I have received a number of e-mails from teachers who attended my ECOO presentation last week and are interested in how blogging can help them create communities in their classrooms. Unfortunately, I ran out of time at the end of my presentation on communities of writers and did not get a chance to talk about the impact that blogging has had on me as a teacher. I really wanted to discuss the transformation that I have been undergoing as a teacher-blogger. We often talk about all the positive impact that this technology, when used in a meaningful fashion, can have on young people but we rarely address the role of the teacher. I have been blogging with my students for almost two years and I have learned that a community of writers can have a significant impact on the teacher. I have been commenting on how blogging has changed me on this blog but a recent comment from Quentin forced me to think about some of the really new changes. Quentin asked:
Your comments to your student are magnificient and this one is going to pale in comparison. I apreciate the depth of your response and the unlearning that you needed to do to achieve it. It seems as though, based on this response, that you are putting in so much effort into each comment. Perhaps as much as the students are putting into their writing. I have a few questions, is this a feasible model for other educators to replicate in their own blogging experiences? With regards to time associated with reflecting on this area of the curriculum, as opposed to other areas from the perspective of a generalist educator. Do you feel that you are developing depth and breadth and are able to maintain this level of commitment in many of your comments? You really made me wish I was back in the classroom.
Quentin is here referring to one of my previous entries and certainly raises a valid point. The comment that he is referring to is rather long. He is right in saying that the level of commitment this reflects has to be rather high. I remember how much time I spent writing those comments to my students' work. Frankly, it would have been easier to write a sentence or two to summarize their work and efforts. But I chose to write more. Wait. I should re-phrase that. It wasn't really a conscious decision to start writing longer comments. I don't really remember making that decision. I did not wake up one day and say "I will write longer, more detailed comments." No. This new way of responding to the work of my students evolved over time.
Once a community of voices emerged from a network of individual student blogs, it pulled me in - I was surrounded by original, interesting voices and I did not want my voice in that community to be limited to pragmatic directives about course content. I felt that there was a need to respond as a reader. A new, more readerly voice replaced that of a teacher. The omniscient voice was gradually replaced by a contributing and an inquiring one. I started commenting on many individual entries. In most cases, I started by contributing a sentence or two. I was encouraging, praising, faciliating but also contributing my own views, defending them, posting relavant resources that I had found online. I initiated conversations and entered those started by my students. I was part of a community where we all had things to say, discussions to participate in. I was surrounded by voices and started responding to them. Those new voices awakened in me a strong need to participate in the community - not as a teacher but as a contributor.
After a couple of months, I acquired a lot of insight into my students' voices - their personalities as students, teenagers, and writers. So, when I respond to their longer pieces now, I do so from the point of view of someone who has seen them develop, as someone who is very familiar with the challenges and the struggles that they had to overcome to get to this point. I am aware not just of the content of their work but of their personal histories as writers, their trajectories of learning. I also keep in mind that the work I am responding to is tentative and provisional. Even after the paper is deemed finished by its author, it will still continue to receive comments. It will remain suspended in the blogosphere as a text that other students might choose to continue to interact with. It is certainly going to remain there as one of many building blocks in the student's journey as a writer.
So, when I comment on student work now, I keep all of that in mind. I am aware of the personal trajectory, I am aware of the ongoing development, and I also address what is specifically in front of me - the most current reflection of the student's understanding of his chosen topic. Here's an example from a comment I posted on a student blog a couple of days ago:
The last paragraph reminded me of that first essay you wrote back in September. I think we can both agree that that first essay was a struggle but you persevered because you found a good parallel in real life. You were able to relate the novel to some current events. This is exactly what you've done in this entry. I keep returning to your blog because your work keeps reminding me of how timeless this novel is - many of the ideas in it are just as curreent today as they were when the book was first published. This ability to relate literature to current events is one of your strengths as a writer. But I'd like you to clarify one point - why did you say that Napoleon is successful? I think I know where you're going with this but it needs to be made really clear. If you look at some of the responses to your entry you will see that many of your classmates are wodnering the same thing.
Blogging has certainly empowered many of my students to acquire personal voices. I have devoted a number of entries on this blog to that topic but I never mentioned that blogging as a community with my class also allowed me to develop a voice. I don't think I had a voice before I started blogging with my students. It certainly wasn't a readerly voice. Of course, I had solid classroom management skills, I knew my course content, I had files of handouts and lesson plans. I knew how to teach a lesson on essay writing, for example. I knew how to grade a paper. But, all of that from the point of view of who I am now, seems to have been very artificial. I didn't really know how to read an essay or a personal response. I was very good at both creating and following my own rubrics but I did not read - I marked.
Blogging has led me to start developing a new voice. It is still developing. At this stage, this new voice results in lengthy and fairly detailed and personalized comments. I write these comments to my students to engage them but also because I myself am very engaged by the conversations that they are involved in. Quentin's comment made me realize that I have been doing a lot of writing. He is right in suggesting that this practice of responding to student work in such an exhaustive fashion may not be very feasible. It is certainly time-consuming but I think we need to keep in mind that the role of the teacher is changing. I have certainly learned that my students need more than some cliche words of encouragement. What they need from their teacher is evidence of active engagement with the work that they produce. What they need from their teacher is a conversation partner, someone who can read, listen, and co-create knowledge with them. Once we decide to give our students blogs so that they can build knowledge, one of our responsibilities is also plugging ourselves into that knowledge-building network, becoming one of its nodes, becoming someone who can participate in that process of creation and not be perceived as an evaluator in whose hands the process ends and the journey terminates.