Cliques and Comments

commentsNow that school is over I finally found time to look over the notes that I took during the year to keep track of my classroom blogging study. This morning, I found the following, very short note:

"September 22, 2004 --> Comments, cliques, and the feeling of isolation!"

I remember the incident very well. In fact, this is something that I intend to fully address in my dissertation. Two of my students came up to me after class and said that they were discouraged by the fact that their entries had not received any comments from their classmates. Some other blogs, especially those of the very popular kids, they said, had received a lot of attention.

I assured them that we were just starting to use blogs and that they certainly were not the only ones whose work had not been commented on. I said that it was all a matter of time, that it was unreasonable to expect their classmates to read all the blogs and comment on all of them. "Give it some time," I remember saying, "we've only just started."

Then, at home, I read all entries and all comments in our class blogosphere very carefully. I was generally pleased with some of the trends that I could clearly perceive were emerging from online interactions. And yet, it was clear that the first wave of commentary centered around the blogs belonging to the popular crowd. In fact, the social cliques seemed to have turned digital. The students' behaviour online seemed to be patterned after their everyday social behaviour.

Needless to say, I was alarmed. I wanted my students to be recognized individually for their work, and to be recognized by their own peers. I wanted them to be recognized for their efforts to produce compelling pieces of writing. I had hoped that our blogosphere would be based on quality of work, on meaningful interactions among young learners passionate to show the world and each other who they are and how good they can be at writing and learning. Instead, it occurred to me, they seemed to cluster in old familar groups.

Why am I writing about this now? Well, partly because I just read a very interesting post about how grade eight students perceive blogging. It was inspiring to read so many positive responses to this new technology. This group of students and their comments regarding blogging reminded me of my own grade eight class. As I read their entries, I kept thinking about my encounter with social cliques and blogs at the very beginning of my blogging experiment.

Does this mean that my experiment failed? No. In fact, I am thrilled with the blogging community that emerged in my classroom. One of the reasons why I think it has been so successful has to do with the approach that I chose that very night when I realized that my students were not giving all their classmates a chance and that most of them flocked to their friends' blogs. I decided on the only solution that seemed reasonable at the time: I decided not to do anything at all.

Of course, I was worried about the impact that this could have on the community and on some of its individual members. But it also occurred to me that, with time, voices would emerge out of this blogosphere, voices that would attract readers, voices that, due to their quality, or humour, or unique point of view, would reconfigure any pre-existing social behaviour, that everyday social patterns and behaviour would not find sufficient footing online. "Once they see what this community is all about and how it changes their roles as learners," I thought to myself, "they will learn to take full advantage of their membership in this community. Once they start engaging with topics that are of interest to most or all of them, different cliques will emerge, cliques based on their own work and their pride in their accomplishments."

Ten months later, I can say that voices did emerge - my students realized that this was a community based on different values. That little number in brackets beside the "Comments" hyperlink grew, and sometimes it didn't. The most important thing is that they all realized that communities are not built on the number of comments one receives on one's blog but on the quality of engagement with topics that are personally relevant. (In fact, most commented on the work of their peers in their blog entries and not by writing comments, but that's another entry.) It helped them realize, to use a grade eight student's words, "how much can happen when you work with others."