Thursday, January 23, 2014

Potential of Student Blogs

     As many have written, insight often occurs when two points come together in an unexpected fashion. For me this recently happened regarding blogging, particularly student blogging.
     Last Saturday I received a nice surprise in an email. I am honored to have been included as an example in a wonderful new book by Stephen Valentine and Reshan Richards titled Leading Online: Leading by Learning, Learning by Leading. In fact, this blog is the subject of a sub-chapter, "Crotty's Wrestling." (The website.) Valentine writes about a time he was struggling with the idea of failure and grit and turned to my blog because "Crotty has always been a blogger willing to both embrace and challenge educational trends. That he does some of his thinking out loud is a great service to other educators." The affirmation is, of course, powerful, particularly since he captures how I hope people read my work. It's part of an ongoing search rather than a conclusion.
     Shortly after reading this, in my Twitter stream I saw a question raised about how to assess student blogs. This followed all the usual comments about how a blog can give students their own voices, connection with a larger audience, et cetera. The question perhaps was meant to be open-ended. But I know that many were going to read it as "How do you assign a grade?" Even if not a grade, then likely rubrics and standards and some other formulaic guidelines. Because that's what the sort of academic writing that dominates schools demands. And I think we really miss an amazing opportunity with students and blogging.
      I like all the hyperbole about giant audiences, but I also know that it doesn't really happen that often. At the same time, I love the aspiration implied--that it's possible! It's also only likely to happen if we don't see blogs as simply a cool place because they are on-line but then demand the same sort of writing to occur. Be honest: Would you choose to read a bunch of typical student papers?
     But consider what could happen if each student's blog became truly personal, a place for musing and exploring and poking. A place not for trying to build a strong case, but a place for refining a big question while considering various options. A place for students to share with each other in a collaborative "big dig" that spills over into the classroom. A place where the teacher doesn't go looking to see if students have the right answer but a place to be surprised by what they know and are figuring out.
     I hope the assessment would focus on that. Of course, I want more of that to be happening everywhere, not just in blogs. In this case, a powerful blog becomes a multi-faceted symbol of a more modern education. It captures a new dynamic of individual and collective learning. It highlights a more necessary set of skills and attitudes. It marks a shift in the dominant voices of a class. It suggests a way in which each student can play a leading role in his or her own fashion.
     That last point brings me back to Valentine and Richards' book. Most schools see fostering leadership as either a stated or an implicit facet of their mission. As do the authors, I'd argue that the skills involved in blogging effectively translate to leadership.They write, "Indeed, networked individuals bring great potential value to their leadership teams...If your school faces a problem the likes of which it has never seen, the most networked individual on your leadership team will know where to turn to begin to address the problem. The most networked individual will have a shortlist of people who have demonstrated consistent thoughtfulness, consistent insight, and consistent knowledge acquisition over time and outside of your school. Though your best solution may come from within your school, why wouldn't you want to increase your odds of solving a problem by having access to a group of educators and non-educators spanning the globe?"
     When Valentine let me know about his including me in the book, I let him know I feel the same way about his Refreshing Wednesday blog. Each of us had played each part in the leadership vision he and Richards so powerfully lay out.If teachers allow it, the same thing can happen among their students in meaningful, unforeseen ways.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Whither the Bridgetender?

     I recently began reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's The Bully Pulpit about Theodore Roosevelt, William Taft, and the muckraking journalists of McClure's magazine. Last night one tiny scene jumped out at me. As Ida Tarbell was travelling on the train from Western Pennsylvania to New York, at one point she noticed the bridgetender. This person had a simple role: every time a train crossed the bridge, he was to make sure no coals had flown off the train and could set the wooden bridge on fire.
     This was a job created by a relatively new industry/technology in the form of railroads. But it also was a job that rather quickly became obsolete with other developments such as steel. And while there remain bridgetenders in other ways, such as on some old drawbridges, it's certainly not a job I'd heard of or even thought about before. I'd like to know how many bridgetenders remain in any form.
     Metaphorically, I also wonder who the bridgetenders of today are. To play off that idea further, I also hope we see the purpose of education to help people become not just bridge builders, but also designers of amazing new bridges.