Students in P.E.I. enjoy chance to teach future teachers

Mary MacKay
Published on March 29, 2014

One recent learn-learn situation was a win-win for students at Englewood School in Crapaud and bachelor of education students at UPEI.

For the month of February, one Grade 7 class wrote a bevy of blogs on subjects of their choice that included everything from the male fashion trend of saggy, baggy pants to why Holsteins make the best dairy cows.

Then UPEI students enrolled in a communications course that is part of their B.Ed. program acted as mentors for the Grade 7 students’ blogging project by commenting on the young students’ blogs and offering a formative assessment of their writings as well as a real-world audience of support and engagement.

“I see that I put a lot more effort into it now and I put a lot more interest into what I am writing because you know you have an audience out there,” says 12-year-old Sammy MacLean, whose subjects included Why My iPod Hates Me and Why Are Siblings So Annoying.

Blogging projects have been part of Englewood students’ educational process for a number of years.

To read blogs by Englewood students, click here.

This particular mentoring project evolved after Bonnie Stewart, who is a sessional lecturer in the faculty of education at UPEI, spoke to Kent Butler’s Grade 7 students about her experience as a blogger and social media presenter.

He approached Stewart afterwards to see if there was any way to connect his students with the B.Ed. students in an online educational capacity.

“I read an article one time that kind of changed my way of looking at things. When we went to school, if the teacher said, ‘Ok, we’re going to go the computer lab and type it out,’ that meant that we would be engaged (through technology) and we would do our best work. But that doesn’t apply to these kids anymore. They’ve lived their lives with technology, so just getting them in front of a computer is not a motivating factor anymore,” Butler says.

The engagement factor was the key. The blogs are public — with moderated comments — but there was a limited audience of teachers, schoolmates, friends and family.

So Butler and Stewart designed a month-long project that had the 16 Grade 7 students writing their blogs and posting them; each was then assigned four or five UPEI mentors.

“So my (38) university students — pre-service teachers — were acting as writing mentors and supporters for these Grade 7 students in their blog comments. Each of my students had to write two public and one private comment to each student,” Stewart says of this exercise that built formative assessment and constructive criticism skills.

“It’s all of the knowledge and skills that the new teachers are learning to communicate. It takes time to learn how to supportively communicate to students how their writing can be improved: it involves building skills and relationships of trust. If you just tell students there are 14 spelling mistakes and nothing else, you won’t see much improvement in overall writing. If you can critique and build their sense of audience, they take real ownership. This project puts that into practice for both the Grade 7s and the B.Ed students.

It is also valuable for the B.Ed. students to be able to develop skills to communicate effectively in a non-traditional teaching way.

“In the pre-Internet teaching world where everything was face-to-face or print, by nature commentary tended to be one to one, and to some extent I think education as a field is still learning to stretch to the capacities that now exist beyond that,” Stewart says.

“It can be really great for a learner to have multiple or choral voices supporting them and helping them learn, but as teachers we have to get comfortable in that space of having other teachers see and learn from our work and continue our relationship with students.”

Blogging also provides students with an opportunity to engage an audience that extends beyond just their teacher.

“If you’re just writing for your teacher, and I see this at the university level, people will go though the motions and write to the bare minimum of what’s been set out. And often that’s where many students stop,” Stewart says.

“If you are writing for a public audience, your motivation becomes self-image. If everybody else is putting out good (work) you don’t want to just go through the motions. And so the level of investment and energy that’s put into the writing tends to increase the more that that real world audience writes back.”

Having an audience was a big draw for Grade 7 student Hannah Callbeck.

“Because you know that you’re not just writing for your teacher’s standards, you’re writing for other people to be interested in it, too, like anybody who would want to read it,” says this 12-year-old, who chose subjects such as Are Role Models Good or Bad? and The Dance Room is My Second Home.

“It’s kind of just stuff that I come across and I think would make an interesting blog, something that I would like to express.”

Pieces like Hannah’s Dance Room story and others by her classmates were especially colorful, due to the nature of their assignment.

“Most of the time they did their own, but we did one that had to be a descriptive piece just to change the genre of writing,” Butler says.

“They’d go into a place that was special to them and they’d have to describe it and use all their senses.”

The students were also keen to get constructive criticism from their UPEI mentors because they wanted to improve.

“I think it really helped my writing and helped me to think outside the box and think of other things I could add to it,” Hannah adds.

Grace Hughes, 13, used her home life on a dairy farm for the inspiration for Why Holsteins Make the Best Dairy Cows.

“I felt like I was really expressing myself. Since I’ve grown up with that certain breed of cow, I know why they’re best, and my older brother and my dad they helped me with some of the technical terms. I knew most of them,” she says.

“One of the UPEI students commented on it and said that they thought it was like journalism.”

Students were required to do three blogs, but some were keeners and did as many as eight.

“When I started I was kind of excited about it, but I was also nervous because what are the odds that I could say something wrong in my writing. You’re putting yourself out there for the whole world,” admits 12-year-old Thomas Toole. “It got easier in the sense of just getting comfortable with it.”

Putting themselves out there also garnered feedback from local well-known bloggers such as P.E.I. author Patti Larsen, who writes young adult fiction, and Lyle Richardson, NHL columnist for The Guardian and other publications.

“I think that a lot of them found that they were uncertain of themselves before, but when people make a comment telling them that they did well, it just boosts their confidence,” Butler says.

“It gives them enough confidence to start taking chances with their writing and realize that ‘I’m not a bad writer, I have good things to say and people like what I’m saying.’ ”