Sunday, November 2, 2014

Digital Islands

"We read to know we are not alone."   - C.S. Lewis

At the end of last school year, a parent emailed the seventh grade English teacher wanting to know if and how her advanced children would be challenged in eighth grade English, my class. Using a workshop approach for most of my teaching career, I'm used to differentiating instruction to meet the needs of students working at a variety of levels and abilities in my classroom, but the question made me wonder if I was really doing enough for those advanced readers and writers. Are my expectations high enough for them?

After attending a technology convention last spring, I became excited about the idea of cyber book clubs, and after rounding up my most enthusiastic future students and introducing them to the concept, they agreed that this sounded like a great way for them to read and engage in higher level discussions with others who were willing to participate.  They were not interested in doing extra work, but they wanted something to do that would stretch them as learners.  Over the summer, I set up an account on a website called Collaborize Classroom, and tried to figure out how this was going to work.

To make a long story short, a few weeks into the experiment, I felt underwhelmed by its success. I polled the students to determine whether or not their perceptions mirrored my own, and they sort of did. While they enjoyed going to the site to engage in discussion about books by responding to one another's posts, the students were only visiting the website when prompted to do so. What they said was missing was a more in-depth face to face conversation about  books and reading with other thoughtful readers. I had replaced human interaction with digital interaction, and a sense of connectivity with others was lost.

Really, I should have predicted this in the first place. People are frequently more tuned in to their electronic devices than they are to the human beings who are physically present. But given the choice between staring at a smart phone and reading a book or interfacing with their friends, the type of students I am attempting to challenge are much less interested in the electronic device.

With input from the kids, I've gone back to the drawing board to design something more meaningful for them and for me. Sure, we'll keep some sort of a web presence so that students can create a wall for book recommendations. This is what they think is appropriate and helpful. They understand that good readers always have a "next book" list going.  But time for human interaction in reading and writing circles will replace the cyber book club.While I won't get many bonus points on my teacher evaluation for incorporating technology into the classroom with this project, I expect the outcome will make the loss worth it.  We'll keep tweaking it until we get it right. That's what learning is about.