Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Creating a Community of Learners

When Miguel Guhlin isn't spearheading groundbreaking technology-in-the-classroom initiatives as Director of Instructional Technology Services for the San Antonio, Texas, school system, he publishes his views on 21st century learning on his respected blog, Around the Corner, read by thousands of educators around the world. We caught up with Miguel for a provocative, and inspiring, discussion.

VT: What is the debate right now around student blogging?

Miguel: I think many educators are struggling with this. The issue is, we don't really know how far student blogging is going to go. I think it's important that we have that discussion out in public.

VT: Why?

Miguel: School districts and the way that they are organized aren't prepared to handle read/write web technologies in schools. But teachers, very creative teachers -- excited teachers -- want to use these tools with their students because they see the power of engagement and its ability to hook kids and get them involved. In the places that it's happening, we immediately see student engagement. It may not, necessarily, further curriculum ends. But it's going to foster authentic learning, relevant learning.

I think, actually, that we all need to become content producers, people that aren't just consumers of information but also people that can work that information, give it a personal spin and then put it back out there. That personal spin is what really makes us unique as human beings. We need to engage students in writing as well as in working with digital media.

VT: How?

Miguel: We have to change the tools that we're using. Right now, the tools are still a pencil and a piece of paper. That's not enough. We don't want to just produce text-dominant students. We want students that can be digital storytellers, who can combine all the medias, such as still images, photos, and video. Look at what's happening with You Tube, which, by the way, is still outlawed and probably with good reason in schools. Kids are putting their stuff out there. They're becoming content producers. It's an explosion of creativity. When a twelve-year-old kid can edit his own little movie, I mean it's remarkable, isn't it? But this is happening outside of schools and I feel like school districts are being left behind while the rest of the world moves on.

VT: How do you overcome this?

Miguel: We piloted the use of blogs to support writing in several of our schools. At one of the campuses, it really took off. The reason it took off is that the teacher wasn't interested necessarily in reading, writing and publishing, those kinds of things. He was interested in the kids keeping a garden. He actually has a garden, a greenhouse.

It was fascinating to hear the kids talking about what they were doing in that greenhouse. They started writing about their experiences with plants and also wanted to add pictures. That blew away the idea that blogs are just personal diaries. This project really resonated in our school district and helped further the blogging initiative.

VT: What happened with pictures?

Miguel: One of the neat things that happened was that one of the kids decided not to draw it the same way as the other students, who were using regular pencils. This kid decided to use color pencils. Once the other kids saw these drawings, they immediately started doing all of their pictures using colored pencils, too. I think it was at that moment that they became aware of each other's work.

VT: Why is that significant?

Miguel: In classrooms, in traditional classrooms, students are really working for one person. They're working for the teacher, the overseer. They trust the teacher and trust their parents who put them in the teacher's classroom to learn whatever it is they need to learn.

But the students keeping the garden are now working together and drawing pictures in colored pencils that they're putting online. They have created a community of users. How powerful is that? Do you think these students aren't going to be excited about writing, publishing and sharing their ideas? Reading everything the kids are doing, it's as if they've just taken off by themselves.

I would bet this is the experience of most teachers who bring these kinds of read-write technologies to the classroom, empowering their students to share ideas and publish. Imagine if we had more of this level of creativity?

VT: What would happen?

Miguel: If you choose to become a content producer then you're choosing not only to be familiar with the accepted forms. You're also choosing to be willing to experiment and play with those forms. I think that's what's missing in a lot of our schools. We're rushing to mass produce students with a factory approach. Think about "No Child Left Behind." We're focused on giving our children formulated approaches. Will everyone be able to become a content producer or only a select elite? I think the answer is that if we provide the opportunities for everyone, they'll be content producers, regardless of the schools that they go to.

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Comments from our users:

Sunday December 24th 2006, 5:06 AM
Comment by: Raju Kalampuram
I appreciate these comments from Miguel Guhlin since I personally think it is more important for the kids to have an opportunity to excel in whatever their field of interest is.

Making them invlove in content producing is one way of enhancing their imaginative powers!
Monday December 25th 2006, 11:56 AM
Comment by: Dan N.
The idea that anyone may become a content producer is a necessary one, since we're now overloaded with information and have not enough time for processing them. Miguel is going ten steps ahead, when he urges that we may not only produce content by text, but also by pictures, videos .... I would add other means like audio, animation and interactive media to create a far more engaging mood.

To achieve the media extension one has to learn digital techniques which are now available on the net. One can start by Self-Learning that will be soon complemented by a Learning community where ideas, experiences and guides are shared.
Wednesday August 1st 2007, 10:43 AM
Comment by: Arlene M.
What a great way to get children excited about writing and telling their point-of-view. It is difficult to get first graders excited about writing; however, if teachers ask students to write about their experience with a project (garden, classroom pet, field trip, photo's or science or history project) student's should look forward to sharing their writing.

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