Progressive Discourse

I’m back. I never intended to take a break, but I did. Here’s why:

My community of grade eight student bloggers became so big and so engaging that I spent every spare moment reading and writing within this community. My class community suddenly blossomed and I started seeing myself as an important part of the classroom community and no longer as a teacher who peddles content. I became a participant in a series of dialogues. I witnessed the emergence of a semantic network, one where all links, all interactions were based on meaning. I knew that I had to devote all my energies to documenting it.

So, while I did not have time to contribute to this blog, I learned first hand what it means to be a grade eight teacher who teaches in the context of a community of student bloggers. I thought I knew before how teaching in the contenxt of a blogging community can affect the educator but the last two months have been instrumental in helping me to fully understand what it means to teach students who gradually begin to see themselves as writers, as people with voices, as members of “a community of knowledgeable peers” (Bruffee, 1984). I learned to engage in discussions. I learned to read and listen.

For a period of about six weeks I was totally engrossed in a community that I built with my students. I have been keeping detailed log notes over the course of this study and I do intend to start sharing some of my findings very soon here on the blog of proximal development.

The sense of community that emerged inside the class blogosphere had nothing to do with the fact that we were all in the same classroom, but with the fact that my fourteen-year-old students created a web of what Stephen Downes refers to as “semantically organized connections.” Proximity had nothing to do with what happened. Meaning, socially constructed in a network of individual blogs, was what contributed to the emergence of my classroom community. This was not “community as proximity,” to use Stephen’s words again, but “community as networks of semantic relations” where connections are based on meaning. This is what had me glued to my computer every day for the past two months.

My students started blogging two years ago. It did not take me long to realize that a class blogosphere helps students see themselves as writers, as people with ideas. It helps them learn to substantiate their ideas, it helps them acquire confidence as learners, it gives them a context in which to investigate and question knowledge. Finally, it shows them a completely different understanding of knowledge as something that one constructs, arrives at, or co-constructs with others. Frankly, I have never been too enthusiastic about these findings. It always seemed that a class blogging community can and should offer more. After all, all of the above can be achieved without blogs.

But then, about two months ago, there was a sudden shift. The community took on a life of its own. Imagine a place where students start with a literary text and then, rather than spend most of their time responding to literature, they are given opportunities to explore the relevance of this text in the world around them. Imagine starting with The Diary of Anne Frank and moving on to World War II, the Holocaust, genocide, human rights issues, and the work of the United Nations. Granted, it did not happen automatically. I did quite a bit of facilitating and guiding. I wrote about some of these topics on my own teacher blog within the class blogosphere. I took time to talk to each individual writer. I commented extensively on their work. I used my own blog to link to many entries, to show my students the connections between many individual posts. I suggested electronic and print resources. I talked about their work in class. We discussed individual entries.

Then, for a while, they kept composing individual responses. While certainly aware of the community around them, they continued to write as solitary writers. Then, one day at the end of April, it all changed. They started linking to each other’s work because they found other entries meaningful and relevant. No, I do not mean that they linked to entries that explored the same topics. No. They started linking to entries that helped them expand their own understanding of issues that they were struggling with. I began to see semantic relations.

I noticed that Student A, writing about genocide in Darfur, started following and linking to the work of Student B who was investigating current human rights abuses. Student A did not learn anything new about genocide from Student B, but she did learn a lot about efforts (or lack thereof) to stop hatred, violence, and discrimination. Entries about human rights abuses taking place all over the world (including the so-called developed nations) were helpful in expanding her understanding of why violence erupts, of “why we are not effective at stopping it.” Both continued to pursue their own topics but relied on each other to gain a better understandoing of human nature, of discrimination, of official responses to these issues.

This led to a discovery of a book entitled Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak and a further discovery of the fact that some Ontario school boards restricted access to this book. When my students found this press release and this website, further discussions ensued. That’s when I realized that this class community was truly engaged, that its members were interested in pursuing knowledge as researchers who are passionately involved and not as students who need to absorb the content. As these two students became more and more involved in this topic, their classmates continued to engage them in debate and built upon their work on their own blogs to further their own investigations of similar, human rights-related topics.

I read the book, familiarized myself with the debate, and stayed neutral. My students kept discussing human rights, the Holocaust, World War II, Iraq, Iran, the American and Canadian foreign policy, and I realized that I was able to finally stop peddling content and focus on helping them develop and participate in a healthy debate. My only contribution to this class was in the form of one text – The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank – and that has helped develop a community where every student was able to focus on a different aspect of the diary and its relevance today. Every student was able to become a researcher and, eventually, they all realized that the topics they had chosen brought them all closer together, through debate, through common research ideas, through links and correspondences that they created based on meaning, based on commonly shared research interests.

The students became involved in what Carl Bereiter has termed “progressive discourse” (1994). Sharing, questioning, and revising of opinions helped students develop a strong understanding of the given topic. They were engaged in “intentional learning” (Scardamalia and Bereiter, 1994), an active, purposeful search for meaning. Consequently, the network of entries and ideas that emerged from this sense of engagement is based exclusively on socially constructed meaning. It led me to start looking at the idea of knowing in this community as “the intentional activity of individuals who, as members of a community, make use of and produce representations in the collaborative attempt to better understand and transform their shared world” (Wells, 1999). Students read, commented on, and linked to each other’s work because it helped them understand their own work and develop their own ideas.

Notes:

Bereiter, C. (1994). Implications of postmodernism for science, or, science ar progressive discourse. Educational Psychologist, 29(1), 3 12.

Bruffee, K. A. (1984) Collaborative Learning and the Conversation of Mankind. College English 46(7), 63552.

Scardamalia, M., and Bereiter, C. (1994). Computer support for knowledge-building communities. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 3(3), “65 283.

Wells, G. (1999). Dialogic inquiry. Towards a sociocultural practice and theory of education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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15 Responses to Progressive Discourse

  1. jvvw June 30, 2006 at 8:19 am #

    So what do you think was the critical thing that caused the shift?

  2. Susan Sedro June 30, 2006 at 9:47 pm #

    Thank you for documenting these experiences. I learn a great deal from your blog. Your clear writing with its illustrative examples and references to other works informs my practice, helping me see how to move towards where I want to be. I look forward to hearing more about your spring experiences.

  3. JJ July 4, 2006 at 12:15 am #

    I, too, am interested in what you believe was the critical moment that caused the shift in your students writing habits. Thank you for sharing your experiences, for I would like to see this happen in my classroom in the future. Your success can be noted by those of us who are trying to get started in places where blogging has been already thrown out as a no-go. I have really learned a lot from your writing and hope to learn more about your experiences in the future.

  4. jason July 4, 2006 at 4:17 pm #

    It sounds like you’re firing all rockets. Congratulations. I wish I could get my preservice education students that engaged. They do quite well, but not THAT well. Going to go blog with 120 first year students this fall and see if I can hijack some of that frosh enthusiasm.

  5. Cynthia Ryan July 6, 2006 at 1:43 pm #

    I really enjoy reading your blogs. You have actually inspired me to use blogs in the classroom. I still need to do a bit more research on starting them and implementing them, and even strting to blog myself, but I will definitely give this a whirl in September. Thanks so much!

    Cythia

  6. scoop2go July 13, 2006 at 3:39 pm #

    I am in the process of trying to use the blog format as a clearinghouse for my students next year. I would like for them to be able eventually to collaborate in this venture. I listened to your very useful link to Stephen Downes, and I now have a lot to chew on. Thank you so much for this post.

  7. Ms. Cornelius July 13, 2006 at 3:46 pm #

    Wow! This really intrigues me. Your point about collaborative learning is especially meaningful for me, since I have in my own life disliked collaborative learning as it usually develops in a classroom (I was usually the kid who did all the work while some parasitic partner coasted off my fear of a bad grade…) But I can see how your use of technology would actually fulfill the rhetoric of CL.

    I am so glad that I read this.

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