Monday, April 29, 2013

What kind of writer am I?

flickr typewriter typo?! 
                                         photo credit: bitzi ☂ ion-bogdan dumitrescu via photopin cc

This is an assignment for a course I am taking at Coursera called Writing II: Rhetorical Composing. The first task was to introduce myself answering the question on what kind of writer I was. Here is what I wrote:

First I should say that I was delighted with this task. I always tend to write too much in these “getting to know” you posts. They are always part of online courses and generally very informal, for this reason people tend to write the least they can to avoid overwhelming participants with too much to read. This one, it seems it is required to write a bit more. So, I am not going to feel guilty for writing more than I should. So, here I go.
I guess my introduction partially answers the question about what kind of writer I am. I am a struggling writer who just loves doing it. This love for writing is a newfound love though. I call it new because I love the craft, but I still feel like a beginner since the very act of writing itself is a struggle for me. I also see it as a recent passion due to the fact that it has not always been this intense. In the following paragraphs I will tell you the story of how it all began.
As an undergraduate student in psychology in Brazil and a graduate student in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) in Oklahoma City University City in The U.S.A., I just went through the motions in writing. Although, looking back, I think I already liked it, I saw it as just an assignment. The papers I wrote at the time were for grade and only a requirement to be filed and a form to be filled out. This formal education also gave me a chance to learn something about writing. I remember that when I was getting my master’s I always had a coach (a native speaker) to proofread my work and have always received good tips on how to write a better essay or research paper. One of my professors on some occasions complimented me on how I had progressed as a writer throughout the course. I was glad and flattered by his remarks, but I saw that as a task that had been done and writing as something I would be done with by the end of the course.
 In 2006 I participated in a workshop and was introduced to a new world: web 2.0 and the world of blogging. This new world was what forced to start writing for a different purpose and for a new audience, and as a consequence, forced me to see that I was not done with writing just yet. Now I was not being graded anymore and I was not writing for my professors, but for everyone on web that happened to come across one of my blog posts. It is funny to see now how my idea of what an audience was has changed over the years. At the beginning of my blogging journey, my immediate audience was my students. I wrote posts for them and expected them to react to what I wrote.
After some time, maybe due to my lack of training in the art of writing and also for practical and pedagogical reasons, I started finding that (writing posts myself and asking students to comment) a real drag to my students. I then handled the duty of writing to them. It was a blossoming garden of composing: all my students started blogging. I was delighted to discover how creative they were. They illustrated their posts with their own drawings and I commented on them and also asked them to comment on their peers’ posts. At that time the audience was my students and the purpose was to get them to react to what their peers had written. Therefore, I did not realize I was a bad writer and did not feel the need to start doing it myself.
Fast forward about four years and due to my involvement in professional development and my presence in the blogosphere, I started feeling compelled to take writing a bit more seriously. I had now started writing reflection posts about the things I was doing and how much I was learning. I had a need to start sharing my experiences. That was when I saw that my audience was no longer just my students but educators who were a bit more demanding concerning the quality of what they read. That was when the struggling writer emerged.
When I started writing as an educator, I realized I had a lot to learn about it. From that moment on, I noticed it was hard work to come up with something that went beyond a simple paragraph. I really have some basic doubts on where to place a comma. English, not being my first language, was also another problem because it was always so difficult for me to find the right word. I gave up posting to my blogs many times. Other times it just took me weeks to finish a post and finally add it to my blog. I tried to set a posting schedule and deadlines for writing, but it proved ineffective as a means of making me a more prolific and competent writer. It seemed that writing was not for me.
When I was about to give up, I had an idea and thought to myself that a book about writing would be a good idea. I said to myself “There should be a book with a recipe on how to write a good essay, a good blog post.”  It was with that in mind that I bought the book On Writing Well by William Zinsser. To my disappointment, I discovered that there is not a recipe for writing this or that kind of thing. My problems were far from being over. Nonetheless, this same author showed me that there was light at the end of the tunnel. I discovered through reading (and I already knew it from my own experience) that writing is difficult for everyone and that is something that, like so many other things, is learned by doing. It was about the time I was reading this book that I decided to enroll in this course and here I am. So, my name is José Antonio da Silva (my online friends call me JA), a Brazilian EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teacher in Brasilia, and I am a struggling writer. It is really nice to meet you all and be able to battle the monster of writing together.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

What we learn when we learn by doing

Mureren med sin murerske
Everyone in the education field is familiar with Dewey's axiom "learn by doing." It is well known that experiential learning is not only preferable by students, but also more effective. I recently started taking a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) on Coursera that helped me understand better what learn by doing is. While I was going through the weekly readings, I could see that the following three basic questions were being addressed: what is learning by doing? what do we learn when we learn by doing? when learning is not motivated by learning to do something (practical/experiential), what is the motivation behind It? In this post I will try to share some of the answers I found to these questions through the readings and the connections I made to my experience as an EFL teacher using technology to advance my own learning and that of my students.
First let's try to define what learn by doing is and give some examples. Learn by doing is experiential learning. Students learn by doing when they do things instead of being told about things. It is many times easier said than done. In the language classroom, students learn to speak the target language by speaking it, not by being lectured about it. The same goes for writing, reading, and listening. However, for students to speak, there should be a reason for them to do so. Therefore, teachers usually create scenarios or simulate situations to bring about a need to communicate. The more realistic the situation is, the more effective it seems in generating real communication. Having understood that, we should say that using Web 2.0 tools should follow the same "learn by doing" guidelines. Students learn about blogging by actually having a blog, posting, adding, and replying to comments.
Once we know what learn by doing is, we need to understand what one learns when he learns by doing. When there is experiential learning, what is learned cannot be put into words. If you ask a teacher who integrates technology into his teaching to tell you how to create a blog, for example, he will probably be able to show you step by step the procedures for doing it. However, he might not be able to tell you about it without visualing a given blogging platform and actually testing its features. Therefore, when one learns by doing, he learns micro scripts and scripts that help him assimilate and index new experiences. When a student has to create a blog, he first has to create an account. This one is probably a micro script that he has already assimilated. He probably knows automatically that to create an account he will have to provide his e-mail address, a user name, and so on. So what he will learn by doing will be how to customize his blog, how to insert a video or an image using HTML code or just copying and pasting. Besides that, he will also learn how to create a post and with this he will be familiar with rules for typing and editing text. He will learn that paragraphs have to be indented, that capital letters are required in the beginning of new sentences (the later might sound weird, but this is true for my teenage students). So, the scrips I have listed are extensions that are incorporated to the micro scripts he already possesses. The digital native claim proves to be a myth when it comes to creating content. This holds true especially if we are talking about young learners. So that is what is learned when one learns by doing.
However, it is not always that learning is guided by such an experiential tone. Sometimes learning is driven by reasons other than learning how to perform a specific task. In this case, learning is motivated by the willingness of knowing more. This is generally what guides professional development: a desire to learn about the philosophy behind a given practice, a new way of thinking about a given area of knowledge. It is learning for learning sake. I guess that in the field of language teaching this is the reason why EFL/ESL teachers, that supposedly already know enough about the English language, go conferences conferences as attendees or presenters and take other professional development initiatives such as reading/commenting/posting to blogs, connecting with peers through social networking channels, and taking online courses.
Finally, I would like to say that learning by doing also applies to writing. And this is exactly what I am trying to do with this blog and my posts. I confess that writing is not easy for me and I make a big effort to make my ideas come accross the way I want. Nonetheless, I never give up. I have been reading books about writing, I have just decided to blog with my students (I mean writing a short blog post after ech class reporting what went on). I did that because I read that if you ask your students to blog (which I frequently do), you should blog to. Finally, I am just about to begin a course in writing and hope I will feel more confident as a writer when it ends.