Powerful Possibilities in a Middle School Classroom

“If our purposes were to be framed in such a fashion, they would not exclude the multiple-literacies and the diverse modes of understanding young persons need if they are to act knowledgeably and reflectively within the frameworks of their lived lives. Situatedness; vantage point; the construction of meanings: all can and must be held in mind if teachers are to treat their students with regard, if they are to release them to learn how to learn.”

– Maxine Greene, Teaching as Possibility: A Light in Dark Times

As I think about “best practices” as a teacher of language arts and social studies, I am inspired and motivated by Maxine Greene’s words in her essay, Teaching as Possibility: A Light in Dark Times. Although Iread this piece in early September, its message carries great weight as I think about my past work as a teacher, my professional growth as a result of the Klingenstein program, and my future as a teacher and administrator. Next year, not only am I motivated to improve my teaching, but I also see incredible value in having “a space in which light can be shed on what is happening and what is being said” (Greene, 2003, p. 1) in the classroom. Next year, it is essential that I set both personal and professional goals – and boundaries – in order to implement much of what I’ve learned in this class and other Klingenstein classes. Professionally, I am passionate about creating a classroom environment where blogging, cooperative learning, understanding goals, and strategic reading are visible signs of my understanding of various aspects of cognitive research. Personally, I want to create time (and a space) for reflection so that I can continue to grow as a practitioner and leader. I’ve been thinking a bit about the blogging piece and I wanted to share some thoughts here…

The Power of Weblogs: Connected Writing and Student-Centric Learning

Throughout this class, I’ve been thinking a lot about the use of weblogs in the classroom. Rather than seeing blogging as another cool “Web 2.0” tool as many educators do, I believe that blogging has the power to transform both students and classrooms if introduced and taught in an authentic way. In Disrupting Class, Clayton Christensen claims that student-centric classrooms will come as a result of online classes by 2014, but I believe that student-centric learning is a possibility in 2009- 2010 when students are encouraged to write about curricular and personal topics in a public, connected space. Not only will students become more metacognitive in doing so, but teachers will gain great insight into students’ thoughts, feelings, and understanding of curriculum.

The three essential aspects of remembering, as presented my class on cognitive science, are elaborative encoding, distributed practice, and retrieval practice. Since teachers must beware of “inert ideas” or “ideas that are merely received into the mind without being utilized, or tested, or thrown into fresh combinations”(Whitehead, The Aims of Education, 1929, p. 1), teachers must plan curricular experiences that aid in elaborative encoding. While many classroom activities have the potential to provide opportunities for high-quality rehearsal, interior/exterior dialogue, activation of prior knowledge, effective organization of ideas, and creation of meaningful contexts and purposes that motivate and sustain active learning, I believe that blogging is an authentic activity that could prove to be transformational in the classroom.

Student blogging in a middle school classroom is much more than occasional writing in an online space. While the crafting of blog posts is the most visible sign of blogging, commenting on posts and linking to other blogs and websites is an essential piece of an effective blogging program. Teachers must instruct students on author voice and bias, organization of information, web safety and etiquette, and the powerful nature of this Web 2.0 tool. Blogging, the sharing of students’ ideas and thoughts about curricular and personal matters, leads to vulnerability that can be harnessed in a positive way. Maxine Greene speaks to the importance of creating situations where children are enabled and can be agents for their own learning. She writes:

Without a sense of agency, young people are unlikely to pose significant questions, the existentially rooted questions in which learning begins. Indeed, it is difficult to picture learner-centered classrooms if students’ lived situations are not brought alive, if dread and desire are not both given play (2003, p. 2-3).

Blogging does just that. It brings “students’ lived situations” inside and outside of the school walls alive and teaches students that their voice matters. Blogging also shows students that they can do the hard work of creating meaning from curriculum, thus taking control of their own learning.

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A Little Bit of History…Blogging in 2007

I was going through old files in search of a document and found the following article about the first group of sixth grade bloggers at Trinity School. While it’s making me think about what I’m writing for my “How People Learn” class, it’s also reminding me of the power of blogging. While I wrote this article in the fall of 2007, it’s a good reminder of the transformative power of authentic writing in a middle school classroom.

Prior to the fall of 2007, weblogs were a foreign concept to us. Limited in our understanding of new trends in technology, we approached the world of blogging with fear and skepticism. A proposal for a tablet unit in which students would keep individual blogs was quite basic in design. Students would gain exposure to this world and try posting their thoughts on their own blog. Our students’ experiences shifted our fear and skepticism to enthusiasm and commitment to a new medium of writing and thinking. Our small experiment has yielded significant results.

As teachers, we find that weblogs transcend curricular boundaries, enabling and honoring the melding of reflection and critical thinking. After the sixth grade class visited the Joseph Sams School in January, many students chose to capture their thoughts and reactions by posting to their blog. Wellie D. makes the connection between values discussions on prejudice and her experience:

I had a small group with all boys. None of them were able to fluently talk, but they all showed their kindness through the hugs and grabs that they gave us. They were the friendliest, funniest, cutest kids that I have ever seen, and it is sad to think how people could be prejudiced against them. Through this experience (and values class), I have learned that pre-judging somebody is never a good thing to do, and you should take the time to get to know different types of people.

Another surprising element of blogging was the students’ excitement for writing in a new medium. No longer bound to paper and pencil, students eagerly shared their insights with their peers. A shock came when interested readers outside of the Trinity community began to comment on sixth graders’ writing. Helen J. connected with a blogger in Ohio who shares her passion for horses, and the two continue to correspond.

In reflecting on their blogging experience, Austin M. writes:

I have learned a lot about their [his friends] lives away from school and what they believe in. I have also learned about other things beyond the surface. If my friends write multiple posts around one subject, I get a feel about what really interests them the most.

To read more about what captures the imagination of sixth graders, visit the Writer’s Exchange on Trinity’s new website (found in the Virtual Trinity section). Topics range from Alex F.’s post on giving Open House tours, to a post about college football by Grant H., to Matthew K.’s tribute to a mother’s love, to Emma R.’s thoughts about an interview with the author of White Lilacs, the class novel.

Phoebe J. sums it up, “I learned that even the people who don’t talk a lot in school have great ideas and opinions. I learned that even though someone is quiet, you shouldn’t underestimate them because they might have some powerful stuff floating around in their mind, just waiting for the opportunity to come out.”

My Subway Lesson Plan (or how I would have approached a recent class on technology and education)

I just made a rather bold statement to a friend in the cohort concerning a recent lecture about technology and education. Here are the fruits of my subway ride home…

Given these guiding questions (supplied by professor) and readings which serve as the springboard for questions and class discussion…

1. How do today’s adolescent learners change the expectations for teacher skills?

2. What, if any, new topics should be included in a school’s curriculum to address today’s technology?

3. What are the opportunities and weaknesses of integrating technology into the classroom?

4. What are the risks/rewards for leaders integrating technology throughout the program (including the administrative services of a school)?

5. How do you assess successful technology integration within the curriculum and school community?

6. What new skills are required of leaders in the web 2.0 world?

…I would create a class that looked like this – – –

Introduction:

Discussion of Video and Relevancy for Kling Cohort

Presentation:

  • The Power of a Personal Learning Network
  • How To Build a Personal Learning Network
  • What Tools You Should Be Using (Google Reader, Twitter, Social Networking Site (Facebook, NING, MySpace), Delicious)

*more to come…as I continue learning and formulating my answers to the questions above.