Life After Facilitation

What is the role that the teacher needs to assume in the online community of student bloggers? I'm spending a lot of time right now reviewing my log notes from last year in order to look for references to how the developing community of student bloggers kept influencing my online presence and my understanding of my changing responsibilities as instructor and facilitator. So, let me take you back in time ... back to late March when I came home from school and wrote the following note about an interesting community-related development:

March 29, 2006

"My students continue to contribute to their blogs with surprising consistency and enthusiasm. In addition to engaging in many knowledge-building activities, many of them have also found specific topics of personal interest and are posting entries that reflect their personalities and their interests. Some of them have even been able to connect their personal writing to the work they're doing in class. Many don't seem to stop, not on weekends or even March Break. In fact, I've noticed that some contributed more during March Break than ever before. All of this is important to my research and will find its way into my thesis but what I find truly remarkable is that the community seems to be doing fine without me.

The students are engaged in writing and commenting on the work of their classmates. They often ask for time in class to work on their blogs. When I do give them time, I often get the feeling that I could leave them alone for the whole period and they would be happy writing and conversing about the blogosphere. Has the community acquired a life of its own?

I still walk around in class and talk to individual students about their work - their entries and the comments they've left on other blogs. They enjoy talking to me about the work they're doing or about discussions that they're contributing to on someone else's blog. "J" said recently, "Look at all these comments about my entry on democracy. They're all talking about it now."

I'm really happy that they're so engaged and I'm now beginning to spend more time thinking about my role in the classroom. From a professional point of view, I am very happy that I have the time to talk to each student individually, to listen to them talk about their writing. I now have the time to work with writers, not with students who need to be taught writing, but with individuals who have voices and want to be contributors.

At the same time, I realize that I am the only one who is not engaged in the process of writing about things that I care about and that are important to me. While my students are expanding their knowledge of whatever it is that interests them (Vanessa wrote about System of a Down and their stand on the Armenian Genocide!), I seem to be doing very little as a learner. I am certainly not a contributor. Sure, my role has changed to that of a facilitator but now that the community has been more or less facilitated into existence, my role seems trivial. Since September I have been using my teacher blog to post entries about the students' work online. I linked to interesting conversations and posts in an attempt to make them aware of the interconnectedness that characterizes their community. But now that they're very well aware of it and have started contributing, linking, and participating in their own conversations and building their own knowledge through writing, the kind of facilitating that I have been doing seems unnecessary. My blog entries are now reduced to commenting on posts and expressing my amazement at their work. Is it, therefore, really needed and, what's more important, does it contribute to the community? What am I facilitating now?

Where is my voice? A quick scan of my blog entries shows that while I have been actively commenting on the life of the blogosphere, my voice has been fairly authoritarian. I'm still an overseer - I comment on good entries and some interesting discussions, but I never engage in the kind of work that so engages my students. I have a feeling that I could withdraw for a week or two and my absence would not be noticed. It would certainly not affect the community. If Vanessa stopped contributing they would certainly notice. An important voice would suddenly stop speaking.

The students' involvement in the class blogosphere makes me wonder:

  • Shouldn't I enter the community as a personal voice and not a teacherly one?
  • Isn't my blog too detached from the rest?
  • Shouldn't I be engaged in these discussions?
  • Isn't it time to become a blogger, just like my students?

I spent quite a bit of time developing a sense of community, showing my students what it means to be part of a community of writers. We talked about linking and constructive criticism. It clearly worked because I am sensing that this community became an organic entity and seemed to have acquired a life of its own. Whether I assign anything or not, my students (well, most of them, anyway) keep writing. They keep contributing to their blogs, they keep engaging in dialogic critique and in discussions. They clearly see themselves as writers, as individuals capable of responding to ideas that interest them. They have begun to see that they have voices. It seems to me that I have done my job as facilitator and, frankly, am not sure what to do next. If the job of a facilitator is to assist and guide, then, at this point, it is no longer as critical in the community as it was in September. Perhaps at this stage, facilitating should morph into a different role, one that allows me to contribute as a writer, as a voice and not just a guide?

What does this mean to me as their teacher? Do I have a voice? Now that my students are using their blogs to learn and engage in discussions, shouldn't I also use my own blog to write about topics that I care about? Shouldn't I use my blog to learn more about the things that interest me? What if, in the community of grade eight students writing about social justice, I started researching a related topic and proceeded to learn right in front of them? What if I entered their conversation with my own research, my own questions, doubts, feelings. What if I used this community to learn more about the history behind Darfur, for example? How would they respond if I did that?"

And that is how it ends. I wanted to share this note here because it shows the beginning of my realization that the teacher's switch to the role of the facilitator is only the first step in an online community of learners. The reason why I think this is an important piece of the puzzle in my study is because it hints at more than the need to become a facilitator. When the community emerges and begins to sustain itself through the combined efforts of its student participants, the role of the teacher needs to change again. The facilitator needs to become a contributor, one of the learners. This is not to say that guiding and assisting are no longer needed. They still are, but a teacher cannot fully enter the community if he keeps looking at it through the lens of facilitation.

This realization helped me come to the conclusion that in the process of helping my students acquire individual and unique voices, in helping them become independent learners working through and with dialogic connections, I lost my own personal voice. Of course, my teacher voice was very much present but my own personal voice was missing. How ironic - I was dedicated to helping my students become more expressive, to teaching them that true writing comes from within, and yet I myself chose to cling to my professional, adopted voice.