Students as Content Providers

I have spent all of last week marking exams and writing report cards. I enjoyed both activities because they have been almost completely reconfigured by blogging. I changed the exam in order to make it more accurately reflect what the students were engaged in for the last several months. One of my challenges was that the new exam had to be based on content generated by my students. The teacher, I realized, had been dethroned.

Why? Well, out of hundreds of texts that we read and analyzed, only one (the novel itself) was brought into the discussion by me. Everything else was contributed by my students. In fact, they have spent so much time researching social justice and human rights and commenting on their research that many of them ended up teaching me. I don’t just mean that some found articles or resources that I have never read or seen. What made a really strong impression on me was how they engaged with what they found and how they used these texts to further their own knowledge. My students found, wrote about, and discussed much more than I could have possibly given them as a teacher – not because I wouldn’t be able to locate these resources myself but simply because coming from the teacher these texts would have been considered “work.” In fact, if I attempted to bring around one hundred texts into the curriculum in addition to the novel study unit, my students would have revolted and I would probably also hear from their parents.

Instead, having a blogging community allowed my students to create a repository of texts and ideas, all centred around the same general topic. No one seemed overwhelmed. No one complained. Students felt compelled to research and write about issues related to the novel that I have chosen for the last term of the year. So, content generation began with me but my contribution of one text blossomed into a community of inquirers and a community of content generating teenagers who did not seem to mind the sheer number of resources they were learning about. What’s more, they kept contributing to this number by creating their own texts, texts that were generated throught their interaction with other texts. Every entry and every comment became a new text. Every entry was a text generated by a learner in the process of enaging with knowledge or with a response of another learner. Soon, their blogs were filled with entries written not only in response to articles they found but also in response to entries written by their peers. I started seeing conversations.

What did I do? I kept reading. When the time finally came to write the final exam, I couldn’t reduce it to a number of inane questions about the novel. Even open-ended questions felt somehow inappropriate. Focusing merely on the novel or even the texts they have found as part of their research would have invalidated their work as a community of bloggers. It would have invalidated their own texts, generated in the process of engaging with ideas, generated through debate. So, I finally decided to ask them what they have learned, not from the novel, not from scholarly publications or newspaper articles but from each other.

Their responses were fascinating. Most made it very clear that what made a big difference was being part of a community. They mentioned names of their classmates and the content they found on their blogs. They talked about ideas that emerged, not ones that have always been there – in an article or a book. In short, their exam was based on content that they themselves have generated. I read every one of their exams completely fascinated and totally engaged. For the first time in years, I sat down to mark their exams not knowing what to expect. When I was done, it was clear that the knowledge they shared on their exam would stay with them, that it was a reflection of individual drives and interests.

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