Sixth grade ELA teacher, Tim Clifford, has been learning by doing, investing time in exploring technology and monitoring how it really works with kids.Tim's focus on the wiki has delighted and impressed his colleagues by the way it can be organized, invite rich student expression, and be incredibly accessible. His wiki is a user-friendly tool for colleagues and students alike. In one way he uses the wiki as a "container," something to house all his resources, his mini lessons, his materials to model and teach by example -- available to both students and teachers. In another way, he has implemented a motivating tool for purposeful student discussion through writing and a sense of community in a friendly place where ideas are appreciated.
Wikis, My Sixth Graders, and Me
Where do your students look when they first enter your classroom? Do they check out the ‘Do Now’, see what’s new on the word wall, or immediately scan the chalk board for the homework? Most of my students still do those things, but on Mondays, they have a new routine. Most of them cast their first glance at a 2’ x3’ white board that I’ve placed in the front of the room, upon which I write the Discussion Question of the Week that will be posted online that evening.
My discussion questions came about as an unintended consequence result of my involvement with wikis. Each of my sixth grade ELA classes has its own wiki, and every student in each class has a page on the wiki. As part the first truly digital generation, my students generally love working online. They post their weekly reading and writing logs there, as well as drafts of their portfolio assignments. Their favorite feature, however, is the discussion boards.
My use of the boards sprang from a classroom discussion of our year-long theme of the hero’s journey. We were discussing our favorite superheroes, and the debate about which hero was the most super generated great interest—so great, in fact, that the discussion was raging on as the bell rang for dismissal. Almost as an afterthought, I told the class they could continue the discussion on their wiki. I would post the question “Who is your favorite movie hero or super hero?” and they could respond that night if they wished. Before long, the question garnered 86 responses and 632 page views. Students debated the relative merits of Superman vs. Batman vs. Wonder Woman and beyond.
Before long, students asked me for a new topic. I didn’t have one, so I asked them to post their own suggestions for topics, and 363 replies later, we had a wealth of new ideas from which to choose. We started with the question “What is your favorite word?” I kicked off the discussion by sharing that my favorite word is “nerd” because it was coined by Dr. Seuss and because I am one. Here are some of the replies I got:
“My favorite word is daydream. When I say daydream in my head, it sounds like a flowing word. Dayyyyydreammmm.....”
“My favorite word is ecstatic. It makes me feel alive, jumpy, and hyper. What do you know? Those are my favorite thing to be.”
“My favorite word is nightshade. It kinda sounds evil and it's a poisonous plant. A single berry is deadly.”
Since then, we’ve digitally discussed students’ favorite villains, the merits of our class novel, and whether students prefer reading or writing. I believe my kids have benefited greatly from their weekly discussion questions. They participate with a passion that they are often reluctant to display in class. Often, the shyest students are the most gregarious behind the keyboard.
While there are stumbling blocks to using discussion boards, such as getting students to abandon Internet acronyms and to write in proper English, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. Students learn to engage in organized discussions and to justify their opinions. Even their online peer editing has benefited from awareness of the need for clarity in commenting on their classmates’ work.
It may seem odd that a 2’ x 3’ white board in my classroom has opened the door to much richer conversations, but it has. Discussion forums give kids a voice and the Internet gives them an audience. It can be a powerful combination for student learning.