ECOO Conference 2005 and Teacher Voices

So far, the response to my presentation at the ECOO Conference has been very positive. I presented this morning at 9:00AM and have already received four e-mails with requests for additional information regarding blogs and creating an online community of writers.

But what really made me think was a comment made by one of the participants immediately after my presentation. "Teachers," she said to me, "are very good readers. But we're not very good writers." What she meant was that as teachers (especially English teachers) we tend to scrutinize everything we read. We approach texts from the point of view of a literary critic or a composition instructor. When we engage in discussions about texts, we often speak with a very critical, perspicacious voice. We have been trained to do so and most of us consider it our job to help our students develop that same voice. Consequently, when we enter online discussions (through threaded forums or blogs) we tend to evaluate. Our voices tend to analyze, explain, summarize, or restate.

When I first entered a community of writers, the first one that I ever established as a teacher, I brought that voice with me. I assumed that my students would adopt this critical voice, that their exposure to critical discussion would help them develop as analytical and independent thinkers.

I was wrong. My voice stifled discussion. My students learned that in order to do well in my course they needed to speak with the same voice. They adopted it. I did not help them develop their own critical voice. I imposed it upon them and they, motivated by getting a good grade, adopted it as their own.

And so, this morning, I talked about the importance of creating online communities of writers that foster individual, expressive voices. I talked about facilitating open-ended discussions. I talked about learning to become a writer. Not an analytical deconstructor of texts but a human, curious, expressive writer who facilitates through a voice that constributes, a voice that encourages participation, a voice which we as teachers can adopt only when we divest ourselves of the constant need to evaluate student work. I talked about creating an online community of writers where the classroom teacher grows along with the class, where he or she becomes an inquirer, responding to student work with a voice that is inquisitive, not interrogative.

Northrop Frye once said that we cannot think of

the teacher as primarily someone giving out information to someone else who does not have it. The teacher's function is to help create the structure of the subject in the student's mind ... The student already knows a great deal more than he realizes he knows. But this greater knowledge is concealed from him, partly by the fact that it is unstructured, lying around in bits and pieces (Northrop Frye, On Education).

When we enter online communities ready to facilitate by co-constructing with our students, we help our students impose their own structure upon the knowledge that, to use Frye's words, is already "lying around in bits and pieces."