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The Courage To Blog With Students

By Marsha Ratzel — April 27, 2011 7 min read
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When I asked my students recently how blogging in class makes a difference to them, they had lots to say. Blogging has allowed them to meet students from all over the world and discover new interests. It’s also helped them improve their technology skills and write more on assignments than they could if they had to use paper and pencil.

But for the teacher, bringing blogging into the classroom can be both thrilling and terrifying at the same time. No doubt about it, making the decision to try student blogging is an act of courage. With that in mind, I’d like to share eight things I’ve learned that can help ensure your brave step is also a wise and successful one for you and your kids.

Tip #1: The best way to get your feet wet without drowning is to use a group blog. On a group blog, the whole class participates together. Teachers provide the writing prompt, and students reply in the comments section. The most popular blogging platforms are Edublogs, Word Press, Blogger, posterous, and kidblog. Depending on the software, teachers can have moderating controls set so comments appear immediately or stay in the queue until the teacher “approves” them. You may want your blog to house student work that looks like traditional assignments (e.g., writing portfolios or story drafts). Or the blog could have student writers reporting on the day’s classroom activities, or sharing their artwork, or what they’ve learned during the semester. Sometimes comments might be specific to a class assignment from history, math, or science.

Be sure to set up your class blogging guidelines from the first day. Post them on your class blog, send them home to parents, and make a poster for your classroom. There are outstanding examples of such guidelines at classroom blogs like Dare to Care, iThink, or the Bayonne High School Band.

Tip #2: Teach students how to write comments. It’s a critical skill they won’t possess without practice. Let them read lots of high-quality examples. Find other classes that blog, then cut and paste sets of comments that demonstrate thoughtfulness and excellent writing techniques. Have students evaluate your examples and identify why they’re good. Students must be taught from the beginning that we expect them to go well beyond comments like “Wow, that was a great post.” Or “I really liked what you wrote.” Encourage them to write something that shows they actually read the post, that makes a connection between the writer and the reader. Show them examples of students encouraging a blog author. More than 30 people commented on this girl’s story of her father’s early life in Inner Mongolia. By reviewing it, you’ll get a peek at the power of students helping other students gain their online voices.

Tip #3: Use what you already have in your teaching plan, with some minor modifications. The biggest difference between a blog and the typical class writing assignment is that blogging invites a digital conversation. Teachers need to tailor assignments to this purpose. With a bit of tweaking, you can take a traditional task and customize it for a blog. When I wanted students to summarize what they’d learned about ancient China, the prompt was “Let’s Talk Shang,” where they were to convince the reader of the most important Shang dynasty achievements. In another assignment, they had to post a blog comment to explain whether John Brown was a terrorist or a martyr. These assignments started off as the traditional “Explain three achievements of the Shang dynasty” and “How did John Brown’s action spark the start of the Civil War?”

Tip #4: Practice commenting without computers. A terrific first post activity is to actually not blog electronically. Post the prompt in a place visible to all. Remind everyone what they learned by reading the comments of other students and classes. What made some of them really interesting to read? Give each student a Post-it on which they can write their response. They can then post the sticky under the prompt. Check out how this teacher tried the technique with her students.

Students can then look at each other’s comments, trying to find things that are done well and meet the requirements of the prompt. They might compare the ones they like best. With a different color Post-it, students can respond to (or challenge) what their classmates have posted and physically attach their comment. I used the gallery walk instructional strategy to have students stroll and examine the posts on the board. If they see enough examples of good writing, they’ll learn what they should be doing.

Eventually all the notes will begin to nest under different comments and get quite long. You might leave these up for a week or two until it seems all the commenting is done and then spend time discussing the writing process. This computer-free commenting and writing can be repeated several times with different prompts until the teacher feels the students understand the commenting and responding process and have lots of examples of what to do and not do.

Tip #5: Make student use of the class blog a privilege. The privilege has to be earned by showing responsibility and a commitment to excellence. This may not be the outlook of all teachers, but it seems critical that students realize their work will be representing not just themselves, but the teacher, the school, and the district, in front of the whole world. Their work should show that they take pride in their writing, understand Internet safety, and can offer insights about the ideas discussed. If it takes five revisions to accomplish that standard of quality the first time out, it’s time well spent.

My first class Internet post in September took almost three weeks to brainstorm, write, edit, revise, and polish before I was willing to share what they had to say with the world. It set a tone for the entire year: You have to do your best. The benefit of setting the bar like this is that students feel a huge sense of accomplishment when you ultimately accept their comments. In my classroom, it has generated more self-esteem than almost anything else I’ve done.

An easy way to enforce this standard without a lot of false starts is to have students complete a pre-writing activity using a word processor. The pre-write will help them organize their ideas and know what they’re going to say (which always improves the quality of their writing). Using a word processor allows for spell check, and you can easily review saved drafts and explain what needs to be revised to meet the posting standard.

Tip #6: You can’t emphasize safety too much. Use your school and district guidelines as a starting point—blogging creates an opportunity for students to actually apply the rules they’ve been taught. The first lessons students need to learn include the difference between public and private Web information and how to share ideas and information safely. My students, for example, have learned they can tell people they love basketball and even the name of their favorite college or pro team, but they cannot tell them their school team’s name. As students become more advanced in blogging, they’ll also have to learn about copyright laws and how to cite their sources.

Tip #7: Decide how you will choose usernames. You should make this decision before you talk to students about blogging. Some teachers allow students to use their first names only, some require them to create online names, and some assign online names. There’s no right solution; it’s a matter of balancing the security needs of your classroom, parents, and the school. Sometimes software lets students create customized avatars. They love this activity. For some excellent places to create school-appropriate avatars for free, read Mrs. Watanabe’s account.

Tip #8: Communicate with parents early on. Explain what you’re going to do and enlist their support and help. Many parents have jobs that require them to maintain a professional blog or read their company’s blog. Capitalize on that by asking them to comment on the things that appear in your class discussions. Maybe they can do it weekly or once a month. At Mrs. Morris’s school, May is “Getting Parents Involved in Blogging” month.

I think it’s best to have students work with only the group blog for at least a semester, until the posting and commenting processes feel very comfortable. Once you have the class blogging down pat, and students are performing well and feeling comfortable, you might move them into their own blogs. That decision comes with a new set of considerations, including overseeing blog design, moderating postings, and dealing with technology glitches.

When You’re Ready for a Challenge

One of my favorite online activities is the Student Blogging Challenge. It’s sponsored by Edublogs and starts each September and March. Over 10 weeks, students can choose from dozens of activities and chat with peers from all over the world. When the Student Challenges are running, Edublogs also offers the Teacher Challenge, a series of professional development activities during which teachers can sharpen blogging skills and learn about the technology behind the tools. See Get Blogging with Students and Kick Start Your Blogging. With both beginner and advanced teacher groups, there’s a lot to learn and there are many tuned-in colleagues to meet.

Blogging makes sense to students. In their words, it makes school fun. I believe if I’m holding them to high writing standards and content standards and they’re enjoying the process and writing more, then I’ve found a successful instructional strategy.

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