Participation as Competence

I spent the last couple of weeks travelling in Europe and thinking about the kind of impact that blogging has had on my classroom and on me as a teacher. As I thought about preparing for the new school year, I noticed that my thoughts focused on giving my students more freedom as writers and thinkers, on allowing them to co-construct the curriculum, on ensuring that their voices are heard. Why this sudden switch from a teacher-centred classroom? First, a story.

At the end of last term, our Director of Admissions was conducting a tour for a small group of parents interested in enrolling their children in our school. I did not see her when she came in to show her group our computer lab. Later, in the staffroom, she came up to me and said: "I showed them the computer lab but couldn't see you. I was hoping you'd be free to answer some of their questions but you seemed to have evaporated."

Her tone seemed to imply that I wasn't doing my job, that I should have been in the classroom but wasn't.

The truth is that I WAS there.

When my colleague came in with the visitors, I was sitting down at one of the computer desks, listening to one of my students and his thoughts about his work. He wanted to tell me about the response he was writing and the help (in the form of comments) that he'd received from his classmates. So, instead of standing in front of the classroom, I found myself walking around and sitting down to listen to individual students. Most of the time, I didn't even have to ask questions - they eagerly shared their ideas with me. Once they realized that I was genuinely interested in their views and that the final product was not as important as the journey itself, they started to talk to me about their writing, about their struggles and their successes, about the "virtual conversations" that they had been engaging in within the class blogosphere.

So, what does this have to do with blogging? Blogging made me see every one of my students as a writer - not an empty vessel - but first and foremost a writer - a thinker with unique ideas and thoughts, a person who can contribute to a meaningful conversation about our curriculum or, better yet, a person who can co-construct that curriculum through meaningful conversation, meaningful engagement in a class blogging community (remember Applebee?). Consequently, I started spending most of my class time talking to individual students about their work. I learned to stay away from the front of the classroom, I learned to listen to individual voices. I learned to encourage and not preach.

I became an active participant in the processes of the social community that emerged as a result of blogging. What's more, I reconstructed my identity as a teacher in relation to that community. My presence online was complemented by my reconfigured identity in the classroom. I began to sit down among my students and write with them. I read, posted comments, summarized student work, encouraged further "conversations" and, in the process, learned more about learning than I ever thought possible. My students realized that they were not writing for me but that we were all writing together. My writers knew that they had readers, that there was a real audience waiting to read their work. They wrote for each other, to question, provoke, and critique each other. They knew they had an audience and their subsequent work proved that a real audience is more effective than the best rubric.

I think we all discovered that learning is about being involved in and contributing to the processes or practices inherent in the community we created. My students realized that writing and learning are not solitary pursuits, that Language Arts is not necessarily about learning what "great writers" have written in "great books." They began to perceive their participation as a form of competence and they proved to me that, as James Britton once said, "we learn in the process of expression."