“Bringing CLMOOC Back Home,” Part 3 #ce14

A version of this post appeared earlier today at my blog.

Just as my CLMOOC 2013 adventure began with an invitation in the spring, my CLMOOC 2014 experiences began in the spring with an invitation from Christina Cantrill and Kevin Hodgson to be a member of 2014 CLMOOC support team.

The team’s role was to support, coach, and encourage CLMOOC participants as they created and connected during the Make Cycles.  Being a part of this team was a fascinating and fruitful experience, which I will expand on in a later blog post.

In this post, I’d like to discuss one of my major insights from CLMOOC 2014:  Connected Learning does not have to be digital.  I discovered this mainly through conversations, on blogs and on Twitter, with CLMOOCers, in particular Maha Bali, Karen Fasimpaur, & Terry Elliot.

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Screenshots from CLMOOC Twitter Chat, July 31, 2014: https://storify.com/CLMOOC/clmooc-week-7-tweet-chat-7-31-14

Digital technology is a powerful leveraging force, of course, and one we ought not to ignore.  Nevertheless, teachers can facilitate Connected Learning without computers or tablets.

Connected Learning can happen with a pen, a notebook and a class set of novels.

I’m writing specifically here of the inquiry I’ve begun in Fall 2014 into the ideas presented in Sheridan Blau’s commentary workshop.

I’ve linked below to several posts that discuss the Blau workshop, as well as to a video from the New York City Writing Project that documents a version of the workshop presented in 2011.  For the purposes of my blog, I’ll describe my experience with the workshop and how the workshop inspired me to undertake an inquiry in my own classroom.

Blau used the poem “Nineteen,” by George Bogin, as the text for the workshop.  He told us that we would read the poem and write a commentary, then asked us if we had any questions about this task.  We asked various questions, and most of the answers were “We’ll see.”  So we read the poem, and then Blau asked if we had any questions about specific words.  If we asked a question about a phrase, he clarified each word, but didn’t speculate on how the words worked together – this, he said, was for us to consider and examine in our commentaries.

So we wrote our commentaries, and when we had finished, we got into groups of 3 to share – and to take notes on what we noticed about our commentaries.  After we’d shared in groups, we shared out as a whole group.

The idea behind the commentary is that, rather than prescribe a form, the teacher engages students in an authentic discussion of the poem through their writing.  Students learn from each other as well as from the teacher, who becomes a co-learner in the discourse.

Blau told us that he uses an online bulletin board (Blackboard or Moodle, I don’t remember which) and asks his students to post one commentary, and one response to a classmate, each week.

In 2013, Blau presented this workshop at UCLA, with both the UCLA Writing Project and my site, the LA Writing Project, in attendance.  Perhaps it was the due to the fact that the room in Moore Hall was not big enough to accommodate both projects comfortably, or perhaps it was a result of the grumpiness that almost inevitably accompanies a cross-town commute in the L.A. metro area, but I did not enjoy the presentation.  I was quite confident, in fact, that the ideas Blau presented were impractical, ivory-towered, and ultimately not worth contemplating.

This year, Blau presented to our Summer Institute group at Cal State LA.  12 months later – perhaps because I was on my home turf, with 15 minutes in the car instead of an hour – I saw the commentary workshop in a completely new light.  Now, instead of seeing an impractical approach, I saw profound possibilities.

Blau’s method put students at the center of the discourse; his approach made the radical assumption that young people had something interesting to say about literature.  I was reminded of Bob Land’s definition of academic writing:  reading something that someone wrote and saying something smart about it.  Here was a framework that used the inquiry and socially-situated learning to engage students in “saying something smart” about books.

Of course, I’d need to modify the instruction:  ninth graders are not undergraduates, after all.  But my ninth graders could do this, I thought; and I could figure out, and share, the modifications that might be beneficial in teaching the commentary workshop for high school students.

I decided to try it out with The House on Mango Street, the first text we read in the freshman English course at my school.  The vignettes would be the perfect length; we could read the book in 5-10 page chunks, and kids could respond to one or more vignette from each chunk.

So far, it’s working.  Students are excited about the reading, and I’ve seen encouraging signs of a nascent learning community among my 9th graders:  a willingness to share ideas, to listen to others, and to be patient and support each other when we can’t quite find the words we want to express our thoughts.

In my next post, I’ll write more about our experiences with Mango Street and commentary, and discuss what I’ve learned this term about both Connected Learning and writing the Blau commentary with students.

Sheridan Blau’s commentary workshop

Blau presented a version of the commentary workshop to the New York City Writing Project in 2011.

Sheri Rysdam, Emily Cruz, and Brian Baron have written about Blau’s commentary workshop.