Helping a new classroom community to grow and take shape in a classroom is different each and every year. Much depends on the variables: the age of your students, their technology skills, your community context and need among others. There are many things to consider. Each community needs to be handled differently, but the goal is the same: allowing the voices to grow in depth and confidence, reaching out for understanding from wherever in the world you may be.
A month into the school year and with most of my students having had their blogs for about two weeks, we are still in the every beginnings of our online work. There are a few key, critical factors which I think are important to consider as a teacher who wants to engage their students using online connections (notice that this is not solely about blogs)
1.) Take the time – Early conversations, halting and difficult as they sometimes can be – matter. Students need to be encouraged and allowed the time they need to explore. Getting a new online space is like moving in to new house. Everything needs to be properly set up and organized. Themes set, widgets organized, blogrolls filled. It is important that students have the time they need to create a space they are happy with.
2.) Be present – As the leader, mentor and educator, you MUST be present in the community. Notice I said IN the community. Be a part of it. Blog yourself. Set a good example. Leave good comments. Write challenging posts for your students. Ask them tough questions. Push their thinking, but do not be above the community of your classroom; be a co – creator of content.
3.) Brag – Show off the blogs of your students to others. I always send a note home to parents with their child’s blog URL on it, explain how they will be used in class and tell the parents to check in often to see what their child is doing in class and the work they are concentrating on. They may want to be tough junior high kids, but they are still thrilled to get comments from relatives.
4.) Show off the good stuff – Often I set up a projector in my class and show off some of the best material that has been posted in our classroom over recent days. I want kids to see good models of writing, of creating multi media content and of leaving good comments. I send students to read the blogs of others and ask them to think of what they have learned from seeing others in action.
5.) Realize that not everyone is a blogger – But everyone is talented at creating some type of content. I want the students in my class to try it all – blogging, podcasting, making videos, taking pictures, making animations and on and on. But I don’t expect that they will all enjoy or be talented in all areas. I want students to realize their talents and over time, to begin to focus in some areas more than others. I want them to be experts in a few areas, but be willing to take chances in them all.
6.) Teach them to be safe online – I emphasise this right from day one. The content that you place online will most likely always be there. Think before you post. We talk about not sharing phone numbers, email addresses and IM accounts with those people they meet online. We also talk about their own accounts on Facebook and other social sites. I want them to learn good habits not only for the classroom, but for their own stuff as well.
7.) Network your classroom – Find a partner classroom in another part of the world and hook your students together. Blogging is exciting and empowering for students, but a classroom is a closed space and eventually, students will not be as interested blogging if they are only talking to the same people online as in the classroom. Networking your classroom with another country also provides for a lot of opportunity for cultural exchanges and opens students to a more global perspective.
8.) Show the connections – Students like to see how their learning is connected and using different widgets and plugins can help them to see the pieces of their learning go global. My students usually put things like clustr maps so they can see where their audicence is coming from. They also like to post plugins that allow them to follow our flickr photos or Youtube channels.
9.) What’s New? – One of the best things I’ve done on my own classroom blog is to take clips from my Google Reader and place them on our Idea Hive site. Having subscribed to the RSS feeds for all of their posts and placed these feeds in one folder, I also subscribe to the RSS feeds for the comments for each of their blogs and place these in another folder. I then take the code that Google gives me and paste it into a text widget on my blog. This allows the students who come to our classroom blog to see the latest 10 blog posts and the latest 10 comments posted by anyone in the class.
10.) The more channels, the better – Students need a lot of time and experience working online. Using technology in your classroom cannot be a sideline. It cannot be something you have to do as an add on. To be most effective, you need to deeply examine your teaching and think about the pieces you can give up so that you have the time available in your classroom to help your students become effective global communicators.