Dark sunglasses peering at a MacBook screen.
That is my earliest recollection of Pedro (pseudonym). It was during my first month as a teacher-librarian, when I noticed the 15 year old boy in the library. He wore sunglasses indoors and sat at one of the high tables. When he was in the library, he was always alone; always gazing at his computer.
One day, I had a pile of discarded novels I was thinking of weeding, and I approached Pedro to see whether they were of interest to him. Although I knew he could hear me, his head remained at the same angle. His eyes darted several times from the books on the table back to his screen.
"Keep these," his hands landed on the Assassin's Creed series. "They are really good."
And that, dear readers,
was my initiation into participatory culture in libraries.
Pedro did not really speak much at first. Our interactions consisted of me asking him for book advice and him pointing to book covers on websites. But, after winning a grant for STEM resources, I purchased the library's first 3D printer and Pedro took notice. I quickly learned that he had his own 3D printer at home and what followed was a month of training, with Pedro as my teacher. As my designs became more advanced, so too did Pedro's. He would take items home, sand them and paint them, then return in the morning to work on them further. His designs increased with complexity, integrating circuitry and costume-making. He began making accessories for cosplayers overseas. Other students began to ask him to teach them design skills. Pedro was in his element.
It was during a lunchbreak spent printing Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) miniatures that I asked Pedro advice about starting a D&D club. At this point, he had stopped wearing his sunglasses indoors, so I could see the change in his expression.
"I can do it for you, Miss. I will be the Dungeon Master."
Pedro took on his new role with gusto. He sourced guides, handbooks, manuals, spell books and specialised dice. He designed posters for marketing and surveyed potential players. He even printed table-sized maps for his game. He was the perfect Dungeon Master! A dozen or so teenagers chose to stay in the library after school to play D&D every single week for the entire year. The commitment of the group to their new endeavour was nothing short of impressive.
I did not realise it at the time, but Pedro (and later Evelyn, Ainsley, the Year 7 Twins, and countless other students since) gained something in the library that they perhaps had not often experienced during their time at school.
Their opinions, perceptions and preferences not only mattered but were responded to and honoured in the library. Library programs, services, resources and practices were informed by the students' input, which was not only tolerated but actively sought. It was a continuous feedback loop of seeking, adjusting, presenting and seeking again. In this way, the students knew they were valued members of the participatory culture of the library. And the impact on them was tangible.
Blogging and Me
During my blogging journey in QUT's Masters of Education (Teacher-Librarianship), I have also had moments where I felt a tangible change. By this, I do not mean the times when I achieved mastery of a skill or understood a concept. These moments were bigger, deeper and arguably more humanly significant than that. These were the moments where I no longer felt like merely a student learning a thing. The moments when I realised and felt that I was part of something important - an interconnected group of like-minded people with shared beliefs and passions. I was experiencing the powerful way of learning unique to an affinity space (Gee, 2018).
Which brings me to this assignment and blogging. The act of blogging forced me to reflect on my practice, young people's lives and popular culture. I began to think more deeply about the significance of these elements on my students, colleagues and my professional learning network. Blogging provided a platform for professional discussion, with co-construction of knowledge through comments, casual interactions and reformulation of ideas allowing my learning to develop in ways that would be impossible if I had remained in a professional learning silo. Feedback from other educators allowed me to consider other perspectives and to extend my own knowledge to other contexts. For example, through feedback on a post about participatory culture and library collections, I learned that the critical nature of student agency is shared by the field of social work, linking the beliefs underpinning my practice with new frameworks and lenses from which I can understand library pedagogies, popular culture and the impact of both on young people's lives.
Providing feedback on the blogs of colleagues and peers is another way that blogging has positively impacted me as a teacher-librarian. The formulation of thoughtful and reflective comments is not as simple as it sounds. What I naively expected to be a quick Google search on effective comment-making techniques, ended up taking me down a metaphorical rabbit-hole of social media guides and psychology research. My attempts to research blog commentary highlighted the true complexities of blogging as a phenomenon which "illustrates the fusion of key elements of human desire - to express one's identity, create community, structure one's past and present experiences" (Gurak & Antonijevic, 2008, p.1).
These universal human desires for connection were evident in the comments received on several of my blog posts. A post about my Minecraft project received multiple comments, with feedback such as "I'm seriously considering my options now," and "I wonder if I could do something similar with our year 4, 5 and 6 students...". Similarly, I shared a blog post about gaming on my LinkedIn profile and responded to comments by members of my professional learning network. The seemingly minor interaction resulted in an offer to work further on an idea, creating an opportunity to authentically collaborate in real life and merging the online and offline realms. Both blog posts were originally inspired by previous interactions with members of my connected learning network, and through the acts of reformulating, reflecting and resharing, learning was able to morph beyond the individual to the collective. This experience allowed me to understand that blogging could be used as an educational tool to develop a Connected Learning environment - a student-centred approach to learning which aims to foster inspired, engaged, future-focused, socially aware and global-minded learners (Ito et al., 2013).
There is something incredibly unnerving about publishing our thoughts on the world wide web knowing anybody, anywhere in the world, could potentially read it.
What if they know more than me?
What will they think?
What if I am wrong?
Yet here I am, reviving a blog that I had conveniently forgotten since my last blogging assignment and nervously forming thoughts on a webpage.. and sort of enjoying it. It feels risky. It feels vulnerable. But it also feels important. I am simultaneously producing and consuming popular culture. I am actively participating in developing culture, rather than passively letting culture develop me.
The significance of blogging as a tool for communication as well as cultural shaping, has been widely studied. In his book, Fans, Bloggers and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture, Henry Jenkins describes bloggers as "the minutemen of the digital revolution" (2006). As commercialism and marketing take over the digital sphere, including digital media, blogging has casually stepped in as a dynamic, first-person, culturally diverse form of grassroots journalism. With 70 million blog posts published monthly on blogging platform WordPress, the mind boggles at how many blogs exist in the world today (WordPress, 2020).
It is clear that blogs are here to stay and deserving of our attention as educators. However, are we doing enough to prepare our students to think critically about their own meaning making processes within the blogging arena? In an interview about her research on young people's online practices, Mimi Ito emphasises the importance for educators to help develop the skills and knowledge required to safely and effectively participate in today's digital society (Ito, 2013). Frameworks such as The 5 Resources Model of Critical Digital Literacy could be beneficial in providing a foundation for educators to begin utilising digital tools such as blogs in their units of learning. My own experiences with blogging have highlighted the sheer volume of multifaceted skills and ways of thinking that immersion in participatory culture demands. In order to prepare students for success today and in the future, I believe educators must support young people in becoming empowered participants in the digital media space (Jocson, 2018).
Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and press publish.
Gee, J. P. (2018). Affinity spaces: How young people live and learn on line and out of school. Phi Delta Kappan, 99(6), 8-13. https://doi.org/10.1177/0031721718762416
Gurak, L. J., & Antonijevic, S. (2008). The Psychology of Blogging: You, Me, and Everyone in Between. American Behavioral Scientist, 52(1), 60-68. https://doi.org/10.1177/0002764208321341
Ito, M., Gutierrez, K., Livingstone, S., Penuel, B., Rhodes, J., Salen, K., Schor, K., Sefton-Green, J., & Craig Watkins, S. (2013). Connected Learning: An agenda for research and design. Irvine: Digital Media and Learning Research Hub. Retrieved from https://dmlhub.net/wp-content/uploads/files/Connected_Learning_report.pdf
Ito, M. (2013). Mimi Ito on learning in social media spaces (Big Thinkers Series). Edutopia. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/video/mimi-ito-learning-social-media-spaces-big-thinkers-series
Jenkins, H. (2006). Fans, bloggers, and gamers: Exploring participatory culture. ProQuest. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral.proquest.com
Jocson, K. (2018). Youth media matters: Participatory cultures and literacies in education. University of Minnesota Press.
Oddone, K. (n.d.). Blogs and blogging. Retrieved from https://www.linkinglearning.com.au/blogs-and-blogging/
WordPress (2020). A live look at activity across WordPress.com. WordPress. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/video/mimi-ito-learning-social-media-spaces-big-thinkers-series