Reading & Literacy

Blogs Versus Blahs

December 27, 2004 3 min read
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If Donald, a freshman at East Side Community High School in New York City, wasn’t actually in a shell, he could’ve easily fit into one. “His body would literally touch his knees—that’s the position he would be in to read a book,” says Sarvenaz Zelkha, his humanities teacher. “He would never speak in front of others.”

But something happened in Zelkha’s class this past year that helped Donald (not his real name) come out of hiding—his enthusiasm for the in-class Web logging that East Side encourages among its students. Freshman and sophomore classes maintain full-blown “blogs”—Web sites that allow for interaction among students. They post journals, place papers they’re working on in digital “folders,” and share memoirs and poetry that they’re composing.

“When Donald got into blogging, he came alive,” Zelkha says. “He reacted to what other people placed on the blog. I think this medium provided him with a comfort zone where he could connect. He even made friends with two boys through blogging.”

Patrick Delaney, a school librarian and coordinator of the San Francisco-based Educational Bloggers Network, estimates that some 1,000 teachers from kindergarten through high school have established blogs, which he calls “digital paper,” for their classrooms. Peter Grunwald, president of Grunwald Associates, a Maryland-based firm that does surveys of educational technology, predicts that it “will become more prevalent as kids—but also as teachers—become more comfortable with the technology.” Advocates of in-class curricular blogging say its rising popularity speaks to its ability to let students help teach each other. “If students are writing for an audience other than their teacher, it brings them out and makes them more thoughtful,” Zelkha says. “Blogging raises the standard of the whole room.”

'If students are writing for an audience other than their teacher, it brings them out and makes them more thoughtful.'

In 2003-04, at Oakdale Elementary School in Ijamsville, Maryland, 2nd grade teacher Marisa Dudiak and Catherine Poling, who taught 3rd grade, introduced blogs in several subjects, and their classes collaborated on a nature blog. Pupils made observations in the school’s outdoor habitat, which features birdhouses, a butterfly garden, and a stream. Students were asked, “What’s under that flat rock?” “How did the trees change from last season to this?” Every child had a tidbit to add. “This was especially true for my non-writers,” says Dudiak, “who didn’t especially enjoy working with pen and paper. But when we gave them the opportunity to blog, they would peck up a storm.”

In California, English students at Calvine High School,in Sacramento, and Maple High School, north of Santa Barbara, paired blogs last spring to create an online literature circle. The students, all of whom were lagging academically, read the memoir Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in LA. The culmination was a live videoconference with author Luis Rodriguez. “The kids were armed with questions,” says Shawn Hamilton, the Calvine teacher involved with the project. “Here was the author of a book they’d read, and there was some awe. But the kids grew comfortable right away.”

But even blog backers acknowledge the medium’s drawbacks. “A blog is so spontaneous, and student posts are typically full of errors of syntax and grammar,” Hamilton says. “If an entire class revolves around this, where will students get the instruction they need in conventions of the language? That’s especially true in alternative schools such as ours, where most kids arrive not adequately trained in English.”

The medium also faces funding and teacher-training hurdles. “There’s some fear attached to this,” Dudiak says. “A colleague will say, ‘I’ve got so much on my plate already, and I’m not technologically savvy enough.’” Delaney adds that when a district faces a budget crunch, tech support for extras like blogs becomes one of the first items cut.

But for the students it reaches, blogging seems to get a firm thumbs up. It “helps you understand computers,” says Nichole Butler, a 14-year-old at East Side who has her own home page linked to the freshman blog. “If someone writes a paper and puts it up on the blog, you can write your comments and make the paper sound better.”

As for Donald, he’s still an avid blogger and now a bit less antisocial. “There’s a liveliness and accessibility in his work that’s not evident in person,” says Kiran Chaudhuri, his current English teacher. “He’s quite personable, actually, when he’s blogging.”

—Grant Pick

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