Reflective conversations

Do we always keep our end purpose in mind when using technology tools in the classroom?  It’s easy to get pulled in by the lure of the bells and whistles and perhaps lose sight of our learning goals for students.

Our teacher Bill Martin made an interesting comment during a recent workshop that we (along with Kris Phelps) did for teachers on using wikis in the classroom.

Bill had been using his wiki as a place for students to post their writing, and then for other students to comment on or discuss the student’s piece in the discussion tab of the wiki.    The writing they are posting are personal essays that he calls Occasional Papers, and his students are also accustomed to discussing them in the classroom.   

During our workshop he remarked that it seemed difficult for students to interact with one another.    What he was looking for was students not just posting a comment in isolation to meet some requisite number of comments, but to interact with both the original essay and one another in their responses.   He commented that it seemed most students simply responded to the original paper, and not to the comments that others were making, making it  less of a conversation and more just a string of comments, (though there were some exceptions.)

I considered what Konrad Glogowski had commented on during his Educon 2.0 presentation on blogging with students, and how it took time to develop both the teacher methodology of using the tool, and to develop students as bloggers.  

So I posited to Bill that it takes time for students to learn to react not only to the prompt, but to one another in their responses.  Bill spends a lot of time in his class using the Socratic method and eliciting student discussion and does it very well.   But it takes time at the beginning of the year, I presume, for students to become comfortable and trusting with that format.   So, similarly, I think having students use online discussion tools is just another venue at which students may need practice, particularly in an educational environment.   

Bill also surveyed his students about how he used these tools in class(he used Nicenet, and then Pbwiki), and one of the things that was clear that not surprisingly, his students had varying comfort levels with using online tools. 

A couple of sample comments:

“Everytime I log onto, I feel like I’m trying to decode a nuclear bomb.  I clearly am incompetent. . . .If I could even post them, I would like it.  I like telling people what I think.”

and alternately,

“After you make a posting it is always interesting to go back and see what replies you got to your first comment.”

“They let you write thoughts that you might not want to say in class during the discussion.”

“I was afraid to talk to someone because I didn’t think that we had anything in common but I read a posting of theirs and it opened up the doors to talk.  There was a time when I couldn’t get out a word in class and wanted to say it so when I got home I posted it to get it out.”

and alternately, (my favorite):

“I’m not comfortable on all these sites.  I can’t seem to figure them out.  The internet just confuses the **** out of me.”

Clearly, for some it was liberating, and for some it was a big obstacle.  Our assumptions that all students enjoy posting things online are clearly just that, assumptions.     So one obstacle that obviously would need to be addressed is the actual use of the technology.    As we talked, we were in agreement that more access to computers where students could get some regular practice with it during class initially would be an important key. 

We do need to  provide some scaffolding to the tool for those more reluctant users, and we also need to provide other alternatives at times, like class discussions, etc., so that we aren’t wrapped around one method, and can tease out the skills of different students. 

onewayflickrjefposkanzer.jpg  Also, I’m making a generalization here, but we have asked students for so long to simply turn in their work, with the teacher as the primary audience, that the idea of not only sharing it with a group audience, but then interacting with that audience, is a different school experience for them initially.  And for those in the “audience,” the idea that they can interact not only with the author of the piece, but with one another, may also be a little foreign.   

Do students innately understand what a conversation about ideas is?    Or do they need us to model for them what that looks like and create the kind of environment where they feel at ease doing that?

The live blogging efforts of students at Arapahoe High School demonstrated that through classroom practice, they have become adept at this sort of responsive, conversational blogging or online discussion.   I’m curious to know how Anne Smith and Maura Moritz have fostered that in their own classrooms?

The value in all of this for me was this–as a teacher, Bill knew what he was looking for from the tool, (as did the other teacher presenting with us, Kris Phelps).    Maybe this wasn’t the right tool, and maybe students needed more time with it, but he knew what he wanted from it, and so as students used it, he was analyzing it with that in mind.   He also asked students to reflect on their experience using the tools, which then has become a tool to improve his own use of them.  And because of that reflective teaching, his use of the tools will deepen (and that will be shared with other educators as well.)

reflectionflickrdiannas.jpgI think the best thing those of us who support classroom teachers can do is help teachers articulate the goals they have for a particular assignment and then truly try to match those tools to their goals, and to also help them assess and reflect on its usefulness along the way.   Bill’s applying that thoughtful habit of mind to his use of the tools really modeled that for me.

Bill has recently shared a phrase he heard at a workshop–that the only true learning students do (or any of us?) is through conversation.  How can we help our students become better at that?

And as a postscript that is semi-related:

 I’ve been thinking recently about my own blog, and reading some posts from Christian Long particularly reminded me that blogs that really deepen are those where the writer and audience are having a conversation with one another, with back and forth involved.

Christian Long points to this on his own blog as he recently has decided to comment on people’s comments on his blog.   (Which leads me to wonder if on his wiki project, Bill should also ask the author of each piece to  go back and respond to the comments that others are leaving on their essays, rather than just read through the collection of comments on their essay.   That way the interaction is truly two-way, and more of a dialogue is created.)

Turning back to my own blog, it also leads me to believe that I need to be more responsive  to commenters, and circle back around to respond to them in order to create more of a dialogue space instead of a “display” space.  So I plan to do much more of that so my own blogging is more interactive and conversational.  (so…come back and visit again after your initial comment!)

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7 thoughts on “Reflective conversations

  1. Conversation is a two way street. I wonder how many educators use blogs and wikis just to say thay are using blogs a wikis, regardless of the success? I felt daily like I was a failure at blogging, at first because no one seem to comment on it, and then because I never saw any of my posts go viral (and for me that would be five or more comments.) It was some time later that I had the realization that I needed to interact with my commenters to make a post go viral by my own definition. Of course people like Will Richardson, Clay Burrrell, and Dan Myer put my definition of viral to shame, but I did notice that these bloggers, all three of varying experience level in both education and blogging, were apt to return to their own post and join in the comments, even sometimes directing their comments to a specific commenter using the “@” symbol. Blogging as a conversation tool is also a learned art–one that I think you are very good at too. But I also think we get better as we experience them (the tools in general) and sitting in a PD session will not help in that area. To truly understand and appreciate most 2.0 tools, we have to get in the sandbox and play, constructing meaning as we go. Great post!

  2. For me, commenting on my own blog is a tricky thing. Part of me feels like I’ve had my initial say in the post, so I try to let the conversation play out a little bit in the comments before I jump in. I worry that if I reply too often, then it runs the risk of me controlling the conversation.

    This is particularly true for my blog, since it was initially setup as a place to continue the conversations in my staff development efforts. I wanted the teachers in my staff development – as well as others that might drop by – to be able to drive the conversation somewhat, so I tried only to reply when asked a direct question (or when I just couldn’t stand it). Ironically, because my blog started reaching a wider audience, my own teachers started commenting less, thereby nullifying part of the original purpose of the blog (unintended consequences at its best).

    The other issue, of course, is how often folks who comment check back. Blogger recently added the option where a commenter can get emailed every time someone comments on the post (if they choose, it’s a checkbox) and I think that has the potential to help the conversation part a lot. If Edublogs has that, you might consider turning that on. (I think that may have also contributed to the increase in comments on Will’s blog lately – I’m not sure how long he’s had that option but I don’t remember it being there originally).

    As far as students are concerned, I think we definitely need to talk with them repeatedly about how to be a full and active participant in their network, even if their network is small and perhaps contained to a class set of blogs/wikis. This is a new skill for all of us, and an important one, and I think too often teachers and students don’t see the value in it until that “participatory conversation” piece kicks in.

  3. Sometimes I have an opinion on a post but it is so long that I usually blog about my opinion and link back to the original post. I can tell by the number of visitors that people are coming to my posts but not a lot of people comment on them even if I ask their opinion. Maybe they are doing what I’m doing. I am trying to start a wiki with people on my adhoc committee about looking at potential tech tools for our organization. I hope I can get them to participate in the conversation there.

  4. You are asking some really great questions about transforming blogging into a conversational experience. My advice, limited as it is, is simply practice, reflect, practice, reflect, practice and reflect ( sounds a little like rinse and repeat directions). This is how I have found the best conversations come about in my classes. What I mean by using the word practice is that having your kids blogging often and then reacting the next day to what they are seeing on the blog. It always amazes me, but they seem to come up with ways to improve the quality of the conversation as well as the manner that they conduct the conversation with a little facilitation by me. Showing them good examples of carrying on blogging conversations seems to help as well. After all, most kids are visual and kinesthetic learners so if we can have them involved in what live blogging looks like, reflecting on what good blogging looks like, and finally, seeing what good blogging looks like, well then, we are creating the best conversations! If that doesn’t work, rinse and repeat!

  5. Blogging is a habit creation and the dialogues we try to establish simply don’t happen. There needs to be persistence, people need to be comfortable. And we have to remember that we have people “listening” to us in our blogs, but sometimes don’t have time or don’t want to leave a comment, but they are there, our faithful readers. Maybe one thing you might consider to develop students conversations through blogging is finding easy strategies for them to keep track of what is being produced. I’d definitely suggest that you take a look at the writingmatrix concept in which only by having students tag their posts they can find what each other is writing on a certain topic.

  6. Anne and Carla,

    I agree that it does take mindful practice. Carla, thanks for sharing the idea of the Writing Matrix– I found this link about your work ( and wondered if this is what you were referring to, using Technorati to track posts as a way of students building connections with each other’s blogging?

    While our project was more involved with discussions on a wiki, I could see where using tags with wikis could also provide them with excitement and energy as they see how their work “connects” outside the campus.

    Karl, I’m going to hunt for that option on edublogs–not sure they’ve added it yet, but it’s a useful feature.

    Cathy–I think I’m just sort of re-realizing the impact of me re-engaging in the conversation later.

    Now I have to add the tech tools that will get others to return to the site 🙂

    I also continue to be interested in specific ideas for working with students to become more reflective and interactive in their online discussions, whether they are on wikis are blogs. What environmental things do we need to create in the classroom to help encourage that (or in the school to encourage staff to participate)?

  7. I have to admit, I’m terrible at commenting. I usually find myself so busy that I barely have time to read through my RSS feeds or post something new on my own blog, let alone comment on others – even though I know how important it is.

    Of course, I’m even worse at commenting on comments on my own blog, but I do think it’s important. Although we all know the author of a blog most likely reads all the comments, by leaving a comment I’m always hoping to start a conversation with the person that prompted my thinking (the author of the post). If the author never responds, it feels an awful lot like a one-sided conversation (guilty as charged).

    I definitely think our students don’t really understand the concept of blogging as conversation. I know they easily adapt to using new tools, but I’m not sure they really understand the concept of a two-way conversation. At this point, I think my students (elementary) are just excited about being able to put their voice out there. They are so surprised to see that someone would even be reading what they write, that they don’t even think about responding back.

    Also, the concept of responding on your own blog to a commenter is counter-intuitive to them – how are those commentors going to know there’s something new for them to read? Unless they understand comment tracking and RSS, it seems a bit strange to leave comments for others on their own blog.

    This is all a lot easier to deal with when you’re using a common space like a wiki or Ning discussion forum where everyone can see the threaded discussion, but it’s just a little more confusing when it comes to blogging.

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