Friday, November 04, 2005

This is your class: This is your class on weblogs

The inspiration for this title came from a television commercial with eggs frying. Maybe that dates me. That was a while ago, back when I watched television...anyway, I am now engaged in a project where my students- in fact, almost all of the students in our program, put much of their writing on weblogs. It changes the way we do things, and look at life and our writing. This weblog will be about those changes.

The first is that whatever you do with the class, you orient the class toward their relationship with the public, as opposed to their relationship to you the teacher, or their relationship to their grade. You engage them in being and owning the media, in starting a dialogue with the public, although in our case this may mostly be comment spammers. This has a dramatic effect on the teacher's relationship with the student, which is often adversarial in a subtle way; I've found, through working with drama also, that whenever a teacher can be on the student's side in facing the adversarial cruel harsh world, that this helps to lower the affective filter within the class itself.

In our program, a teacher has many choices: to post no assignments, post some, or post all; to get involved or stay aloof. Every class has its own weblog; every student is asked to start his/her own, though this isn't enforced thoroughly at the lower levels. Teachers can use both the class weblogs and the student weblogs in a number of ways; they can ask students to put posts on either.

Whether this has improved the overall writing in the program is hard to measure (see below). It has made much more of the writing public. We can all just go online and see what was done earlier, see what others have done, see how certain people handled certain assignments (the assignments do tend to be repeated). It's public record.

It has been said that the weblog straddles a line between the personal/intimate and the public forum. They are personal journals; even the most casual observer can see this personal nature fairly quickly. We use them for other things: to present academic work in portfolios (see below), to build community and share what we can of each other (these are the two most common in our program); but perhaps the best thing about them is that they allow each of us to show something personal about ourselves...all the time.

Our students are from all over, many countries, so it's nice that we have a realm, a place, where we are made equal, or at least have the same templates to choose from. We almost all use Blogger; though we've tried others, those attempts were mired in problems with systems that were less than intuitive (Blogger beats others in this area, believe it or not). We have other problems due to using Blogger: we have to start the weblogs on Safari...we have to learn some code to make links...but overall we've had a good experience.

technological issues

Naturally, students come into the program with a wide range of abilities and experience with computers. We strongly feel that it's important that they learn some basic computer fluency (see below), but we also try to remember that we are not a computer program, we're an English program. They should not be punished because they have trouble typing or have trouble uploading or fixing what they've uploaded. We loosen up on that end of it and just help each other a lot. Sometimes the students know more about it than the teachers! So we can't be too proud.

This term I have two classes.

intermediate reading/listening (Core) class

The first is a lower level (right in the middle, actually) reading/listening class where I'd actually like to develop their conversational fluency, their ability to recognize and relate to basic English on the web...and to basic things they hear in their environment.

My tactics with such a class, which I've used with some success several times, are:

1. make sure the regular reading-listening class goes through a variety of interesting and discussion-starting topics. I rely on the textbook, of course, to do this, and also bring in side readings when I suspect that a tangent might be fruitful. What I'm looking for is a spark in their eyes, that tells me there's a nugget there, something they want to know more about.

2. Then I give them a choice. I say, we are going to do a weblog project that involves looking around a little and then coming back and telling the class (and the program) what you found, on the you're going to look into something, but you have to help me decide what. And they choose. I put them into two or three groups. This term they are doing paparazzi and rumors/political weblogs. Look at the assignment: I've kept it simple. Get into the computer and start looking around. I stress that I'm not teaching formal writing here...when they write their paragraphs, I'm not going to grade grammar, structure, etc.

My hope, of course, is that they'll follow some links. Look at their classmates' assignments. Fish around a little. Sometimes in the lab I get behind them, look at the tentative way they forage around hoping to find something to relate to (usually they're well aware that I'm back there, does that change their behavior??) I"m interested in how much of anything they read and whether they believe anything they read. What do they like? How do they find what they like? Etc.

3. We line-edit the paragraphs before we put them up. They have a right to know that what they are publishing is at least acceptable grammatically, appropriate, etc. They have a right to some of the control needed to ensure that they don't face dire consequences (slander, etc.)...

4. I teach them how to link systematically. I want them all to know how to do it and do it as much as they want. On mac/IE this entails learning some code. I apologize for that but just teach it & make them do it. Some have absolutely no clue when they get to the program but pick it up from friends as they do a lot of what happens in class...the ones who don't have same-language friends have to pick it up from me or from somewhere else, but in English, which means they become fluent faster, at least in these most urgent areas.

5. Next project, just like the first. Only this time I make them go out and talk to a few people before they start writing on the weblog. On the second one they write a little about what they've read on the web, but write a little more about who they talked to and what that person or those people said. Scroll down for projects on Carbondale Halloween, alternative lifestyles, and web design (that one may be back in the summer)...

In this class I've had several memorable projects. We have gone mostly where the students' interest and curiosity has taken us. Here are a few:

Celebrity weblogs (scroll down): Go into them and report what celebrities say about themselves. Also this month: Web marketing: Is it true that certain colors have associations for people? Is brown a better color to package a tour to a place like Italy, for example? (July 2005)

Paparazzi (most recent one): Are there other opinions about them besides the one expressed by the movie (basically, that they are immoral scum)...?

Carbondale Halloween and its accompanying violence: also, alternative lifestyle (Oct. 2005)

Socialization and Folk Tales (Oct. 2004)

Media fluency and weblogs: Getting students involved

Part of my philosophy is that it is important for the student to just feel what it is like to click through a weblog environment, have the power to linger or move on, and begin the process of searching out, reading as much as necessary, and making personal comments about what they've read. They become part of the new media, in English, and I help them through the process. They notice what they like and doubtless go back when they have time, and explore more.

Learning English is a process of becoming more comfortable with one's voice; in this respect, I've been influenced by Peter Elbow, who argued that some basic fluency in conversation is necessary for the student to get started; that good writing arises from conversational fluency and confidence in one's own voice. I see media fluency as related in the sense that through working in the medium, students become more confident, more able to express themselves. Since all writing is ultimately to an audience, to the ultimate audience, we might as well lead them there and help them serve it up. The conversation that is held in public is at least adequate preparation for a lifetime of public conversation, as opposed to a private exchange between teacher and student that prepares them only for the next teacher that is as close to them as I have become (there may never be another). Generally, the world beyond our program is scarier, more hostile than ours; I at least feel that I have, by raising the stakes and making their writing public, defined fluency as conversing publicly.

This is a blog post that explains a little of what I mean.
Seimens, G. (2005, Sept.). Designing ecosystems versus designing learning. The Connectivism Blog,, accessed 11-05.

It takes a while for the sense of reflection to set in, for them to realize that others are viewing their site in the same way they are viewing others. Then it takes a while longer for them to actually start changing their sites accordingly. Some, of course, are onto it right away; they've already gotten used to the medium, perhaps, in their own languages.


You will see that some of these entries are line-edited more thoroughly than others. There were terms when I did not collect paragraphs or entries before they were posted; I hoped to line-edit them afterwards, or line-edit them on the printed weblog and let the student go back through "edit-post" and fix it. This did not always happen according to plan.

Sometimes I prefer the unedited versions, because they are more raw and frank, but I remind myself of my goals: help the student say what he/she wanted to say; stick as close to their meaning as I can; give them options whenever possible; if they have overstepped the bounds of appropriateness, let them know how and what reactions they can expect. After many years of this I am often confident enough that I can just change things if it is really too late and they are gone. However I'd always rather they do it, since that alone is a learning process and invests them in the appearance as it goes out. I devalue the grammar/appearance even as I know that others value it highly, including the student, but that's because lowering the affective filter puts me on their side against a hostile audience and allows learning at a better pace. I still believe that the more of this kind of editing they notice the more likely I can make positive changes in their grammatical system, though I can't expect those changes to appear immediately, nor can I always even be sure they understand the reason for those changes. But my own experience with language learning is: people learn the right way by being corrected. Occasionally it registers and they are ready for that step in their learning process. Line-editing, therefore, is effective, whether you can see it at every turn or not.

In my grammatical theory I am influenced by Marie Wilson Nelson (1991), who argued in her book "At the Point of Need" that students learned grammar at the point at which they actually needed a structure for a real-life situation. Following this logic one of the points of teaching is to set up situations where students urgently need to communicate something important that they are invested in. You thus set up the environment where it matters whether they get grammar right because their own meaning is bound up in the way it appears.

The newsletter which now appears online appeared in print form for many years; students of a single class took on as a project writing it, printing it, etc. Many programs are familiar with displaying student work and having close friends, relatives back home, lab workers and those around us, read about their lives; however, the online version brings a number of changes to the traditional format. Though I used the same set of steps to ensure that we were writing things that students were invested in, I have a different perspective now, because I know that what ends up on the web stays there and has a lot of importance in the freewheeling world of Google, Yahoo, and the international student alone at the keyboard. Our assignments have become livelier; they usually include links and the awareness of links; the final product is often linked to a variety of interesting places; and the prevailing awareness of "connectedness" influences everything.

Showing off the final product

I make a point to brag about what my classes are doing on my own professional weblog, which gets a lot more traffic, and as a result, I often can keep track to a mild degree of what has worked and what has not. Generally if my students are interested in a topic, other young people are also, and people are generally interested in hearing or reading of what a variety of young people think about any given topic. So these collections on the class weblogs get a lot of reading. They are much closer to the informal nature of the blogosphere than are, say, portfolios.

The students generally like the comment-spammers. They like it when anyone reads their weblogs, and the comment-spammers always say nice stuff, insincere as it may be. But other people pop in and say interesting things too. Their friends use the comments a lot. And you never know what people will say. That's part of the fun of it.

High-level writing classes: Portfolios and fun writing

For this high-level class, I try to separate out the serious writing and the fun writing. I ask them to put the serious stuff (the portfolio) on their own weblog. My reasoning is that if they want a more fun weblog they can always just start another one, or add fun stuff to their serious portfolio. Besides, and I tell them this frequently, I don't care what else you put on that weblog, as long as you put your academic papers on there, and they look good.

I now teach them to link all the references, double space between paragraphs, and identify the portfolio as being a set of papers for a writing class. Linking the reference is the hard part, because on the blogger/mac interface it requires learning some basic html; it is clear to me that many have never learned this and look at me like I'm from outer space when I expect them to. When we first started out, we had undergraduate assistants to help us with that, but now the system works by itself, and students teach each other, much like they teach each other how to study for certain quizzes or how to use spell-check.

You can look at their portflolios and learn quite a bit about their relationships both to their perceived English-speaking world and the technology that they've become a part of. Again, some master the art of personal expression better than others. Here's one I like:

Awni has a history of taking pictures from other sites without proper identification, but it's partly because he was fluent in the technology long before he was fluent in the cultural norms of picture-sharing. And he definitely showed how he could link to teachers, friends, and home places!

This term we're doing environmental problems of the New York City area. To see the portfolios, click on any of the names in the template. You'll be surprised by how much material they each actually get up in their own weblogs...They write it on paper, I line-edit it, they go back and upload, then they look at the weblog and fix it. Sometimes I print the weblogs and show them the problem on paper. They aren't perfect. These portfolios are works in progress. Many also are putting their papers on the class weblog, in misunderstanding of the assignment- (formal papers on the portfolios, fun stuff on the class weblog)....I'm patient with this kind of error. It doesn't hurt us to have the weblog in a state of the end, it's better for the student to move stuff around, put it where it belongs, than for me to do it.

Here is an example of what I consider a model portfolio (so far). Angelica writes about the black market in endangered species. She links her references and puts spaces between paragraphs (I already know that the papers have been line-edited, though not always perfectly). She agreed to let me show her portfolio. Nice!

Showing the world

One of the scary things for the teacher is the fear that one is not teaching exactly what the standard "summary-response," "argumentative essay" or whatever, is. This I would imagine would come back to haunt me if in fact I'm miles off; there is no doubt that there is disagreement in the field about what writing formats best prepare the student for academic work. I can't honestly say that the fear of having my students publish what I "believe" is correct made me any more diligent in tracking down what the standards are, out there, at this moment. I think that at some point you have to just take what you know and go with it. In our program we gave up assignments like "Cause-effect essay" and "compare-contrast essay" in favor of "summary-response" essays leading to a research paper. But what do I know about these, having been out of school for a while? I find myself saying to myself: "I've been teaching for many years...if my version isn't good enough for the world, that's their problem..." but I think it does make grow in you a greater curiosity...what's out there? How do my standards measure up? Am I teaching the right way? What do other writing portfolios look like? Is a "Summary-Response" different a few states over?

Even APA changes so rapidly as to be forcing us teachers to take a stand as to how certain references appear. As a line-editor, I should probably be more up on this. We are, after all, showing the world a lot of APA; we are even setting a standard, by pure volume alone, if nothing else. And later students are always looking at earlier ones to see how it was done... It should at least be close to right....

For example, we have this problem of what to do when there is no author listed...and when APA (apparently) says put the title first in the reference...but we also teach in-text citation, and have encountered many who advocate putting the organization of the author in the authro's slot there (makes citation easier)...I realize that whatever I teach, whatever I do, I'm putting it out on display. People could consider my students "untaught"...or worse, "improperly taught..." it's the chance I take. I'm not losing sleep over it. But I realize it's a major stumbling block for some. And, what you put up there, generally stays up there.

In the end, though, I like having them public, even when they are imperfect. They are a body of work; students have tried hard, succeeded at using the medium. and achieved academic expression.

After they're gone

Students are free to delete their entire blog the minute they leave. They very rarely do, though. It is also very rare that they actually use them for anything else once they're gone; they usually struggle with their academic classes and have very little time to do any "journalling"...but some do. They are the ones that are fluent enough to do what they want, but still able to look back at their English program and see that this process is very interesting and accessible....


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