Reflections on Blogging: a learning journal

Welcome to my action research blog, essentially a "learning journal" where I can share my reflections and experiences in using blogs in one of the education courses I teach (Education 457 Children's literature). I invite my students or other visitors to comment on my learning experiences and add your observations or insights into my explorations of blogging as a tool for teaching and learning.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

other thoughts about how blogging works to expand content and pedagogical knowledge in teaching

Another post, to help document something I noticed in visiting some of the web blogs students are creating in this course on children's literature.

In the course itself, I've explored a number of genres of children's books including non fiction, fiction, faction, tradtional tales, contemporary sociocultural etc. I've asked students, as an assignment, to post some of the books they've found in these different genres onto their blogs to share with others and develop a bit of a data base we can all benefit from. This assignment has worked well; students have woven together texts that fit themes of the course (such as culturally responsive teaching) with their own personal experiences with books as readers and teacher candidates.

An interesting post occured when one student included a book that is best categorized as a "teaching resource" for teachers to use in their classrooms. Now this is a new genre, not one that is typically included in a curriclum that surveys the various tradtional genres of children's books. Yet this is a very useful category of books to explore with students, because there are hundreds, if not thousands of books out there that are recommended for teachers as "useful" resources for use in a classroom. So this post got me thinking about how I might modify this course in the future, and consider criteria we could develop in evaluating and selecting books that fit this category. It also illustrates how we collaboratively build knowledge as a learning community: students can be knoweldge builders and their contributions enrich all of our learning.

this post as sparked an interest in a number of students, and has helped illustrate how curriculum can be constructed in practice, and in response to student interests and needs. This example illustrates not only the building of content knowledge in the field of children's literature, but illstrates the parallel process of pedagogical learning: both are critical components in the learning of the pre service teacher.

A model that represents pedagogical content knowledge.
This model is based on the work of Lee Shulman (1987), and has been further developed by a number of educational theorists including Deborah Ball in the field of mathematics education.


Intertextuality: drawing on multiple texts to convey understanding

Well, I've been doing some reading and writing for my dissertation: my "magnum opus" as some would call it. Lately that feels like the right term, given the quantity of data and sense making I have yet to do.

But this entry isn't a whine, instead its about intertextuality.
So what do I mean when I say intertextuality? Well, it is a term that comes from the field of literary theory, that is, the study of language and writing and the meanings it conveys. It was theorized by a woman named Kristeva. She and other literary theorists like Barthes and Bahktin have re-theorized the process of "reading" a text. Where once people bleieved the author was the authority of what the text meant, now literary thinkers suggest that it is the reader who interprets and bringings meaning to a written text. Kristeva was a french writer who interpreted Bahktin's work, and in doing so, coined the term intertextuality, which is credited as being one of the most important new theories in the field and subsequently transformed the work of many other scholars.

OK, enough history,basically what she says is this: all languages and writing is a response to previous writing/language, and follows patterns of meaning, so that one cannot understand a piece of work as having a single meaning, but its meanings are layered in its historic and future use. In fact, language can represent multiple meanings, and it can convey these meanings through single forms (ie. words). But rather than just stick with language, she suggests that all modes of communication can be conceived of as texts, texts which are situated in social and cultural practices, and that subjects (people) use many different texts when engaged in practices of communication. She argues that there is both a horizontal and vertical dimension: the text exists horizontally between meaning makers (people) on one dimension, but also vertically in terms of historical use. The image of intertextuality then is something in flux, a fluid conception that moves depending on the interpretations brought to it by different subjects (people) and different histories (some call these discourses).

Now if we apply the idea of different dimensions to communciation on a web blog, then I think intertextuality offers another way of thinking about the different modes of meaning we use to convey what our thoughts and ideas. Blogs offer multiple modes of representation: they have a language dimension, they have a visual dimension that also conveys meanings, and it has the cyber dimension, in that it can linking texts and subjects from one place to another, from one idea to another, and from one person/social community to another. In effect, it suggests a multidimensional way of representing knowledge, as well as interpreting it.

there is also intermodal intertextuality: that is, we can access different forms of communication (via sound or visual image or gesture or written/spoken languages) in order to draw upon even a broader range of contexts and resources in constructing our own process of meaning making. A blog it seems to me offers a symbolic representation of intertextuality in action as people communicate across space and time.

Perhaps the conception of intertextuality in blogging can help us as teachers reconceputalize the tools we rely on for learning: for if we only engage our students in basically one mode, one discourse (that of realism through textual means) then we are not adequately engaging in the plurality of ways in which we can communicate and learn.


Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Pedagogy of blogging

I engaged the students in my class briefly in a discussion about our use of blogs in this course as a means of engaging in a broad inquiry into what they thought about blogging and how it was being used as a part of the class. Of course, this is a required part of their course, and not done for recreation purposes, and so their comments need to be considered in that context. But generally, the feeling was that blogs allowed a greater possiblity for personalization and were perceived to be a much more pleasant, even a 'fun' way in which to discuss their own histories as readers. We briefly discused web CT and they agreed that it was "boring"; too much text, too much white space, and frankly, too reminiscent of academic papers (which for these students, in their final set of courses in a two year program, was someething they wanted to forget!). One very interesting comment was offered by a student in response to the question "Do you write differently on the blog?" The answer was pretty much a "yes" from several class members, but perhaps more revealing was the comment "because someone might come and read your work, you do a different kind of writing". So in other words, the awareness of an audience, and the possiblity that an audience will comment on your entry, effects how you record your own ideas.

What is particularly interresting for me about this comment is that it suggests that the forms of writing that we ask students to engage in in class and as a part of the assignments we give don't have that quality of 'writing for an audience'; or as is often said in the literacy scholarship "writing for a purpose". Of course, I am speculating here on the basis of a single comment, but it strikes me that this may illustrate the perception of written tasks we set for students as a part of our courses and for illustrating their learning/application of knowledge.
The writing performance is likely perceived as being without much purpose at all: simply hoop jumping for an instructor. This is not to say that there is no benefit to the written projects we give students: many assignments are particularly guided by the practical considerations of practicum lesson planning, so these assignments would generally be seen as more useful and purposeful. But the component of sharing with others, outside of your instructor, what you know or understand seems to be the central theme of this statement about "writing differently". If the work is meant to be shared, and if you want to convey what you think/believe in a way that invites others to respond, then the writing needs to be different.

Perhaps the key here is the two way nature of the dialogue in the web blog. In typical writing assignments, we expect a one way communication: I am the "expert" in this area, you as student, need to demonstrate you are engaged in becoming an "expert" like me through your work. It is not perceived to be, nor is it often treated as a two way dialogue: the paper is the end piece, the finished product, my closest approximation to becoming what you want me to become in this field of knowledge. And it marks an end of my production for you and/or this course. It seems to reinforce a linear rather than a spiral means of considering how we learn as adults and teachers.

Blogs invite dialogue: indeed without it, they really serve no purpose. Their presence on the web suggests a degree of openness to the world; an invitation to explore what I think, and for you to respond to my thoughts in-kind.

That is why I think I like using blogs in this course, because I am trying to engage students in a dialogue on their beliefs and values, more than I am trying to "teach" them about particular techniques for using children's literature, or what particular books are useful in the classroom. The way in which we explore beliefs and values is highly self reflective, but conversations serve to benefit our self understandings. As I've often discovered myself, the process of writing about an idea helps me solidify my own thinking. Talk serves this function as well, and so oral dialogue is a feature of reflection and learning too.

So I think blogs are a means of creating a dialogic space, one that naturalizes the functions and possibilites of dialogue: if I consider the earlier comments from the student who says she 'writes differently" for her blog, maybe what we are really talking about is a hybrid form of dialogue, one that evokes a different kind of socio-cultural/technological literacy.

Another important feature of this "dialogic space" however, is the element of "fun" that was referenced earlier. Indeed, in this sense, the blog mimics play. By its invitiation to select formats, colors, and providing simple tools that enable all to quickly learn how to post images and links to other websites, the blogger becomes player, engaged in experimentation, "fooling around" with images and colors that help illustrate who they are and what they like, think about, believe etc. In this way a blog serves as a marker of identity: I can make this a space that belongs to me by importing and posting images and provocative comments that invite people to "see" who I am and what I beleive. I wrote about this in my previous blog post, and so I won't dwell on it again, but see it as an important feature of how dialogic talk/writing is motivated through this medium.

From a pedagogical perspective then, it seems to me that this medium offers a very useful tool for particular kinds of questions, ones that invite self reflection, and benefit from sharing of similiar and/or different ideas. Perhaps it is not suited for the "traditional" assignment: for example, I asked my students to engage in a review of a multicultural book to see evidence of how they could apply critical tools and demonstrate awareness of naturalized bias/stereotypes in some texts. I'm not sure this particular assignment might have been enhanced if it had been posted on a blog: perhaps if the illustrations were a critical feature it might have offered some benefit, but the purpose of the assignment was not one of exploration of ideas, but a representation of what they had learned.

From a professional perspective, it also models the kind of sharing that we encourage our teacher candidates to engage in as they ready themselves to become teachers. They can not only share thoughts about topics related to the course, but they can share resources they find by inserting images or links to other sites; they can share favorite books that fit particular curricular goals, and in this way provide others with the benefit of their investigations. In turn, others will share with them: this is the spirit that many say is the foundation of the worldwide web. Open sharing without borders/boundaries.

I'd love to hear from anyone who wants to comment on my observations, reflections

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

So today I'm going to write briefly about my experiences with using the blogs to date in order to try and identify some of the things I've been learning and considering as I use this tool in the Children's Literature class I am now teaching.

Using technology in teaching isn't completely new to me;
I've used Web CT before, and found it to be a very useful way of keeping students in touch with one another between classes, and a relatively easy way of having an ongoing dialogue on topics between classes. Web CT has its problems though: it is relatively complex in how it is set up; loading the names of students can be quite tricky and rules have to be carefully followed. Students often complain they have trouble accessing it, or getting into it so they can read/ respond to other students writing. And it is really only text on the screen: while there are some cute icons you can use as links to features of the class page you have set up, it remains a very text oriented process. It feels and looks a lot like reading or writing a book. It doesn't feel very personal; it doesn't attract your eye to the screen in any way; in large part I think it could be described as "boooorrrriiiinnngggg!"

Somehow blogs seem so much more interesting and engaging to me, and its seems, at least so far, to students as well. There is something about the process of creating your own page and personalizing it to your own taste that makes it a project that has a "fun" component to it. I've been writing a bit about this (for an upcoming academic paper presentation), and how the process of production/ creation offers a way of engaging us in identity work: that the process of blog design is also about representing our identities, who we think we are, and what we believe; we design a site that others can visit that offers a way of "speaking" about ourselves in an interesting and creative way. I know this is something that the high school students I have been working with have identified as a "cool" and "fun" feature of blogging. In some ways, it reminds me of student lockers: it has a formal function and form, but it can be modified easily, personalized with items of importance or having symbolic value to you, and, for the glimpse of time you hold it open to the world, you name yourself for others who can have an important glimpse into your world and experiences.

The second way that blogging seems more interesting and engaging is because it is an interactive medium: it is put "out there" into cyber space inviting the comments and views of others to be added. In this way, it is always a work in progress... a 'stream of consciousness' kind of thing, that doesn't have the same formality that a one way production process (such as writing a paper) has. It is truly possible to be collaborative... to take others ideas (openly, without sanctions) and put them with your own in order to tell a story. The whole point of putting it on your blog is to have others comment on it; in fact, I find that I anticipate and wonder about who will comment, what they might say, and if they will agree with my perspective or not. I check my blog frequently!

Finding that someone else thinks as you do, shares your humor, or is interested in your ideas is an important part of the blogging process for me. I like to read ideas that match my own, that legitimate the way I think. But the other thing I love about checking my blog is that sometimes I find something completely unexpected. As if my comment, my blog caused a spark for someone else. That in beginning a story, or telling about an experience, I triggered thinking for someone else, and that it was a window into an idea for another person. I'm not sure how much of that thinking is because I am a teacher: maybe I anticipate the potential "teaching" that can come from this interactive tool, and I want my cyber-voice to act as a "hyperlink"into someone else's thought processes.

A blog as a way of hyperlinking ideas??? Does that idea resonate with you?

It is what you might call a multimodal tool as well... that is, it is a process of design that involves different modes of embodied production. We need to see, touch, feel, interpret what we are creating. We access many literacies: visual literacies, computer literacies, critical literacies, aesthetic literacies... in creating our responses to questions or concepts that we are trying to communicate in this technological form. While it is a two dimensional representation of our understandings, it is also interactive in the sense that we have to "construct" it using different skills. We have to physically, emotionally and mentally engage as we compose and design our blogs.

And, we engage our aesthetic senses all the time: is that the right color? Does that image offer a good match for my text? Does that image symbolize adequately the idea I am trying to convey? (the exact question I just asked myself before inserting the "link" graphic above). So we are creating hbrid texts: a blend of written text, images and links to communicate our understandings or ideas to others.

Its hybrid in another way as well: because we are doing it as a class project, we talk about our blogs as well, so someone might say "Hey, did you see XXXX's blog?" or "Where did you get that cartoon?" So we discuss our blog construction techniques, ("Can you help me move my images around in my post?") our sources of information, and re-visit some of the comments that have been made about a particular topic or idea after hearing about its unique qualities or effectiveness from others orally.


In closing, I want to describe what I noticed about student interest in this blog assignment. Of course, students will often tell you just what they think you want to hear, so some of what is said may not be a complete representation of what they "really" think. I've invited students in my class to read this blog, and I am hoping some of them will add their own comments to my musings and ideas. But I have overheard a couple of comments : one student talked about how easy it was to set up despite their initial misgivings; how much fun it was to personalize the page with their own favorite books and stories; and how exciting it was to go back and check to see "if anyone has read my blog yet and posted a comment. I checked about 10 times! It was fun!" So if blogs are fun, does that enhance learning? My hope is that it does; not only will it enhance the interactions between students about the ideas of the course, but that it will model effective teaching methods that actively engage students; and that it provides an opportunity to develop new literacies; as well as provide a leadership role for the student who is technologically capable and willing to assist others as they learn.

PS. Before I stop, thanks to the two students who taught me how to move images in my blog posts by using the "edit html" feature. It was easy, just as you said it was! And I am much happier with how my posts look. Thanks again!


Tuesday, January 10, 2006

This is the beginning of my reflective journal that is designed to track and document my experiences in learning to use blogs as a teaching tool as a part of a course I am teaching at the University of Northern British Columbia, in Prince George, Canada. It follows the model of teacher-action-research: the practice of engaging in personal and pedagogical reflection in the ongoing process of learning as an adult educator.

One of the most important goals of our Education program is to have our students become self reflective practioners: it is developing the capacity to reflect "in" and "on" practice (Schon, 1983) that is envisioned. That means we must develop our students'capacities for self reflexivity, critical consciousness, and active observation of their own beliefs and pedagogical stance, and how these are being altered or affected by new practices.

As an instructor in this program and an advocate for practices of life long learning, I want to model for my students how such self reflection might look or be represented. Not everyone likes journaling; personally I've felt that journaling has served as a tangible structure that focuses my own learning and thinking. That's what I hope this blog will do.

I invite my students and any other visitors to this blog to add their own perspectives to my diary of activities and reflections on my own practice. Its a process of risk taking too... as the cartoon I've posted here tries to humourously depict. I hope no one is offended by the references to eggplant (a much maligned but delicious vegetable)!

More later,