Making a Change: From Wikis to Social Networking in ENG 315

For the first time in five years, I am starting an ENG 315 course without using a wiki and, instead, will be relying on Edmodo as the primary space for communicating with my students. This is a big pedagogical shift for me, one that (to be honest) invoked a little bit of healthy anxiety when I started teaching a few weeks ago.

Healthy anxiety is good for me as an educator, and since I want to use Edmodo (or educational social networking tools) in smart, creative ways — as well as think carefully about why I have made the shift away from the wiki — I am capturing some of my thinking here.

Wiki Teaching

ENG 315 Wiki Screen Shot
ENG 315 Wiki Screen Shot

My ENG 315 wiki has served many purposes including weekly agendas and assignments, writer’s profile pages, and discussion forums. I appreciate the flexibility that the wiki allows, inviting students to create, share, and comment on work. Also, I encourage students to go back and look at the work submitted in earlier semesters, including a gallery of exceptional work. I would use the wiki to take notes in class, invite responses to discussion prompts, and serve as a space to organize links and other resources. They are able to create links to their Google Docs, but that sometimes works and sometimes (when they forget to make the Docs public) doesn’t work.

The main downfall of the wiki — despite the amount of time that I spend in class to show students how to create new pages, upload files, and find information that I have posted — is that students (at least a few) report that they get “lost” on the wiki. In short, they don’t really know how the architecture of the site works, and they sometimes write over the pages and files of other students, let alone just having trouble getting things posted in the first place. Now, granted, these concerns are usually allayed by the end of the semester, but the general feelings of angst at the beginning of the semester still haunt some of our activities, and I hear about it in my evaluations. They like the wiki, and the integration of technology, but I get the feeling that things could be better.

Switching to Social Networking

ENG 315 Edmodo Screen Shot
ENG 315 Edmodo Screen Shot

So, this past summer I have been thinking quite a bit about how social networks, specifically Edmodo could work as a new pedagogical space. In particular, because it has a mobile app and we can integrate files from other web sources (namely, Google Docs) with ease, I wanted to give it a try. Of course, there is the whole “it looks like FB” approach, and that is something that my students noticed right away as we began last night. Also, their requirements as a part of their teacher ed program have shifted so that they are putting a portfolio online using Mahara, and I think that they could make a link to that easily, too.

I am a bit hesitant, however, because I don’t want to be seen as simply jumping on the social networking bandwagon, nor do I want to give up the viable collaborative features of the wiki so easily. I do worry that the scrolling home screen, with posts disappearing, could cause some difficulty in trying to keep things organized. But, I also think that I will be able to see student work laid out more efficiently by clicking on their name, knowing that they will have attached assignments from their own library to the posts (rather than potentially forgetting links or writing over other files on the wiki). Also, I think that they will be able to share their writing, especially their field notes, in a space that is more comfortable which will, I hope, prompt them to read and respond to one another’s work.

Questions Remaining

So, as I go into this mini teacher-research experiment, I wonder:

  • Will the switch from wikis to social networking have a positive effect on my students’ sense of themselves as technology users?
  • Given my initial nervousness and limited understanding of the Edmodo interface, will I be able to do everything that I have done in the past with wikis in a similar, or at least compatible, manner?
  • Will students feel as invested in creating and maintaining their own “writer’s profile” given that it won’t be as accessible in Edmodo as it is on the wiki (or, at least not as accessible as I imagine it could be)?
  • Will the social network provide more “authentic” opportunities for reading and responding to one another’s work, or will it still be seen as “school” space, only to be used for purposes of class?

Anyone else using Edmodo? Got some tips? Pitfalls to avoid?

Let me know what you are thinking and I will keep coming back to this topic over the course of the semester.

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Service Learning and Teaching Writing (AERA, Part 2)

One of the considerations that I am keeping in mind as we re-imagine the midtier field placement for ENG 315 is to wonder if and how we could conceive of it, at least in part, as an opportunity for service learning. While it is critically important that our students spend time in elementary and middle school classrooms — and that they observe writing workshop instruction in those classrooms — it is also quite important that they have time and space to talk and work with writers. One of the best ways that I can think of doing that is to set up an out-of-school or after-school space for students, from struggling writers to very proficient ones, to share their thoughts and ideas with our undergraduate pre-service teachers.

The more formalized space of a writing workshop is, even in the “best” of classrooms, a place where teachers and students adhere to a set of norms about writing. Even in the most “authentic” of writing workshops, where students are given choice and inquiry drives instruction, the students are not generally the ones who are really in charge of their own literacy learning. With the many scripted curricula that exist for writing instruction, teachers are still leading/guiding/forcing students through units of study that are contrived for specific, “schooly” genres.

What I imagine is a space more like 826, a space where our pre-service teachers have some flexibility and ability to change their approaches to working with and for students. Some of the panelists described this with the notion of “third space,” and Guiterrez followed up with a discussion of many related ideas. It is within these spaces that, I believe, our pre-service students could work, writing center-like, not only as novice teachers, but also as peer consultants, adopting the persona that invites inquiry and exploration. Here are a series of summarizing tweets that I recorded during her discussion, in reverse chronological order:

Troy HicksTroy Hicks ? @hickstro

Kris Guiterreez: is a community better off for us having been there (as teachers and teacher educators)? #AERA2012

Kris Guiterreez: repertoire of practice, inter subjectivity, zone of prox dev, mediated praxis, teaching organized for the future. #AERA2012

Kris Guiterreez: Reject binaries; prior knowledge not only from one place to another, instead there is negotiation/hybridization.#AERA2012

Kris Guiterreez: Contradictions become the engines of change, a space for sense-making and examining our assumptions.#AERA2012

Kris Gutierrez: ecologically valid, race-sensitive, equity-oriented, transformational, grounded in particularities of communities.#AERA2012

Kris Gutierrez: How do we develop a new “pedagogical imagination,” remediate activity, involve multiple activity systems…#AERA2012

How can we design creative, collaborative spaces for students, pre-service, and in-service teachers to learn literacy together?#AERA2012

Novice teachers as students and organizers of learning, especially n out-of-school and after school settings. #AERA2012

Narrative as a way to make sense of pedagogy/theoretical ideas. How are pre-service teachers socialized to talk about teaching?#AERA2012

How does a strategically designed experience for undergrads in a K12 university partnership affect their views of literacy? #AERA2012#nwp

Listening to discussion on university/community partnerships#AERA2012 Thinking about implications for ENG 315 and @chippewariverwp #nwp

How we might design such a program, I am not sure. I would have to imagine that we would use the space of the school, although I would prefer that we didn’t. Instead, I would imagine a “collaboratory”  type of space, yet how to get the many students from various schools into that space would be difficult, at best and could not fall on the shoulders of our pre-service teachers. Transportation and other issues would hinder this, too, so I need to think more about what the possibilities are and could be, let along if my colleagues would go along with the idea as a parallel or even alternative experience.

That said, I am still inspired by visions such as those provided by 826, and I wonder what we might be able to do at CMU to capture some of the service learning ideals expressed in this session.

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Webinar with ENG 315

ENG 315 Logo

Earlier this evening, I spent my ENG 315 class time for the night teaching via webinar rather than in a F2F session.

Using CMU’s access to Wimba, I invited my students to post three slides related to their experience attending a conference or otherwise engaging in personalized professional development this semester. Also, we back-channeled in a public Google Doc.

The assignment was straightforward enough, asking them to attend six hours of PD and then to write a professional response that describes their experience at a professional conference or workshop, integrating what you learned from a presenter who talked about teaching writing with principles from ENG 315.

The results, I felt, turned out to be pretty good. Minus some technical hurdles and the fact that our class time stretch to about two and a half hours (which is what we normally meet F2F, although I had promised an early finish tonight), the results from a final survey were good. Here are the overall results:

Survey Results

There were some negative responses to this activity, including the amount of time it took and the fact that many of my students admitted to falling into the temptation of being online and got distracted. That said, there were some positives, too. I asked “What is one positive aspect of participating in the webinar, in terms of the content, working with your peers online, or your experience presenting?”

  • Cool to work online, never done this before
  • I really enjoyed the way we could share powerpoints and so much information in the webinar.I liked seeing the slides of everyone’s professional development.
  • I think it made sharing documents and direct information much easier. It was also nice to hear about the experiences of everyone because it is nice to compare and contrast experiences we have had throughout the semester
  • I think this was a great experience.  I have never done anything like this before.
  • Although I enjoyed it, it was hard for me to sit here this whole time without getting fidgety.
  • The content is all digital. I like that i can go back and look at everything if i need to or want to.
  • It wasnt a presentation that you do and then is gone forever.
  • it takes the stress and nerves off of presenting in front of the class
  • I think a positive aspect to the webinar was just the practice of having an online experience such as this. It is nice to be able to see the links while we are taking turns talking and be able to return to the information later
  • i really like the presentation aspect, i wasn’t nervous to present opposed to in the classroom where i normally experience anxiety.
  • One positive aspect was that everybody got a chance to talk about their experience. Learning a new technology tool was a positive aspect and it was a nice alternative to having class so close to a break. It relieved some of the pressure of presenting in front of the class and I  liked that.
  • I enjoyed being able to have a side conversation or make comments in the conversation box during the presentation for educational purposes. I also liked sharing slides this way.
  • You can do it from anywhere so great idea with Thanksgiving coming up!
  • I think it was an interesting way to incorporate technology and it was cool to use wimba.
So, in general, they found it to be a positive experience. I did too, and I have shared the video (all 2.5 hours of it!) here on Vimeo if you are curious to see how some of it progressed.

ENG 315 Professional Development Reflection Webinar from Chippewa River Writing Project on Vimeo.

Wow… two blog posts in one day. I think I have reached my quota for the month.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

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Wikispaces announces free wikis for higher ed

For those of you who know my teaching and writing, you know that I am a fan of wikis, in particular of Wikispaces.

From my ENG 315 course to the Chippewa River Writing Project, from my own wiki full of digital writing resources to the wiki for my book, I use their wikis all the times for presentations, workshops, and teaching.

Along with having created a user-friendly and robust product with their wikis, the team at Wikispaces has always been responsive to the needs of teachers, including their free K-12 wikis that now number over 400K. This is not meant to be a straight up product endorsement. Instead, I honestly believe that the team at Wikispaces is working to support K-12 educators in all the ways that they can not just by offering free space, but by offering the time (through email support) and resources to make their wikis pedagogically useful, too.

So, when Sarah from Wikispaces asked me to share a new plan that they will announce next week — free Wikispaces for higher education — I was honored to post the announcement here.  Details of the plan, described by her, include:

  • Our wikis for education are completely private, have no advertising on them, are fully featured, and never expire. And teachers are welcome to sign up for as many of them as they like.
  • The features included in our education wikis usually cost $50 per year — but are completely free when used for K-12 or higher education.
  • We have given away over 980,000 free wikis for education so far, and are committed to giving away at least 2,000,000 in total.
Want more details? Check out this press release (Wikispaces Higher Ed Blog Announcement 2011-02) and watch next week on the Wikispaces blog. Thank you, Wikispaces, for your continued support of K-12 and higher education.

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End of Semester Thoughts: Digital Storytelling, Wikis, and the Changing Conversation

Another semester has zoomed past and, before these thoughts escape me, and I begin a series of summer workshops and our CRWP summer institute, I am going to try to capture a few of the lessons learned in relation to digital writing and digital teaching. Good lessons seem to come in threes, so here goes:

1. Digital storytelling takes time, and a story to tell (larger lesson: any digital writing takes time, and a distinct audience, purpose, and sensibility to craft and design)

I enjoy digital storytelling, both as a digital writer and as a teacher. I appreciate the ways in which a combination of images, sounds, music, and video — coupled with one’s own voice — can create a multimedia work that is truly more than the sum of its parts. Moreover, I continue to be intrigued by new understandings related to fair use of digital media, and the implications that this has for creating digital stories. So, when I introduce digital storytelling to any group, especially my pre-service teachers, I get excited about the possibilities of what can come.

That said, I also get worried, because sometimes what comes when their stories finally premier are not really digital stories in the sense that they have crafted a narrative and supported it with multimedia. Instead, they are slideshows set to music. While one could argue that I am being snooty in this distinction, I don’t think that I am. Let me elaborate a bit.

If we want writers to compose stories, then we have to expect them to begin with the story. I am not sure where I went wrong with this over the past semester, but as I watched the numerous digital stories that my students produced for their final portfolio, I was amazed by the fact that so few included their own voice (literally, by recording it) even after they asked me if they needed to do that. Also, even after we looked at a few digital stories and talked about the ways the authors used transitions and effects, as well as supporting their tale with music rather than letting the music tell it, I still saw many, many slideshows with music.

So, I am not sure what else to say about this right now except to say that I need to reiterate the idea that digital stories need to, well, tell a story. In your voice. With your voice. More to think about with that in the summer institute.

2. Wikis are the most functional space for digital writing to live

After talking with my friend Steve before the semester about how and why to keep using wikis (after almost making an ill-fated decision to switch to Ning), I am more pleased than ever that I use a wiki for the hub of activity in both ENG 315 and in CRWP.

This semester, I asked my ENG 315 students to post almost all their work to the wiki, as well as to respond to the work of their peers. This really extended the conversations that we were having in class and made having a writer’s profile that much more important because they could link all their work back to it to form a makeshift portfolio. As many of them have continued with their work over the semester, the wiki grew and grew. Now, most have very robust writing profiles that also include their multigenre projects.

I like the idea of calling these writers profiles, as that implies something that will continue to grow and change over time whereas, somehow, “portfolio” seems to be more fixed. Given the ways in which the profiles worked this spring, I hope to use the same strategy in CRWP this summer, the WRITE NOW grant workshop in August, and in my ENG 618 research methods class in the fall.

3. Something is changing in the conversations about literacy and technology

I am really not sure when and how this happened, but Sara and I were talking about the fact that, in the past year or two, the ways in which people talk about technology and education seems to have changed. Even as recently as the workshops I was doing for PROJECT WRITE in 2007-8, it seemed as though participants kept asking “why?” when a new technology was introduced to them (and these were people that volunteered to be a part of the grant). That said, it really seems to me that in the past two years, the question has shifted from “why?” to “how?”

In other words, there really isn’t a lot of time spent on arguing for technology use in education anymore, at least not when I go to a school or conference. Maybe it is because many people have laptops and internet-ready mobile phones. Maybe it is because of a backlash to NCLB. Maybe it is because of the many curriculum documents and reports about 21st century literacies. Probably some combination of all of this, plus a shift in the skills and attitudes that children now bring to school.

All the same, I have begun to find it refreshing that I can start the conversation with a group of pre-service or in-service teachers now and not have to justify technology use so much as I need to talk about the literacy practices enabled by technology. I get my first chance of the summer to have that talk tomorrow with teachers in Littleton, CO, as they work to integrate laptops into their writing courses.

So, considering my approach to digital storytelling, the use of wikis, and the ways in which we talk about technology will continue to be on my mind this summer. I look forward to the continued learning as I participate in the many upcoming PD events I have scheduled for the summer and hope to share more of my thinking here.

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Notes from Alfie Kohn’s Talk at CMU

Alfie Kohn, an outspoken critic of traditional schooling and standardized testing, spoke at CMU on Wednesday, March 17, 2010. Here are some notes I captured from his talk, “Overhauling the Transmission Model: An overview of traditional versus progressive teaching”

  • You may know if you have been a student or teacher that learning is not simply a process of absorbing information throw at you, but if that is true then it makes sense for this presentation to not be about me just talking at you
  • What I am going to describe for you is a first grade classroom in New England, where kids were studying the Mayflower, and the kids showed up to see that the chairs and tables were pushed to the edge of the room and the floor had an outline of a ship made in masking tape.
    • A classmate comes in and unrolls a scroll from the king — we cannot sail on the ship until we know how big it is. Teacher asks — any ideas for how to figure this out? Figuring out how tall a student is, using him as a measure, then with hands, etc. The king doesn’t know how long the child, the hands, etc are.
    • They don’t get it that day, but they return to it the next day… measure it with the classmate’s feet… he knows the king!
    • Finally, on the third day, the teacher finally introduces the concept of standard units of measurement, and gives them rulers.
    • What distinguishes this lesson, makes it unusual?
      • She took three days to let the students discover this concept; “covering” material makes you feel that you don’t have enough time — this is about “discovering” material
      • There was a rationale, not just “open wide” and here come the facts
      • Basis for life-long learning and problem solving
      • It was connected and inter-disciplinary
      • It was generative and collaborative
      • Invited the children to use their imaginations
      • Both hands-on and minds-on — they were inventing the idea of a ruler and figuring out standard units of measure
  • How might we find teaching and learning more generative if we were involved in these types of classrooms?
  • Middle school example — what questions do you have about yourself? What questions do you have about the world?
    • Looking at questions together to develop themes, then the teacher takes themes from each of the groups and to synthesize what students are saying to look at some overarching themes to intrigue them all. Examples: conflict and war, the future, etc. This becomes the overarching curriculum for the entire school for the entire year. Teachers in this school see them as generalists first, then content area specialists second.
    • The teaching is organized around questions that the kids themselves have asked. The students themselves become scholars, far more engaged in what they are doing than in traditional school settings.
  • High school example — Harvey Daniels and Best Practice High School, Chicago
    • Cross-disciplinary unit on fast food and how it connects to health, economics, popular culture, etc.
    • Read Fast Food Nation and connected it to content in biology related to nutrition, digestion, etc.
    • Students then chose from magazine articles about the fast food industry — animal cruelty, locations of fast food in low-income neighborhoods, etc.
    • Went to restaurants and kept anthropological observation journals of patrons and employees
    • Some became activists around the issue
    • Did they test at the end? No… they kept portfolios of letters, pamphlets, and other materials that they created
  • What can we do in classrooms to make this happen?
  • Setting up a false dichotomy… but one to use as a way to compare/contrast…
    • Traditional — skill and drill (although, “traditional” models in the sense of being “old” is multiage learning and apprenticeship models)
    • A new, progressive way… as exemplified by the examples I offered
      • Differences:
        • Traditional — the purpose is to get the “right” answer and spit it out on demand to the teacher who has all the power and will determine who talks when (the point is not to have an intellectual conversation, but to give the one answer that the teacher wants, the one that she is fishing for)
          • What to Look for in a Classroom (from
          • I want to see stuff from the kids on the walls… but what does it look like? I don’t want all the pumpkins on the wall in a kindergarten room to look the same.
          • How to teach kids to read — a teacher thinking about phonics may look at the phonemes, the progressive teacher will focus on meaning
          • Standardized tests measure what we need least; efforts to improve tests scores lead to less authentic learning
          • Mom asks “what did you do in school today?” Kid answers, “nothing.” He is probably right — he may have had a lot done to him.
        • Old school — bunch of facts and skills. Worksheets to learn how to add, but not applying it.
          • Progressive school — facts and skills are taught in a context.
          • It is easier, not just more interesting, to make sense of this if there is a context… “I think that I could read this if I knew what it was about.”
        • Traditional — no good reason for learning
        • Progressive — create a lesson with and for your students that will engage them
  • When I talk about this in terms of context, problem-based learning, etc… I am referring to the idea that teachers have a collection of facts to but into students’ heads ala Dewey, Freire
    • When the kids have nothing to say about the course, the curriculum… consider the “ten year” question. What is left of your course after a decade has passed? We are creating elaborate snow structures on the last day before spring… it drains right out again if we are not helping students learn in real ways. We are meaning-makers, and we work from a constructivist approach. The best learning is a process of reconstructing ideas.
    • When people talk about making things more “rigorous,” we should be worried about that…
    • We often think that AP courses are the best courses in the high school because they are “accelerated”
    • It almost always works out that when we are trying to “raise the bar” and “close the gap,” we have kids who are poor who are being given more drill and skill while the rich kids are doing more real learning.
  • Last effect of traditional education is the loss of curiosity
    • As kids move into school, their intrinsic motivation dies off as a response to traditional instruction
  • Final question — if everything I have said is true, especially if progressive schools are proven by research to be effective, then why is the traditional approach still so common?
    • It is difficult to do well
    • Not given training in college
    • We teach how we are taught
    • “Any idiot can stay one chapter ahead of the kids”
    • Top down leadership; lack of autonomy
  • Q/A
    • Books: effects of grading, negative effects of homework, negatives of standardized tests, bribes and threats of disciplines
    • Check out Diane Ravitch‘s “Death and Life of the Great American School
    • Question to ask at schools — How do you hope these kids will turn out? Happiness, problem-solving, ethics — these are the things that we care about in the long run and these are the criteria we should set as “standards”
    • Ted Sizer‘s work on the Coalition of Essential Schools
    • The teachers who were glad to have me didn’t need me; the ones who didn’t want to talk fit the model of traditional education


Alfie Kohn certainly stays on message, despite his “digressions.” I first started reading him over a decade ago, saw him speak about five years ago, and have been influenced by his ideas in many ways. There are some points that I disagree on, especially the idea that assessment is — in and of itself — an almost evil force, because I think that we can do assessment in responsible ways that help kids learn and help teachers teach. But, overall, he reiterates the negative data (and anecdotes) about testing, grading, skill and drill teaching, and awards for kids that he has been discussing for years. As I think about writing instruction, especially in an age of technology, I think that we can take some of these ideas and look at how a writing workshop approach can foster student learning in a constructivist manner, one that values the context in which students work and the authentic inquiry that they choose to pursue.

I think, too, that we have to recognize the overwhelming forces that teachers face — it is not just about individual choices inside our own classrooms, although that is important; it is about the structural aspects of schooling and the expectations of our society that place particular demands on schools, teachers, and students. At the end, he began to talk about the socio-economic and political influences on our system of education, and I think that we really need to talk more about these influences because they permeate our classrooms. Teachers can be progressive within their four walls, or their school, but that is not going to create substantive change in the system. It is a start, indeed, but will not change the entire system.

At any rate, I know that many of my CMU students were in the audience, and my sincere hope is that they have gained some insights into some of the perspectives that I bring to ENG 315. I try to alleviate the pressures of grading and invite them to think critically and creatively about what they can do as writers and teachers of writing. I ask them to do authentic writing, both personally and professionally, and I do not rely on tests in any way. Instead, I ask them to write in different genres, for different purposes, and to different audiences. As one student said in class the other night, “This is a lot of work.” Indeed, it is. And, I know that it is overwhelming and that my class doesn’t meet the expectations that they have of what a college course, or a methods course, should look like. Yet, I think that it is valuable work, and I hope that it will encourage them as writers and teachers of writing to be a little more, as Kohn would suggest, “progressive” in their own classrooms.

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Quick Quote in MEA Voice

Just today, a colleague of mine was telling me that I need to be better at self-promotion. So, here goes…

Future teachers (college students now) use blogs and wikis to share their own writing—so they can someday help their own students do the same.

“Teachers are teaching the digital generation,” explained Troy Hicks, assistant professor of English Language and Literature at Central Michigan University, where he instructs preservice teachers.

(MEA Voice, February 2009, p. 10)

Earlier this year, I was interviewed by a reporter for the MEA as a part of their special issue on teaching with technology. The interview was an hour long, and very engaging, so the very short quote here seems to just barely scratch the surface of what we talked about. That said, I am honored to be featured in this publication along with my friend and colleague Dawn Reed.

Given the many conversations that I have had with colleagues over the past few months about the uses of digital writing, and especially with my own pre-service teachers in ENG 315, I am becoming more and more encouraged that this is becoming a part of the discourse in educational circles. For instance, at MRA a few weeks ago, one of the comments about our session on writing across the curriculum was that a participant wished she could have heard more about the digital writing tools I was suggesting in order to support that work.

So, thanks to the MEA for featuring me in their article and to everyone who continues to push technology and writing in new directions. As always, I am enjoying the continuing conversation.