When I joined the English department at a small, private, Catholic high school, I was nervous. My previous experiences had been very different: I’d taught previously as a public school teacher, where I struggled daily, and as an idealist graduate teaching associate in an award-winning freshman writing program. I’d even been selected in graduate school to teach an online section of digital rhetoric and writing. But at the private high school, despite exorbitant tuition, digital tools were suspect and nonexistent. The school’s barely visible BYOD program meant that students used phones, textbooks, iPads, and whatever else to learn how to become digital communicators.
My first year, I set the bar low. I barely mentioned digital writing. I created a few opportunities for work to be adapted into various media, but I relied on pen and paper.
The next year the department changed, and I became the de-facto chair training and mentoring new teachers. But, I also set out to leverage the digital tools that I’d used in graduate school to replicate an advanced, dialogic learning environment. I’d reasoned that because we were college prep, it was my duty to challenge students with digital tools. My department was on board. And when my administration took me and a few other teachers to the Florida Educational Technology Conference, I saw clearly that digital writing opportunities were plentiful and would engage my pedagogy and challenge students.
In the classroom, I focused my students on using the digital writing platform Padlet. I wanted them to make blogs, but that was a nonstarter at the school. Administrator’s feared the reality that students used private emails and stifled the possibility of blogs in classrooms. And, I wanted something that was easy, free, and not tied to a learning management system. I’d used a freestanding discussion board service the year before, but it was cumbersome and required juggling multiple log-ins.
For me, Padlet was appealing because it was simple. It operated like a digital piece of construction paper. The students were the markers.
Unlike most learning management systems, I didn’t have to set up a discussion board with dates, grades, and other metrics. Instead, Padlet allowed me to click and edit. But, students seemed flummoxed by the inherent simplicity. Daily, students were confused by the idea that they could just click the screen and post things. They were struggling to find ways to complicate the matter. Here, I learned that in my struggles to complicate traditional notions of writing and communication, moving towards writing for an audience or writing in different venues, students were already thrown off. Despite the constant babel of how contemporary students are adroit users of technology, I found that they lacked sustained critical evaluation of online tools.
Anonymity and Engagement
I use discussion boards for two primary reasons:
First, it is conversational. Students are terrified in class. They rarely know how to talk to one another with constructive criticism. Instead, disagreements turn personal and follow students into their social lives. The online discussion platform removes them from the room and allows me to monitor ideas. And, typically students think more specifically about what and how they disagree. So, while there are always problems to negotiate, the discussion board serves as a great practice venue for developing the students as engaged dialogic learners.
For me, the primary function of the classroom is to help students develop as communicators. This means they need to become familiar with disagreeing and arguing with another human being. But, because this is challenging, the discussion board provides a safe space removed from another’s face.
Second, I want to encourage audience engagement and awareness. When students know they have a goal, or someone to impress, shock, or engage, they tend to focus. I was tired of watching students work so hard at public athletic events, and then barely scratch the surface of their writing assignments. So, public writing demonstrates the presence of the audience.
Digital Writing as Creative Enterprise
Padlet was, for all its simplicity, a vanilla platform that allowed for great creativity. In addition to completing traditional responses, and posting discussion questions, I used the platform to garner student feedback about my course and policies and assignments. Honesty is central to my reflexive practice. So, I require honest and clear feedback. I want to know what worked, what failed, and what could have been better. Padlet, because students can post anonymously, allows users to post without their names (if they so choose). Because of the clear anonymity, students provided the honesty.
And, they seemed to know what was working and what wasn’t far better than I. The lack of multiple choice question practice was a major concern among my AP Literature students. But, beyond complaining, they had suggestions as to how they should design questions as an assignment. They didn’t want to just answer sample questions. Instead, by designing them, they’d become familiar with the logic of the questions.
Obviously, this anonymity was not without some level of concern. One day, I logged onto my page and found numerous memes had been posted. Thankfully, nothing was inappropriate. Most commented on my teaching or my attire. I saw this as a wonderful opportunity to really get to know my students. Beyond critical learners, I was beginning to get a sense of their humor and their seriousness. As a K-12 teacher, it was paramount that I built a relationship with the students as people and learners.
Pedagogies of Fear
I no longer work in K12. When a college-level position near my home opened I jumped at the opportunity. But, the death knell for my career as writing teacher in a private, religious high school came at a professional development meeting where we discussed technology.
My interest in engaging students in the academic promise of social media was no secret. So, when the faculty was asked for anonymous feedback assessing the school’s technology infrastructure, I was critical.
At FETC, I’d been influenced by JD Ferries-Rowe, a Catholic educator whose school embraces social media as a learning tool. In fact, like Mr. Ferries-Rowe, I suggested we develop a mandatory digital citizenship class. I reasoned that we should spend time focusing on teaching students to use social media and digital writing technologies responsibly and suggested that we stop policing every website and social media network.
Even without school adoption, I was convinced that for the future I’d have my seniors write introspective analysis essays about their social media presence, behavior, and consumption. The school had recently had numerous problems with social media malfeasance. Kids posting about drugs, kids posting about drinking, and kids bullying. It seemed that this critical insight could at their very least offer interesting content on which to focus.
But at the meeting, in a smart classroom surrounded by glass and screens, my comment was displayed publicly and met with snickers and jeers. Two friends looked at me and knew it was my writing. They jokingly shook their fingers. I smiled and shrugged to hide my embarrassment when the head of academic technology and administrators began to admonish “whoever wrote this.” They claimed that my call to action, that we develop a critical course or projects that focus on digital citizenship and best practices for public communication, that we stop policing every website students visited, was tantamount to a call to allow students access to pornography. Which was a crime.
That comment saddened me. I knew that the private school, which housed some incredible students and would provide a great small learning environment to test ideas was doomed because of the fear of educators. Instead of hearing a call to action and recognizing the importance of digital writing and digital rhetoric as teachable areas, my colleagues considered that we’d be tweeting and posting Facebook statuses with students. This fear prevents educators from spending the necessary time to craft engaging pedagogies that use the technologies of students but that also allow us to mold students into thoughtful writers and consumers. If we turn a blind eye to the challenges and the benefits of teaching with digital tools, we cannot claim that we are educators.