The joy of student group dynamics

When I started at Melbourne High School several weeks into third term last year, I inherited the co-curricular group, Competition Writing. Co-curricular participation is a big thing here. Yes, it’s compulsory but the students are eager to be involved in a range of activities and their passion is palpable.
I knew it would take time to feel my way into the Competition Writing group but I was impatient for the time when I would be accepted as the co-ordinating teacher, the time when I had developed a relationship with the boys, and was eager to reshape the aims and group dynamics, the platforms for participation. The previous teacher had obviously nurtured a committed group of boys, some of whom were capably leading the group in positions of responsibility.
I had a personal mission – to take the focus from winning the competitions to something I consider more important – particularly in a school where competition is second nature to the students. I envisaged an online network which would inform and encourage, a community where collaboration and good will would provide peer support and develop collegial friendships.
And finally it’s happening – gradually the boys are discovering that the Facebook group space is providing an open door for group communication outside school hours, at the time when they actually have the time to share stories, seek advice and provide guidance. The little community is coming to life, and  I couldn’t be more pleased.
I’ve always thought it absurd that the teacher is the only audience for student writing. I suppose at my school there is enough impetus to succeed so that students are not unhappy receiving marks and commentary from their teachers. But it’s not empowering enough, not a way to prepare students for life. They are not going to be working in isolation in their jobs, and their success will hinge on the way they collaborate with their colleagues, not compete with them. The boys in this group have begun to realise how much they can learn when they share their writing (in the group’s blog, UnicornExpress), and share advice and constructive criticism. I’m impressed with their preparedness to ask for this criticism, their instinctive awareness that they can only benefit from others’ feedback instead of feeling insecure and remaining inflexible with regard to an editing process.
I can’t measure the extent to which their writing has changed since they know it’s being read by others in the group, but I imagine it would be an incentive, just as the Year 9s have been finding their own voice as they write to a peer audience in their blogs. And although I still post far too frequently (too much to share!), the boys are starting to own the Facebook group, taking the initiative to share what they know and take the lead. They have been respectful and positive, empowered and empowering – this is what the media should communicate to balance out the negative, fear-mongering articles which colour people’s view of social media and put the fear into parents and principals.
I’m proud of my boys – proud of their passion and willingness to share and nurture, and privileged to be a part of their collective talent and passionate involvement.
I’d like to finish off by showing you the kind of interaction that takes place in the Facebook group – bearing in mind this is out of school hours (Facebook is blocked at school). So here’s a snapshot of the Facebook group activity:
The students are asking intelligent questions –
They are really ‘getting’ the importance of community –
They are sharing the things they do outside school –
They are sharing their expertise and ideas –
Troubleshooting –
They’re asking for help and giving it –
Practising leadership –
There is a willingness to learn and keep learning –
 I’m proud of my students and feel privileged to be a part of their dynamic community.

Our students were told to get lost – online

Yes, it’s true, our blogging boys were told by Nick to ‘get lost’

Have you ever had the pleasure of being lost? Not just a bit disoriented, but utterly, irredeemably confounded?

The excitement of not knowing what’s literally around the corner mingles with the terrifying possibility of never finding your way back home and the result is the humbling revelation that you’re not the centre of the universe after all; your known world is a tiny speck on the edge of a vast and beckoning globe. Bliss!

I’m amused by the esoteric nature of the student tasks, and how well they’ve embraced each new challenge, putting in their heart and soul in most cases. I don’t think they’ve ever been told to ‘get lost’ online, never been asked to think about and document the randomness of online browsing, to think about how it made them feel. One of the students commented at the end of his post –

Meh. By far the weirdest task so far –

but on the whole, students have good-naturedly played along and produced writing which was well worth reading.

Nathan is an example of this:

I soon ended up at the New York Public Library which was pretty bizarre considering that I started off with moths.

However, it wasnt the outcome of my research that left me spellbound. It was how I felt. I was reading article after article that I soon lost track of time. I was so engaged with these articles that I became lost.

The beauty of getting lost online is no matter how hard you try, you may never be able to retrace each individual step of getting lost. Each time you get lost online, its always a different story; always something new.

This task has inspired me to learn in a more positive light, that the online world has more power and is more influential than we know!  

Lachie was quite enthusiastic about the whole thing:

This task has inspired me to play endless hours of the wikipedia game to satisfy my now addicted curiosity of being lost. So goodbye satnavs and goodbye readers as hours of drooling over my keyboard tirelessly playing the wikipedia game await me!

Andrew did a lot of thinking and reflecting, coming to an honest conclusion about the task of documenting the process of getting lost online –

But, this gets me thinking. If getting something that you do conciously, to become something you do subconciously, is it harder the other way around?
Immeasureable amounts of information are processed subconciously. Can we get something we do subconciously, to become something we do consciously?

I honestly have no idea.

Fantastic! Questions leading to more questions – surely this is the beginning of a healthy thinking habit.

Richard started searching ‘purple’ and got lost on the way through the wrong meaning of ‘shade’, coming across an article about ‘umbrellas used about a Bulgarian who was killied by a dose of ricin injected by a modified umbrella.’ to secret police, methods of torture and finally thought experiments and Schroedinger’s cat.

I only just realised that I was well and truly lost online, here I was reading about some wierd paradox that I have absolutely no IDEA how I ended up here. So I guess curiosity takes over the feeling of being lost online. This activity took over an hour, but it was totall worth it and I have learned a lot more about the world. Looking back on this task, I am amazed and perplexed how I started from a simple colour, purple, to a brain-frying paradox.
It must be so much more satisfying to receive a comment from your class mate than your teacher, wouldn’t you think?
On first impression, the chain of links that you followed seems rather strange, but when I read your reasoning , I felt that the process by which you got to Schrodinger’s Cat was perfectly logical and quite coherent, which surprised me as the human thought process can be quite difficult to comprehend at all. It is testament to your very well-written and highly enjoyable writing style that people will be able to read this article and connect with it.P.S. Nice one on the Schrodinger’s Cat paradox. Have you heard about Wigner’s Friend. Read it, you’ll find it quite interesting.
It’s clear when comparing first posts with those recently written that students have moved away from the kind of formal writing they consider appropriate for submission to their teacher. They’ve relaxed and become quite comfortable with writing using their own voice. They are no longer writing for the teacher in a prescriptive manner; they are writing for their peer audience, and also for their wider audience. Most of them are openly enjoying the writing task, despite the ‘weirdness’, and occasionally a student expresses criticism at what he perceives to be a meaningless task. We noticed definite cynicism expressed by a particular student recently, but, as Nick says, ‘the positive spin on …’s post is that he is thinking about his mind, and forming opinions about productive ways to use it.’
This is why we both feel the blogging experience has been valuable – students are thinking. They are thinking about the world, knowledge, themselves and about thinking itself. Their writing comes from real perceptions and is aimed at real people. And more than that, they’re sharing their thoughts with class mates and the wider world.