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Creating Identities as Digital Learners

Creating Identities as Digital Learners

Written by Stephanie Geiger
April 30, 2013

A School and Community’s Culture

Standing in the hallway during passing time, I notice a boy listening to his  ipod. His head bobs to the pulsating music as he strolls by. Two girls linked arm-and-arm race in the other direction. They giggle incessantly as they share a text message, no doubt sent from a boy one of them is “crushing”. From behind me, a male voice breaks my concentration. “Ms. Geiger, can I show you that Youtube video I was telling you about, before class starts?”

All around me technology is alive and thriving. It plays an important role in my students’ lives. That’s evident just by observing them or listening to their conversations in class. My concern is, what kind of role is technology playing in their lives?

I realize many schools are fighting back against the distractions of technology with a “No Tolerance” Policy’ students may not use any personal devices once they enter a school building. However under new administration this year, my school has changed its policy. We have a strict “Red Zone” policy for technology in the classroom. In classrooms, teachers have a two-sided Technology Zone Sign. One side is red, which represents that students may not use their devices at all and devices should be put away. The other side is yellow, meaning students may use their devices under teacher supervision. Additionally, students may also use their devices in the halls during passing time and during lunch. The purpose of this policy is to recognize the importance of using technology in a learning environment. This also acknowledges students’ right to communicate, listen to music, and socialize during passing time and at a lunch.

I work in a district sharing a border with Detroit Public Schools. The population is comprised of African American and White American students.This year 49% of students receive free lunch and additional 11% qualify for reduced lunch.  Many of the students have part-time jobs to help support their families or take care of siblings while their parents work at night. These are often the same students who pursue a career after graduation rather than a college education. Because of the dynamics of our students’ lives, my district recognizes and values the importance of preparing students to be both career and college ready by teaching students skills that will prepare them to be successful in the 21st Century.

Developing A New Curriculum

Due to a scheduling conflict in the fall of 2012, seventeen students were placed into my first hour reading support class, yet they didn’t need reading support.This class was comprised of mostly freshmen, four sophomores, and two juniors. The sophomores or juniors were placed in this class because they had either scored low on or missed taking their spring Scholastic Reading Inventory or SRI. The freshmen had scored low on their AIMS-WEB screener the year before. Within the first month of class, I conducted a decoding assessment with each student to be used as a baseline to show student growth over the course of the semester. This assessment helped me to determine the mistake. With some more investigation, I discovered that these students did not need reading support at all. In fact, many of them were above reading level and taking advanced classes! This proves once again that as educators we must be mindful that schools are not using online programs such as SRI and AIMS-WEB as the only assessment to determine a student’s ability or aptitude.

Already one month into the school year, my principal discouraged any scheduling changes. I suggested teaching an English elective course instead and proposed a Digital Literacies class. I already knew that most of the students owned cell phones and ipods. Some students had ipads or tablets and all of these students had a computer at home with internet access. I was motivated to develop this class because I wanted to find out more about how students were using technology. I wanted to know if  their personal use of technology expanded outside of social networking and music.

Understanding that we live in the 21st Century, an age of cyber-surfing, video conference calls, and cell phones with dual screens for multitasking, I was inspired to nurture students’ interests and use of technology. I already knew that technology was playing a role in students’ lives. My intent was to develop a class that would help students utilize technology as a learning tool. Over the course of the semester I told student we would examine the question, “What does it mean to be a digital reader and writer?”

A few years ago I read, The Digital Writing Workshop, by Troy Hicks and iWrite by Dana J. Wilber. I used these texts to develop an outline for the course. During the first week of class, students completed a written survey about their interests and skills using technology to research, communicate and gather information. I found that students were using various forms of technology for all of these purposes, yet they weren’t even aware that they were. For instance I asked students how they find the answer to a question of their own interest (not for school work). From a list of possible choices, most students circled multiple answers including the internet, twitter, and facebook. Yet when students were asked, What tools do you use for research? Student responses included class websites, resources from my teacher and wikipedia.  I was surprised to learn that students didn’t consider their own search for information as research.

The next day, we discussed their survey responses. Through our discussion students examined how research is the process of gathering data, whether it’s for a personal or academic purpose, and how there are many procedures for researching. One student commented, “I just text someone to find the answer to a question, or I google it. I thought that was just being lazy not research.”   Responses like this one changed my way of thinking and I began to research how I could support students in developing their identities as digital learners. I wondered if students saw themselves as digital learners would it create a new purpose for their learning?

Connective Writing

Within the first few weeks of the semester I began my research. I turned to Digital IS, a website developed by the National Writing Project as a learning community for individuals to share and discuss practices related to writing in the 21st Century.  I found the resource, Will Richardson’s Connective Writing Wiki, posted by Bud Hunt, which discusses Will Richardson’s view on Connective Writing (or blogging). Richardson states, “Connective writing is the ability to publish in a variety of media with the intention of connecting and sharing it with others who have an interest (or passion) in the topic.”  I modified this definition using “kid friendly” language and introduced it to students. It was important to me that my students didn’t consider blogging to be a passive process, where students sit in isolation and write to an unknown audience somewhere out in cyberspace. I felt the words, “connective writing” would make it easier for them to visualize blogging is an active process of communication between an author and his audience.

Kelly Gallagher explains in his book, Write Like This, the importance of using mentor texts to examine the structure and craft of writing before students write. I thought about this and I knew I wanted my students to investigate mentor texts before they began to navigate the unfamiliar territory of blogging. It was important for students to get a sense of the structure and  features of blogs and the purpose for blogging if I wanted them to be successful bloggers themselves.  I invited students to work in pairs and immerse themselves in published blogs online.  As they read, students kept a list of what they noticed in each blog.  First I showed students how to search for a blog by topic. Then students worked in pairs to read five different blogs and record their noticings. Together the class determined that for our purpose it would be important to record: a brief summary of what they read, what stood out to them, what they liked about the blog, what they didn’t like, and what they would change.

This task took two days to complete. When students finished, each pair chose one of the blogs they read to report on to the whole group. It took another day for all of the pairs to report to the group. The class discussed and identified a trend of features found in many of the blogs, which they then named key features of blogs. Students developed a class list which they kept in their notebooks and I kept a large list posted in the classroom. This list included hyperlinks, pictures, videos, title and subtitles, comments or responses and timestamp.

Next students examined the purpose for blogging. Many students believed that blogging was a place to express or share thoughts and feelings. Thinking back to my objective, I wanted students develop identities as digital learners, I knew it was important for them to see blogs as a forum for learning and collaboration. To help students make this connection, I shared with them five purposes for connective writing as described by Bud Hunt in Teaching Blogging Not Blogs,

  • Blogging as remembering
  • Blogging as reflecting
  • Blogging as questioning
  • Blogging as sharing
  • Blogging as experimenting

Many students were surprised that there could be different purposes for connective writing and had a hard time envisioning what some of these purposes looked like in a blog. To help them understand, I continued to investigate mentor texts, hoping to find good examples of each of these types of writing in blogs to share with my students. I found this to be quite a challenge for myself. I spent hours at home surfing the web for blogs  that illustrated experimental writing, or blogs that connected posts to demonstrate how an author was rethinking or connecting an idea.  Looking back on this semester, I believe this was my hardest challenge. To make up for the mentor texts I couldn’t find, we examined our own writing in the classroom.

Creating a Google Identity

When considering my own definition of digital learner, I envision someone who not only produces or publishes their own thoughts but also consumes information as well. Reflecting back to The Digital Writing Workshop, Troy Hicks suggests using RSS Newsfeeds to support student interest in reading by allowing students to choose what they read about. I knew that my students needed to take ownership of their reading if they were going to see themselves as digital readers. Using Google, my students would be able to subscribe to RSS Newsfeeds through Google Reader, produce their blogs in Google Blogger, students could collaborate and communicate through IM chat and post in Google Plus. It was evident that Google would be an easy and practical source for my students to use, it is a convenient “one stop shopping” source, meeting all of our needs.  

Students first created a google account if they didn’t already have one. Many of the other teachers ask students to use email accounts to send papers and final projects, so I did not need to collect permission slips, although I did send a letter home explaining to parents the curriculum and our objectives for the semester.

Next students signed onto Google Plus, Google’s center for social networking. Right away, students identified similarities between Facebook and Google Plus. Students recognized the wall of their homepage used for posting comments. Many knew how to change their profile picture, send someone an instant message, and how to post a link on their wall. I was excited to see students’ knowledge of Facebook transfer over to Google Plus. Students who were typically quiet, were now engaged, talking with others and experimenting with their Google Plus account. There was an immediate change in the classroom environment as the room filled with chatter and eyes were fixed on the computer screens.

Students needed to understand that our purpose for working in Google Plus was more than just socializing.We built an online learning community within Google Plus and established learning and behavior expectations. To create this learning community, we added a social circle with our high school name. Students found and followed their classmates adding them to this social circle. I explained to students that all of the work we would do would take place within this learning environment. Anything that is posted here is visible to all of us. To help establish a tone for learning, students’ first assignment was to read my first blog within this social circle and respond to it.

Over the course of the next week, students registered to Google Reader and Google Blogger. On Google Reader students subscribed to at least five different blogs. To help students brainstorm different topics to read about, they engaged in an interactive journal entry. In two minutes students jotted down as many topics as they could think of. Then they had 30 seconds to share their lists with a partner and add any new topics they wished. They switched two more times with two different partners, still adding new topics as they went along. After this we constructed a class list of topics, again I was still urging students to add to their own lists. Students used these lists to search for newsfeeds on Google Reader. Once students finished subscribing I asked them to navigate through the subscriptions. I demonstrated this with a mini-lesson. As students read, I circulated around talking to each student about their subscriptions. The students were eager to read the subscriptions and proud of their topics.  I felt having students choose their own newsfeeds was an important step in forming identities as a digital learners because they were choosing a topic of inquiry and demonstrating that their ideas and interests are valuable.

Connective Learning

Students read and blogged on a weekly basis. Although I had only seventeen students in my classroom, I found a wide- range in technology skills. I quickly saw some students excel with blogging, while others struggled and began to fall behind. I changed the physical setup of my classroom to invite more interaction between students. I moved the desks into pairs and partnered students who were “getting it” with those may need more help. I reminded students that while they worked on the laptops, if I was helping another student, they could (and should) turn to their partner for help or suggestions, always emphasizing that, “We’re all learning together.”

I knew that simply moving the desks around wouldn’t be a permanent solution, so I turned to resources for more information about how to teach blogging. I needed a way to support my struggling students without hindering those already excelling. The resource, Out of School Blogging: Lesson Two Connective Writing and Connective Learning, by Sarah Macie Skipwith and Anthony Miranda inspired me to identify the skills students needed to learn and how to chunk them into mini-lessons. The first few mini-lessons revisited our class list of Key Features of Blogs. I taught students how and where to post their titles and subtitles and  how to use a hyperlink to connect to an article you’ve read.  

Once students became comfortable and confident with blogging, they began to comment on each others’ blogs. Again I found an array of depth and sophistication in student responses. Most students asked sincere questions of their peers, while a few posted single sentence responses that did not lend itself to a conversation. I addressed this immediately with students referring to these as “dead-end” responses. We looked at student examples together and discussed what a rich response looks like. Still I wondered if this was enough or whether this was a skill that needed to be taught? Especially with my ninth graders, was I assuming they knew too much already?

Shifting Power from Teacher to Student

Some of the more tech savvy students would post links to their peers’ blogs encouraging them to read about a related topic or resource. Additionally, student responses were growing. Students were asking each other rich, authentic questions and posing ideas.  I was so impressed with what some students were doing and I wanted all of my students to have the opportunity to develop these rich conversations. I saw this as an opportunity to empower students. Rather than me explaining what students should be doing, I thought it would be more powerful if their peers explained what they were doing and why it was important.  I began to invite students to lead mini-lessons teaching the class various blogging techniques such as posting hyperlinks, properly citing a resource, and posting pictures or videos.

The first student-led mini-lesson was conducted by two female students; a junior and sophomore. Their responses to others in class had been fantastic and they explained their thinking process while reading someone’s blog. I think what students really took away from that lesson was when one of the girls asked the class, Okay be honest, once you’ve finished a blog, don’t you look to see who’s reading it? And are you excited to see what they wrote?

The entire class admitted this by shaking their heads or answering, Yes. The girls went on to explain that it was interesting to hear what others think and to hear someone else’s point of view. They added, Without any details, it would be really boring to read.

I was so pleased to have the girls speak to students and demonstrate a Think-Aloud while responding to a blog. I think this mini-lesson shifted students thinking (as well as my own.) Students really began to think about their audience when they wrote. I saw more students address their audience specifically in their writing by asking questions or requesting suggestions. For instance, one student often read articles from the website Today I Found Out. He began to create a weekly poll in his blog based on what he read. In one blog, he wrote about an article he’d read about an eleven-year-old boy who had invented popsicles. The student ended his blog with a poll asking his readers if they could invent something, what would it be?  

This shift in teaching developed student-leaders and helped students to begin to see themselves as bloggers, and ultimately, digital learners. By recognizing their skills and ideas, I was valuing them. I soon observed that after these mini-lessons, students might approach the student-leader in class and ask for help with their own writing.

Next I wanted to have students work together to research one topic. Before we began our novel study on Looking for Alaska by John Green, students engaged in a webquest to discover information about the author. During a student-led discussion, students reported what they had uncovered and made personal connections. This discussion led to a better understanding of who John Green is as a writer and person, and his motives for writing the novel. A few groups discovered the videoblogs (or vblogs) that he created with his brother called Vlogbrothers, and became curious about videoblogs.

After viewing and discussing a few of John Green’s vblogs, students wanted to try video blogging themselves. This had not been part of the original syllabus, but I saw this as an opportunity for students, and myself, to investigate how people communicate and share information differently through video blogs. Again this was another shift in power from teacher to student. The students were taking ownership for their own learning by developing an inquiry question, learning objectives and a grading rubric. Ultimately their video blogs became their final project and reflected how they envisioned themselves as digital learners.

Student Reflections

A post-videoblog reflection survey with students revealed their understanding of communication through blogging. Some noted the difference in conveying tone. One girl’s response stated, “with a blog it’s all about word choice and figurative language. But in a vblog, you can express tone or mood through your setting, facial expression, actions, and editing.” Students also stated that they were more purposeful with their choice in setting, facial expression, topic and editing. Students had to carefully consider their tone and message and how to convey both using voice-overs, sound effects, music, fast-forward motions, and much, much more.

Almost all of the student surveys stated that they felt more confident in their ability to research, communicate and collaborate on a digital space then before the semester started. Every student was able to create their own definition of what it meant to be a digital learner, many offered personal examples from the semester and some referred to Richardson’s five purposes for connective writing. Additionally, Students were able to give examples of how these skills will support them as lifelong learners and as professionals in real-world settings.  

Final Thoughts

My goal was to introduce students to a digital space where they would feel comfortable and safe to share their writing, thoughts, and questions. A space to learn how to communicate and collaborate effectively. However our journey throughout the semester accomplished so much more.

This experience changed my way of thinking because I understand how important it is for students to be empowered by their learning. Students created their identities as digital learners through the opportunity to investigate a topic that was meaningful to them, to learn with and from one-another and to have an authentic space and audience for their writing. Their writing had the biggest impact when they were able to receive almost immediate feedback from their peers; feedback with questions, authentic responses, hyperlinks, etc. It was a real-live conversation and that isn’t something that they had imagined before.