A Chat with Benjamin Wilkoff, School Teacher
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A Chat with Benjamin Wilkoff, School Teacher

One aspect of Ning about which we’re keenest is the facility it provides for people to go from merely consuming to creating. We call it the Ning Playground because it’s a forum for the best attributes of play: experimentation, creativity, and most of all, fun. Benjamin Wilkoff is a teacher who’s using some of Ning’s playful aspects to give his students a place to to experiment with reading and writing online. He’s also taking advantage of Ning’s easy app creation to rapidly produce a variety of educational resources for his local district. In this conversation I asked him about the many ways he uses online services to assist in his teaching, and how his students have thrived as a result.

Who and where is Benjamin Wilkoff?

I am a 23-year-old 7th/8th grade Language Arts teacher in my third year of teaching at Cresthill Middle School in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. This is my first year as a co-department chair of the Language Arts department. I grew up in a small town in Ohio called Chagrin Falls, but I came out to Colorado in 2001 to get my college degree and teaching license at The University of Denver. I found my wife at school and have stayed ever since. We are expecting our first child in October. I am now getting my masters at the University of Colorado at Denver in “The Teaching of Writing.”

I teach middle school because I love the kids at this age, so awkward and yet uninhibited. I also did not have a great time in middle school, so I thought that I would come back and try to make it better for some other kids in this painfully transitional time in our lives. I am also hopelessly addicted to music, writing, and new technology, and in support of these addictions I sponsor a guitar club as well as a writing club at the school. I am always looking for new (more effective hopefully) ways to do things, so I can’t get enough of collaboration.

In what ways do you use Ning in your teaching?

I found Ning over the summer and I was blown away by just how many things you could do with it. I first saw the potential for using Ning in a fellow teacher’s bookshelf and Q&A site, even if they haven’t produced a whole lot of content.

I took his ideas and built upon them. I decided that having a central place for my district to come together and collaborate on technology integration was really important. Although I haven’t gotten it fully up and running, I have enjoyed using The Douglas County Edusphere to further my Ning Exploits. I started with a Google Maps mashup for all of the schools in the district. I also created a calendar for collaboration using Ning because none of the big online calendar sites (Google Calendar, 30boxes, etc.) will allow just anyone to add to a calendar. I’ve now added a Q&A site for this project.

My current Ning usage, however, focuses more on my classroom and my students. I set up a book review app that is a clone of Ning Bookshelf, tweaked so that my kids are encouraged to write book reviews. My kids have really enjoyed going online and submitting their favorite books with or without reviews. For each book review that they submit on Ning they are given class credit. Some of the kids who would never recommend a book to someone else are eager to do so just because it’s on the computer. I think that Ning will help me greatly in creating a community of readers in my classroom because my students are able to take ownership of reading and responding to great books.

You’ve created a number of websites which you use in different ways around your teaching. Could you tell me a little about them?

Well, I have a school-sponsored web page that serves as the hub for most of my teaching endeavors. It is basically the aggregator for all of the other sites that I have created, plus it provides a great calendar with fully linkable homework and classwork handouts. I also have a lesson planning wiki and a lesson planning blog that work together to outline all of the things that I do with my kids. I post my agenda every day on the blog and project it during class so that my students know exactly what we are doing that day. I also use a smart board in my classes so I can simply use my hand to click on all of the links that I post to my blog.

I use the lesson planning wiki as a kind of curriculum map that organizes all of my lessons within both the framework of each class I teach as well as a fully linked web of ideas. I really like the level of detail I can get to on my wiki. I can create a
page of how-to’s or explanation of my terminology so that my students will never be at a loss if they miss a day of school. I have used the wiki to launch my writing program, my reading program and an internet safety page for parents and students, all of which have been received quite well so far. The other page that I use quite a bit is my own Edublog. I generally use this blog to post graduate school class notes, reflections on my teaching, interesting technology integration ideas, or professional development opportunities. Although I haven’t updated it in a month or so, I do plan on continuing with my technology integration wiki which will hopefully help other teachers to become more tech savvy.

Much of your teaching revolves around language and writing – both encouraging students to read and write as much as they can. How do you use technology to assist that?

I have linked to my reading and writing programs above, but I will explain my thought a little more here. I believe that writing should be as authentic – that is, with a real purpose and a real audience – as possible. I have seen blogs work for the past two years and I have gotten a little more serious about their usage this year. I believe that having an audience of your peers and having ultimate choice of topic is the only way to make writing truly real to 21st century students; blogs are the logical solution for both of these issues. (Each of my students has their own learnerblog this year to post to at least once a week from home or school.) I just wish I could have computers for my kids every day in class.

As for reading, I think that technological literacy and reading online resources can be just as important as reading paper novels. In accordance with this belief, I try to give my students as many opportunities to encounter reading material on the Internet as I can. I like the idea that the internet can enhance our understanding of literature because we can use our collective intellect to analyze the theme, language, or author intent. I also find that my students are much more capable of seeing the relationship between reading and writing when they are creating content for the web. By responding to others’ posts in comments or creating a wiki page they are growing their our body of knowledge organically rather than simply observing a unchanging cannon of words.

How do you introduce new students to the internet-based tools that you use?

I like the how-to page that I have described above, but generally I model how I have used the tools and then show my students all of the different ways that they can use them to further learning or entertainment, or both. I find more often than not, if I give my kids time to explore a resource, they find things that I don’t know about yet.

Are there new tools that you’re looking forward to using?

I’m looking forward to setting up wikis with my kids. I am also looking at geocaching as a way of exploring more authentic nature writing. More specifically I am excited about using the following websites to encourage content creation and a love of
reading and writing:

  1. Writely – For collaboration on writing dramas or stories.
  2. Glypho – For collaboration on storytelling.
  3. Quickmuse – To make poetry writing more transparent.
  4. Trackslife – To track writing progress.
  5. Standpoint – To create belief statements about reading, writing, and life.
  6. Vaestro – To create an audio forum to talk about blog posts.

There are some others, but these are the ones I am looking forward to most.

How about tools that don’t exist yet, but should? Do you have any particular designs or wishes there?

  1. I would like blogs and wikis to become more like one another. (Blogs should be more editable, wikis should allows for more community.)
  2. I want podcasting software that uses voice recognition to create transcripts of each podcast to be read while you read.
  3. I want a tool to discuss literature side-by-side with a digital copy of the book.

Maybe some of these things are possible, but maybe not.

It’s a great shame that probably the most dominant topic regarding young people on the net is the threat of online predators, and child protection. I’ve heard it said from people who’ve worked with children online that, these days, kids are much more savvy about internet use than we give them credit for. What’s your opinion on that?

Children are more savvy then we give them credit for, but some adults are more manipulative then we could ever imagine. I really like to trust my students to make good choices, but they can only make these choices once they have the information about all of their options. As stated above, I have created an Internet Safety page in order to make sure that students and parents are comfortable with teenage internet use. I use the videos and corresponding handouts for internet safety with my kids, and they seem to understand exactly what is at stake any time they become a part of the read/write web. I am also in the process of having my students come up with the rules for our blogs this year that each of them will sign in contract form.

I believe that there is a severe lack of good adult role models who are internet savvy. Once we change this in education, there is no reason why we should fear their involvement in content creation for the internet. Censorship has never lead to better understanding. It can only lead to fear, and the internet (especially in terms of education) should not be a fearful place.

Have you seen kids build their own sites and resources after using yours?

Yes. A couple of my kids are in the process of creating video-gaming websites. A couple of others have kept up their blogs. Most of the time, though, they simply become better consumers of internet content. They are better able to find exactly what they want online, tailoring it to their own interests rather than someone else’s. I am hoping that through the use of Ning this year that they will create their own sites based upon their ideas of what will be useful to themselves and others. (For example, I
have seen a “rate this car” site from a normally reluctant student.)

How do you think that creating work and taking part in communities online affects children’s writing abilities, especially with regard to more traditional writing activities?

When students become content creators online and are actively engaged in creating a community of writers, they are better able to see exactly what real writing is and what real writers do. They are no longer stuck in the bubble of meaningless prompts; they are able to break free of the confines of a teacher-centered task, and write on topics that interest them. In nearly every case that I have seen so far, my students have chosen to become better writers because of the ability to choose topics on their blogs. When I compare their pen and paper essay assessments that they took two weeks ago on a dictated prompt with their blog posts on their own topics that can be as long or as short (within reason) as they want, it is hard to ignore how much their writer’s voices shift when they are writing for themselves.

Now, I do not mean to say that pen and paper do not have their place, but I find the more I use technology in my classroom, the more intrinsic reward my students see in the writing process. They love to comment on each others’ writing, encouraging one another to become better. It takes a lot of guidance, but once they get the hang of it, I could literally sit back and watch them all write and comment and think and collaborate. I don’t sit back, however, because I know that I am a part of the community too. So, I am also writing and thinking along with them. Modeling good writing can be so powerful coming from a teacher that a student respects, but it can be even more powerful when it comes from a friend that a student loves or wants to emulate.

Just to show that I am not blowing hot air, I would like to share a few blog posts from 7th graders that knocked my socks off this week. (This is their first set of posts for our “Weekly Authentic” program.)

  • (I am not kidding. A 7th grader really wrote this.)

I could give you about 30 more that are just as good. What do these pieces say about the power of creating online communities of writers? Well, I believe that these types of posts scream that these voices are out there, and all we have to do is to tune in and listen for them on the right “frequencies”.

Do you have any plans for other uses of Ning that you’d like to incorporate into your teaching?

If I have time this year, I would like to have my kids participate in both a discussion group for the books they are reading and a question and answer site for reviewing Language Arts concepts (great for standardized testing concepts that may be boring to discuss in class.)

One of Ning’s main innovations is that of app-cloning, so anyone can look at a particular site and make a copy for themselves, cookie-cutter style. Are there any Ning apps you’d like to see created to be used in this way?

I would love to be able to combine some of the apps and take certain elements of each one to make a super-app. I would also be interested in seeing how you guys would
do with a social bookmarking site that would allow for each user to recommend websites and write a review of them.

I suggest you take a look at our Bookmarks and Review It apps – both of which could be used, in different ways, to create something like this. As for the ability to combine apps, this is something on which we’re currently working, and hope to have something very cool to show you pretty soon.

Any other teachers out there interested in using Ning and wanting to know more should feel free to get in touch with us – we’ll do our best to get you started. In the meantime, I’d like to thank Benjamin for a fascinating and thought-provoking chat!