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Building Communities in an Online Environment

by Teri Lesesne
February 28, 2013
I embraced online sites and social networks years ago. However, when it came to my classes in children’s and YA literature, I resisted the move from face-to-face (FTF) to online courses. Instead, I used a hybrid approach with some FTF meetings and others done with online courseware. As the hours spent in FTF meetings dwindled from 45 to 30 to 15 to 8 and finally to 4, I was determined to build a reading community online that would mimic what I could do in a traditional classroom. The basis for my crafting an online community was to consider what elements any community of readers shared. The key aspects of community for me were three:

  1. I had to create a CORE list of books we would all read and discuss;
  2. I had to CONNECT my students with one another despite our separation; and
  3. I had to initiate meaningful CONVERSATION about books.
The first step was simple enough. I used the social networks to ask for recommendations of books that teachers and librarians who work with school aged students should know. I certainly had some criteria: diversity in genre and formats and forms and protagonists, older titles as well as newer ones, and literary as well as appealing.

Lists are, even with input from others, idiosyncratic: they do reflect me; I am keenly aware that they may not all appeal to the members of the class. Therefore, I do an activity my colleague Chris Crowe does with his students. At the end of the semester, I have the students rank the books from their most favorite all the way down to their least favorite. After I collect all of these rankings, I tally them. The books with the highest numbers are the least favorites from the class. Conversely, the books with the lowest totals are the favorites. Amazingly, there is not much that separates the top choices from the bottom rankings. I share this with the students so that they might realize that their LEAST favorite book was someone’s MOST favorite book and vice versa. This activity has never resulted in a book being replaced on the core list.

That is not to say the core is static, as every semester I replace two to three titles. New books migrate to the list because they represent some significant change in literature. For instance, when AMERICAN BORN CHINESE became the first graphic novel to win a Printz Honor Medal, it was added to the list. Other GNs have joined the list as this format continues to evolve.

The second step is a bit trickier. How can we connect with one another even though miles separate us? How can we get to know one another in an online forum? One assignment seems to connect us all as readers (and since this is a graduate level class, most students do come into the class as readers). It was an assignment I did more than 20 years ago when I took YA literature from Dick Abrahamson. In turn, it was an assignment he, too, had completed for YA literature: the reading autobiography. I invite students to tell me about their road to lifelong reading (and, for the most part, no one enters this program without a passion for reading being in place). What are their earliest memories of reading? What was reading like in elementary school? How did they learn to read? What did they read in adolescence? In college? As an adult? Students have the option of writing a traditional narrative or constructing some sort of visual (prezis, reading timelines, infographics).

As we share our journeys, two things become clear: there are certain experiences that seem to connect those who loved reading early on, and not everyone’s journey has been an easy one. The experiences that connect those of us who are lifelong readers mirror those in Carlsen and Sherrill’s (NCTE, 1988) VOICES OF READERS: HOW WE COME TO LOVE BOOKS. They include experience such as the following:

  • Having someone read aloud
  • Having access to books in the home
  • Being able to select books to read (choice)
  • Talking with someone else who has read the book
It becomes readily apparent that, while many of us read different books along the path to lifelong reading, there were some shared titles—especially a love for reading serially. The series students loved varied depending on the age of the student, but series and reading serially was commonplace.

As for the students whose journeys were more arduous, there were still commonalities. Many of my graduate students are second language learners; they struggled to learn how to read in English when they were in school (and think of what they bring to those students who are also struggling with the same task). Books were not readily accessible in their homes; libraries were not always welcoming places or were not close enough to the neighborhoods where they could be accessed. Poverty played a significant role. Seeing these similarities and differences engages students in some meaningful conversations about how their experiences will be brought to bear within the school library. Connections are being made.

Promulgating meaningful discussion of books could be dicey. I did not want this discussion to devolve into dissection, but I do want the discussion to go beyond the surface. Having students interact in online forums is much like group work in a traditional classroom: it is possible for one person to dominate and for someone to sort of fade into the background. I opted to eschew the Discussion Board portion of the course software. Instead, I am using some new apps for book reading and discussion.

p: ctkmcmillan via photopin cc
One of these is SUBTEXT, an app for the iPad (I am using this with students who have these devices already). Subtext allows a group to read a book and annotate it as they read. They can pose questions, make comments and predictions, and even share URLs and other information they link to the text. Edmodo, another app, permits interaction as well.

While it might be due in part to the Hawthorne Effect, I am seeing much more active participation and much less echoing of the comments of other students. Some of the conversation about book centers on being able to identify those salient qualities that separate a book from a piece of literature, good books from great books. Therefore, students apply criteria and evaluate books in whatever approach works best (charts, PowerPoints, Animoto, etc.). They also create bibliographies such as “If you loved ______, then you might like these books.” In other words, they are creating real world documents, the types of documents they will use as school librarians.

This conversation is critical. Even more crucial is that the conversation extends beyond our class. So, students join in #titletalk, a monthly Twitter chat where books and ideas are exchanged in a fast-paced hour of talk using only 140 characters. Here my students are able to connect with teachers and librarians and authors and publishers from all over the United States.

I will be presenting a session on building community in an online environment as part of a panel including Donalyn Miller and Terry Thompson, classroom teachers. The session, “Scaffolding Students’ Independence and Teachers’ Professional Development through Authentic Reading Communities,” is scheduled for Saturday, April 20, from 11:00AM–1:45PM. Communities increase the reading done by students, help them make connections with other readers, and challenge readers to branch out.

Teri is also moderating the author panel, “‘And Then What Happens?’ The Enduring Appeal of Series Fiction,” at IRA’s 58th Annual Convention, April 19-22, 2013, in San Antonio, Texas. The panel features Tom Angleberger (Origami Yoda series), Laurie Friedman (Mallory McDonald series), Annie Barrows (Ivy + Bean series), and Ellis Weiner (Templeton Twins series). Want more? Come see Teri when she presents the IRA Special Interest Group (SIG) session, “Celebrating Books and Reading: How Teachers Make a Difference.”

Teri Lesesne (last name rhymes with insane) is a professor at Sam Houston State University where she teaches classes in children's and YA literature. She is the author of three professional books and numerous columns, articles, and reviews. Currently, she is Executive Director of ALAN and serving on the BFYA Committee of YALSA.

© 2013 Teri Lesesne. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.


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