Monday, March 14, 2011

Commenting Skills: How to not be a jerk

One of the 21st Century skills I'm trying to teach my students is how to comment. I was reminded of this today at MEC 2011, when the keynote speaker, (Karen Cator, head of the US Office of Educational Technology) mentioned in an aside how much she wished there was a curriculum for teaching kids how to comment. Given the scandalous tone of many letters to the editor and comments on various websites in situations like the Egypt protests and SB 1070 here in Arizona, I knew that it is critical that students learn how to communicate their opinion without being (for lack of a better word), jerky.

One of the things that is most interesting in the brain development of 8th graders is that they are more and more capable of abstract thought, but not developed enough to do so consistently. Hence, one has to have just the right question to get everyone to want to actually think. It has to be something that is relevant (not  generic, like say cafeteria food) and be something about which everyone has, or can develop an in-depth opinion. The topic I happened to stumble upon was having the students take photos of the neighborhood surrounding their schools and then write a paragraph or two about their opinion of the neighborhood, and the impact they think it has. Then, I took one piece of exemplary writing (which happened to somewhat criticize the neighborhood) and had the other students practice their commenting skills, after we discussed what a good comment looked like.

The criteria we listed for a valid comment were:

  • It can't be one word or even one sentence (at least not an 8th grade sentence: "That's cool.") This helps the author know you actually care about what they said, and what they specifically think.
  • Explain what you agree with or think they did well. No matter how frustrated you are with someone, you will have a much more productive conversation if you can start on common ground.
  • Ask a question of the author instead of insulting or calling names. This encourages the author to think about what they said, instead of being defensive and not listening to you. 
  • Add information to the topic, by giving a related experience you've had, or the reason for your own opinion on the topic. 
  • Re-read your comment before posting. Ask yourself: Would I say this to the author's face? If so, would I be yelling when I said it? If you answered no to the first question or yes to the second, you need to take another crack at the comment. 
In education, you win some, you lose some, so I was thrilled when this lesson went over surprisingly well. Like I said, since many of the students were a bit upset with the author (who they didn't know), the criteria were a bit of a challenge, and I did end up deleting some inappropriate (read: jerky) comments, but by and large, the kids did a really quality job. We also had to have a discussion about the difference between being racist and stereotyping people, because everyone wanted to jump straight to calling the author racist, but that's another story. Check out some of the comments on this blog post, and see what you think. 

And for proof that this is a valid skill that students want to know, I had an 8th grader come back to my class later in the day with a 7th grade class (his teacher had gone home sick), and he looks around at all the 7th graders working individually on their iMovies, and says, "Wow, this is boring. We were actually having fun in here this morning." 

1 comment:

Devon Adams said...

Great post. Jennifer Lane, in our later afternoon session, also commented on commenting. I find it ironic that my own school district refuses to stop filtering blogs because they said they cannot moderate comments. This doesn't make much sense but I hear them.... then, recently, they decided to stop filtering YouTube. They've opened YouTube completely up to all instructors. Now, I don't know about but you but my Lord, the comments on YouTube are way worse than anything I've ever read on a blog. Wild.

Also, having taught Creative Writing and doing most of my online discussion in either Google Docs or using Diigo, I value and measure commenting. Posts like this are really important.