Adopted Voices

I remember vividly the day when I first told my students about blogging. I thought I was very well prepared. I created a handout, talked briefly about community-building, explained how blogs work, and showed them some examples. The response was positive. They seemed excited and eager to gain access to their own world of self-publishing. Then, the questions started.

"Are we going to be marked on this?" "How are you going to grade this?" "Will there be deadlines?" "How much do we need to write?" "Will you print them off, or do we have to do it?" "Are you going to mark every entry separately or will you combine some?" "Can we have time in class to do it?"

I remember standing in front of the classroom and thinking "These are silly questions. They have completely missed the point of this. It's about building a community - not length and deadlines."

Then came self-doubt: "Have I explained this properly? Maybe I should have spent more time talking about blogging and my expectations." But then I realized that I decided not to have any specific expectations. I did not want to have a list of outcomes. This was going to be about something else.

This is not to say that I did not have any plans as to where the project was going. Of course I did. I knew that I wanted my students to write and read, to engage in discussions, to care about their work and have a venue where they could display it. I wanted this to be an empowering process for them. I also knew that imposing a structure upon a community of bloggers would lead to its failure. I knew that in order to accomplish my goals as an educator, I had to let this community flow. I knew that certain things would emerge and develop. That meant staying away from structures to avoid stifling the student voices. I wanted their writerly voices to develop out of a genuine interest in their research topic and not the need to "do well." I wanted their work to be motivated by their own need to share and explore.

Suddenly (and quite unexpectedly, I must add), I was confronted with questions about marking and deadlines.

I went home thinking that the first day of blogging ... well - the introduction to blogging - was not as successful as I'd hoped it would be. Here I was trying to do something new, to get away from the traditional approach to writing and literacy, and my students seemed to cling tenaciously to the old ways. Why? Why were they asking all these questions? Wasn't it exciting to find out that you're getting your own blog, that you'll have more freedom as a writer?

And then it hit me - we do this to them. They are asking these questions because this is what we do to kids - we train them to ask these questions. We make learning feel like deadlines and paragraphs and constant evaluation. In fact, most teachers think that kids who ask these questions are conscientious and diligent. This is the standard that we ourselves set and they learn it very well. They learn to follow our rules.

The next day, I explained the concept of community- and knowledge-building. I avoided the issue of evaluation and deadlines. I wanted them to immerse themselves in writing and I knew - I had a hunch - that once the sense of community emerged, their questions about evaluation would stop.

Well, of course they didn't - not entirely. But most students found blogging engaging, interactive, and very rewarding. Many wrote more than they ever did before. They have learned a lot about writing, being a writer, about researching and meaning-making.

What have I learned from this? I've learned that doing new things is often challenging not because of uncooperative school boards or reluctant administrators but because by the time our students are ready to enter high school, they have learned so much from our own ways of teaching that they often recite our mantra back to us. When they do, when they use their adopted voices, we often confuse their questions about length and deadlines with "evidence of learning."