Chris Lehmann has written some of the best posts for my money in 2008 and his timing always seems to be impeccable. His recent Letter To A New Teacher spoke to all teachers, new or experienced, regardless of sector or country and I found Chasing False Gods to be really good fodder for my own thoughts. As the whole Al Upton and his miniLegends issue dropped into the edublogger pool and the ripple waves started washing up onto various shores, Chris's words have new meaning for me as I try to work out why blogging is worth pursuing in the classroom. Is it a faddish idea because it's new technology and merely digitises what's always been done in classrooms or does it offer students regardless of age something more? Chris points out:
We have to understand -- we cannot compete with the ever-more-fast-paced and realistic entertainment world. What we can offer is meaning and purpose and authenticity.
Does blogging have purpose and authenticity? Or is it just a shiny new wrapper that just maybe has too many hard-to-manage variables for the average teacher? Where does it fit?
Something tells me that we should be encouraging teachers to be innovative, to push into unfamiliar territories but once again, Chris's most recent words come swimming into my brain, looking to temper that innovation with our responsibility as educators:
As educators, we must be hyper-aware that we cannot be revolutionaries at the expense of our students.
And there are plenty of revolutionaries around. It is one of the things that Al himself must guard against - being the poster boy for any cause that sees itself at odds with the status quo of administration that doesn't get it, railing against an impersonal system that just doesn't care or in desperate need of an overhaul or dismantlement. He must beware of powerful personalities willing to hitch their cause to the miniLegends - and most are worthy but it's so easy to get sucked into the frenzy, to forget that there is a curriculum to deliver, a classroom to run and there are the students who probably just want their blogs back and have had enough of their time in the spotlight.
But Chris does elaborate more about the role of the risk taker in the classroom:
We must take risks in education. We must challenge the tried-and-true way of educating students, but we must do it thoughtfully and carefully and transparently, because we don't have the luxury of just "going out of business." Every school that makes those choices poorly affects the lives of the students who honored that school with their choice to go there. This is -- as much as any other reason -- we must always, always, always humble ourselves before the enormity of the task in front of us.
I know that writing a blog has altered the way I learn. But capturing the elements that enable me to reflect and connect is not so easy with the students that I teach. It's why I think that the work that Konrad Glogowski has done with his students to be incredibly important. It's also why Al's issues have resonance for me. It's why my own department's response and planned future responses are important to me - how authentic student blogging can be will be determined by how well they can connect to each other, to other students learning similar things and to adults who can guide and direct them in their learning. Otherwise, it will be just recounts and writing in short bursts in pretty themed environments - the digital equivalent of colouring in the page margins.
By running a class blogging program, am I really pushing the boundaries of what the classroom should be today? I think so but only if there are connections out of that classroom. It's early days - and I'm pleased that a sense of community is starting to emerge with my students. There is encouragement, there is some risk taking going on in terms of reluctant writers creating their topics and posts, there is some exchange of ideas and the kids are looking already in under a month to go beyond the "Cool blog" comments and add some substance to their observations of their peers' writing. The Blog Coaches was my next logical step - I need to partner that up with parent information and education as the greatest threat to this carefully monitored situation is media-fuelled apprehension. So I can see the blog as a learning tool that helps students to become digitally literate, improve their use of the written English language, explore topics from their SOSE (Studies Of Society & Environment) curriculum and reflect on their learning in any area of their set curriculum.
But how realistic is this all? How sustainable is a model that demands that the teacher implementing it be linked into a global network? That they understand the digital tool they expect the students to use intimately? I like what Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach has to say on this point:
As educators we need to get ready for a real shift in culture. The shifts that are coming will not allow "business as usual" rather it will be "business as unusual". That is why it is critical for all of us to first own these emerging technologies and the pedagogy/culture that surrounds them, by using Web 2.0 tools to connect- in an effort to chase our own passions. Through the experience of building of your own PLN, not only will you model for your students how this should be done, but you might find some transformational moments along the way -that like mine with Jenny and Dan- will leave you a better person. And do NOT discount what those younger or older than you have to offer. Use expertise and passion- not age- as criteria for who you should learning from and for who should be part of your learning network.
The miniLegends are well on track in this regard. Al Upton is an exceptional teacher who believes in empowering his students. If Sheryl is right and she's identifying what is needed to be a teacher today, I feel ready for the challenge and I reckon that the kids in my class are going to be well positioned.
For this year.
See, that's where my selfish generousity kicks in. I can leverage my network and hook my students up with Alaskan kids on wikis or have well respected edubloggers waiting in the wings to become another one of their teachers. But what about the other teachers in the building? The ones without their own blogs? What about the teachers in my son's school who have never ever read a blog? What about the students I teach as they leave me and hit high school where they get taken back to basics with their technology use and assumed levels of competency?
Has my genorousity been more about me and my passions than their needs for their actual future? As opposed to the one we all agree they should be getting? Don't worry - I teach all of the stuff that Chris advocates we do not overlook. Balance is important.
We need innovators. As Leigh Blackall once said to me, (I'm paraphrasing here) that you need the boundary pushers as it then gives those following behind room to move. Occasionally, however, it doesn't hurt to remember that the students of innovative teachers don't get a say in coming along for the ride. But then there are implications and consequences for inaction and ignorance as well.