Approximately two months ago I embarked on an adventure that has taught me more than I ever anticipated.
We have been blogging in our classroom for a year now. One year ago, Christine Southard and I learned about blogging and set out to find a site we could use with our students. We came upon David Warlick's Class Blogmeister site and found it very user friendly. So we set up a blog and got our students engaged and excited. This year, we started up in September and have seen great strides in our students' writing and communicating abilities through the site.
One of the great things about Class Blogmeister is the ability to connect with other blogging classes. We frequently have our students comment to other classes and we often find comments from students outside of our room. One class in particular kept showing up. We started looking into this fifth grade class and discovered the Learning is Messy blog of Brian Crosby's fifth graders in Nevada. After much commenting back and forth, we finally emailed Brian to discuss the comments and have him assist us in improving the comment skills of our students, while we helped his. Of course, at this point, I also started following Brian on Twitter - increasing my network even more.
Eventually, Brian and I decided it was time to consider doing a project together. Our students had sort of gotten to know each other so there was a motivation, we enjoyed communicating through email and twitter, and we both had fifth graders. Brian came up with the idea of doing something with the book, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, by Chris van Allsburg. This is a very open-ended book begging for a writing piece to accompany it. So we set up a date to Skype and discuss the idea.
During our Skype call, I told Brian about Google docs (Christine and I use them all the time to plan units). We decided this was the perfect venue for writing the collaborative stories. We then decided to link everything onto my already-existing Classroom Booktalk wiki. And, then, just to add to the excitement, we decided to open it up to other teachers. Brian and I both sent out twitter invitations and Christine blogged about it in the NY DEN blog. 12 other teachers signed up.
By now, the project is almost completed. Our students will be editing on Monday and Tuesday, Brian, Christine, and I will do final edits during the week, and the stories will be linked into the wiki next week, along with VoiceThreads to allow them to compare and contrast stories. Other groups are in various stages of progression but most should be finished within two weeks.
So what did I learn from all of this?
1. Setting up a collaborative project with 14 classes is confusing and time-consuming.
I had to create a Google doc carefully explaining the process. When Christine and I work together, we just talk. This wasn't possible with so many teachers. Hence, the need for the document. And the multitude of emails that preceeded and followed the document. And the dealings with technology problems that arose (blocked Google docs, blocked emails, no Skyping experience, etc.). And dealing with teachers that say they want to join, then don't respond to my emails. This took up a great deal of time. I didn't anticipate this when we started. It wouldn't have stopped me, I just was surprised.
2. This was more a lesson in learning to collaborate than learning to become better writers.
The children faced many issues with learning to work with partners with which they couldn't directly communicate. Sometimes, their partners changed the story without discussing it first. Sometimes their partners took a long time to respond to questions. Sometimes they were confused by what their partners were writing. All of these problems were answered when they Skyped but they forgot to continue having these conversations in the Google docs. Or they didn't like the waiting in the docs.
They also needed to learn how to handle these situations. Sometimes, their way of handling it was to delete whole parts of the story. Thank goodness for revision history in Google docs. Sometimes, they handled it by writing their own story, without their partner. That took some intervention from the teachers. Sometimes, their response was to stop writing. Again, teacher intervention.
We spent much time brainstorming solutions. And, in all, I think it was a pretty positive experience.
3. The more our students use technology, the less the technology excites them.
I truly believed that the excitement of using Google docs, collaborating with a class in Nevada, and Skyping would be enough to entice them. And, at first, it was. Then they settled down and realized this wasn't such an easy project. There was actually work involved. Hard work, thinking, creating, writing. And they had to learn to collaborate which, as many of us know, is really not always so easy.
So it was up to us as teachers to...um...teach. Do what we do best. Forget the technology and teach them how to work together, how to improve their stories, how to complete this project.
So my final thoughts.
Overall, this really was beneficial to the students. Once they got into it, they found they are writing some incredible stories and they are proud of their work. And they've made connections with students in Brian's class. They go to their blogs first to comment. They discuss what their partners are writing about.
Also, I am already thinking about next year. The timing was no good...too many teachers on different vacations. October, November might be a better time. And we want to add a chat box into the Google docs. This will allow them the communication they need when they are not Skyping.
Networking is an issue with children. Once they connected, they wanted to make more of a connection. Comments in the blogsite asked for Xbox ids and email addresses. We had to put a stop to this. But it opens up the bigger issue of the power of networking. I can no longer function without my network. I truly rely on others to give me ideas, tips, links, and pep talks. But we had to shut down the fifth graders networks...too dangerous to give out personal information. Keep it in the classroom until...oh yeah, until June when it all shuts down. Sorry. I am actually hosting a round table discussion about this on our May 1st Teachers are Talking webcast. Come listen and add to the discussion.
And next year, join the project. We will have all the kinks worked out and I will, by then, have some sort of sign up sheet so I can avoid the confusion I faced this year. Watch for twits. It was well worth it.