"It changed my life," a student told me. He was talking about the online wikis and message boards we used during a project exploring the use of online tools for literature discussions. I wasn't trying for momentous transformations from my students, but I was hoping to help them connect with the stories they read. Specifically, I wanted to explore whether online discussions could help students deepen their understanding of literature.
I wanted to include high-level, Socratic-type discussions in my elementary students' book discussions. Students engaging in this level of discourse are motivated by curiosity that springs from questions. That curiosity engenders more questions, which creates a cycle of curiosity that leads to deeper understanding. The challenge is getting to that level of thinking.
I wanted to deepen student discussions about novels they were reading while also making it easier to document those discussions. I considered a variety of approaches, including digital options for discussion. A blog with a comments box could allow for discourse, but I felt that a message board more closely met the need. Message boards are less dependent on the time of a student entry, which is an advantage when encouraging students to think about books outside of class. In addition, wikis could be used to allow several students to collaborate on a single document, which would be useful for student-authored book reviews.
A little online research made it clear that a number of options are available free, and some offer more choices for teachers. I applied for accounts, trained students to use a message board to discuss their books and wikis to collaboratively write book reviews, set some ground rules, and then let them begin the discussion. In Digital Citizenship in the Schools, Ribble and Bailey (2007: 10) identified nine elements that good digital citizens possess. Using online tools to discuss books would help students practice six of the nine elements, justifying this project for its literary as well as its technological benefits for students.
When a student didn't know what to write on the message board, the thread could halt for several days before someone in the group thought of a response. As one student told me, "I'll be doing something totally different at home, and then it'll pop into my head and I'll know how to answer." Often, the student tried another tack when no one responded to their post.
This nonjudgmental method of discourse makes it safe to walk away, reflect, consider how a comment is being viewed by your group mates, and then focus one's thinking or ask for clarification. This process is democratic, allowing students who are marginalized in the classroom to interject their ideas into the conversation. As one student said, "You don't even think about who wrote, you are just thinking about the ideas."
THE TEACHER'S ROLE
According to Richardson, "the more autonomy teachers give to students in terms of negotiating the scope and quality of the content they are creating, the better" (2006: 61). Evaluators of an educational wiki project in South Dakota concluded that "the most successful teachers were the ones who embraced a more constructivist approach to teaching and learning, a more student-centered approach" (Borja 2006: 10).
I experimented with several tactics and noted differences in student responses. One was to posit an initiating question, or several initiating questions, for students on the boards. Another was to wait until a thread stalled or until I felt that someone was on the cusp of revelation, and then provide a guiding question. The final approach was to remain silent and simply observe. To my surprise, teacher involvement seemed to stifle student discussions.
When I initiated the discussion with a question, two-thirds of the students responded only once (41%) or twice (25%). Of the total times I "jump-started" a flagging discussion, 63% of the time no one responded, and the remaining 37% of the time, students initiated only single responses. …