Taking Student Blogging to the Next Level?

I have been blogging for over 4 years now. In my very first bog post (February 20, 2006), I wrote :

This Blog is an experiment. I am fascinated by the possibilities of blogging in the foreign language classroom. I will document what I have learned and hopefully inspire other language teacher to try their own blogs.

By my second and third post (February 26, 2006), I was already wondering how to get my students into blogging:

How will I set up a Blogs for my upcoming Technology Summer Camp?
Here are a few things I am concerned about and need to find out before I decide with which Blogging Software to use.
I will need to be able to set up passwords, that only my students are able to edit and read our blogs. As the teacher, I need administrative control over all my students’ individual blogs.
They will need to be able to write in their own blogs, but need to be able to comment on each other’s blog.

In 2008, I wrote a series of  “How To- Posts :Blogging for Teachers”:

Since I have never been a classroom teacher, I had/have to rely on After-School/Summer clubs, work with the classroom teacher as the guide on the side or as the presenter at Professional Development opportunities. I have learned from being in these roles, that I have little control over to what level the students will actually rise to. I have learned that it is up to the teacher to set the bar to what the classroom or student blog can be.

My goal has been to see students become members of a classroom learning community with the blog as the virtual hub of conversation, collaboration and dissemination for their work.
Blog vs. Static Website for the Classroom

Many benefits of blogging seem to become apparent over time. That has happened in my own learning journey as a blogger as well.  It is the reflective nature and the timeline of a blog, as well as the growing connections with readers that will reveal growth as a writer, the benefits of being a member of a network and a contributor to a global community. I fear that teachers might give up too early on classroom or student blogs before the initial learning curve for teachers AND students has been overcome.  I worry that teachers might get stuck at the stage when the blog platform is merely a static website.

How can we support teachers and facilitate that a blog becomes “something more”?

  • How can we prepare classroom teachers to not get hung up on the initial [technology] learning curve of setting up, maintaining and administering the blog?
  • How can we help teachers transfer their teaching/learning objectives, skills to a blogging platform.
  • How do we get over the hurdle of making a classroom blog just another writing assignment for students to complete?
  • How can we use a blog as a tool to deepen learning?
  • How do we awaken curiosity to read about a variety of subjects and topics?
  • How do we help students understand that their thoughts, work and contributions matter in the big scheme of the world and/or bloggersphere?

On Wikipedia, you can read about the Information Age:

The Information Age, also commonly known as the Computer Age or Information Era, is an idea that the current age will be characterized by the ability of individuals to transfer information freely, and to have instant access to knowledge that would have been difficult or impossible to find previously. The idea is linked to the concept of a Digital Age or Digital Revolution, and carries the ramifications of a shift from traditional industry that the Industrial Revolution brought through industrialization, to an economy based around the manipulation of information

We have to realize that we are one decade into the 21st Century and that we have moved on from the Industrial age our schools are set up for to an Information Age. I am reading frequently (Ex. Daniel Pink’s “The Whole New Mind”, Thomas Friedman’s “The World is Flat”, Heidi Hayes Jacobs’ “Curriculum 21″) that what matters in our age is not the the ability to know all the information, but to be able to locate, evaluate and to CONNECT the easily available information .

I believe that we, as educators, can use a blogging platform with our students to

  • expose
  • show
  • practice
  • become skilled

at exactly that.

  • How do we make sense of information
  • How do we reflect on information?
  • How do we connect information?

A blog is a tool. A TOOL!!! It is NOT about teaching the tool. It is about allowing teachers to integrate all subject areas (if desired) by addressing multiple skills and literacies.

A teacher from Bangkok writes on her blog Shine On a post titled The Reluctant Blogger:

I now have 21 students with blogs, they have another 100 counterparts in our grade at our school alone, and it’s just really hard to get them (okay, myself, too) motivated to comment thoughtfully and in a way that constructs learning.  They (we?) might be happier to comment on and play with the digital pets they like to put up, but what about the big ideas we were hoping to see growing on our blogs?  The inspired writing?  The organic learning?

And yet I persevere.  I am curious to see if my students will respond to the questions I am starting to leave in my comments to them.  I am trying even harder to have blogging replace, rather than add on to existing activities.

What stands out for me are the three questions she asks:

  1. What about the big ideas we were hoping to see growing on our blogs?
  2. The inspired writing?
  3. The organic learning?

I am venturing out to say that I have found the answers to her questions in the Middle School Blog of Mrs. K., the Language Arts teacher at the school I teach at. The blog is very young (less than a month old), but I am seeing unfold exactly what I was hoping a blog could be.

The class started by looking at other classroom blogs and to think about what writing and commenting etiquette was. Mrs. K. made it very clear what she was expecting regarding the quality of student comments.

  • Acknowledge the author of the blog post.
  • Let the author know if you agree with him/her and why.
  • It is also ok to disagree with something, just let the author know why you feel that way.
  • One word comments are not very useful. Writing just “cool” or “nice” are not very helpful and don’t let the author of the blog post really know what you are thinking.
  • Always make sure you follow “netiquette”. Think if it is appropriate BEFORE you hit the submit button.
  • Always be polite . It does not matter if you agree or disagree with what you are reading in a blog. Don’t write anything you would be ashamed of saying to someone’s face. Don’t hurt somebody’s feelings.

Make sure you check out some of students’ thoughts in the comment section of that post.

The teacher then guided students’ curiosity and writing with an editorial blog post titled “Do Killer Whales Belong in Captivity?” The students’ comments are well thought through (there has been a class discussion about this topic previously) and well written (teacher had established her writing expectations, such as no text language, proper grammar, spelling and coherent thoughts). After the initial comments of all students, they are reminded to make sure to read previous comments first in order to avoid duplication or a simple “dump” of a statement. Blogs are about a conversation, students need to take other thoughts into account. As you scroll down further in the comment section, you will start seeing students responding to other commenters by using “@” in front of the username. Mrs. K. had shared with them a list of “Comment Starters

Comment Starters
( from Youth Radio blog Netiquette-  which in turn was adapted from  Excellence and Imagination )

  • This made me think about…….
  • I wonder why…….
  • Your writing made me form an opinion about…….
  • This post is relevant because…….
  • Your writing made me think that we should…….
  • I wish I understood why…….
  • This is important because…….
  • Another thing to consider is…….
  • I can relate to this…….
  • This makes me think of…….
  • I discovered…….
  • I don’t understand…….
  • I was reminded that…….
  • I found myself wondering…….

Do Killer Whales belong in Captivity?

Students produced incredible responses. It was evident that they read each others’ comments, thought about their response and invested time in their writing.

Student Comments

When they received comments from outside of our school community (Thank you @Mjmontagne and @sciencelabman and Beth!) a new dimension opened up for them. What they are writing matters! Other people are taking the time to read it and even respond. It came with the awareness, that we can reach out beyond our classroom walls and request AND receive new perspectives. We have entered a new era, where school papers do not get turned in to the teacher, graded, handed back, stuffed into a backpack to then end up in the trash at home. We are at a point, where (even young) students can reach an authentic  audience, that gives feedback and contributes new (not thought of) perspectives and be part of a world wide community.

Comments from a larger world...

So what now? What is next?

  • We need to continue modeling and guiding good writing practices (old and new writing genres).
  • Start connecting ideas/thoughts and previous blog posts as well as to other writing.
  • Bring resources/links as well as embedded media into their posts.
  • Pursue larger circles of connections with other students/classes/schools.

Please add your experiences in taking student blogging to the next level. Leave links to good examples for educators, who are just starting out and need models to be able to construct their own understanding of what levels of blogging/writing they could take their students to.