The following was written in preparation for TESOL 2007 in Seattle: Student weblogging for fluency, skills, and integration. Demonstration, Writing IS, CC 3B, Sat. Mar. 24, 10:30-11:15. It appeared at http://cesl.siuc.edu/teachers/pd/wf5.html until 2010 and was restored here in 2011. The homepage for this presentation now is here.
Integration - into what, exactly?I remember doing computer orientations less than ten years ago when students didn't have e-mail addresses yet, and we'd get them started on hotmail or some such free service, while we waited for their siu address to come through. Within a few years more and more students had e-mail addresses when they arrived, and were eager, once on the web, to check in to those mailboxes and write their friends, sometimes even during the orientation. Then, they'd become impatient if our computers didn't have foreign fonts.
I mention this because now, we have the experience of setting them up on a weblog, creating their own, and they immediately import a picture, or connect their new weblog to their networked site in their own language. Their CESL weblog is not their only one, or even their first, but is possibly one of many, possibly their first in English. So our job is not so much getting them online, getting them used to publishing, or getting them oriented to putting their own writing online; they've already done all of this. It's establishing an online anchor in their new community, a place that can serve as a gateway to the other domains that they function in online.
Our view of community has shifted rapidly, even more so for our students. Today they come thousands of miles to a new home, but don't have to leave much behind, in terms of being able to stay in touch with news from home, or being able to write frequently to friends and loved ones. In such a situation it is even harder to take steps into the new environment, where their language limits them. Their first and most immediate community is their new classmates, in the same position as they are, who have the same problems in adjusting to their new surroundings. No sooner do they set up a weblog, than they start exploring, and looking at others' weblogs.
I have come to view integration into the American student social environment as possibly a mixed blessing. There are many possible outcomes for newly arrived internationals: it is possible for them to be integrated, but into the wrong crowd; or, they could just as easily integrate themselves into a productive, growth-enhancing crowd. Isolation is generally not good, but at the same time can be what some need, and even, in a small rural town like ours, what some have come looking for deliberately. What I'm saying is that it's not always advisable for us to decide what kinds of integration are most beneficial to our students, or how to go about getting them.
It is certain, however, that access to online communities widens their horizons, and makes more English-speaking communities available to them. Given the internet and English reading-writing skills, an international now is able to explore his/her field or interest, get on boards or e-mail listservs addressing issues of that field, and lurk until comfortable enough to contribute; this has made a huge difference in providing a fair view of their futures and the discourse styles that will be expected of them.
And this brings me to another advantage of online presence, and active exploration of online communities: online communication (with the exception of chat) gives the student the distance and the time they often need to consider things before they get involved in them. Assuming their parents are part of their decision process, an active use of online sources of information is very useful in terms of sharing their lives with people back home. Teaching the student how to find relevant sites online, evaluate them and search out comment and criticism related to them can be one of the most useful skills we can impart.
Everybody's in MyFace: the rise of social networkingRecently I've been surprised when low-level students, having made a weblog, immediately went and brought pictures to it. They already knew how to go and grab them and bring them back; they didn't have the English to say, welcome to my weblog, but they were able to do it with a lifted picture. I was impressed. And, shortly after, they'd linked their site to their social network in their native country. This we both allow and encourage, by the way.
Social networks are different from weblogs, in that sites are expected to be visual and social, in that language is expected to be informal, and finally, in that it is expected that everyone in your network wants to know your every move; some, like Facebook, tell you of your friends' every moves, as if you lived in a tiny town where people said things like, "I see Mabel's husband Henry has slipped off to the bar again." On the one hand, people are using technology for what it does best: connecting us with each other better. But again, if we can't move without being seen, some of us will go hide in a corner. I am not likely to rush my class onto one of these, but I'm surprised to see that a number of our students are coming from this environment; they are used to these communities, and even expect to find them in the places they visit and choose to live. In that sense I'm sure they're more connected to the people around them, even when they arrive, than new students used to be. Social networks also alleviate the burden of living thousands of miles from home; students who become homesick during class often rush to the lab; see who's on the IM; see who has just checked in at the social network.
A recent Harris Poll has shown that social networks are the choice of communication for American teens "when staying in touch with friends (24%), leaving short messages (23%), and contacting a friend in different school or town (21%)," beating out cell phones or landline phones (Harris Interactive, 2007, see below). What implications does this have for us and our classes?
First, weblogs, low-tech and unobtrusive as they are in comparison to other technologies now available, actually take us a step into social networkers' worlds, and pull them back, toward more formal speech, toward more static presentation, toward asking permission for photos. Weblogs at least recognize that many may already have an entire life online. And, at the same time, they provide online presentation is and will be an issue for them from now on; that those of us for whom these technologies are new, a controlled way to become accustomed to the changes that are occurring in modes of communication.*
It is most useful here to point out that, like it or not, these networks and environments are already overflowing with our students; our students have likely been here, without ever having been taught how to evaluate or understand what they've seen. It sometimes comes as a shock to them that teachers, generally being of an older generation, might actually go onto the internet, see some of these sights, maybe even have one, but above all value some of the skills they've learned from doing this, and be eager to learn what the place is like from their perspective.
As the world becomes steadily more aware of the internet as a "place," and a dangerous place at that, one where there is a good deal of rudeness and harassment, pornography and sham perpetration, the age-old question arises (one that is often applied to blue-light districts, drugs, or anything else dangerous in this world): should I, as teacher and/or parent, merely prevent the people I am responsible for, from going there? Or is it better to give them some tools and guidance, so that when they do (as inevitably they will), they will be better equipped? One can guess the side I'm on; I've already gone in after them.
Comment cultureComments can be the most seductive element of weblogs, because they offer the browser a free link, simply in return for putting in two cents' worth on any given issue. Once one has made a few posts, dropping comments on others' weblogs, in Blogger at least, drops automatic links to that weblog that then give the commenter attention, wanted or not; assigning comments is essentially assigning students to read each other's weblogs (this could happen) and say something, directed or not, about the content of the entry. I assign comments, but make no demands upon them. As a result I get a veritable free-for-all: a window into not only the pure state of their unmonitored grammar, but also a window into the worlds they come to us from. Many students never actually make these comments, no matter how much or how well I explain how it is to be done. I can only speculate about the reasons for their hesitation; it could very likely be that they are still at this point intimidated by the entire medium, not to mention the absolute responsibility that true unedited freedom of speech entails.
I have seen teachers give assignments in the regular posts of a weblog, and then have students put all contributions in the comments of these posts. In these weblogs, students comment, because the price of not doing it is failure in the class.
Since I have started doing this, though, I've found a number of benefits. The first is that time wins over them, and they begin dropping comments when they have something to say, and saying it. They may start out dutifully doing an assignment, but the opportunity to reach out and communicate is very seductive, and they begin taking advantage of it and using it for real communicative purposes.
We get visitors from being on the carousel; this is the name I give to a circuit that Blogger places our weblogs on, when we actively post to them. One can see the carousel by pressing the "Next Blog" button at the top right of any Blogger blog, but one gets on it simply by having a weblog, posting to it regularly, and not changing the settings to disallow it (the carousel is also censored, but this has never been an issue). One result of this is that our students who do not identify their blogs as displaying student work, or even connect to the class page, no doubt confuse some carousel viewers. But so what? We've gotten some interesting visitors over time; I consider this an advantage of Blogger, in that the carousel audience is constant, diverse, and for the most part polite, friendly, and representative of public culture.
*I've begun to believe that the main reason young people need to be connected all the time (on cell-phones, during class, between classes, etc.), is to stay informed about new technologies that arrive in our world and revolutionize it. Now that you can download entire movies on cell-phones and send them to friends, why not channel-surf while waiting for the bus?
"According to Suzanne Martin, Ph.D., Youth and Education Researcher at Harris Interactive, "Teens utilize different modes of communication in different social contexts"...these are just some of the results of a Harris Interactive YouthQuery omnibus of 1,726 US youth ages 8 through 18, which was conducted online from December 14 to 22, 2006...Not surprisingly, general teen day to day communications occur most over cell phones, social networking websites and landline phones. Cell phones are the number one choice for arranging to meet with friends (36%), having quick conversations (29%), contacting a friend when bored (25%), and inviting people to a party or event (22%). Social networking sites are the choice of communication when staying in touch with friends (24%), leaving short messages (23%), and contacting a friend in different school or town (21%)."
-Harris Interactive, 2007
bibliographyHarris Interactive (2007, Feb. 20). Modern technology has tremendous impact on the way teens communicate, News Room.
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