Blogs, Wikis and Nings (oh my!)

and Steve Bergen ...
Last revised 7/24/09

Some Reflections on the Rationale for Connecting with Other Schools

Over the last few years it has become easier and easier to do with technology what many of us as teachers have been wanting to do for years: connect our students in meaningful academic ways with students in others schools. I started teaching in 1973 and from the start tried to find ways to connect my students with the outside world. Back then we wrote penpal letters on paper or invited a professor from a local university to talk to our students or took kids on class trips to visit a studio or a museum.

With the evolution of technology in the 21st century, there are opportunities we have never imagined at our fingertips. Blogs allow students to write and respond to a variety of ideas. Wikis allow student to collaborate on shared documents. A ning is a network you create that resembles an academic version of facebook. In each activity, it is important for teachers to establish relationships first by some combination of e-mail, SKYPE or phone. To some extent, the adults involved become "team teachers" as assignments are proposed, created, modified and evaluated. We all know the stresses involved when two people team-teach a course or even closely coordinate the curriculum and give shared tests and papers. To some extent, these stresses are magnified with online projects because the means and time for connecting with the other individuals is more complicated.

Being a teacher working with students in Harlem, most of whom come from families below the poverty line has added to my professional desire to connect with other schools. The head of my school once said that 90% of our kids never even see the world of Manhattan below 125th street. So when I get my students to write collaborative poems with sixth grade girls from Lincoln School RI, share poems with seventh grade girls from Stoneleigh Burnhan MA or share musical interests with eighth graders from Belgium and Germany, I know that I am implicitly expanding their horizons. As they learn about the personalities, writing styles, geography and names of the other kids, they are learning more about the outside world. Of course this is not the same as the value of travelling and visiting other places, but at least it is a step in that direction.

One more reflection involves the value of these projects for the teachers themselves. Our schools tend to be insular in terms of adults as well as kids. We all get too caught up in the internal politics and personalities of our schools and just liek our kids sometimes do not see the big picture. Most of us who are experienced teachers know the tremendous value of visiting other schools, even when we resist and make excuses about not having enough time to do so. To some extent, online projects with other schools provide us with collegial relationships beyond the boundaries of our schools and are very healthy for teachers. We are reminded one more time that "we don't know if computers are good for students, but they are emphastically good for teachers!"