Interacting with teachers on various social networking sites is an important part of my daily professional development. My professional life is improved by the insights, support, and resources I gain from colleagues on Twitter, English Companion Ning, Facebook, as well as from blogs and a couple of other sites that I visit less regularly. This network of people—some of whom I’ve come to know in “real life,” some of whom I’ve never met—are at least as dear to me as the valued colleagues I work with on-site.
Although I enjoy the process of networking online with these incredible educators, and I have definitely developed professionally because of this activity and these relationships, I have wondered if it makes any difference in how students learn.
Here are a couple of stories from the past week.
Tony Romano and I have spent the winter working on the new edition of our textbook Expository Composition: Discovering Your Voice, with the help of our excellent editor at EMC Publishing. One of the strengths of both the original edition and the new edition is the inclusion of authentic student writing from around the country in each chapter. The new edition includes a fresh chapter—“OnlineWriting”—that helps students learn to write effectively in the worlds of wikis, blogs, microblogs, social networks, and other online environments. Although my own students regularly write blog posts, Tony and I thought it best if we went outside our school for some sample student models.
Several weeks ago I put out the online call to English teachers, and we received dozens of well-written student blog posts from around the country. We ended up including student blog posts provided by three great English teachers: Leslie Healey from St. Mark’s High School in Wilmington, Delaware; Dawn Hogue from Sheboygan Falls High School in Sheboygan, Wisconsin; and Amy Rasmussen from R. L. Turner High School in Carrollton, Texas. (I’ve met Dawn in person once; I hope to meet Amy and Leslie in person some time.) But did all this make a difference to the students whose work was selected for our book?
When I emailed Leslie, Dawn, and Amy this week to tell them their students were in, they wrote back to say their students were “thrilled,” “excited,” and “over the moon.” I don’t want to overstate the importance of our book, but as I imagine the perspectives of these young writers, it must feel pretty good to have their words valued and preserved by strangers to be studied by other strangers. And it would not have happened without online social networking by their teachers.
Story Number Two. Final blog posts for this year by my American Studies students are due on Monday by midnight. As the blog posts trickle in, I frequently tweet about them when a particularly good one comes across the transom. Last night I tweeted about two student blog posts, and within a few minutes I heard from Judy Arzt, a professor at Saint Joseph College in West Hartford, Connecticut, who tweeted, “This is an excellent example of using Ning in the high school setting. Thank you for sharing.” Judy also shared a link to the web site for her upcoming educational technology for K-12 teacher that encourages her students to visit our class web site “to explore the forums, blogs, videos, photos, and groups … [and] to explore fully the capabilities and how the students are using the Ning.”
Today in class I showed my class this web page in which their work was being used as an example in a graduate class at a college 900 miles away. I reminded them that although most of the blog commenters tend to be their classmates, many other people are reading their blogs. With that, there were high-fives all around, and they sat up a little straighter in their seats as they considered the unknown but very real audience reading their words and ideas.
When students write for themselves, their teachers, and their in-class peers, some good things can happen. No doubt about it. But when students write for a larger, more general audience, I see them focus more, try harder, and care more deeply about the effects those words and ideas will have on others.
This week I connected online with five teachers, and yes, it directly helped our students’ attitudes toward writing. Students writing for a wide audience and teachers connecting through social networks: Why would any of us settle for mere convenience when more powerful options are only a few clicks away? The wider the net we cast, the more fish we’re likely to catch.
As always, thank you for reading this, and I welcome your comments, stories, and thoughts.