Today, I added five new RSS feeds to my Bloglines account. Nothing extraordinary about that, you might say. True, except that the five feeds come from blogs started by my former students. All five of these students were integral parts of our class blogging community last year, and I am not surprised that they chose to start their own blogs. Some of them started their own blogs even before they finished grade eight. I'm glad that writing continues to play an important role in their lives. Some of them post poetry, some post quick observations, some write short creative pieces. In other words, they are all experimenting with words. I hope that they will continue to blog all throughout high school. Their work inspires me to keep learning and challenging myself to create a classroom that empowers students and helps them see themselves as writers.
However, while I'm glad that they have a place where they can continue to engage with language, I also lament the fact that this activity is not taking place inside my current grade eight community. The current grade eight blogging community does not contain any of the work done by my former students last year. This is because, when my former students graduated in June, I deleted all of their blogs. It seemed to me that this year's class needed its own space, unencumbered by the work of the graduating class. Now I realize that their voices are gone and my current students are writing in a community that has no history.
Imagine how much my current grade eight students would benefit from having some of my former students and the content they produced last year inside the same class community. Imagine how much they would benefit by writing and reading in an online place already populated by the work of last year's grade eights. Imagine the conversations that would develop, especially if last year's students were still part of the community, even though they've moved on to high school.
I used to think that when a new class begins to form its own community, the students should be given an empty space where they can be free to write themselves into existence, develop their own space in a way that reflects their own interests, talents, and personalities. Now, having used blogging with three different groups over the past three years, I'm beginning to understand that every September my new grade eight students enter a space that is empty and uninspiring. What's worse, when they finally manage to grow as a community, when they manage to define themselves as individual writers functioning within a larger classroom discourse, when the texts they produce begin to form a history of meaningful engagement with ideas, June comes along, the students graduate and the community ceases to exist. They all move on and I happily purge our online space of all their work.
I have been using blogging communities in my grade eight Language Arts classes for the past three years and only now am beginning to realize how important it is for a community to continue to grow, despite the segmentation into grades, timetables, or subjects imposed by the education system.
When students enter a community that has been in existence for a year or more, they can still make it their own and write in a way that is true to who they are. In addition to having that freedom, they also enter a context, a stream of conversations that they can write themselves into. They have texts and ideas that they can interact with. In fact, it is the presence of that sense of history, or "historical sense" as T.S. Eliot used to call it, that makes them aware of the timeless and the temporal, of the context that they're entering and the world which they presently occupy. So, while they can use their own blog to assert their views and explore various topics, they also have to acknowledge the presence of other voices which already inhabit their community. They can benefit from "the thinking, decision making, and filtering habits of others" - not just those who presently occupy the space with them but also former students who may or may not be still present in the community. Students writing about social injustice in Canada, for example, would be able to study not just the topic itself but also how that topic was addressed by grade eight students last year. What's more, if the students from last year remain within the community, they can keep learning and writing together, exchanging ideas and commenting on each other's work. As T.S. Eliot argues in his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent," "No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone."
Fragmented and Temporary
However, I was never able to experience this sense of growing community because, like most teachers, I have been programmed to divide learning into yearly or monthly episodes. The blogging community begins in September, it grows until June, and then gets deleted because September will bring another batch of students and another community. Unfortunately, this is how institutions and teachers structure learning. Math between 9:00 and 10:00, grade eight from September till June. Students log on, interact with texts and each other, develop as writers, contribute to the growth of their community and then, once the school year is over, their work gets deleted and reduced to a single grade. We all know the story. Perhaps there are teachers out there somewhere who understand that communities of learners need to be perennial gardens, teachers who make it possible for their graduates to stick around and keep contributing even after they graduate or finish their course. I have not been very good at sustaining learning communities over time and have given in to the fragmentation of learning that currently pervades education. The exciting thing is that the technology we now have at our disposal can help us change the grim fragmented reality of schooling and transform it into an inspiring, ongoing process of lifelong learning. Online communities do not have to be governed by school timetables and annual graduation cycles. They can persist as ecosystems where participants, by reading and discussing certain texts while ignoring others, provide the necessary and natural conditions for their survival.
Last June, ten of my former students asked to remain part of the community. They had grown so attached to their class blogging community that they asked me not to shut it down and to give them access to the new community that they knew I would be building with my new grade eights in September. I was thrilled that they wanted to remain in the community. I knew that as grade nine students, having already gone through the grade eight programme, they would greatly enhance the experience for their younger friends.
And yet, I chose to shut down the community and restrict access to the new one. For the past three years, in fact, I have been creating communities only to dismantle them every June. Yes, I have been blindly following the annual cycle of fragmented learning, but my decision was also dictated by institutional constraints. Since my students participated in my doctoral research study, I was obligated to follow the restrictions imposed upon me by the University of Toronto's Research Ethics Committee. I was not allowed to make the blogging communities or anything contained therein available to the general public, not even to former student participants. Yes, former students, according to the Ethics Committee, are outsiders.
A Sense of History
I wish I had ignored all those policies. My current class could use some additional motivation from my former students. I now believe, having blogged with three different groups of students, that communities need a sense of history. That's why the best stuff that happens in the communities I build every year with my grade eight students happens in April and May. It is only after months of writing and reading together that the sense of community becomes tangible and begins to have an impact on its participants. That's why, last year, my students said to me at the end of June that they did not want to leave the community. They wanted their community to persist despite the fact that they themselves were graduating. They were leaving the school, leaving the building, but saw their community as a place that did not need to be abandoned just because they were moving on to high school. In fact, the community had acquired meaning because it contained work that they had been contributing all year. It contained some of their best work, some of the best discussions that they ever engaged in. When they asked to remain part of the grade eight blogosphere they were telling me that true online communities cannot be limited by the duration of the course. They need to grow beyond those artificial limitations.
Towards a Perennial Garden
Limited by institutional restrictions and convinced that every class needs to start with a blank slate, I chose not to allow my former students to continue as members of the online community even though their presence would have given my new students a community with a sense of history. So, my new grade eight students are now building a new community. I know that, much like all the grade eight students that preceded them, they will develop their own history. This time, however, when the students graduate in June, the community, for the first time in years, will not be purged. Even if the students do not show any interest in staying online, I will leave the content that they will have generated for the next group to see and interact with. I want that next group to enter a community that is already pervaded by voices. I do not want them to enter an empty online space that they will have to define from scratch. Instead, they will enter a space that has a deep sense of history. It will have a strong impact on their own sense of community and their attempts to continue to build that community for themselves. I know that instead of being intimidated by what had gone on before, they will be influenced and inspired by the work of their predecessors.
I feel that like an architect or an engineer, I have been too preoccupied with the act of building communities and have not paid as much attention to sustaining them and giving them the nourishment they need to grow. Clay Shirky says that "To create an environment conducive to real community, you will have to operate more like a gardener than an architect." I have been an architect for too long. Now, I will be a gardener.