Sunday, June 22, 2008

Social Dynamics and Learning: Online and Off

The post Disconnecting, by Jennifer Jones (@injenuity) got me thinking....
Actually, social dynamics, both in and out of the classroom, is not a new topic of thought for me. I am almost constantly assessing and reassessing the social dynamics in the classroom and how I can best direct them. 

One thing I have learned is that people are extremely sensitive. Those who seem tough and uncaring are often the most sensitive of all. We all have our ways of protecting, pretending, rationalizing away the things that offend us. Some take on the role of the bully so as not to be bullied.  But I believe that just about everyone is deeply sensitive to the people around them and that feelings are easily bruised.

When I was a classroom teacher I spent the first month of school on team-building activities. Integrating with language arts (and even, at times, math) I consciously worked to build a community based on the TRIBES norms:
•Mutual Respect
•Attentive Listening
•No Put Downs/Give Appreciations
•The Right to Pass

Simple, and yet they cover virtually any problem that might arise. If we all followed them, the world would definitely be on the road to being a happier place, no? One thing I addressed with my classes very early on was how, in order to be able to grow and learn, we must be able to risk, and, thus, in order for any of us to learn, our classroom MUST be a safe place, a community where we can safely take risks.

Now I teach in the computer lab and I don't have the opportunity to build classroom community. The classes at my school are small, and there is only one class at each grade level so the dynamics can be quite intense.  
It is not only what we teach but how we manage the classroom that impacts the social dynamics. If I got down to it, this could be an extra-long post, citing example after example of times I think I've gotten it right and times I know I've missed the boat. 
Some examples of management decisions that affect dynamics in the lab:
• Do I let students choose their seats? do I let them choose their partners?
I don't have any hard and fast "rules" for how I do things. But during my many years in the classroom, I have picked up a few strategies that work:

For partners -- I have "partner cards" that I keep in my desk drawer. On each card is written one half of a pair. For example: one card says "peanut butter." If you get the peanut butter card, naturally you will look for the person with the jelly card, and that is your partner for the day. The fun of the activity, the randomness and mystery of who your partner will be, gets the partnerships off to a great start. However, I don't leave it to chance. Before I even pass out the cards, we all practice our biggest smiles. I remind them that we never show disappointment when we discover our partner because it might hurt someone's feelings. Kids NEED the reminder. I do believe that most times they don't want to hurt another's feelings - they just aren't thinking about the other person. 
Another Example:
In my afterschool blogging class this year, I left things very unstructured. I always gave an assignment, but left it up to the students to decide if they wanted to do that or something else related to their blog. One day's assignment was to leave comments, and some did, on a few blogs. Only one student left a comment on every blog in the group. And, of course, I commented on every blog, at least a few times during the class. Several students got comments from real life friends not in the class, parents and student bloggers from other places. I thought all was well.
But on the last day of class, with only a few minutes left, one girl came to me and said, with disappointment on her face, "I only got a comment from ______ (the student who had commented on every blog)." Thinking quickly I wrote all the students names on pieces of paper. I told them they had one final assignment - to pick a name and write a comment on that person's blog. Randomly, the disappointed girl's name was chosen by the one person who had already commented on all the blogs. It happens. But what surprised me was how excited all of the kids were about getting a new comment from someone in the class. It turned out to be a great ending activity for the class. Something about the randomness and the mystery of who picked who's name...

I know how good it feels to get comments on my blog, too. 
There is something about being recognized. Receiving a comment shows that someone has read your words or at least looked at your blog, your creation. There is a human need for attention, to be valued or validated, by others. 

The ISTE nets for students recognizes "communication and collaboration" as vital 21st century skills. We need to put our students into situations that push them out of their comfort zones, that give them opportunities to work with different people. We need to help them navigate the murky waters of interacting with others in polite and productive ways. This is difficult. 

My Thoughts about Twitter-
In the recent past, there was a spate of blog posts about twitter followers and the blogosphere being an elite cocktail party. I read those posts with great interest, although at the time I did not join in the discussion. What I recognized, through many of the posts and comments I read,  was this sensitivity, a need for recognition and validation. I know that I have given a lot of thought to the whole follow/following on twitter. If a real person (as opposed to a spam type follower) follows me, is it impolite not to follow back? I know there are no hard and fast answers to this, and everyone has to do whatever works best for them. Whatever guidelines we follow, we all know, rationally, that we can't become sensitive about twitter. But, nevertheless, people do. 

How can we teach our students the finer points of online interaction if we, teachers, are uncertain of them? How can we create classrooms where it is safe to take risks if, as adults, we do not model the values of respecting and appreciating people for who they are, of reaching out to include everyone? 
Communication and Collaboration. Why are these so fraught with possibilities for misunderstanding and hurt feelings? What are your best strategies for teaching and classroom management that foster inclusivity in a real way? Are you thinking about yourself or about the other person when you interact on blogs or twitter or wherever you interact online?


Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Tēnā koe Andrea!

An interesting post. It made me think - about lots of things - and that is a mark of a good post.

You mentioned that "there is something about being recognized. Receiving a comment shows that someone has read your words or at least looked at your blog, your creation."

It may be helpful for a sensitive blogger to be philosophical about 'recognition' indicated through comments. What causes a reader to write a comment is a capricious set of drives from within. The lack of a response through comment isn't necessarily lack of recognition.

The 1:10:100 rule, if it can be applied to comments against a post, would indicate that the number of readers who take in what's written on a post is many fold the number who actually comment, by an order of 10 at least. My guess is that this number is very much greater than even the 1:10:100 rule would suggest.

What I find fascinating about posts from this point of view, is not the comments that are written against them, but that there are so few, given the millions of online readers that are clearly accessing the Internet all the time.

Ka kite
from Middle-earth

Andrea said...

Hello, Ken.
Thank you for the comment. I guess your comment makes you one in a million (or more like one in a hundred...but who's counting? You're one in a million in my book, I mean my blog!)

I don't think this post was as coherent as I would have liked it to be. I had a lot of different thoughts and was trying to make them all fit into one blog post. I have seen classrooms where the students are well behaved on the surface, but where there is no effort to create an inclusive community. I think there is a belief that "kids will be kids" and that academic curriculum stands alone, that the social dynamics don't matter.
I find this to be completely untrue, both in the classroom and online, I think that fostering respect is the heart of the matter. I won't comment on a blog if I don't feel safe doing so. I think a lot of the activities of the comment challenge (like writing a commenting policy) sought to help bloggers make their blogs safe places for others to comment.

You are right that a lack of comments doesn't mean no one is reading your blog. But if someone takes that moment to leave a comment, it confirms it (or seems to...sometimes I think the kids leave comments without really reading the blog).

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Andrea!

Further to my comment, a good thing to look for when you visit others blogs are the blogs they subscribe to. It is heartening to see your own blog in their list. Though my blog doesn't show a list, you are on mine.

What that means is that, regardless of whether I leave a comment on your posts, I certainly read them - and the commnets.

Ka kite

Unknown said...

Greeting from down the road (I-10) in Tallahassee.

Good post. Lots of thought-provoking stuff. I like the partner cards - this is always a tough one. I assume you used this strategy with elementary students, but I think it'll work in ms/hs.

Keep up the good work. I just added you to my Google reader, and on twitter. I agree about your point on reciprocation on twitter. It took me a long time (still not there yet) to build a decent network. I still feel like I'm looking in from the outside sometimes.

Andrea said...

@Ken - I am honored to have you as a reader of my blog! Yours is in my reader as well.

@Stephen - thanks for reading. Did you read some of the posts going around recently about twitter? I had thought for a moment that I was the only one who felt sensitive about the dynamics of an online network like that, but I realized that it is widespread. It is actually an interesting part of the learning, if you know what I mean -to analyze your own judgements and try to analyze what motivates others in choosing their networks.

What I tend to find strange is the "big name" educators who make their living as leaders but who only follow a small, "elite" handful. I follow a former teacher of mine who I'm sure doesn't remember me personally but when I started following her she only followed 19 people and didn't follow me back. Now she follows around 45 and has 65 followers but still doesn't follow me back. I have thought of tweeting her an @tweet to ask her why she follows so few people...but I don't want to put her on the spot.