I’m going to talk about using social media, blogs in particular, to build not only communities of readers, but also communities of learners. In the examples I’ll show you, you’ll see how learning is changed when students move from being recipients of the teacher’s knowledge to members of a community, where they have a voice which they share not only with their teacher, but with their peers.So, Why did I start using blogs?
My first blog was a result of the first SLAV initiative into Web 2.0 professional development. Like everyone else who did the 23 things course, the first thing we did was create a blog. Not only did we learn about the mechanics of blog creation, but we began to understand the potential of the blog as a platform for writing, discussion, reflection, sharing, and connection with other bloggers. For me, it was the start of community, the first step out of isolation as an educator towards the development of a personal learning network (PLN).
Since then, I’ve found good reasons to create different blogs serving different purposes and with their own voice. Each blog is written for a specific audience - and this audience doesn’t have to reside in one classroom or one school, this audience might include other schools other than mine, and some of these might be located outside of Australia. So first of all, the blog breaks out of the traditional walled classroom, and secondly, being published, it has an authentic audience. So, connection and real-world readership.
This is my reading blog.
This is my writing and discussion prompts blog.
My global connections project blog.
So, to set the context, I think we need to take a look at our students in order to understand them. Who are they? How do they operate? We need to ask ourselves the question: How have the students of today changed?
In their everyday lives our students are connected and mobile. They carry around what they need to communicate and locate information in their pockets.
Then they come to school and, in most cases, have to put their phones and ipods away, face the front, listen to one teacher talking a lot of the time.
We still see a lot of the “Sage on the stage” teaching. It’s a one way teaching, and it means that students are focused mainly on the teacher, they rely on the teacher for their learning, and write for the teacher. Even when they have an excellent teacher, there is still no real audience, and, in my opinion, no real purpose for writing.
This is where something like blogging comes in – students publish their writing for others to see, maybe for their classroom peers, maybe even for students outside the school. They have a voice, they have an audience, they are actively involved.
So, I’ll give you a quick overview of my blogs, starting with my reading blog.
As a teacher librarian, I want to instil a love for reading. Research shows that kids who read more will do better in all their subjects. Kids who read more are more connected to knowledge and ideas, and they think more, they discuss more, they evaluate and reflect more.
When I was trying to encourage reading and expose students regularly to a variety of authors, I felt dissatisfied with my approach. The students could only listen and take in so much of what I was saying. Their knowledge of books relied too much on what I was telling them. Talking at great length about books I thought the boys would like just didn’t sit right with me. The right fit with books is surely more of an assisted, personal discovery. Instead of me trying to talk them into reading something, couldn’t they discover it for themselves?
I thought about another way of doing this, something complementary to the book talk. I decided to start a blog, Fiction is like a box of chocolates..The blog was an extension of my talks. It was a platform with many possibilities and reaching a wider audience.
Instead of just holding up the book, I could include images of book covers
Slideshows of freshly shelved books
Book to film trailers
Film to book trailers
Information about Graphic novels
News about recent reading technologies.
And any information to encourage reading
I thought that this would be a good way for students to take charge of their search for books, particularly since they are comfortable browsing online. They could skim and skip around, stop at whatever caught their attention, and follow hyperlinks when they wanted to look a bit deeper.
And not everything has to be serious. I wanted the blog to be enjoyable.
More than anything, I wanted the blog to belong to the students. But not just the students; I wanted it to belong to the school community. My hope was that the school community would take ownership of the blog, or at least feel it was theirs, not mine.
First of all, I decided to run a competition for the name of the blog. That was fun in itself and was the first step in making the blog belong to the students. As you can see, the winning entry was ‘Fiction is like a box of chocolates - you never know what you’ll find until you look inside’. I was the only one who didn’t get the Forrest Gump theme.
The next idea I had was to involve the whole school community in the book reviews. I’d heard students who were reluctant readers say that reading was for librarians. They actually thought that all librarians did was read. In the library. In fact, we never came out of the library, as far as they were concerned. And nobody else read. It was a librarian thing. We were born to read.Well, I had to change that misconception. That’s when I decided to show the students that other teachers read as well. No, not just English teachers, but Maths teachers, Science teachers, Art teachers, and dare I say it, even PE teachers. And not just the teachers, but administration staff.
But I didn’t want to scare people off by asking them for a review. Well, I started out by doing that, but when I mentioned review, they turned pale. It was too much like something they had done for their teacher. I decided to take a leaf from the newspapers. I gave them a few quick questions: What are you reading? Why this book? What’s it about? Would you recommend it to others? And this worked very well, it was unintimidating and enough to give readers an idea. I called this feature post, Guess who’s been caught reading.
Then I decided to be brave and find authors who would be willing to answer these questions. I had already been successful in convincing Michael Gerard Bauer to join one of our English classes on a ning, and not only did he answer our boys’ questions but he also wrote them a story - a story just for them! So I thought I’d push my luck and ask him for a book review, to which he graciously replied that he would. Michael reviewed ’Leaving Barrumbi’ by Leonie Norrington.
Well, I was on a roll, so I thought I’d ask James Roy for a review, and what do you know, he said yes. James reviewed The machine gunners by Robert Westall. I thought that was cool - our Aussie authors contributing to the blog.
Of course, our students also regularly review books they love to read
The blog is a great platform for information. In the navigation you can add all sorts of links. I’ve added links to other book blogs for students.
Links to blogs of interest to staff, and to blogs written by teens.
We liked the idea of making the genres sound a little more interesting. These hyperlinks take you to posts about the specific genre you are looking for. Thanks to my colleague, Dawn, and the State Library’s website, Inside a dog, for these.
We also have a student writing page;
A page for feedback on reader recommendations or requests
And we’ve started an author’s page which will take you to all posts about that author
And if you have a blog, you MUST be able to see who is reading it? It’s a bit of a thrill to see the red dots light up across the globe.
Now, I’d like to show you my Storyteller blog - a writing prompts blog.
The idea for this resulted from hearing teachers talk about how they could improve students’ writing. And when you think about it, reading and writing are different sides of the same coin. I thought that if we value the time we set aside for regular silent reading, then we should also provide regular time for writing. And there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be fun.
My idea is to provide a visual stimulus (image or film) for writing. Students respond really well to images and film, something visual, so when I find something amazing, I put it onto the blog and add questions as prompts for creative writing or discussion. It’s really an offering to teachers to use any way they want. Students can write in the comment section of the blog or else just use the prompts and write elsewhere.
I email updates to teachers of English, ESL teachers, and LOTE but I also share the blog with anyone else who’s interested through Twitter and Facebook.
Normally, students write for the teacher who then returns the writing with feedback and a mark, so the writing isn’t shared. In this case, students care about what they write because they know their classmates will read it. They love reading what others have to say, and commenting, or getting involved in dialogue. When I teach a class using blogs or nings, It’s great to see them in class, laughing about what someone has written, encouraging each other.
These are just a few examples of the different writing prompts in this blog. This excellent animation of the poem Vincent Malloy, read by Vincent Price, with artwork by Tim Burton, might be a way in to poetry appreciation.
There are so many fantastic videos that would appeal to students. Once you’ve got them interested, the discussion will be rich. I find that I’ve been using video more than image. The only trouble is, once the students are on the blog, they want to watch all the videos at once. I come across fantastic videos all the time through my Google Reader, or shared by my network on Twitter, Facebook, and Vodpod.
I make sure I provide a lot of variety so that there’s something for everyone.
The last blog I want to show you is the one which documents a project I did with our year 10 English class and Marie Coleman (Florida) and Sinikka Laakio-Whybrow (Finland). We used Flickr as the platform, and I used the blog for documentation, reflection and evaluation.
In his book, The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman says that there are certain ‘flatteners’ that promote and allow for connection, collaboration and creation via distance. He was referring to technology which shrinks geographical barriers and make global connections possible. And that’s exactly what took place in this project.
What the students appreciated most about learning from each other across the globe was what they had in common, but also what was different.
Our Australian students were shocked by the severity of Finnish Winters and the prolonged lack of sunshine during this season. The contrast between daylight hours during the Australian Summer and corresponding Finnish Winter was more powerfully experienced through the project than it would have been if students had gleaned the same information through books, internet or television.
Many students’ reflective and evaluative skills were impressive. My guess is that the personal topics enabled the best kind of analysis because students were able to choose an aspect of their lives which was meaningful. Here is one student’s response to the prompt ‘What does learning mean to you?’
“This is my father and my nephew. Isn’t he amazing! I think so. They are both learning so much. My nephew, about everything around him and how to interact and my father, about being a grandfather and everything that means. I really love that this shows how we never really stop learning and that there is always something new to experience.
One of the best things about this project was that the social aspect engaged the students.
Sinikka had previously reflected about what frustrated her with her students learning English:
‘I would really like to challenge my students to bring out their real personalities in the foreign language. I have learned over the years that Finns especially seem to suffer greatly from a sort of ‘personality reduction syndrome’ when using a foreign language. I blame our text books and language classes for this, since students hardly ever get the chance to express THEMSELVES in the target language, but are always asked to talk about external topics, or role play. Their use of the language is also far too fact-based – emotions and feelings are hardly ever touched upon’.
I think Sinikka hit the nail on the head by underlining the importance of students expressing themselves, instead of practising their writing skills using isolated topics and writing mainly for the teacher.
In our project, more than anything, the students loved to show off who they were and what they did. And the comment:
‘Very nice fashion statement your setting here! I’m sure that furry purple hat and yellow cape will start a new trend for the spring!’
Music is one of the most important things in young people’s lives. Here’s a photo for the assignment where students had to take a photo to go with the lyrics of a song. This student documented the severe storm in Melbourne at the time:
This is what he said: “I took this photo during one of my cricket matches; I was waiting for my turn to go out to the middle while listening to my IPod. End of the World, by REM came on; I looked up at the approaching storm (which would cause our game to be postponed) and took the picture. The storm caused a lot of damage, and there were pictures of people swimming down main roads in the city.”
An interest in food was another thing students had in common. The Finnish school cafeteria was the envy of our boys.
I think the pairing of themes with photos worked really well. Although at times the students found the writing challenging, we were also surprised at the reflection which often resulted. Here’s one student’s comment:
‘While watching this bug for ages I just saw at some points that you get stuck and cant move and you need a helping hand or you might just get stuck and struggle for a bit but soon figure out how to get unstuck.’
Another thing that amazed us was the openness and honesty of the students. I think the photo as a starting point really helped. And they were writing about themselves to a peer audience – that makes such a difference.
Here’s what one of our students said (and ours is a boys school)
Photo by KierenT_au “This Photo shows my relationship with my friends, I really don’t care if people say wearing that stuff is for girls only and stuff like that. I think it’s fun sometimes just to dress up and mess around and not care what the world thinks of you.’ Comment: “You seem like a really cool person. I love how you can be your own person and not really care about what other people think”.
Engagement is a vital trigger for any kind of learning. Although this project had clear guidelines and timeline with weekly themes and questions to answer, the students gradually took over and made it theirs, while getting to know each other. Even the boys in our class said they learned more about each other than ever before.
Learning to behave appropriately online is social learning; it’s important we give our students the chance to understand netiquette: how to write respectful and constructive comments, how to form relationships online, understanding photo licensing and using Creative Commons, acknowledging other people’s stuff, etc.
I hope that I’ve given you a good overview of how I use blogs. I also use nings in a similar way. I think it’s important to document and share learning experiences, and I’m happy if my blogs provide ideas for other educators’ projects.
And finally, I just want to say that if you want to encourage teachers to integrate technology into their teaching, don’t talk about the technologies themselves, create and model learning and teaching communities online. Look at what other people are doing, then jump in and have a go.