Student Blogs as Thinking Tools

I introduced my senior students (Grade 8s & 9s) to blogging in October. They weren’t exactly warm to the idea–Why can’t we just write a paper? they asked. I was caught off guard by that question. It suggested that the students saw the only reason to write in school was to generate an essay, presumably for evaluation, a sentiment that belies the notion that young people are digital natives.

As it turned out, it took a great deal of work to change that view of writing; so much that I changed my entire term’s plans and objectives to develop the practice of thinking first, writing later.

My students and I have come to see a blog as a place to think out loud. It’s a discussion tool. I rarely specify length for a blog post, preferring to let the students write until they feel they’ve expressed themselves clearly. Their first post were short, to be sure, but I suspect they were checking each other’s commitment to blogging. I know of at least one student who had tossed off a blog post went back and then went back and revised her thoughts once she saw what the rest of the class had written. “Wow, my classmates really think philosophically,” she said. I don’t get the sense she had been embarrassed. Rather, it was the fact that everyone else was publicly working hard  that allowed her to work hard as well. But since those early days, I’ve sen the average post length steadily increase.

Here’s an excerpt from one of my Grade 9s, comment on our study of Alice in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass, Sophie’s World, and Surrealist art. She’s responding to a comment by Flannery O’Connor:

The American writer, Flannery O’Connor” said that distortion is often a way of leading people to see the truth. What do you think she means by that? What truths do the Surrealists want us to see? What truths does Carrol want us to see?

I think that this is all connected to what we define and see as “reality”. Surrealists, Lewis Caroll, philosophers too, have the goal of showing us “many realities”. Or more so, showing us that reality is relative, subjective, and that it’s only a reality for us because it’s so deeply rooted in our everyday life, in what we do and see every day, leading us to being “nestled comfortably in the rabbit’s fur”; it’s comfortable, yes, but reality will never change, never differ for you, unless you climb to the tips of the rabbit’s fine hairs, or as Flannery O’Connor puts it, distort your reality. Surrealism, to me, basically means opening up to – not exactly a “new reality” – but to the fact that there is no such thing as “reality”; just many different ones. The distortion of reality, in the same way that many surrealist paintings make people uncomfortable, and sometimes even scared, is, I feel, another way of pushing past your “reality”. Here’s an example that I feel greatly reflects on what Flannery O’Connor said. Maybe you’ve been living underground for all of your life. It’s comfortable, you’ve created a “nice little home” for yourself, but you’ve never seen or experienced the reality of the outside world. And so one day you climb out of your small home in the ground, the one you’ve so conveniently and safely created for yourself, and enter the outside world. It’s chaotic, hectic, nothing like the warm, comfortable home you’ve always lived in. It makes you scared, uncomfortable; and this is when you either decide to return back to your home or explore this new outside world. And what I think Flannery O’Connor is saying is that the truth, or reality, can be uncomfortable, can scare you at first, but once you push past that discomfort, that feeling that “this is nothing like the real world”, or “my reality”, it can be amazing, it can be a completely different reality than you’ve experienced. Because distortion, or discomfort, or fear, is what motivates you to push past all of those things, and see what Flannery O’Connor says is “the truth”. Whatever that may be. This is why I feel that when in, say, a museum, when someone asks what your favourite painting is, you’ll most always point to a pretty watercolour painting of some nice scenery, or a peaceful sunset, etc. It’s pretty, it’s safe, it’s in your comfort zone. But it’s those other paintings, those strange, bizarre ones, that really make you think, make you wonder. I don’t think surrealists want us to see a truth, but more the fact that there can be many. Many truths, many realities, however “surreal” they may be. It’s just always getting past that initial discomfort, that early uneasiness, that’s difficult. And I think that this is what all these people – Caroll, Surrealists, philosophers – want us to try to see, to try to understand.

3 Comments

  1. Reply
    Ann Lusch December 30, 2009

    I read this with interest because next semester I plan (for the first time) to integrate blogging into one class. I expect that it will be a new experience for most of my students; I have already experienced that the idea of “digital native” does not extend to all the available tools on the web. I hope that my juniors and seniors (grades 11 and 12) will have at least a fraction of the insight of your grade 9 student!

  2. Reply
    Braddo December 30, 2009

    Thanks for the comment. I am always pleasantly surprised by what students can do when you give them room and proper support; generally, I think we sell them short. I bet you’ll find the same feeling.

  3. Reply
    Do Homework at School & Schoolwork at Home | Stick in the Sand March 19, 2010

    […] some indications that it works. The students see homework as something rather interesting; the student blogs have grown from a couple dozen words a post to several hundred, and I think I see a growing […]

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