My students have been writing commentaries about The House on Mango Street for about a month.
I modified Sheridan Blau’s format to account for the fact that I’m working with 9th-graders instead of college students. At the beginning of the year, my students often respond to challenging tasks by remaining quiet and waiting for help. With this in mind, rather than relying on the kids to ask questions about the commentary, I prepped my own questions & answers beforehand and included those in my initial talk. I was also very lenient about the length of the commentary; although I told the students that I was looking for responses of half a page to a page and a half, I accepted 2-sentence responses at the beginning. Instead of requiring students to post their commentaries online, we wrote our commentaries on paper, shared with partners, and turned them in at the end of the period. I gave credit for completing a commentary. I made copies and then shared certain commentaries on the docucam at the start of the next period to illustrate certain possibilities and moves.
We’re just now getting to the point where students are familiar enough with the online forum (we have been using Collaborize Classroom) – to begin regular online posting. It was in using the online component that I made my mistakes, I think. For example, rather than getting kids to post their commentaries, I took too long introducing the kids to the forum with starter topics. I had to close one of these starter topics because the kids turned it into a platform for socializing instead of a forum for academic conversation. (I’m not opposed to socializing, but that wasn’t the purpose of the forum.) Worse, I spent this time setting up Collaborize Classroom only to discover that School Loop, our school-wide software for grading and communicating with students, has an online bulletin board feature that would have taken considerably less time to implement.
These questions – Which online forum is best? How should teachers introduce ninth graders to the norms of writing on an online forum for academic purposes? – are worthy, and I will return to them. For a moment, though, I’d like to comment on the Connected Learning aspects of my inquiry that are independent of using computers.
In my last post, I wrote about my struggle with organization and how this limits the power of my inquiry. I realized as I was writing these last two posts that I need to get permission from my students before I share their writing on my blog, which limits my ability to discuss our work.
(A cursory Google search on the ethics of using student work in a teacher blog brought to my mind some questions that deserve their own post. Part 6 or Part 7, perhaps?)
I can discuss, however, some patterns that I’ve seen in the work that we’ve done together.
- Students have begun to move beyond re-telling toward analysis and critique. This is a development worth celebrating; ninth-graders often struggle with the jump from summary to more sophisticated responses that involve inference, argument, and evaluation.
- Most students are not yet writing responses that go beyond a sentence or two of facile agreement. This needs to be our next area of focus.
- I need to put more student work on the board. I also need to facilitate more frequent sharing of commentaries, with a greater variety of different partners.
I think that the commentary approach depends most on the socially-situated nature of the learning: the key point that Blau sought to make in his presentation is that academic discourse is essentially a conversation. However, there are also elements of student interest, to be sure; though students are not choosing the text, they are able to make choices about how to connect their interests and experiences to the text.
My next steps involve organizing our learning community to maximize students’ ability to learn from their peers and engage in a conversation. This will involve having students post commentaries online, but will not be limited to digital communication; tomorrow, I plan to have students do a Read Around with their commentaries to increase the number of classmates whose work they have read.
(For further discussion of the Read Around, which I learned from Bob Land, see Carol Booth Olson’s compilation Practical Ideas for Teaching Writing As A Process, p. 148 – 154.)