They Begin to Build Bridges

We have started a long novel study unit and the students will soon have to start working on major unit projects. The idea is to give them the freedom to explore the novel on their own, to make connections between the novel and any current or historical events, and to spend some time becoming an expert who will then present a specific aspect of the novel to the whole class. The question I am considering, though, is whether to make this an individual project or a group one. I think I understand the advantages and disadvantages of both but, as my previous post makes very clear, I am deeply suspicious of groups. I understand that we are social animals, that students need to learn to work collaboratively, that ideas grow when minds work together, and that team work is a highly prized skill out there in the "real world." Yet, at the same time, I know that more often than not, when students work in groups many individual voices are subordinated to the dominant voice of the group. I have in my class this year many fragile voices. Many students who are yet to become fully comfortable with blogging, who have not yet embraced it as a vehicle of self-expression. They keep waiting for me to assign work, to tell them what to write and how. Whenever they do risk writing something on their own, it is always done on a topic that seems "safe" to them or seems like something I would certainly approve of. The last thing they need as learners, as budding writers and developing thinkers, is the comfort of a group where some more confident and not necessarily more competent peer will take control and give them yet another opportunity not to risk expressing their views and to hide behind the group. I agree with Stephen Downes when he says that "there comes a certain point where our group identity becomes more of a burden than a blessing." In a classroom, it often becomes a cloak of invisibility, a common denominator, and, sadly, an excuse.

Of course, when two or more strong, confident, and gifted individuals collaborate, things are quite different. I agree. But when groups are chosen at random, good ideas don't always emerge. So, instead of putting my students in groups, I prefer to create a class environment where they can feel comfortable to explore ideas, to write themselves into existence as budding writers and thinkers. I prefer to start by engaging my students in the process of creating a community, a group of individuals that will empower those who need encouragement and give a forum to those who already confidently share their thoughts with others. I try to create a place, both online and off, where students will want to write and create as individuals, a place where they will not be afraid to "test" their voices. I want to provide them with the kind of environment that will empower them to see themselves as writers. I want to create a place where discussion is encouraged and where all ideas and voices are given a forum where they can be expressed, debated, and where they can flourish. I think Teemu is right when he suggests that the environment itself is a kind of group for my students. It is. They find comfort in it, a sense of familiarity. As I said before, they need to find their own voices first. They need an environment where they can practice that, where they can grow.

I also agree with J.S.Mill when he says that

There is no reason that all human existence should be constructed on some one or some small number of patterns. If a person possesses any tolerable amount of common sense and experience, his own mode of laying out his existence is the best, not because it is the best in itself, but because it is his own mode. (1978, 64).

I want my classroom, I want my community of writers to be a place where my students can test their own modes of "laying out ... existence," a place where they can see who they are on their own, without what J.S.Mill calls the "tyranny of the majority," but with a supportive and empowering safety net of a strong classroom environment.

I could, in a totalitarian fashion, put my students in groups (keeping in mind, of course, their homeroom teacher's suggestion that Jeremy and Sean should never be in the same group because of the bullying episode last year). I could even let them choose their own groups. Of course, if I let them choose groups, Phil and Vanessa would have to go through yet another humiliating moment of looking left and right or staring at their desk only to discover that no one wants them in their groups, that no one asked, that no one really seems to care that they even exist. I could reinforce teenage power dynamics, but I won't. I prefer to subvert them by giving each individual in my class the freedom and the luxury to work as individuals, as kids with ideas and opinions. I want to empower them so that they can say, "Look, I wrote this!" and be proud of their own work and not hide behind or settle for a weak contribution to a mediocre group project.

This, of course, does not mean that students in my class are locked in a vacuum where they remain unaware of what their classmates are doing. The past two years of blogging have taught me that students who work independently in a community of writers, work independently for only a very brief period of time, and only initially. Gradually, they realize that they are embedded in a community, that many of their classmates have discovered similar things and explored similar ideas. Then, connections and networks emerge. John realizes that what he has been writing about the novels of Isaac Asimov is very similar to Jennifer's creative writing pieces that she's been posting on her blog. He notices that when Phil writes his movie reviews, he often writes about sci-fi films. And so, they all begin to comment on each other's work. With just a subtle push from me, they might even collaborate to create something together. They begin to connect as writers, they begin to connect as kids with ideas, and, gradually, they begin to see themselves as a community. All three of them experience that moment of "Hey, neat!" and they begin to build bridges.

Human nature, as J.S.Mill reminds us in his essay On Liberty,

is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing. (Mill, 1978, 56-57).

______ Notes:

Mill, J.S. (1978). On Liberty. Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company.