My desire to communicate using the written word started in grade 2, when the encyclopedia salesman sat in the living room with my parents. I wandered in and saw volume H of the New Book of Knowledge, and as they talked I browsed through the volume until my attention was captured by Handwriting. I immediately grabbed the book to take into the other room to start trying out the letters. My parents of course stopped me, and I’m sure the salesman started calculating his commission in his head. We did end up buying the set, and I diligently practiced every letter.
I moved on to typing in grade 3, when I found my mother’s old typing practice book and started practicing on our manual typewriter. The pinky keys were especially hard to press down with my small hands, but I persisted as I was fascinated by the ability to create messages that were uniform and professional looking.
When I turned 10, I received my first diary with a lock. I would record the daily events of my life, trusting that the little gold key would keep all my secrets secure. Of course, my younger brother figured out how to pick the lock, so I needed to find different places to hide my diary from his prying eyes. As I grew older, I moved on to notebooks that I plastered with stickers and doodles, and then as an adult to fancy journals purchased in specialty paper stores.
I wrote in isolation – stories, poems, journal entries – preferring not to share what I wrote with others. My purpose for writing changed after I moved away to go to school, as writing became a way to stay connected with friends and family. I had an audience that was interested in what I was doing and thinking, no matter how trivial it might be. As we wrote to each other, some of us maintained our natural communication style (very teen girl!), and others wrote in a stilted “How are you? I am fine.” format:
Now, as an educator, I have turned to the following voices to guide me in teaching writing to children: Donald Graves, Douglas Fisher, Lucy Calkins, Kelly Gallagher, Vicki Spandel. Calkins talks about guiding students to identify their writing territories, those places that all writers return to again and again. To explore these writing territories, I use the examples of the authors such as Patricia MacLachlan. She tells the story of carrying around a bag of prairie dirt to remind herself of where she comes from, and how she became a writer because of her strong connection to her own sense of place.
When I was ten years old, I fell in love with place. My parents and I drove through the prairie, great stretches of land between small towns named wonderful names like Spotted Horse, Rattlesnake, Sunrise. We stopped once for drinks that we fished out of cold-water lift-top tanks, and my mother and I walked out onto the prairie. Then my mother said something that changed my life forever. She took a step, looked down at her footprint, and said, “Someone long ago may have walked here, or maybe no one ever has. Either way it’s history.”
I thought of those who might have come before me and those who might come after, but mostly I was face-to-face with the important, hopeful permanence of place, place that I knew was there long before I walked there, and would be there long after I was gone. I realized, in that moment, that the Earth is history. The Earth is like a character who has secrets; the Earth holds important clues to who we are, who we’ve been; who we will be. We are connected to the land and to those secrets.
It was after this event that I bought a diary and began writing all sorts of truths about myself, as if I, too, might leave clues about myself behind. I was becoming a writer. All because of place. Now I cannot write a story unless I know the place, the landscape that shapes the story and the people in the story. And to remind myself of the place that changed me, I have carried a small bag of prairie dirt with me for years. (Machlachlan, 1998)
Maiers (2007) talks about how “exploring and articulating WHO YOU ARE AS A WRITER helps us understand that writing is “lifework” not “deskwork”. This transformative conversation begins by sharing with students the following:
- WHAT I write about (topic)
- WHO I write for (audience)
- WHY I write (purpose)
- HOW I articulate my messages (Format/Genre)
- WHERE/WHEN I do my best writing (Style,Habits)
As students develop their identities as writers, they begin to explore those writing territories, and the best way for them to do this is to connect with other writers. To read what others have written, model themselves after a writer they admire (referred to as”standing on the shoulders of giants”), and to give and receive feedback. Most importantly, to building trusting relationships that support each learner to take new risks as a writer.
The best way for students to expand their writing territories is to begin participating as a member of a network or community. Although the classroom is a place to start, we must give students opportunities to develop their voice as writers by writing for different purposes and audiences. An ideal way to do this is through blogging, where the reach is far greater.
My personal learning process with blogs and RSS
I have a diverse list of blogs that I read on a daily or weekly basis, each with their own purpose and voice. I have commented on blogs, participated in a couple of blogs that I was invited to join by posting brief entries. Until this course, I had not considered writing my own blog. There is an uncertainty in putting my thinking out there for a global audience to read.
What I find ironic about this is how I was once terrified of speaking in front of even a small group of adults, to the point that I would need to medicate myself before a presentation in university. I’m now comfortable speaking in front of large or small groups, have presented at conferences, in front of our superintendent and board of trustees, and feel no fear about doing so. I have always enjoyed writing and have published in a number of professional journals, so I know that I am able to write effectively. I’m not certain where this discomfort about publishing my words online came from, but I think it’s the anonymity of the Internet, the unknown factor of who might be reading my words. When I present to a group, I can read the crowd, ask questions, adjust as I see a need. Publishing means it’s out there and I don’t know how it is being received.
I started with an RSS aggregator in the summer, when I was taking an inquiry course that recommended I follow a number of bloggers in the field. An RSS aggregator such as Google Reader allows you to address the challenges of following a number of blogs:
- How do you keep up with all this information?
- How do you filter and organize it?
- How can you avoid having to go back to blogs to check if the owner has updated with a new post? (Tolisano, 2010)
Tolisano provides a good tutorial on her blog on Subscribing via RSS & Google Reader to Classroom Blogs. Basically, it requires setting up an RSS feed to your aggregator – in my case, Google Reader. Blogs and webpages have an RSS icon on their page that allows you to subscribe to the feed.
When I started to subscribe to blogs using Google Reader, I began with those that were of professional interest – bloggers who wrote about libraries, technology and literature. I found that as I scrolled down in my reader I could easily get caught up on the latest entries, star those that I wanted to save for further reading, or click through to the actual page to read the entry and/or bookmark it to Diigo.
As far as RSS goes, I have decided that it is a great tool as part of my professional learning network along with Twitter. I can keep track in real-time, and then select what I want to pay attention to or just scroll past. I have created a number of folders to organize all my subscriptions, so that I can simply click on the topic I want to view that day so that I am more efficient with following my feeds.
These days, the new blogs that I am subscribing to via RSS feeds are found through Twitter, or by clicking on a link found within a post within Google Reader. I’m finding that it is an efficient way to explore the topics of interest in my professional learning. However, if I have failed to check my reader in a few days, it can become quite overwhelming to go through everything.
My search began with determing which blogging tool would work best for me in this course, with my eventual goal being to determine which I might use in my work as a teacher-librarian. I decided to try out both Blogger and WordPress, as these were the two blogging platforms I was most familiar with. Many of the blogs I read are on one of these two platforms.
With Blogger, I already have a Google account so setting up a Blogger account was simple. I used my gmail account information to sign up, started a new blog and chose a design template. I was up and running in minutes and ready to start my first entry.
I then went to the dashboard to add a new post. As I explored, I found that although I liked the fact that I could change the design of my blog and the font style, I felt that my options were limited.
Before I created my first post, I decided to go to WordPress and compare the features of both to determine which blogging platform would best meet my needs for this particular blog. I decided to explore WordPress as another option.
I found myself starting with the appearance as I had done with Blogger, finding more themes to choose from. Once I found one I liked, I began to play with widgets that could be added to the page. I liked seeing Twitter feeds and blog rolls on the blogs I follow, as this is how I have found many of my new connections, and I feel that they add an interactivity to what could become a rather stale format. I decided to start slowly and just add a couple of widgets that I recognized (there are a number of widgets that I’m not sure what they do!)
Although I found Blogger to be easy to use, I decided to go with WordPress as I felt like there was more customization that I could do to my blog. With the theme I chose, however, I am unable to change the style of the font which has been somewhat frustrating, as I am not a fan of Times New Roman. I have also run across a few challenges along the way, as there are certain web 2.0 tools that work better with Blogger or require upgrading to a wordpress.org account in order to access the features. Embedding podcasts in WordPress proved to be quite difficult and I was ready to throw in the towel and run back to Blogger.
Blogs in my own personal life and learning
In his TED talk, Sinek (2010) points out how all inspiring leaders and organizations (e.g. Apple, Martin Luther King, Wright brothers) act the same way. He refers to the “golden circle”, and point out how we are inspired to follow those who provide us with the “Why” to do something. Whatedsaid (2010) reflected in a blog post by saying, “Someone who had listened to the TED talk asked me yesterday about the ‘why’ behind this blog. Sinek says ’If you talk about what you believe, you will attract those who believe what you believe. People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it’.
I am an avid blog reader; at last count, I have over 100 blogs that I read for personal interest and at least 50 that I read for professional learning. These are all writers that inspire me, who provide me with a reason to read as I know that I will either learn something, be emotionally moved, or laugh and be entertained. I read blogs about design, such as Design*Sponge, food blogs like Serious Eats, blogs that make me laugh with a good dose of snark such as Cake Wrecks Go Fug Yourself, and The Onion. There are blogs that make me smile, like Cute Overload and 1000 Awesome Things, and bloggers who take big risks such as Attack of the Redneck Mommy.
My approach to reading each differs, however. I use Google Reader for my professional learning blogs, and have them organized under categories so that I can either choose to go through all of them, or select a particular category when I am pressed for time. Some of my favorite blogs around libraries are listed in the sidebar of this blog. With these blogs, I do a quick scan as I scroll down in my reader, and if it interests me I either star it, or click through and then bookmark the post using Diigo for reading later. My approach to reading these professional blogs is to quickly scan for information relevant to coursework or work, categorize it, and then move on until I have scanned everything. Then I can go back and read posts as the need arises.
As I looked back at my starred items, I found a post that I had starred.
As I read, I recalled a post that Hunt referenced about conversations he was having with Will Richardson around blogging as “connective writing”. I then click over to my Diigo account to find those posts again. This hyperlinked writing via a post sent to my Google Reader allowed me to revisit these posts that I had initially clicked on to star or bookmark, but had not really spent any time reading or thinking about. I had easy access to them however, through the use of technology.
My personal blogs are not in my Google Reader. For me, each of these blogs has a specific voice, and I need to be in that place to read them. I tried reading them in my reader, but the posts did not feel authentic to me and it was just disconnected. Many of these blogs I have followed for years, and I have a routine for when and how I read them. There is often an ongoing narrative and I may need to go into the archives to remind myself of how a previous post connects. There is a visual style as well that is unique to the blog. Many of the bloggers I read have numerous widgets displaying tweets, their blog rolls, or interesting links and I often click through to find other bloggers of interest.
I am now considering having more than one blog – one for my library, and one that I will write for my own reflective practice. The “why” for my writing is often to process my thinking – in university, I did not highlight passages in textbooks, but instead wrote out the key ideas in a format that made sense to me. When I finally owned a computer, I would type up my notes. As a teacher, I need to take the curricular objectives for the subjects I am teaching and type them out in my own tables, as this helps me make sense of what I am required to teach. I can then use this information to plan my units, develop assessment materials, and write student-friendly objectives by simply copying and pasting into a new document to then remix and change.
A professional blog will allow me to share my thinking about teaching, learning and libraries, with a heavy dose of literature thrown in. I’ve always got a great book to share! This slideshow has me thinking about different purposes for writing my blog, and the “why” of doing it. I’m thinking about continuing with WordPress for my school blog, as I can host WordPress.org there and it will give me the features I want to incorporate (easier embedding of podcasting, incorporating social networking). I may go with Blogger for my personal blog though, as it will be integrated with my other Google accounts and therefore easier to manage and update.
Blogging to support teaching and learning
Rainbows are visible whenever there are water droplets in the air and the sun is shining at a low angle. According to Wikipedia, a rainbow is formed when “the light is first refracted entering the surface of the raindrop, reflected off the back of the drop, and again refracted as it leaves the drop.” Refraction is when a light wave changes direction as it passes through another medium, and reflection is that light wave bouncing off a surface. In both situations, the direction changes, and this change in direction reveals the visible spectrum of light – the rainbow.
Blogging can be a way of helping students to see their learning in a new way. As they put their thoughts and ideas out into the blogosphere, they may find their thinking reflected back to them via RSS feeds where they are tracking the same idea on other blogs. Or, they may find through the comments that their thinking is changing direction, as other perspectives are shared. Nelson (2009) shares how “It’s not about the expertise of the writer. It’s about the expertise of all the writers who come, read, and respond with a comment. It’s FABULOUS conversations that stretch my mind, challenge my thinking, and get me to rethink the way I approach topics. That is why I blog.”
Richardson (2008) states that:
“Yes, we write to communicate. But now that we are writing in hypertext, in social spaces, in “networked publics,” there’s a whole ‘nother side of it. For as much as I am writing this right now to articulate my thoughts clearly and cogently to anyone who chooses to read it, what I am also attempting to do is connect these ideas to others’ ideas, both in support and in opposition, around this topic. I’m trying to engage you in some way other than just a nod of the head or a sigh of exasperation. I’m trying to connect you to other ideas, other minds. I want a conversation, and that changes the way I write. And it changes the way we think about teaching writing. This is not simply about publishing, about taking what we did on paper and throwing it up on a blog and patting ourselves on the back.
Fernett and Brock Eide’s research found that blogs can:
- promote critical and analytical thinking
- be a powerful promoter of creative, intuitive, and asosciational thinking
- promote analogical thinking
- be a powerful medium for increasing access and exposure to quality information
- combine the best of solitary reflection and social interaction (in Richardson, 2009, p. 20).
In order to develop these skills, students must have the opportunity to participate purposefully and fully in blogging. A closed blog for a classroom community is a place to begin, as it allows for students to develop the skills of connective writing, especially the commenting and following up on comments in future posts that move the blogging experience beyond that of simply journalling. However, our students are already hyperconnected and need support and guidance to understand how to build connectedness in their learning across networks. As Richardson (2009) puts it: .
“Writing stops; blogging continues. Writing is inside; blogging is outside. Writing is monologue; blogging is conversation”
Considering how to bring blogging into the classroom requires a thinking about the “why” – are students simply writing to publish, or will there be opportunity to share, reflect, collaborate and comment? Will their writing be open to a larger audience, and if so, how will comments be managed? How do we scaffold the learning for teachers so they see the purpose of a blog as being more than a class website or journal?
Valenza (2010) provides an example of having students blog the research process, and provides five reasons for doing so:
1. Blogging inspires reflection and focus on process.
2. Blogging helps learners organize and manage the process.
3. Blogging is transparent.
4. The best of these projects create pathfinders that might be shared by other researchers.
5. Blogging inspires interaction, social (constructivist) knowledge building, and the kind of intervention Carol Kulthau saw as critical in the information search process.
The idea is thinking about how we can move beyond journalling to complex blogging, which Richardson says is “extended analysis and synthesis over longer periods of time that builds on previous posts, links, and comments.”
Concluding questions to ponder
Once a year “The Wizard of Oz” would be broadcast on television, and it was a ritual to make popcorn and sit down to watch it with my mom. Dorothy longs for a place somewhere over the rainbow, yet searches for a way to return to the familiarity of home. When she took her first tentative steps towards Oz, she connected with others who were also seeking something (a heart, a brain, courage) that they didn’t know they already possessed. She was able to convince them to join her on that journey, and also led them to realize at the end that they already had what they were looking for. She helped them by showing them “why” they needed to go, not what they needed or how they would do it. That indelible image of Dorothy, the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Lion skipping down the yellow brick road together.
Sierra (2008) provides the following seven virtues for blogging (and for travelling together down the yellow brick road):
You should always blog for yourself, but if you want more readers, you should also blog for them.
Virtue 1: Be Grateful
Virtue 2: Be Humble
Virtue 3: Be Patient
Virtue 4: Be Generous
Virtue 5: Show Respect
Virtue 6: Be Motivating
Virtue 7: Be Brave
The bloggers I choose to follow have the brains, courage and heart, and I have now completed my tenth post and am contemplating more blogging in the future. In the meantime, I am wondering about that reward waiting at the end of the rainbow!