Creating a Learning Community with your Elementary School Blog

Last year at this time, we had created a WordPress blog for each of our classroom teachers. They were to use it as a communication tool for their students and their parents.

We finally had moved away from a static website, designed in Dreamweaver and uploaded by the webmaster (me) via FTP. Teachers used to to e-mail new content to the school office to be approved and it was then forwarded to me to upload to the teacher’s site. Needless to say it was a tedious process. Updates were sporadic and few, never timely to what was going on “right now” in the classroom.

Many teachers were thrilled to finally be in the driver’s seat. They learned to upload their own images, create links to curriculum related sites, embed slideshare presentations, voicethread projects, mixbooks or animoto videos. The blogs bloomed into great showcases of what was happening in the classrooms. So what is missing?

These “blogs” are not too different than the static websites. Sure, they are now relatively updated and students are able to extend their learning beyond the classroom by following teacher selected links, double check on homework assignments that they forgot or read a teacher’s summary of something they have studied in class.

I asked on my Twitter and Plurk network about the difference between a teacher’s site and a blog used as a learning community.

The real challenge seems to be, as Susanne (snobles) points out,  that we need to create authentic interaction of the learner. Claudia (fceblog) sums it up nicely with : “Who owns the learning?”

My challenge is to lead our teachers to move away from the “lecturer” (cnansen) to an online space, where students can grow with their peers and “own” their learning. Move away from being the recipient of content to creators and collaborators of content and in the process reflect, communicate, and make connections to and within their world.

How do I do that for the elementary school crowd? Is this even possible when a large part of our students don’t know how to read or write yet? I am saying yes!

It all starts in Elementary School.

It is here where we set the tone. Here, where our students see how learning is happening and take it as the stepping stone to the next level.  So what if your students can’t read or write yet. Allow them to express themselves with audio, video or images. Get them used to “listening” to others and responding at an age appropriate level. You can make this happen on your blog.

Depending on your students age, you can :

  • have one classroom blog
    • one username and password for all students
      • students sign their comment with their first name or avatar name
    • give each student their own username and password as “Subscribers” to post comments on your posts
    • give each student their own username and password as “”Contributors” to add posts that will need to be approved by you
  • create a blog for each one of your students, where they create their own space to document and reflect on their learning, receive comments from you, classmates or blog-pals around the world.

Once the blog and the contributor levels are assigned where do you go from here?

How do you create, encourage and foster a learning community among your students?

YouthLearn.com’s article “Creating a Classroom Community: How to Inspire Collaboration and Sharing and Get Kids to Feel Like They Are Part of a Community” highlights among others the following techniques:

  • Keep the idea of collaboration in the forefront of your mind at all times.
  • Build elements into every activity so that kids learn that sharing ideas and knowledge is part of the normal routine. Applications include everything from bringing in samples for a project you are about to start to doing group shares when you are finished.
  • Have kids work in teams (especially in pairs) whenever possible
  • Always use a pair-share model as your standard operating procedure whenever introducing new concepts or demonstrating new skills.
  • Engage the kids interactively at all times. For example, don’t just tell them things—ask questions, especially leading questions, during demonstrations.

Now those same techniques can then spill over into the online version of your classroom…your blog. Think about what you value most about being part of a learning community (network).

  • Having someone there to listen to you
  • Feeling valued and appreciated when you share something
  • Being taken serious
  • Someone to clarify questions
  • Being pushed into new perspectives when “stuck”
  • Being part of a discussion
  • Being able to contribute to someone else’s learning

With this in mind, let’s use the blog, not only to communicate spelling words and pictures, but challenge our students to become part of something greater than the weekly “Friday Folder” that is being sent home to show their learning progress (or lack thereof).

Let’s :

  • Start practicing these skills in  Pre-Kindergarten (4 year olds).
    Allow students to share an experience by recording (articulate, create) or  illustrate (create) a picture about it Then take the time to listen or view it (listening) as a class and talk about it as a group (share) . Ask students to give their opinions (reflect & respond). Record the students’ responses or let them dictate you while you type them directly into the blog.
  • Kindergarten teachers incorporate a “blogger” center in their center rotation. The blogger writes (free or from a prompt). Share the blog entry and write comments to the authors as a class.
  • Upload First graders insect reports (illustrations, PowerPoint, recording, etc). Extend the learning… don’t let it end with the presentation. Create an online research center for bugs. Upload any kind of traditional student work, then allow classmates to record or write comments
  • Second graders can become science, history, etc. or classroom happening reporters…being on the lookout for “their” topic coming up in class or resources…collecting information…images…
  • Allow each student in third grade  to become an expert of one of the curriculum areas or topic of their choice. They share their research and expertise with the rest of the class throughout the year on the blog
  • Fourth graders are writing different book reports throughout the year. Find a way to use these reports to create a collaborative space on your blog. How can we get the students to “own” the learning that is taking place while they are learning and practicing to produce these “required” reports? Students divide into groups to become the knowledgeable about the state of Florida. They become responsible to inform others about their area. Allow different media of their choice to deliver that content. Make sure the feedback for their efforts on the blog does not get neglected. Repeated practice becomes routine. Incorporate reflection and feedback into the learning process.
  • Fifth and sixth graders are old enough to have their own username and password AND be responsible with its use. Use the blog as a space to incorporate their interests. Teach them to make connections between the curriculum and these interests… Be proud to share them… Allow them to make mistakes…they are perfect learning opportunities… Students should be challenged by higher level thinking questions… use prompts and feedback in your comments to guide… given more freedom in choosing their creative outlet to present a point of view, experience or lead discussion in new directions.

Bottom line: Involve students in their own learning. Let them become teachers, let them edit each other, let them learn the value of collaborative knowledge. Guide them through the process of becoming life long learners. Learning does not stop because the chapter or unit is over. Make them aware of the connections that are all around us. Share and collaborate on your blog. View your blog as your classroom’s Learning Space.