete the sign-up process for Blogger at home tonight.  I wrote in my daybook, too....cursing Google the whole time.

I was disappointed, but today was an important step in the right direction....though I can't say exactly where were to.  We'll pick up tomorrow where we left off today, and this weekend I'll finish hammering out the details (and of course, I'm open to ideas :)).   I expect our journey to begin to take shape next week.  As it does, I'll be writing about the process and our learning that grows out of it, blogging along side of my students. For real.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Responsibility of Teaching Digital Safety

       Last Friday I got my students started on social bookmarking with Diigo.  As I mentioned in my last blog, it was a great lesson.  Part of my excitement was due to how smooth the process went...I showed my students how to sign up for Diigo, join our group, and install and use Diigolet to bookmark and annotate web pages.   With very few questions, they caught right on.  It was the most seamless start up process for any web tool that I've used this year, and I wanted to think that this was due to how I had been successfull in teaching my students to navigate unfamiliar web pages on thier own.  

      Of course, when I began to pat myself on the back, I realized there was something that I hadn't considered.

      There is an important difference between the accounts students created for for Diigo and the other sites they've used: the Diigo accounts were public.  I mentioned this to students in my conversation with them about why social bookmarking could be advantageous, but I didn't address the limitations.  I didn't think I needed to.....that was until I began noticing that students were including personal information in the profiles they were setting up on Diigo...information about their identity and their personal lives, information that might be OK for them to share on our team's private social network, but not on a public space on the web. 
     I decided late last night that the lesson I had planned originally on Monday would have to wait a day.  We needed to talk about digital safety.

    To get the conversation started, I showed my students the following two videos and gave them time to write down their thoughts about them (thanks, Clif Mims for putting me on to these):

       After students had the time to write down their initial responses, I opened the floor for them to share what they thought.  The conversations took a different turn in each class, but each shared some common themes.  Most expressed that the idea of making smart decisions with one's personal information online was not news to them.  They've heard the message over and over.  They've seen To Catch a Predator, and know not to talk to strangers online.  But in our conversation, many students also expressed how they had never given much thought to people other than their intended audiences viewing what they put online.  This was especially true for information they may post on sites where they can restrict who has viewing access.  Most of our conversation focused on how this "private" information could still get out and how easy it would be for it to travel quickly across the Internet....possibly into the hands of people like the guy selling movie tickets (in the first clip).
       With these thoughts in mind, I gave students time to go back to the accounts they've set up in school (both private and public), and revise their profile and account information.  All were anxious to revisit their profiles, examining their words and images closely....even the students who claimed that they were experts of online safety.

       I'm glad that I decided to make time for this lesson.  It wasn't spectacularly planned, and it didn't take much class time, but it was and absolutely necessary.  Both the students and I assumed that online safety is common sense, but as we've come to see, it's not.  We needed to have the conversation that started today, and it's even more important that I allow it to continue the rest of this year.

       My students, as digital learners, deserve nothing less.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

What I've Found on the Web This Week (weekly)

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Using Technology to Support a Great Critical Media Literacy Lesson

This week started off fairly low tech; I showed students a VHS tape of an old (but classic), black and white episode of the Twilight Zone.  The episode, titled  "The Eye of the Beholder"  brought about an interesting conversation about the nature of "beauty" and the factors that influence our understanding of it.  The discussion served to raise plenty of questions and a variety of opinions,  but as a class,  students only found a couple areas of, that there is no one set standard for beauty, it varies from person to person; and two, that our environment influences what we perceive as being beautiful.  One influence that students identified as being most significant was the images we see in the media.

With those ideas in mind, students brought in magazines and examined the characteristics of the people shown in the advertisements, making lists of the characteristics we noticed of the men and the women featured in the ads.  These characteristics students typed into a Google Form I embedded on my website, enabeling me to paste these characteristics into a Wordle  (shown below).  The next day, students begain class by gluing these word clouds into their daybooks and writing about what they thought they revealed.

For Men:                                                                         For Women

After briefly discussing the thoughts these Wordles elicitited, we then watched and wrote responses from the following video from Dove:

As you could imagine, this sparked quite a bit of discussion, and with that discussion, more questions.....We decided that something wasn't right....that our perception of beauty was based upon seeing people that were edited by computers.  But we just couldn't figure out what consequences this reality of our society might have and why advertisers did this.

So, when we couldn't arrive at the conclusions we needed through discussing and putting our heads together, we looked outside of our classroom the web! 

Before students went to the web, though, I first introduced them to a tool that would make our search more collaborative and effective: social bookmarking.  Students created accounts on Diigo, then joined a class group that I had created.  I gave them an overview of how social bookmarking works and a brief tutorial about how to use the tools offered by Diigo and save websites to our group. 
      *NOTE: Teaching new technology always take a little time, but the lessons I learned from my previous post still held true today.   I also took an additional step this week of creating screencasts on Screentoaster of the steps I woudl be demonstrating and embedding them on my website, so students could refer to them if they got stuck. 

Armed with this awesome new web tool, students took to the web to find out what they could about advertising, the media, teens' self-image, and society's perception of beauty.  This is a huge topic, but with 70 of us working together and collaborating on Diigo, we managed to find over 50 sites on the topic and converse across classes about the information that we found on them:

Our new understanding and the information that we found is going to lead us into next week.  Starting Monday, students are going to get their own blogs started on Blogger and begin crafting their first posts, in which they will write about their opinions relating to self-image and the media.  Within these posts, I'll also introduce students to the digital composing skill of hyperlinking, enabling them to include links in their writing back to the information we found this week.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

What I've Found on the Web This Week (weekly)

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Teaching the Natives in their Digital Habitat: Part 2--The Right Way

There seems to be plenty being said about why and how technology should be used in schools, and rightly so.  However, there is an important issue related to teaching with technology that I've heard little being mentioned about: teaching our students to use it. 

Last year, my approach to technology looked something like this:  I would give a demonstration about how students should sign up for and use a web application, maybe include some written instructions, then turn things over to my students.  After some time, a hand would pop up, and I would visit that student to answer their question as two more hands raised in the air.  For each of these students I assisted, two more hands raised, and the process continued until I was frantically running from desk to desk answering questions.  In my haste to reach each student, I sometimes even would take a student's computer into my own hands and fix the issue for them.  By the time the bell rang, I would stand, out of breath, in the middle of the room, frustrated at how a process that should only take minutes, such as signing up for a website, managed to take the majority of an hour. 

What was I doing wrong?  According to some of my coworkers, the issue was that my students just weren't listening.  Maybe.  But even if this was the case, according to leaders in the ed tech. field, students growing up in this digital age are characterized by being able to figuring technology out without instructions, as they often do it at home when on the computer or playing video games.  The problem had to be how I was teaching my students to use technology. 

As I mentioned in my last blog entry, I decided to try out a different approach to teaching technology at the start of this school year.  One that I felt would engender students' natural tendency to explore and figure things out on their own.  The lesson consisted of students visiting a web page I created and following directions to sign up for accounts on various websites we would use during the school year, as well as completing small tasks.  The "Web Scavenger Hunt," as I called it, gave minimal directions and would therefore require students to read and problem solve on their own, rather than have me give them explicit how-to directions.

And as I mentioned in my last blog, this lesson accomplished very little.  It played out much like the lesson that I had described above, if not worse. It was one of those lessons you have nightmares about in the nervous days before the school year begins.  A terrifying experience for me as a teacher and a seemingly unproductive learning experience for my students.  I left school that day utterly defeated, confused, knowing with certainty only that I would never do that lesson again.  But lying in bed awake around 2:00 am, continuing that lesson the next day was exactly what I decided to do. 

And in doing so, I found what I was searching for in learning how to to teach technology to my 8th graders.

Of course I made changes, but not ones that involved simplifying the activity or holding students' hands through the process.  Actually, I did the opposite.  I told students up front that being able to navigate unfamiliar web pages was an important skill to learn, both in this classroom and in life.  I explained that it's fine for them to struggle a little with the process if they needed to, to slow down and reread directions.  I also explained that they couldn't make any mistake so big that it couldn't be undone.  Then, I told them that today, they would complete the scavenger hunt that they began yesterday, and that while they could ask me for help, I would only respond with questions and suggestions that they reread the directions.  I also informed them that it would be OK if they didn't finish everything today, that they would have no more class time to work on the assignment, but they could have until the end of the week to finish it, doing so with me after school or from home.

That's what I did, and I noticed some pretty cool things happening.  First, when responded to questions by saying things like "what else did the directions tell you to do?" or "what information on this web page might help you decide what you need to do?" fewer students seemed to have questions they wanted to ask me.  This, of course, was in stark contrast to the scene where everyone seemed to have a question and I ran from desk to desk to give students specific directions and tutorials.  Today, my students struggled; I could see it.  But in their struggles, though, they learned, and most of them, even those with little computer experience, completely finished the scavenger hunt on their own. 

I guess that it should come as no surprise to me that middle school students would take the path of least resistance.  Why put forth the effort of figuring a task out independently if a teacher would do it for you?  My job, or rather my duty, though is not to make sure that everyone gets done or even that they get all of their questions answered.  My job is to guide my students in learning.  To present them with meaningful and authentic tasks that allow them to develop the skills they need to be literate in our modern society.
Today, I feel like we did just that.

This lesson was about more than just signing up for accounts on a few websites.  It was about developing students' confidence and abilities in navigating web pages and reading digital text. It was about showing students that while I will be there for them if they need me, the ability to complete a task lies within them.  I'm proud of myself for taking the risk for treading back into murky territory, I'm proud of my students for joining me, but most importantly, I take pride in seeing that my student are are proud of themselves for overcoming a challenge on their own.  They left my class with a sense of empowerment in their capacity for navigating the web.  Though they may not even be aware of it, they took an important step today in building their foundation as digital learners, one they will build off throughout their time in my class and in their lives, and one that I couldn't have built for them.