I have a love–hate relationship with workshops. I love them because when I walk out, I am filled with creative ideas about how to become a better, more effective teacher. I hate them because too often I find that I don't have the time to successfully integrate the strategies I have learned. So when my middle school asked the language arts teachers to attend a workshop on the use of Web 2.0, I had mixed feelings. Nevertheless, the presentation was inspiring, and I left determined to create my own wiki.
Meeting Students Where They Live
The first homework assignment was simple: Log on to the wiki, read a poem, and answer an essay question. As an afterthought, I asked students to respond to at least one other student's essay. I have about 25 students in each class, so it was reasonable to expect 50 replies. The next morning I was shocked to discover 472 replies from a single class! Many of these replies lacked attention to grammar, but buried beneath the Internet slang were interesting thoughts and ideas.
For a long time I've tried to make my poetry discussions more student directed, and this assignment accomplished that. The students literally directed me where to go on the wiki. Sometimes I even sat down as a student took control of the laptop and led the class to the best essays and most interesting discussion threads.
By meeting the kids where they live—online—I got them to invest in ways I never could have with a traditional homework assignment. In turn, they were more willing to participate in the classroom discussions that followed.
A Community of Writers
The first essay students posted on the wiki was a response to Carl Sandburg's poem "Grass." One student, perhaps taking a cue from Sandburg, wrote an essay that was as short as the poem. Given everything I'd taught students about writing, this two-sentence essay was a depressing sight. Feedback from students started pouring in via the wiki's threaded discussion. The comments were concise but blunt. One student wrote: "Your essay is all buns and no meat."
After absorbing the replies, the student rewrote her essay that same night. She reposted it and then received another barrage of feedback. She revised her essay a third time. The end result was not a spectacular essay, but it was a vast improvement on her first attempt. The amazing part is, I didn't do a thing. The community of writers did all the work.
If we'd done the unit the traditional way, this student would have handed in her two-sentence essay. It would have taken me anywhere from four to six days to grade it. By the time I handed back her essay, my comments would have been almost meaningless. Instead, this student got instant feedback and was able revise her essay in real time thanks to the collective knowledge of her peers.
Time for a Change
One morning before school, I had a terrible realization. I'd forgotten to post four pages on the wiki. Without these pages, the students had no place to submit their free-verse poems. Best case scenario: The students would write their poems and post them on random pages throughout the wiki. Worst case scenario: Students would not post them at all.
I dragged myself to school that morning knowing that the day's lesson was ruined. Once I logged on to the wiki, however, I found that the pages were already there. I was perplexed. I certainly did not create them. When my class arrived that morning, I discovered that one of my students, recognizing that I'd neglected to post the pages, created them for me. I had never shown this student how to create pages; she simply figured it out.
The wiki empowered one student to help a hundred others get their homework done. How often does that happen?
Finding Their Voices
Every class has a certain number of students who are reluctant to participate. Over the years, I've tried a variety of tricks. I've given grades for class participation, I've provided self-evaluations, I have even offered candy incentives. The results have been mixed.
The real surprise working with the wiki was that the reluctant participants flourished online. One student wrote her free-verse poem and then wrote 25 personalized replies to her classmates. In school, she never raised her hand. Online she found her voice. And for once, this soft-spoken student did not have her words drowned out by her louder classmates. In cyberspace, everyone's voice carries equal weight.
Teaching the Teacher
Two weeks into my poetry unit, a student informed me that my wiki was ugly. Her statement was honest, frank, and sadly, true. After looking at other wikis online, I found mine lacking in the pizzazz department. I offered the job of remodeling my wiki to a few students, and they eagerly took on the task. They quickly executed a makeover. I was so impressed with the transformation, I insisted that they teach me the techniques they used.
In this situation, the normal dynamics of the classroom were reversed: The students taught, and the teacher learned. What's important, however, was that everyone took greater ownership of the final product.
When I think back to the workshop I attended, I am so glad I took the time to put the skills to use. There was an initial investment in time to construct the wiki, but once it was up and running, it actually saved time. Because the wiki is a collaborative tool, the students do more and the teacher does less. Now that's an equation any overworked teacher can get behind.
Sometimes I get to the end of the year and I wonder: How much have my students learned? What was refreshing about the wiki was that I would often see my advice about writing reflected in students' responses to each other. They were learning, and, when given the chance, they were willing to teach each other.
The job of teaching certainly isn't getting any easier, but with Web 2.0 technology, perhaps some of the burden can be shifted from teacher to student. So I say, let the kids do the work. We may find that they learn more as a result.
—Joseph Lawlor, MEd, is a sixth grade language arts teacher in Westwood, Massachusetts. He is a team leader and editor of the school's newspaper, and he enjoys finding creative ways to use technology to enhance learning and community.