Curriculum Design as Re-Writing:

Online "Chat" as a Resource

For Radicalizing the Teaching of a Canonical Text

(Forthcoming, Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue, 6 (1), 2004, pp. 35-47)

Alice Lesnick, Alexandra Cesaitis, Uma Jagtiani, and Rashidah Miller1

The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

Audre Lorde (1984)

We must use what we have to invent what we desire.

Adrienne Rich (1993)


The seemingly contradictory epigrams that frame this article present a basic challenge to radical curriculum design. Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde, feminist writers who were friends in the struggle for social justice, speak to two paradoxical truths concerning the process of political change. Lorde (1984) emphasizes that within an essentially oppressive paradigm such as patriarchy, the very strategies of understanding, critique, and action are limited to those the paradigm will allow. Rich (1993) suggests that in the space between the available tools of thought and action – what we have – and the change and equality we seek – what we desire -- there exists a space of invention in which we may re-form our analytic and interactional tools. Both poet/theorists’ statements warn that, unreformed, traditional forms of thought cannot lead to new forms of knowledge and living. At the same time, the material available to people is always here already, always a product of what has come, been, and been thought before, channeled by culture, history, language, and even fortune.

We juxtapose Lorde and Rich’s statements to investigate their implications for teaching. We ask: Where is the space of invention between what teachers (and students) have: traditional ways of dividing the world (Willinsky, 1998) -- including students, stories, and themselves -- and what some of us want: pedagogies that enable multiple perspectives of truth and learning? This article explores how such a space of invention came about through the use of online communication as well as shared research and learning when three pre-service teachers worked to write a radical curriculum concerning a canonical text. In studying these things, we have come to regard invention in the realm of curriculum design as a matter of revision; writing curriculum appears to us in this case to be a matter of re-writing it. That is, a curriculum has roots in something that nurtured it and helped it stay in place. Radical curriculum also lives in this soil – next to, intertwined with, not fully eradicating or replacing– what came before it.



Alice: When I asked Education students in an Education seminar I teach to work in groups to create three-week curriculum units, I wanted them to grapple with the tensions inherent in curriculum design. These tensions are found between plan and process, among diverse and at times competing goals of learners, of instruction, and of educational institutions, and between stability and change as simultaneous features of knowledge. Such tensions make the term "unit" particularly impoverished as a descriptor of the dynamic processes that constitute curriculum design and enactment. My students in this course were seniors at Bryn Mawr or Haverford Colleges completing a Minor in Educational as they planned for future education-related work in a range of contexts (formal and professional to civic and personal). They wrote curricula as one assignment in a yearlong culminating course that asked them to integrate theory and practice, field experience and academic study.

To write the article that follows, we – Alice Lesnick, a faculty member, and Alexandra (Lexie) Cesaitis, Uma Jagtiani, and Rashidah Miller, three former students (now graduates) of the Bryn Mawr/Haverford Education Program – have worked as a research team.2. Our project has been to explore the role and meaning of synchronous online "chat" in curriculum construction as instantiated through a specific pre-service teacher curriculum design project. The curriculum (written by three of the four authors of this article) was a three-week unit on Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. In this article, we refer to the group of three students who wrote the curriculum as the "TKAM Group," using "TKAM" as an abbreviation for To Kill a Mockingbird. The TKAM Group, then, collaborated on the initial curriculum in order to complete a course assignment Alice had designed. Their curriculum’s innovative creation process, format, and substance suggested to Alice its potential as a source of broader learning for those concerned with curriculum design. The fact that the TKAM Group made extensive use of synchronous, on-line dialogue and composition (through Blackboard, a course management system Alice along with her college colleagues had adopted) in order to create the curriculum suggested a possible connection between the innovation of the curriculum and the students’ innovative use of synchronous "chat," situated as it was within a rich context and history of shared dialogue and course work among the students.

The choice to represent the dialogic complexity of this article’s authorship is an outgrowth of the method and theory of collaboration and representation adopted by the TKAM Group in creating their curriculum. The TKAM Group developed the term "the preservation of voices" to refer to their goal to write and teach in a way that would admit of multiple voices and perspectives, rather than seek to homogenize them. The goal of the preservation of voices contributed to the radical context of the TKAM Group’s curriculum, and was informed by their use of online "chat."

We frame the term "chat" with quotation marks to raise a question about the naturalness of this label for the activity of online collaborative deliberation and writing. Indeed, we will argue in this essay that in the case we explore, online collaborative writing proved an intellectual, practical, and interactional resource for what the TKAM Group called "radicalizing curriculum" --purposeful, strategic, and disruptive academic work not of the kind evoked by the metaphor of chatting. Indeed, the term "chat," with its connotations of unplanned, insubstantial, inconsequential activity, does not adequately convey the significance of the TKAM Group’s use of online communication. Further, the gendered association of "chatting" with insignificant, purely social, time-passing talk in fact obscures and even mystifies the serious academic work that the three women comprising the TKAM Group accomplished using synchronous online communication.



The termword "radical" is an important keyword in this study. From the outset, Rashidah and Alice were particularly influenced by one of the seminar readings, Kohl’s (1989) call for a radical children’s literature. In this piece, Kohl asks, "Are there any good books for young people that are not written from the perspective of the virtues of individualism, competition, and capitalism?" (p. 60). Kohl explores the relation between the narratives children read and the development of children’s capacity to imagine and struggle for alternatives to competitive individualism and structural inequality. He argues that without stories representing collective struggle against injustice and opponents who, while unjust, are still shown as complex humans, children will grow into adults unable to frame social problems and possible responses to them in ways that challenge and transcend economic and interpersonal individualism.

When Rashidah encountered Kohl’s text, she was engaged with an ongoing field placement for the Education seminar. Each student in the course observed and assisted in a classroom or other education-related, interactive setting for several hours each week between October and May. Class discussions and assignments asked students to consider their placement experiences in light of course readings and, as well, the placement experiences of their classmates’ placement experiences. Rashidah had designed a placement with a 7th grade English teacher in a suburban, independent college preparatory school. The class was engaged with an in-depth study of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. Rashidah found the teacher to be passionate about the literary and political merits of this novel as an exploration of racism and its opposition. While Rashidah appreciated the teacher’s engagement with the novel and concern to use it to explore issues of discrimination, she began to reconsider the novel’s import with reference to Kohl’s challenge and to question whether it in fact upholds racial hierarchies even while exposing prejudice. She became interested in reading To Kill a Mockingbird against the grain of its status as a hallowed classic, and also, at times, against the grain of her field mentor’s curriculum.

Uma also brought a prior textual connection with the term "radical" and its connection to literature.

Uma: Dresang (1999) argues that as a result of modern technology, specifically television and the internet, members of contemporary U.S. society have access to a greater number of perspectives when developing their understanding or opinion of any topic. As a result, modern youth are conditioned to need and expect multiple perspectives in order to grasp a concept. For example, she argues that texts written from the Chinese point of view help students uncover an "untold story" of the western migration, as our curriculum sought to have students uncover the untold story of To Kill a Mockingbird and Harper Lee.

Dresang goes on, "when adults severely limited perspectives available to children, they were presenting those outlooks which they believed were good, right, and moral, or which they hoped would teach children to act and be virtuous. When young people are exposed to multiple perspectives, they must learn to think and evaluate what they hear and observe for themselves. The adult role has changed from that of pre-selecting information to that of educating children to make informed choices about what they think and believe" (p. 140).

This statement gets at the heart of what we sought to do with our curriculum. We felt that it was time for the conventional method of teaching To Kill a Mockingbird to change. By conventional, we mean approaches to To Kill A Mockingbird that read the novel simply as a celebration of tolerance and the heroism of an individual to challenge prejudice. (For an analysis and critique of this approach, see Crespino, 2000). We did not want our curriculum to hand the text to students and tell them that this is something that they must appreciate, but rather to guide them through a process of evaluating and developing an informed opinion of the text. In this way, the goal of our curriculum was a radical one. As Lexie put it in her project narrative, "I’d never heard anything but praise for the novel, particularly for its merits as an anti-racist text (which is how it had been taught to me)."

Alice: While the TKAM Group did not explicitly label their curriculum as radical, their aims were consistent with radical and anti-racist traditions in curriculum theory (Kincheloe, 1993; McCarthy, 1993; Sleeter, 1993; Sumara & Davis, 1998). They were clear that they aimed to trouble simplistic, convenient (Perrone, 2000) readings of To Kill a Mockingbird as unproblematically anti-racist. Further, they sought to engage students with the understanding that curriculum, including this one, is constructed, not natural or inevitable. For example, during one of the first online meetings, Lexie stated, "I like the idea that this project won’t be so neat and tidy. I want the students to be inconvenienced a la Perrone (2000). I think it’s really important that they go beyond surface values and really get engaged by these knotty questions."

Uma: This idea of inconveniencing our students stayed with me throughout our work on the formal assignment, during our time prepping for actually implementing "The Great Debate" [a portion of the TKAM Group’s curriculum] in Rashidah’s placement classroom, and now as we continue our work as researchers.

Alice: As Uma wrote during one of the group’s online discussions, she wanted the curriculum to encourage students "to embrace their own education – how books, lessons don’t appear out of nowhere and someone actively chooses to include or not include things in curricula." The TKAM Group worked to create activities through which, in Rashidah’s words during an online planning session by the group, (Blackboard Archive, 2/15/02), students could "realize that they must not limit their comprehension of a text and/or the messages within it to the interpretations offered by their instructors and/or the conventional literary system, but that they should actively challenge what they are reading and do so by looking at a wide range of texts that speak to a large number of issues (Blackboard archive, 2/15/02).". " In this way, the TKAM Group looked to establishing range -- of positionings, readings, and texts -- as part of the work of teaching a canonical text, rather than trying to narrow students’ focus, reading strategies, and goals.

The TKAM Group’s curriculum also treated as open rather than as settled the political import of To Kill A Mockingbird. Is this novel a celebration of the redeeming power of individual tolerance and cross-racial understanding? Or is it a story that affirms the power of a white man to define and solve the problems of African Americans? Is it both or something in between? Is it a tale of the triumph of integrity over ignorance? Or does this supposed triumph rest on unjust assumptions about class and female sexuality?

Uma: How did To Kill a Mockingbird gain such esteem and how did it come to be considered a staple in the classroom? Is it timeless, or is it, rather, historically and culturally situated? Is its celebration of universal human dignity convincing or uncomplicated? And finally, how should a curriculum concerning it address such questions?


Alice: The juxtaposition of seemingly contradictory epigrams that frame this article present a basic challenge to radical curriculum design. Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde, feminist theorists who were friends in the struggle for radical social change and social justice, speak from a feminist standpoint to two paradoxical truths concerning the process of political change. Lorde (1984) emphasizes that within an essentially oppressive paradigm such as patriarchy, the very strategies of understanding, critique, and action are limited to those the paradigm will allow. Rich (1993) suggests that in the space between the available tools of thought and action – what we have – and the change and equality we seek – what we desire -- there exists a space of invention in which we may re-form and augment our analytic and interactional tools. Both poet/theorists’ statements warn that, unreformed, traditional forms of thought cannot lead to new forms of knowledge and living. At the same time, the material available to people is always here already, always a product of what has come, been, and been thought before, channeled by culture, history, language, and even fortune.

We juxtapose Lorde and Rich’s statements to trouble their implications for teaching. We ask, Where is the space of invention between what teachers (and students) have: traditional ways of dividing the world (Willinsky, 1998), including students, stories, and themselves, and what some of us want: pedagogies that enable multiple perspectives of truth and learning? This article explores how such a space of invention came about through the use of online communication as well as shared research and learning when three pre-service teachers worked to write a radical curriculum concerning a canonical text. In studying these things, we have come to regard invention in the realm of curriculum design as a matter of revision; writing curriculum appears to us in this case to be a matter of re-writing it. That is, a curriculum has roots in something that nurtured it and helped it stay in place. Radical curriculum also lives in this soil – next to, intertwined with, not fully replacing or eradicating – what came before it.



As suggested by the foregoing discussion, the TKAM Group shared a goal of radical curricular revision as they wrote curriculum designed to help students question TKAM’s status as a timeless classic. In this way, they engaged with the essential historicity of curriculum design, with the embeddedness of texts and meanings under study in a diachronic process of definition and redefinition. At the same time, the TKAM Group used a computer-mediated strategy – online communication (defined and used variously by the Group as dialogue, planning, and writing) – to meet their goal. In using an historically new medium – the "chat room," or, as it is known in the Blackboard system, the "virtual classroom" – they further underlined the diachronic quality of curriculum. Impressionistically, it seemed that the online technology had played a role in the TKAM Group’s ability to meet their goal to radicalize their teaching of TKAM, but we wanted more than impressionistic reassurance of this connection.

Alice, Lexie, Rashidah, and Uma: Thus, the research questions guiding this study include:

1. What is the significance of the online writing and experience that the TKAM (To Kill a Mockingbird) Group engaged in?

2. What does this online writing and experience teach us about the process of "radicalizing" traditional curriculum?


Rashidah: The goal of this article is to explore certain benefits and drawbacks of our use of online, synchronous communication to complete group work in a specific educational setting. In so doing, we hope to alert readers to a computer-mediated resource that may supplement face-to-face discussions for collaborative projects undertaken by pre-service or in-service teachers. As educators, we understand the value of face-to-face forums for group process, and would like to be very clear that our goal is that computer-based tools such as Blackboard be viewed as supplements to not substitutes for in-class discussion and face-to-face group work. We each agreed that had we not had a regular, required face-to-face encounter (during our weekly class meetings), we would not have been as successful in our online meetings. A degree of in-person social comfort and humor, face-to-face check-in meetings about our progress and next steps, spontaneous, even incidental, input from our classmates and professor about the evolution of the curriculum design assignment, and our all sharing in an embodied way the ongoing work of the seminar all contributed to our online experience. Even if we did not discuss the project’s content during these face-to-face interactions, they served as a necessary foundation for our ease of interaction online.

Alice: In order to meet this goal, we have used a range of methods. Analysis and coding of the 14 archived on-lineonline discussions between the three members of the student group between February and May of 2002 formed the initial basis of our study. We conducted analyses and coded individually and through group dialogue. In addition, once the research process was underway, we concluded that written narratives by each of us describing and discussing our involvement with the curriculum project and subsequent study would be important sources of knowledge, synthesis, and questions. These narratives, the archived Blackboard sessions, and the students’ written curriculum comprise the data set for this article.

To write the article, we have sought to preserve the dialogic process and product so central to the student-written TKAM curriculum. We have composed the text collaboratively, in both face-to-face sessions and with use of America Online’s Instant Messenger. As a research team, we represent a hybrid example of teacher research, practitioner research, and action research. For the students exploring their own writing process, this study is an instance of practitioner research. For Alice, examining work her students did in a course she taught, this is teacher research. For all of us interested in challenging the teaching of To Kill a Mockingbird, this is action research, as it is for the TKAM Group insofar as Rashidah’s placement teacher gave them the opportunity to road test portions of their curriculum with her students. As written text, it is also an intervention in the assumption that academic writing must always be mono-vocal.


Alice: To sum up the facts: the TKAM Group collaborated to write a three-week curriculum on To Kill A Mockingbird. They sought to write a curriculum that would engage 7th grade students, such as those with whom Rashidah was working in her field placement for the course, in a critical reading and transforming experience of the novel, one that would invite them to question its social and racial messages and meanings.

The TKAM Group used the themes of perspectives and "the untold story" to organize and unify each week of their three-week curriculum. Week 1, "The Newspaper Project," asked students to write from the point of view of a selected character and thus grapple with the situatedness of knowledge and identity and its impact on the text’s meaning. Week 2, "Behind the Words," focused on contextualizing the novel through a study of the author’s situated identities and a comparison of these with those of other writers and of the students’ themselves. Week 3, "The Great Debate," engaged students with reading and creating scholarly critiques of the novel in order to question its place, role, and value in the curriculum and in the canon.

It is interesting to note that in writing a Language Arts and Social Studies oriented curriculum, all three of the students were working outside of their major fields of study. With their majors in Math, Biology, and Psychology, the TKAM Group members were not as constrained by disciplinary traditions or professional standards as they might have been as English Education specialists. Two of the three students had not read To Kill a Mockingbird prior to the curriculum project. All three had studied literacy education as part of their work for the Minor in Educational Studies.

The TKAM Group submitted a final written product distinguished by an innovative form. Inspired by their use of online collaborative writing in the preparation of the curriculum, they decided to write the three-and-a-half-page introductory portion of their in a dialogue form (adopted for this article, as well). The assignment had asked students to state the value and hoped-for outcomes of their curriculum, and other students wrote about this material in a univocal way. By contrast, the TKAM Group crafted a dialogic account of the value and purpose of their curriculum that, while coherent, preserved the distinct concerns and lenses brought by its three authors. For Uma, these centered on investigating history; for Rashidah, they focused on de-centering canonical readings; for Lexie, they emphasized empowering students to challenge texts, teachers, and one another. The introduction, dialogically written, showed influences and relationships of these focal areas.

For the instructional plan itself, the students each took leadership over one week of the curriculum and took primary responsibility for writing weekly goals and projects, daily objectives, activities, assignments, and assessments. They then annotated these plans with commentary written by individual group members about the ideas and goals underlying them. These annotations were written in italics in a univocal style in which the group spoke as one, using "We" instead of "I," as in, "By grounding the assignment in a particular anecdote, we hope the student will see his/her work in the context of his/her life." Thus, the curriculum as an artifact maintained and represented its collaborative history and linked these to its goal that students entertain multiple perspectives ofn To Kill a Mockingbird.


Alice: Since the course in which the student team undertook this project included the use of Blackboard, an on-lineonline course management system, the students had the opportunity to experiment with synchronous online communication as a collaboration tool. Although the class as a whole had not been required to use this feature of Blackboard, it was available as an option to each curriculum group. At first, the TKAM students turned to it for convenience (and even found themselves able to meet when one member was out of town). Eventually, however, they found in it a way to forward one of the goals of their curriculum: the "preservation of voices." Rather than write pieces of their curriculum separately and then blend them in the final paper, or write the entire piece as a group, they decided to preserve the dialogic form they had developed online, inspired by the process of co-constructed, written dialogue they had developed online. This decision followed from a statement by Lexie during an online planning session: "OK. So you want to start expressing ourselves in a dialogue about what we’re aiming to do? We can edit and compile all this later so I say we just write." (Blackboard Archive, 2/17/02).

As Uma put it in her research narrative, "We discussed the frustration that comes with allowing other people to manipulate your words for the purposes of group papers. We felt that resulted in a muddied voice rather than one strong voice." Thus, the medium enacted the message of the curriculum, in that it sought to help students pursue multiple and at times contradicting interpretations and evaluations of the novel – in Rashidah’s words, "listening to others and constructing knowledge from the voices of many." The process of experimenting with the online communication medium seemed to interact with the substantive development of the curriculum. Figuring out Virtual Chat and figuring out radical curriculum design became a pair of linked processes for the TKAM Group.

At the same time that the TKAM Group members were venturing into new territory, it is important to note that they did so in the context of a great deal of experience concerning group work. In fact, they referred to their own familiarity with the promise and pitfalls of collaborative projects often.

Uma: In addition, our mixed feelings towards group work influenced the group work assignments we set out for our imagined students. Though we all could see the advantages of working in a group we ourselves were struggling with ways to preserve individual voices. To be noted is the fact that though our imagined students often worked in groups and often completed writing assignments, we never assigned something that required multiple voices in one paper. We forced the would-be students’ writing assignments each to each be their own. (We created assignments asking students to write their own articles, their own biographies, and their own speeches.)


Lexie: The three of us were on a friendly basis prior to beginning the project, but had not worked together previously on a group project. We did not know very much about each other’s backgrounds and interests, despite having had the occasional Education class together over our four years of college. After an initial exploration of the issues teaching the text presented, we realized that we felt a shared enthusiasm for the topic. We became the TKAM group. We also quickly discovered another trait in common: business. All three participants in the group were writing senior theses, conducting a job search, working on extracurricular projects, and taking a full load of classes. Working out mutually agreeable times to meet and work was going to be a challenge. It was really out of this necessity that we came to use Blackboard as our meeting site. I don’t believe any of us felt particularly drawn to the forum for technology’s sake. In fact, many of us expressed trepidation and confusion in using the online forum at the first "meeting.". (We have the benefit of having all of these on-lineonline meetings archived, as they were written, as a feature of the program.). In addition, we all shared a willingness to experiment with this new method of group meeting, despite our initial apprehensions.

In part, this willingness was a product of the extensive experience we shared of group work and group projects. As members of perhaps the first generation of students whose pre-college and college education included frequent group work, we were savvy and at times almost cynical about the demands and liabilities of this process. In this case, we needed it to be efficient, equitable, and interesting. After the success of the first Blackboard meeting, we decided to use the forum for almost all subsequent meetings.

Looking back at the archived conversations definite trends emerge. For example, we started each meeting with pleasant exchanges ("Hi, How are you? How’s this or that going?"). Often these discussions occurred between the first two to enter the chat room, while waiting for the third to arrive. This friendly communication between us helped form the bonds we shared as a group. We found ourselves discussing the day-to-day happenings in our life that we would not normally have discussed as mere classmates, as we had been over the years. After we had all "assembled," one of us would direct the flow of conversation to that day’s work: sorting through the ideas in the text for the purposes of designing the curriculum.

Eventually, we realized that we could use the archiving feature of Blackboard to preserve our voices and simply edit our own words to make the final project. As in the occurrence of our first online meeting, this was a decision resulting from out of a desire to get things done. None of us was willing to let one person spearhead the project (i.e. shoulder the majority of the burden of writing), and we all felt strongly that we wanted all of our voices and each of our perspectives to be heard. The online forum enabled us to complete the project in a way that joined our practical and ideological needs. In contrast with face-to-face communication, it provided a vehicle through which we could enact the goal of collaborative writing without collapsing individual differences. The fact that we could simply write, in a way that positioned us at once as together and separate, without having to engage in unmediated social negotiations concerning care-taking and politeness, rendered this way of working well-suited to our purposes.

Some of the sections (mainly, the details of each week’s lesson plans) were written up individually after we had agreed as a group what they would contain. All of the other portions of the project (those that identified our goals and objectives for the curriculum) were drafted in this dialogue format. In a way, we did not even recognize how smoothly the process was going until we had finished and looked back at what we’d done. We had managed to get it done and all be satisfied with the result!

Looking back turned out to be a fascinating activity. As soon as we began to read the archives for the purpose of this article, we each delighted in finding funny patterns and quirks in our writing styles. We laughed at the way we had nearly always begun the conversation with some exchange of pleasantries or a shared joke. One particular feature of the individuals in our group, that none of use considered ourselves to be technological wizards, served first to stress then to strengthen our group identity. We might not be computer science majors, but we were in it together.

Rashidah: What is often lost in online communication is the ability to see the fine distinctions that come through in verbal communication through intonation and tone of voice. To complete this project we each developed an online "tone" for when we were communicating casually (as when greeting each other that the start of our sessions) and a second "tone" for the purpose of communicating our work-related thoughts. We became comfortable enough with each other’s tones that we were able to easily distinguish the differences in each other’s styles. For example, in the meeting that we intended to use for our curriculum’s Statement of Hoped For Outcomes and Values (part of the assignment Alice initially gave our class), we began chatting casually until Lexie prompted us to start our formal writing by saying, "OK. So you want to start expressing ourselves in a dialogue about what we’re aiming to do?" and then adding in, "We can edit and compile all this later so I say we just write." We all then immediately switched to a more formal tone of voice and began stating our objectives building off of one another’s ideas and beliefs. Approximately two thirds of the way through the conversation we switched back to a more casual mode to check in and confirm that we all felt the process was going well. Once again we returned to a formal tone and continued the writing we later included in the project.

Alice: In seeking to understand the success of the TKAM Group in collaborating by means of online synchronous "chat," we have found that studies concerning such a computer-mediated approach seem dominated by a focus on impersonal communication in which interlocutors do not know one another or share an embodied context (Rodino, 1997). We have also found gender-focused treatments of the topic, but these seem to rely on gendered comparisons and dichotomies (Sussman & Tyson, 2000) rather than explore the variations of discursive style adopted within all-female communication among people who already share context and history. These tensions point to broader issues concerning how we imagine the workings of computer-mediated technologies. That they emerge from machines does not mean that we must adopt impersonal (even inhuman), mechanistic, or anti-dynamic paradigms for envisioning their use.

Lexie: In her research on gender differences in computer-mediated communication, Susan Herring (2000) describes the differences between male and female posting styles and the impact these can have on women’s willingness to engage in discourse. She argues that in the context of the intenet, women and men engage in what we might consider very traditionally gendered exchanges. According to Herring’s findings, the female style is characterized by ‘supportiveness’ (expressions of appreciation, gratitude, and community) and ‘attenuation’ (apologizing, expressing doubt, asking questions, hedging). The male style is generally more forceful. While our own online forum differed from those in Herring’s research (we were not anonymous users of a list-serve, but rather private users of a university-owned forum who interacted face-to-face on a regular basis), she lends certain insights into our work.

As an all-female group, we did engage in both the attenuating and supporting styles that she described, despite the absence of men. However, we often used those exchanges as a starting place for more serious exchange. While the tone of our exchanges remained respectful throughout, our confidence grew to the point where we felt comfortable enough to "compose" our final writing for the project together online. Our writing took on the serious, work-minded tone of three women at work, not simply "chatting."

Alice: Indeed, the academic authority of the TKAM Group’s online writing has consistently impressed me as significant. The tone of their writing combined formal and spontaneous elements, sounded to me both voiced and abstract, was surprisingly authoritative, rather than consistently care-taking or people-pleasing. It made me question the term "chat," including its gendered association with insignificant women’s talk. It also troubles the association of relatively firm traits with female communicative behavior online, helping show how gender is not so much "pre-formed as performed" (Rodino, 1997; West & Zimmerman, 1987).

The diachronic analysis of the TKAM Group’s online "chat" sessions has also suggested the usefulness of studying an all-female groups of writers with prior shared history (including experience of debates on the status of computers and communication as gendered subjects) and shared commitments, rather than structuring studies according to a two-gender-comparative framework. Such study may afford a means by which to challenge the trait-focused binarism that typifies comparative (male/female) studies of gender and language and the impersonal, de-humanizing dimensions of computer use. Neither modes of thought is inevitable. In the TKAM group’s online writing, sociability as well as task- and authority-focused dialogue occurred, sometimes simultaneously. In Rodino’s (1997) words, "’[A]uthoritative’ orientation and ‘personal orientation ([Herring, 1993)] are not mutually exclusive characteristics." While this article does not afford us the scope to investigate comprehensively the gendered dimensions of the TKAM Group’s experience, it is important to mark some of the ways in which the Group’s work enables inquiry into online gendered experience.

Rashidah: With my ongoing senior thesis research on AOL’s Instant Messenger in the periphery, I attempted several times during TKAM Group sessions online to try out some of the linguistic and conversational tools such as slang or emoticons that mimicked those used in the AIM conversations that my thesis group had been analyzing. I noticed that, for the most part, I was the only one employing such methods, as there was very little reciprocity by the other group members. I reasoned that more formal conversational forums such as this did not engender typical AIM practices (practices often associated with females) because they were a lot more goal-oriented than most online exchanges students participate in.

Lexie: Within the context of this project, we learned to use online chat and then put it to use. While we initially approached Blackboard as novices, and somewhat nervous ones at that, we developed a sense of authority within and over this a new medium. Alice referred to us as the Blackboard experts in class, and even invited us to present our online work to faculty members at a session on instructional technologies (which we did). For me, most important was the experience I gained, through online writing, of a free exchange of writing and ideas, without the intense pressure to coordinate and cushion interaction that I have often felt in face-to-face group work. Using the master’s tools, then, in this way we rebuilt the academic house we desired to live and work in.


Rashidah: With Blackboard’s archiving feature, we were able to successfully maintain individual and multiple voices depending on what part of the project we were working on. For example, the statements of purpose and hoped-for outcomes were written primarily in individual voices in dialogue, but the instructional plans were more multi-vocal, though homogenized. While most aspects of the project were influenced by all group members due to extensive brainstorming and collaboration, figuring out which sections of the curriculum were better written primarily by an individual as a "solo" and which ought to be composed by the group in a more choral forma "chorus" was a key element in the success of our online collaboration process.

During and especially after our work with the online component of the curriculum project, we actually unearthed quite a few pros and cons for online chat versus face-to-face group process. Several positive and negative features inherent in this online tool were brought to light after an analysis of the archived brainstorming sessions. The emergence of various roles taken on by each member was one of the first things observed. In several logs, I served as the informant, providing feedback offered by Alice to problematize our design. With the information I provided, we were able to further express our goals while making sure that all of the guidelines on the project assignment sheet were being met. Other members of the group functioned as either innovators, finding new and exciting ways for us to challenge ourselves and the project, or anchors, bringing us back to the task at hand and allowing us to stay grounded in the feasibility of these challenges.

While the Blackboard forum served to bring out each of our strengths, it also brought out a few weaknesses. I knew, for example, that I typed a bit more slowly than most and that it took me longer to process my ideas into coherent sentences. I struggled therefore in the beginning with my ability to contribute to the ongoing discussion. A feature of Blackboard that changed all of that was a cut and paste function that allowed me to copy ideas from a previously written document and place them into the ongoing message field. For me, being able to formulate some concepts in advance and present them in this format, proved a more helpful and productive way for me to involve myself in the online sessions.

Uma: On the other hand, I have a hard time processing my thoughts about a particular issue in advance, and thus found it extremely helpful to have Rashidah’s thoughts prior to the meeting as points to spark thought and discussion.

Rashidah: Other more subtle conversational elements in Blackboard that were highlighted were the turn-taking styles and conversational maxims we each used. We noticed that we all took turns supporting each other’s statements, which was quite similar to face-to-face discussions in that it offered a sense of validation and willingness for each member to take further risks. We naturally began to affirm each other’s thoughts and ideas with explicit statements since we could not rely on the usual body language and facial gestures that occur during face-to-face communication to let someone know that their ideas are understood and appreciated. A seemingly unavoidable problem (which again ties back into the issue of typing speed) was the fracturing of ideas due to either time lag or abrupt changes in topics. Although we all tried to be "on the same page" so to speak, it was somewhat difficult for us to stay focused throughout the length of the chat session.


Alice, Lexie, Rashidah, and Uma: The conclusions we draw from the foregoing analyses include the following:

Uma: In many ways, challenging the history of how To Kill a Mockingbird has been taught ran parallel to our challenging the ways group work was completed. We all felt that simply because a text has always been taught in a particular manner does not mean that the text should continue to be taught in exactly the same way. As time passes society evolves, as does the manner in which students learn and engage in curricula. It seemed obvious to us that for a curriculum to remain effective for the students it seeks to address, it must evolve with the society around it.

Alice: From the beginning, we were interested in what happened when the TKAM Group used a new communication tool in the process of group work and curriculum construction. Without framing it this way at the time, we were already asking about the historicity of curriculum construction when we wondered whether the online communicative environment had opened up new pathways for collaboration and representation.

Does it? We remain convinced that the serendipitous adoption of online dialogue did contribute to the "preservation of voices" that became an important anchor for the curriculum we created. Our experience with online collaborative writing suggests that at least this use of technology can be humanizing and relational, rather than impersonal and standardizing. At the same time, we believe that the use of this computer-mediated tool succeeded because it followed (rather than directed) the inquiry-based aims of Alice’s and the TKAM’s group’s curricula (Shields, 2001). The TKAM Group used online synchronous chat to enrich their interactions, not replace or simplify them.

As newcomers to this media, The TKAM Group enjoyed the process of exploration and innovation it enabled for them in its use for us as curriculum writers. At the same time, important issues ranging from access, to training, to the importance of a prior, shared intellectual context, to teachers’ confidence in using new media complicate our thinking about others’ adoption of our ideas here.





This study has led us to begin research linking the TKAM Group’s online experience of curriculum construction to other teachers’ beliefs and experiences in teaching To Kill A Mockingbird. There is a striking gap in the educational literature on To Kill a Mockingbird concerning differently positioned (in terms, for example, of focus, region, and degree of experience) teachers’ lived experience of and knowledge concerning the teaching of this often-taught book. In order to understand and generate further anti-racist curriculum and curriculum theory, we must know more about what teachers know and do in relation to novels such as To Kill a Mockingbird. We are now working to connect ethnographic inquiry into teachers’ work with the novel to theory-building on the role of literature and writing in socially reproductive and radical curriculum design.

Also necessary to a better-informed understanding of what happens when students engage with read, write, and talk about To Kill a Mockingbird is s the construction of an account of the novel within past and contemporary English/Language Arts curricula in the U.S., including, in particular, that of the teacher with whom Rashidah and eventually the TKAM Group worked. Without a clear history of this book in U.S. classrooms, we remain ignorant of the strong roots radical curricula concerning it are attempting to dislodge. Those seeking to radicalize curriculua must join in dialogue with teachers and students about its the historical and discursive soil rootedness.



1. We wish to thank Alison Cook-Sather, Maud McInerney, Kirsten Small, Theresa Tensuan, and the reviewers of the American Association for Teaching and Curriculum and Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue for help in the creation and representation of this study.

2. We signal authorship of this article in several ways, in keeping with the exploration of collaborative writing that is part of the article’s focus. Some portions of the article, such as the opening paragraphs, were written primarily by Alice Lesnick with revision by the entire research team. Other portions of the article were written primarily by Alexandra Cesaitis, Uma Jagtiani, or Rashidah Miller; those portions are attributed likewise.




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