The New Pedagogy: Using Social Networking Tools to Keep Up with Student Interests

By Pascopella, Angela; Richardson, Will | District Administration, November-December 2009 | Go to article overview

The New Pedagogy: Using Social Networking Tools to Keep Up with Student Interests


Pascopella, Angela, Richardson, Will, District Administration


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CORY WAS A SPECIAL EDUCATION SIXTH-GRADER AT THE SAUGUS (Calif.) Union School District when he wrote an entry on his blog page entitled "The Spied Enemies: A War Journal." This make-believe story opens with the words "I am Johnny Willow, a hero to some people. I will tell you my story about my adventures in World War II."

Cory, who posted the story in the fall of 2007, states how Willow hears Japanese planes flying over Pearl Harbor and then dropping bombs, specifically on the USS Arizona. "I saw everything start to become blurry. I woke up in front of the captain. He said, 'You are lucky to be alive.'"

Because Cory was in a class that used social networking tools for writing--specifically Elgg, an open source media platform--other students, teachers, family members and even the general public were able to comment on his story. For example, an "army colonel," who did not give a name, said about chapter 1, "Your words have painted a very vivid picture. You did an excellent job of illustrating the terror of war. Keep up the good work."

Cory is now an eighth-grader and no longer in special education classes, says Jim Klein, the district's director of information services and technology, who helped push the idea of using social networking for writing in the district's schools about five years ago. Klein attributes Cory's transformation to the story he wrote and the positive comments he received. "Suddenly, Cory is not an outcast," Klein says, noting the positive feedback Cory received and the self-confidence that resulted. "It changed his perspective on life. And he has friends now."

It's been almost 40 years since the teaching of writing in schools had its last major shift, a move to an emphasis on the "writing process,", which still holds sway in most classrooms today. But with the advent of Web-based social networking tools like blogs and wilds, YouTube and Facebook, it may be that the next revision of writing pedagogy is upon us, one that emphasizes digital spaces, multimedia texts, global audiences and linked conversations among passionate readers.

Moving to a new pedagogy is not easy for many district administrators, however, as the Web as a writing space is still primarily an unknown, scary place to put students. But as research is showing, students are flocking to online networks in droves, and they are doing a great deal of writing there already, some of it creative and thoughtful and inspiring, but much of it outside the traditional expectations of "good writing" that classrooms require. The ePals Global Community is just one "learning space" example that has connections spanning 200 countries and territories. With ePals Learning Space, which is a virtual workspace to create, share and manage educational content, students, who are interacting with peers, and educators can take part in project-based learning in a collaborative and controlled environment. How we begin to teach students to flourish in these more complex, online social spaces is a fundamental question many schools are beginning to tackle, not necessarily because they want to but because they realize the very nature of writing is changing.

That change is spelled out dearly by the National Council of Teachers of English, which last year published "new literacies" for readers and writers in the 21st century. Among those literacies are the ability to "build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally," to "design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes," and to "create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multi-media texts." Very little of that kind of work is possible to achieve without expanding the way we think about writing instruction in the context of online social tools.

Writing for Audiences

Dave Childers, principal of the Academy for Civic and Entrepreneurial Leadership, a charter high school in Fresno, Calif. …

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