When I taught a developmental writing class in Fall 2010, I encouraged students to post 250-300 word essays on blogs imbedded in the Angel learning platform. I asked students to post their reflections on assignments after their final drafts were submitted as a means to analyze their learning experiences. My students’ blogs recorded their progress and reflections, and I could use such a record as an immediate and direct resource. This space worked as a channel for me to understand students through the dialogue this space cultivated between me and the students. After reading what students encountered during the learning process, I, and instructors in general, can gain insights into students’ needs, which lays a solid foundation for effective pedagogy. Effective teaching is informed teaching. Without knowing what students need and how they respond to the class, instructors may effectively meet the needs of students. Through reading blog posts and interacting with students, I became aware of students’ reactions to course materials and classroom teaching; and such awareness promotes successful teaching. The following examples illustrate the importance of the dialogues between students and instructors.
At the beginning of the semester, I was not sure why some students seemed cavalier about the class and nonverbally communicated some unwillingness to stay in the class. When I read their blogs posted to reflect on the challenges they went through when writing essay one, I started to understand my students better.
Student A: I think what was most challenging was that I felt like I was coming into this class knowing most stuff because I’m a smart person just a horrible test taker. So I feel when you criticized me I was stupid. You may not realize that some of the things you say don’t make sense and that’s why I keep asking. I did not like this essay because I felt like all the things I’ve learned in previous years of English were thrown down the drain because erything I thought was right was wrong to you. I know I’m in college now you don’t have to tell me that. What I learned is to keep my mouth shut. Because anything I say you’re going to disagree with.
I realized that some students did not feel they belonged in a developmental writing course. Some of them even felt humiliated. Their written paragraphs lacked coherence and clarity. Some students knew nothing about a thesis nor its function. However, from my perspective, they clearly belonged in this developmental writing class.
Such a disparity between what the students thought they could do and what they actually drafted helped me view the tension from a less personal manner. I became aware that the tension in the classroom was not targeted toward me personally. Students were not doing the work or behaving properly because of the work ethics they embraced and their self-assessment. Such awareness compelled me to know my students more, and an effective method to know them more would be to encourage them to honestly share and acknowledge what they own. I asked students to share their insights on the various topics that we discussed in class. As a feminist educator, I reminded myself that I should respect what the students know and establish a welcoming, respectful, and safe learning environment for them while temporarily overlooking their behavioral and attitudinal issues. I read their blog posts diligently, hoping to discover threads that would give me clues on how the students assessed the class. The following are what I found after their first essay was completed:
Student B: I understand the value of an outline, I will for now on utilizes an outline; when I am out of ideas and use the revised rough draft to improve my final paper.
Student C: The most challenging thing when writing the first essay was trying to organize my thoughts. It is hard to sit down and know where to start. I might know about the subject but then I have to really think about what direction to take the paper. For this essay I knew who I wanted to talk about but he has a lot going on. The most rewarding thing to me would be that I had a strong well organized paper. I have learned to read and research how to write a good essay and also i listen to what other people are saying, i think that if I start with a pre-writing assignment first, that it helps me to think and organize my thoughts so that I can have a strong thesis and topic sentences.
These posts confirmed my belief that most students struggled because they did not know how to organize thoughts and control ideas. The focus of their papers diffused as they wrote. It was encouraging to find out that students, at least some of them, were serious learners. I decided to challenge them to step out of their comfort zones to analyze advertisements and the stereotypes that they encounter on a daily basis. Critical thinking skills, afterall, are essential to good writing. Analyzing the advertisement was a difficult paper for many. I walked them through different steps and helped them to look at advertisements from a new light. Then I read the following posts when we finished the advertisement paper:
Student D: This challenge was good because it made you think and get more involved with the assignment.
Student E: We see advertisements daily but I never thought about how they are advertised and the tactics. during and after writing this essay, Ive been more aware sort of speak of different or paid more attention to the effectiveness of ads. I fel the peer review and the samples are most helpful to me in this class because I feel general confused until I can actually see what the teacher is referring too than her actually saying the information verbally.
Student F: The rewarding part of writing this essay was being challenged. I’ve never had to write an essay like this.
These posts reassured me that my developmental writers in fact enjoy being challenged. Feminist pedagogy contends that teachers need to be nurturing and caring, but challenging and confronting students seems to work equally well. I combined these conflicting sides of feminist pedagogy to best assist students.
Of course, the attempt to establish this ideal learning space does not suggest that there are no risks during this process. During the sixth or seventh week, some students left the classroom without any notice and showed so much pain and unwillingness to do their work. I tried to keep the students under control and confronted a student who left the room without any notice. However, later that day, I received an email from that student who complained that I was not being respectful and I picked on her. I panicked and wondered what I did wrong to de-motivate them so much. Another student with a learning disability talked with me, revealing that the loud conversations going on in the class made it impossible for her to concentrate. I panicked and wondered what I did wrong for this class that seemed so good on the first day to go so bad. I even dreaded teaching then. I questioned whether I should be tough or sensitive; I was unsure of many things, but I continued to read their blog posts. I saw two posts:
Student C: I think that making sure U do some prewriting helps me out a lot when sitting down to right a paper. It helps me to get strong focused thoughts for writing a strong paper with a good thesis and good supporting details.
Student F: I was more comfortable with this essay because I have a lot of sample essays that I read through and it helped me a lot on how to do mine, it gave me so many ideas on how to elaborate my writings and discussing it with my peer also made it better because she helped me on how to make my paper stronger.
It was pleasant to see that the writing process approach worked well for many students and they were making progress regarding generating more powerful thesis statements. The progress seen in their papers and revealed in these blog posts motivated me, and I encouraged them to talk in class and challenge each other in the class.
Towards the end of the semester, the student who complained that I shut her mouth up in fact wrote a note to me, saying I was an understanding instructor, which further confirms the importance of being open to students. When these students reflected upon their learning experiences through blogs during the postwriting stage, they had an opportunity to comment on course materials, class activities, learning curves, and other course-related issues. The end of the semester blogs are inspiring and encouraging:
Student G: To sum it up, I feel very confident in my final paper and I can see a difference in my work from when I started out with my first essay.
Student C: When I started this class I didn’t have much experience in the whole writing process. I had not be exposed to all the types of essays we wrote during this semester. I have had a hard time sitting down and composing thoughts. I am glad that we got to turn in a rough draft and then after peer comments and your comments we were able to revise the rough draft. I have learned a lot about how to organize my thoughts and then developing my thoughts to write an effective paper. I have enjoyed this class very much. It has helped me out a lot. It has made me a strong writer. I think this class pushes you to reach outside of your normal comfort zone and think about the assignment in a different way.
Student E: I have learned a lot from taking this class. I’ve learned the correct format on developing a strong paper. The introduction is a key component in a paper. I’ve also learned how to develop a clear thesis and the importance that is is related to the topic. I believe this class has exercised my critical thinking skills; as well as developing s topis sentence with supporting details.
These blog comments indicate that my students have been transformed into more capable and confident writers, and I see this progress in their papers. For me, forming more effective teaching practices is an immediate result of students’ blogs; yet what is more valuable is the genuine dialogue between me and the students that promotes positive energy in the classroom. In fact, if instructors encourage students to post honest reflections, differing opinions emerge and such an emergence will motivate the instructors to reflect on their teaching practices. Richardson (2009) observes:
When overseeing student blogs, the teacherís role becomes that of connector, not just evaluator. As you read what students write, try to respond by commenting back when appropriate. And link to the best student posts and ideas in the class blog. This is a very important habit to form. When you celebrate good work, or use studentsí unique ideas to drive further discussion, it goes a long way to creating a community of learners. (p. 47)
In short, students’ blogs reflect their joy and pain in the class, thus creating a space for instructors to reflect on their classroom teaching practices and apply effective teaching techniques.