Bringing the World to My Doorstep: A Teacher's Blog-Reading Habits
By: Kevin Hodgson
Date: May 29, 2008
Summary: A technology liaison describes how the world of blogs enriches his teaching, supports his tech liaison work, provides opportunities for his students, and keeps him connected both to his NWP network and to a wider network of educators.
I have a confession to make: I read close to 500 blogs daily.
Actually, I don't read every word and take in every thought. Instead, I travel through blogs, choose the pieces that interest me, skim through the content, and engage in conversations when my interest is piqued.
Sometimes what I stumble upon takes me on a journey that enriches me in new ways as a teacher and as a technology liaison for the Western Massachusetts Writing Project (WMWP). And it can also provide opportunities for my students to showcase their writing.
What makes all this possible is my RSS reader. RSS, short for "really simple syndication" or "rich site summary," is a system for aggregating and scanning information from blogs, podcasts, and other Web sites that update content frequently (for more, see the how-to video, RSS in Plain English , on YouTube).
Reading Blogs Supports Classroom Teaching
In early 2008 I started coming across hints of a project being started by a teacher in the Washington, D.C. area to support young people to advocate the end of the genocide taking place in Darfur, and I thought the concept was interesting. Then I began to notice that other teachers I follow in my RSS network of blogs were also starting to talk about the project.
Darfur became a keyword in many blog posts. Something was brewing as traffic in my RSS blog reader increased. I started to follow links to online resources and I added the Many Voices for Darfur blog to those I read regularly. The global project was designed to teach students about the Darfur crisis and then spur them into Web-based social action. I became more intrigued when Paul Allison, cohost of the Teachers Teaching Teachers webcast program and a technology liaison with the New York City Writing Project, posted a podcast interview that he and others had with George Mayo, a teacher from Maryland who had cocreated a global Darfur awareness event. I listened to the podcast right in my RSS reader.
Over a 48-hour period in March 2008, young people from around the globe would post comments and opinions that advocated ending the crisis and alleviating the suffering of innocent Darfur residents caught in the midst of the war between the government and the rebels.
Not only would this project give me an opportunity to bring the world to my students in our suburban community in western Massachusetts, the Many Voices for Darfur concept tied in perfectly with a unit of instruction I was preparing around persuasive writing. In the past, my students have written persuasive pieces that often went no further than my desk. Here was an opportunity for them to write something that might have an impact on the world and would connect them with hundreds of other students. The format of the blog allowed students from any computer anywhere in the world to join the conversation about Darfur.
As I dug deeper into the Darfur project through my RSS network, I got more and more intrigued, and soon I was gearing my students up for this project. My RSS feeds became a terrific source of daily information on teaching strategies for introducing the crisis to my young students, as other educators began sharing what they were doing. I also began tracking the blogs of the other teachers connected with the Darfur project.
My students began the research phase of the project through the use of an online scavenger hunt developed by another teacher in the Darfur network. The various Web-based sites in the scavenger hunt provided my students with insights into a myriad of news articles and video clips, and some artwork by orphaned children showing what had happened to them and their families—art that told a deeper story than any news article.
The focus of my instruction was to provide my students enough time to conduct their research and then to use their discoveries to bolster their persuasive writing. We brainstormed main ideas as a class but they wrote their own pieces individually. As they worked, they continued to gather information from a variety of sources, including those being provided by other teachers and students in the Darfur project. They revised their writing with an audience in mind, and that audience was not me. Instead, their audience was the world.
In the two days of blogging activity that March, the Darfur blog became home to more than 650 pieces of writing from students, including my own sixth-graders, who also contributed podcasts and slideshows based on their opinions and suggestions for peace. (Read and hear a few pieces of their writing .)
Reading Blogs Supports Work as Technology Liaison
My step into the conversational flow also informs my work as a technology liaison for WMWP.
A year ago, after I had created a wiki (a collaborative online space that allows viewers to revise or add to webpages), I asked folks in the NWP's Technology Liaison Network to use it to provide RSS feeds from their sites' blogs. I then fed these feeds (about 20) into my RSS reader.
So now when the Bluebonnet Writing Project holds a special event, I can follow what they are doing. As the Prairie Lands Writing Project gears up for their summer institute, I can consider their recruitment approaches and bring them back to the WMWP advisory board. The Tar River Writing Project sends some teacher-consultants to a statewide conference to talk about social networking and the use of blogging tools like Twitter in education, and I celebrate along with them. I notice the Area 3 Writing Project announce the start of Super Saturday Technology Workshops, which intrigues me, so I use that post as an exploration into the seminars. And when the Blackwater Writing Project nurtures its community of writers by using its blog for publishing poems and stories and writing prompts, I want to jump right in with them as a writer.
A recent post at the Dakota Writing Project blog by Jeannette Jennings, a high school teacher, offered some insights into professional writing and how she utilized an NWP Professional Writing Retreat to focus her writing for publication. The blog post made her journey very personal for me, and it connected me with my own participation in a similar retreat last summer at our site (which, of course, was shared through our own WMWP Online News blog , which is available through RSS feeds, too).
Over at the Hudson Valley Writing Project, they are using a blog to begin their planning of a graduate-level course around digital storytelling. At WMWP we are also considering creating a graduate course. Via RSS, I can listen in on HVWP's planning sessions and cull new strategies to report back to my site's leadership.
And I found out that my friend Luis Colon, the tech liaison of the Borinquen Writing Project, was given a leadership award in Puerto Rico, and I celebrated along with him. Plus, I would never want to miss a single poem or musing by David Pulling, of the Acadiana Writing Project, whose writing and sharing from his wonderfully named blog I Write, Therefore I Am creates an immediate sense of place and voice that is such a joy to read. Knowing David and his rich Louisiana accent and dialect enriches my reading of his online work.
Connected to a Bigger Network
The kind of "reading" of blogs that I did which led me to the Darfur project—sometimes called "hyper-reading" or "social media literacy"—is becoming more common among young learners, and it may be an emerging skill of the information age. It's termed "hyper-reading" because reading a stream of online text often forces the viewer to move through hyperlinks. The reader may never return to the original document—it can be an unsettling experience for some of us who are used to sustained reading of one text.
"Social media literacy" refers to the ways in which bloggers connect and stay informed of each others' work. One blogger, Chris Heuer , suggests that RSS could be "the fourth "R" in our conception of literacy , noting that RSS-based social media literacy "enables any individual to step into the conversational flow—to not only follow what other people are communicating, but ensure what the individual has to communicate is heard by other people who care about the topic."
It is, of course, possible for an RSS network to remain as insular as a network that one creates in physical space. But like in real life, sometimes one idea leads to another, and connections are made where they weren't apparent at first. Hyperlinks in one blog post move a reader to other posts, and suddenly the reader can follow many sides of a conversation or debate. This is the associative power of the hyperlinked world.
It takes time to build such a network of blogs, of course, and most of us begin with the familiar. As with any media, I find, the greater the variety of sources I read, the better informed I become as a reader and educator.
These RSS feeds, collected in my reader, connect me to a bigger network. They complement the connections we tech liaisons make at the Annual Meetings and ease that feeling of loss that almost always comes when we board the planes to go home. And they enrich my work—and the work of my students—in the classroom.