Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Close Commenting: An Essential Skill

Conversation snippit: see 2nd paragraph
Have you ever read a blog post, Facebook update, or online news article then scrolled casually down, only to find CONTROVERSY?  These are not only the liveliest but also often the most thought-provoking scenarios in my web-day.

Consider this post by John Spenser at Education Rethink, a blog which I follow with a critical eye. John is gutsy and writes exactly what he means to say. But do you think he thought that Do We Still Need Schools and Teachers (A Thought on Holes in the Wall) would elicit a series of responses from Sugata Mitra?  I have met with Mitra (in a living room in Maine...) and I am not surprised.  I am a bit disappointed that John did not extend the conversation more.

Another of John's posts (Facebook), resulted in a long discussion about the content of a math test question.  Although I agree with John on this one (he continues his own thoughts in a 2nd blog post), I have to admit that many of the comments gave me pause.  I have not yet done so, but it seems to me that by stepping back and re-reading these comments, I might be able to isolate a significant problem within k-4 math education.

We are talking about small pieces of text in a list, yet the above are examples of the type of discussion that we should require our students to engage in.  In fact, standards ARE requiring students to have these discussions.

Close Comments are comments that extend, critique, further support, refine or otherwise analyze a specific argument or element in a text (yes, this could be a media text).

Consider your local online newspaper - it doesn't have to be the Times.  On a good day, literate and intelligent readers extend the conversation begun in an editorial, letter or article.  On a bad day (at least in Maine), after reading the comments you might consider moving to another state.  Either way, close comments from readers propel you, the reader, to more closely consider the issues and information, and they might propel you to reread the original text or follow a link suggested by a comment writer.

Think about this: If we expect - require - students to write not just 120 characters but full paragraphs about ideas - as we now must do beginning in grade 3 - why do we not require students to fully comment on the online texts they read, review, or edit?

I have taken to closely commenting on Scoop.it content that does not merit wide dispersal without comment.  More often than not, someone responds to my criticism, often multiple people, and a conversation is engaged. Were I simply to rescoop a scoop, post, or tweet, I would not be entering a conversation.  By and large, sharing tools lead to a scatterplot instead of a conversation. This has its place, surely, in trend detection and trend creation, which are critical thinking elements, but it is not an action that develops an essential thinking skill for learning.

In contrast, Close Commenting is itself a critical thinking skill.  

Excellent comments generate conversation.

But wait - there is more.  As noted in this Dot Earth post by Andrew Revkin, commenting can serve a social, political, and even an ethical purpose. This is all educational, for the reader as well as for the writer. We can view "crowd-commenting" as a mechanism for issue groups to "build their online presence through more engagement in comments on articles or blog posts" (source). What is a student analyst if not an issue group of 1? Through the mechanism of a commenting conversation, that student will develop, refine, and adapt his ideas and their evidence. 

Imagine if student "crowd-commenting" (or comment blitzing, to use Revkin's phrase) were used to:
  • analyze a film's use of visual imagery to develop meaning  (sample: respond to The Shining Code 2.0)
  • debate, using textual evidence, questions such as "Who is responsible for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet?" (respond to anchor paragraph or essay)
  • present evidence supporting a poet's use of imagery to develop meaning (respond to anchor essay)
  • trace an author's development of character or POV using textual evidence (respond to a passage or short story)
  • explain the use of fairy tale patterns in The Hunger Games (respond to film of HG or to an animated video of "Hansel and Gretel"...)
And so on.  

But this will only work if the comments are factually and logically accurate, precise, and complete.  Emotional, unsupported, or vapid commentary, which often crowd the Comment field, can be effectively drowned out by extensive and documented discussion pertinent to the issue at hand (not necessarily in support of the initial assertion, either).  

The educational value of Close Commenting goes beyond the value of blogging.  When we require deep, critical, commenting, and assess it, we build the skills of both writing and close reading.  It is an essential skill.

At any age or school year or subject, a Close Comment should have these elements:

  • a specific reference to a key element of the text (the original text or a comment to which the student is replying), quoted and introduced correctly: __________ [or You] states/asserts/proposes/criticizes X/assumes/identifies X, "______________________.") - this demonstrates that student has done a close reading of the source text
  • a transitional or introductory word or phrase, which should avoid using "I" (Another argument/example/interpretation - On the other hand - The opposite is true - etc.)
  • a discussion or logical explanation of the validity of the point being made
  • (optional) a concise summary of what has been said
Sound familiar?

How to?  Do not just ask a question.  You must provide analytical or informational or argumentative text to which students will respond (not creative text).  I personally like provacative science texts, cartoons, short videos (include ads) and "out there" interpretations of events or texts.  Make yourself a collection of these appropriate to your students and your school.

The space (real or digital) to which you post this text must have a reply feature.  The space must be visual in that all Comments and the reply thread are visible to readers. Some suggestions:

  • Safe: 
    • digital classroom - using a blogging platform to which students have been given accounts (such as Google's Blogger through Google Education, Kidblog or edublogs), use a private post to post a text - invite students and begin the conversation 
    • digital classroom - using an ed.Voicethread account to which students have accounts, post a text - invite students and begin the conversation
    • ditto Thinglink
    • post text on large paper or paste onto poster board - student can respond on index cards and attach responses, maintaining the vertical alignment of online comments and with horizontal space for branching (replies)
    • digital use a "brainstorming" platform (such as to create a web
  • Less safe:
    • Scoop an article (after you have created an account and a Topic for yourself), send students to the URL or embed your Topic elsewhere online, and let the conversation begin
    • use any blogging platform that can be accessed through your school, post a text, etc.
    • embed Close Comments in YouTube videos that have been posted to YouTube
  • Badges:
    • recognize the best student Close Comments by making them source texts or by posting them in some way - in your comment, point out what makes this an excellent example
There are other tools for Close Commenting.  If you have a favorite, let me know.  Other ideas?


  1. I see your point. I really hadn't thought much about extending versus closing the conversation. If you look at the second comment Mitra wrote, I responded to his four points and we had more of a conversation. I feel that in that moment I wanted to clarify information rather than extend the conversation.

    1. I suppose the author of a source text should be excused from my "rules." Thinking as a teen or tween, it might be very difficult to respond to (even well-written) commentary. I tried to express the value of the comment stream is more for the reader than for the original writer. I think of it as a long, winding complex text road.
      You do more than most to encourage conversations. What I personally dislike is bloggers and authors who end posts with "Do you have any thing to add to the list?" That is not a conversation, although it might make for a nice list poem. I would rather get a suggestion in an email and save the comment space for content rich text.
      Anyway - glad you responded. I do know that you continued the conversation - sorry I did not note that.