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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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October202006

Connect the Dots: Students, Blogs and the Nobel Peace Prize

The Seattle Times ran a nice introduction to how educators are embracing blogging in the classroom. Elsewhere in the world, Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank won the Nobel Peace Prize. Perhaps these two stories have nothing to do with each other. But at least one educational blogger thinks otherwise.

The article profiles the work of one of my favorite people in the edtech universe, Mark Ahlness. Mark’s been working on the Web with elementary school students pretty much longer than anyone else on the planet; in fact, he launched the first elementary school website more than 12 years ago. In the article, Mark discusses how blogging has revolutionized the way he teaches his students.

“Never in 25 years of teaching have I seen a more powerful motivator for writing than blogs,” he said. “And that’s because of the audience. Writing is not just taped on the refrigerator and then put in the recycle bin. It’s out there for the world to see. Kids realize other people are reading what they write.”

Among those people are the students’ parents and other relatives, according to the mother of one student. “Writing wasn’t a favorite subject, but his excitement about the classroom blogs grew throughout the year,” noted Marilyn Mears. “Receiving comments from around the world [New Zealand and Scotland] was energizing.”

After spending the semester blogging, Mark asked the students to reflect on the experience:

“I like blogs because you get to share a creative idea with the world.”

“I think I’m a better writer because of my blog.”

“I think that other kids should blog because it’s fun and it really helps you learn more and more.”
Another educator, Bob Mueller, added that in his experience, students are respectful of each other’s blogging work, and invest lots of energy in improving their blogs. “Some students who might be reluctant to join a classroom discussion could feel more free to participate online…. Students embraced the technology by making the blogs their own, with interesting designs, added music, etc.”

All of this got me thinking about a blog entry written this week by Miguel Guhlin, which ironically enough included a reference to another blog entry I wrote last week about this year’s Nobel Peace Prize going to Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank. First, let me quote what I wrote:

Muhammad Yunus is the founder of the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh, a truly pioneering institution in the fight against rural poverty. As a young man in the early 1970s, Yunus spent time in the US on a Fullbright scholarship; when he returned home to Bangladesh, which was in the midst of a famine, he realized the current system of poverty alleviation simply wasn’t working.

So Yunus created the Village (Grameen in Bangla) Bank. Rather than lending money to typical bank borrowers, Yunus decided that his loans would go to the poorest of the poor - farmers, village women, even beggars. The bank developed a system of offering microloans - loans often less than $100, the kind of amount that any other bank would never have bothered to award to its customers. In Bangladesh, though, a loan of $50 or $75 to a rural villager can mean the difference between abject poverty and ipermanently mproving the quality of life for their family. Microloans allow them to establish a kiosk selling dry goods, buy new farming implements, even pay for health insurance. They take the burden off extremely low-income households and give them a fighting chance to achieve prosperity….

… Perhaps what’s most exciting about this Nobel selection is that the people of Bangladesh can rightfully claim that they as individuals have won a share of the Peace Prize. Approximately 94% of the bank is owned by its 6.6 million borrowers - the farmers, the women entrepreneurs, the beggars - while the remaining six percent is owned by the government of Bangladesh, which of course represents the people. No matter how you slice it, this years Peace Prize has been rewarded to the Bangladeshis themselves. Muhammad Yunus may be the one standing in Oslo this December - and rightfully so - but he will be standing on the shoulders of millions of Bangladeshi citizens, each of whom must be swelling with joy this day.

What does this have to do with Mark Ahlness, his students and blogging, you may ask? Nothing - or at least so I thought when I was writing it at the time. But then Miguel made an interesting connection:

If we imagine 21st Century learning as a bank, we can imagine that we have all won a share of the some “prize” that we’ve all received as a benefit of…we’re all recipients of “microloans” or microcredit, that each of us builds on, where the snowball, as Doc Searls shared, is running downhill. Call it “blogcredit.”

I love how Miguel says this, because it relates to something that I’ve occasionally struggled to articulate about educational blogging: that it helps students feel a stronger sense of ownership over their words, their ideas and their ability to convey them. When students are merely writing an essay for a teacher, it’s often likely that the end result, if they’re lucky, will be a place on the refrigerator for that essay, next to the coupons and pictures of last summer’s trip to the Wisconsin Dells. But educators like Mark Ahlness, Dave Warlick, Ted Nellen, Yvonne Andres and others who have pioneered ideas around student-generated journals, websites and blogs have understood all along that the act of publishing student work in a public setting changes the rule of the game. When students publish on a blog or another online tool, they’re opening themselves up to critique, criticism and scrutiny. They must be prepared to defend their choice of words, their arguments, their perspectives. And they’re not just writing for an audience - they’re writing for a community of lifelong learners who are eager to engage them, helping them improve their writing and their critical thinking skills along the way.

So perhaps Miguel - and by extension, Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank - are onto something here. Just like Grameen gives the villagers of Bangladesh a public stake in their own economic development, blogging gives students a public stake in their own educational development. Now let’s see the good folks in Olso give a Nobel Prize for that. -andy

Filed under : Blogging, Youth Media

Responses

Hi Andy,

Isn’t it great to see blogging (and Web 2.0 tools in general) developing so rapidly like this? We’ve finally reached the point where it’s literally a snap for educators to experiment with and adopt these technologies, all to fuel a lifelong love of learning.

In our middle school, Mrs. Sharon McDermott, an 8th grade language arts teacher, has been creating voracious middle school readers (yes, you read that right) for many years. A while back her students asked if they could have an online book club to share their reviews with the world … and Mrs McDermott’s 8th Grade Book Club was born. Here’s this year’s site:

http://www.ncs-nj.org/blogs/bookclub/2006/

They are just getting started, but if this year is like any of the others, the site will soon be overflowing with visible evidence of their labor of love. The best part? She was approached by a group of students who wanted to form a weekly, in-person book club (meeting during lunch period, in Sharon’s room). How cool is that?

I teach in our elementary school, and we’re just getting traction with blogs there, but I have to share this final story. Mr. Bryan Levy, a 4th grade teacher, approached me about a common annual class project, animal reports. Realizing the potential, I suggested we create a “virtual zoo” where students will post, as their animal, writing to show their understanding of the creature’s habitat, it’s way of life, how it cares for its young, etc., etc., etc. Here’s the URL:

http://www.ncs-nj.org/blogs/zoo/

It too is just getting started, but it promises to be HUGE. We’re going to have animals “visit” each other in the zoo, commenting back and forth (e.g., the horse visits the zebra and wonders why he, too, does not have stripes. The zebra, in response, explains his pigmentation. That sort of thing.)

One 4th grade student, a girl, upon learning of the assignment in class, went home and spent the entire evening researching her animal on her own, writing four pages of notes, drawing pictures, preparing for her entries. The best part? This child never really enjoyed writing.

THAT, in my view, is the real power of blogging … to make an “ordinary” assignment into something EXTRAORDINARY … and watching the kids go, go, go!

Best,

kj

That’s just fantastic, Kevin…. What are you using to create and host those mp3 files? Seems like a great idea to complement text posts with audio, both for accessibility and for addressing different learning styles….

Thanks Andy, our site is down as I write this, the hosting company is working on the problem, we lost some theme and other configuration files but hope to be back online soon.

I am creating audio files with Audacity (free Open Source software as you know) and FTPing them to the server. From there, Podpress, a plugin for Wordpress, makes it easy to attach them to posts.

More to come!

kj

I found this article very useful, and a valuable example of technology’s benefits to the classroom and education. I’m a digital arts instructor and I would like more information on the best ways to go about creating blog communities, and private educational social network.

This is a very useful article. thanks for sharing

I advise students on resume writing and have found that by actively encouraging my students to create ongoing blogs, their resume writing becomes much richer as a result

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