I think one of the most powerful tools at the fingertips of a teacher is the wiki. Not just because it allows students & parents to access information at anytime. That’s one way communication and it’s predominantly how I’ve used a wiki, until now.
To me, the wiki is powerful for the two way conversation it affords. This semester my students have been authoring their own wiki, which is another new venture for them. It has taken them awhile to become comfortable writing their answers and opinions for all to see. However, now that they are more comfortable, I’m starting to see important conversations emerge.
One of the most powerful elements of the wiki is the discussion tab. If you look in wikipedia, much of the crucial work that goes into deciding what is important and accurate for an article occurs in the discussion tab.
One evening, one of my students left the question, “Is there any reason why Jem and Scout call their dad Atticus instead of dad? I’m thinking it’s because they have no mom but I’m not sure. Just wanted other thoughts.”
Before I saw it, another student answered,”Hmmm, I’ve been wondering that too. I am not really sure, but this is what Answers.com had to say about it: Because Atticus treats them like they’re mature and older, and he makes them feel like they are on the same level of understanding as him, so that makes them feel comfortable calling him that.”
While I did enter into this conversation eventually, leaving comments in the discussion tab allows my students to interact with one another, at any time, instead of always looking to me as the authority. They have the ability and the platform to help one another. And even though the answer they find, or offer, might not necessarily be completely accurate, they’re searching and trying to figure it out on their own, instead of being passive receivers of knowledge.
One of the most important developments in the wiki appeared two days ago. A student wrote the following:
Soo, I’ve been thinking. One of the answers someone posted mentions how back then people could be killed just because of the color of their skin. I was wondering whether or not you guys think it could happen today. If this case happened today, would the result be different? (I realize not everyone has finished the book, just post answers here as you understand what I mean). I’m not sharing my opinion because I want to know what you guys think :)
I’m guessing this will develop into one of the most important discussions my students have this unit. I’m watching expectantly to see what emerges, which isn’t a stance I’ve often had in my teaching, especially when I’ve been responsible for controlling the questions and what is learned. Students tend to answer the question and move on, but the authenticity of this question requires more than that.
This development coincides with research I’ve been doing in the area of inquiry learning for an independent study class I’m currently taking. And it’s caused me to rethink this class. The wiki has been about answering my questions. I wonder if our students get so used to answering our questions that they don’t stop to consider how their questions about the text, and the message it sends, are just as valid, and possibly more engaging, than the questions that are given to them?
Consequently, I’ve decided next time my students will be responsible for creating their own questions to be answered in the wiki. I’m guessing my students will raise some of the questions I have, but I’m more interested in seeing the differences and what my students focus on as being important.
Although my students answer the questions on the wiki, we discuss in class the ones that have garnered a strong reaction. To Kill a Mockingbird is a text that has that capability. By this point in the book, many would like to throttle Aunt Alexandra.
Before our discussion today I had my students do a quickwrite on the question, “What is the author trying to say is important? What is your evidence?” A quickwrite should take approximately 10 minutes, however, my students wrote for 30 minutes on this prompt.
I then asked who would share their respone. No one. I thought that having something prepared would make them less hesitant, at least that’s what the books say. Nope. I asked who would share the main points of their argument. Still no one. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, one student shared that equality, racial, gender, and religious, was at the heart of the text.
I asked if anyone had anything different. Nobody said a word. So I made the statement, “So everyone’s quickwrite is about equality?” Another student shared that his was about creativity. The same text. The same prompt. Divergent arguments on what the author thinks is important. The point of this assignment was to show my students you can have incredibly diverse responses to a question that, if well supported, are equally valid.
My student’s shared afterwards that they didn’t want to read their writing out loud, or even voice the points of their argument, because they were intimidated. They don’t want to be wrong. Even though this isn’t a question that has an exact answer. But they’re used to questions that do. It honestly felt like it was September, and we haven’t made any progress. Even though we’ve learned so much as a class, there are still areas that require a substantial amount of work before my students become confident and independent readers and writers.
In the fall, I’m planning to start using Socratic seminars in my English classes, and I see now that this is going to be a bigger undertaking than I originally thought. It’s going to take a great deal of work for my students to risk their ideas in front of others, to hold and explore divergent opinions at the same time, and to question intelligently and civilly. And yet, I believe these skills are essential for them to be maturing as readers and writers. It will be an interesting semester.