Two Critical Tips for Classroom Blog Projects

Not long ago, a reader named Fred left the following question for the TLN blog team:

I’ve been reading with interest many of the discussions about the 21st century classroom. A question about student blogging — how much emphasis should be put on maintaining a higher level of spelling and grammar while still encouraging students to be active users of the blog?  Is there a declining need for correctness as long as the ideas flow? 

We are going to be working in a 21st century classroom environment in four of our classrooms at a high school level next year as a result of a Title II-D grant, and I need to start looking at how we are going to use blogging as the effective tool it can be. I will have to sell our school board as right now most blogging is blocked.

Great questions, Fred—many other educators are wrestling with the same issues, that’s for sure.  Blogging certainly seems—based on the wave of teachers jumping into the digital soup—to be a logical step, but having a practical plan in place before introducing blogs to your students will definitely make your efforts more targeted and productive.

Before I tackle your specific question, please know that I’ve started organizing all of the resources that I’ve created about digital tools in the classroom in this wiki. Poke around in it a bit and you might find materials that are valuable in your work. I’ve got developing pages on blogs, wikis and Voicethread presentations at this point—and have plans to create pages on social bookmarking and instant messaging in the near future.

I’d also encourage you to remember that blogs are nothing more than tools that can facilitate learning experiences and help teachers to address pre-defined curricular goals. It’s sometimes amazing to me to see the number of teachers who engage students in “blogging for blogging’s sake,” figuring that because “21st Century Learning” is all the rage right now, any attempts to incorporate digital creation into the classroom make sense, regardless of outcomes.

Instead of falling into this all-too-common trap, decide what exactly it is that you want students to accomplish with a blogging project before you even begin. By doing so, you can properly gauge the “need for correct-ness” in student entries.

For me, classroom blogging began as a way to get my students to make their thinking transparent for a wider audience, allowing others to read, respond and challenge contentions or pre-existing notions.  Specifically, our blog became a place of reflection and debate about the themes behind the current events that form the foundation of our study of Europe and South America.

We regularly tackle issues ranging from poverty and social justice to hatred and tyranny—and we’re always trying to engage our readers in conversations about both sides of every issue that we study.

What’s most important is that these efforts fit into a broader plan to teach children to express ideas through writing—a skill directly connected to the Standard Course of Study I’m charged with delivering.  Consider the opening statement in our sixth grade curriculum guide, which reads:

Sixth grade students use oral language, written language, and media and technology for expressive, informational, argumentative, critical, and literary purposes. Students also explore the structure of language and study grammatical rules in order to speak and write effectively. While emphasis in sixth grade is placed on personal expression, students also:

 

  • Interpret and synthesize information.
  • Develop an understanding of the foundations of argument.
  • Critically analyze print and non-print communication.
  • Use effective sentence construction and edit for improvements in sentence formation, usage, mechanics, and spelling.
  • Interpret and evaluate a wide range of literature

Notice the emphasis on understanding the foundations of argument and the use of effective sentence structure and grammar. Because those skills are expected outcomes for my sixth grade writers, I push students to proofread everything they write for our blog carefully—and I rant about errors in structure or spelling that make understanding inefficient for readers.

“You can’t be influential,” I regularly push, “unless your ideas are communicated in a clear and accurate manner. Every error cheapens who you are—and cheapens the value of your argument in the eyes of those who’ve stumbled upon what you have written.”

I think the key to my success with blogging rests in the fact that I started with a clear end in mind:  To give students a forum for articulation and argument. That end has guided every decision that I’ve made about our digital work—including my emphasis on entries that are well written and carefully proofread.

Once you’ve decided on the ultimate purpose for your blogging projects, your implementation and assessment decisions will be easy—and you’ll likely be more convincing with the decision makers who have blocked blogs in your district! Imagine walking in to a meeting with a list of specific objectives that you intend to address through blogging.

It would be difficult at best for school leaders to deny access to free tools that can help you to meet the objectives that they have set for you, wouldn’t it?  At the very least, you’d be more convincing than ever before!

John—another regular Radical reader—also asked a question about blogging recently in response to a collection of statistics from a survey of my students that I shared:

Bill — I see in various places that K12 students are much less engaged in blogging than adults, and generally don’t rate blogs high on their list of favorite web tools. Do you think that your emphasis on blogging in your classes, and the success of the Blurb on the Web, has “skewed” your students’ views about blogs?

And if so, what are some tips you have for teachers to build interest in blogs among their students?

I think the biggest tip that I’d have for classroom teachers interested in building interest in blogging among their students would be to see blogging as something more than just a place for students to post stand-alone thoughts.

For me, the power in blogging rests not in what I write alone, but in the reactions that others have to my writing and in my efforts to read and respond to the thoughts of others. Some people mistake blogs as digital soapboxes—places to stand and deliver individual viewpoints, regardless of what other people think.

Those people end up quickly becoming lonely bloggers!

Accomplished bloggers seek out others who are wrestling with common areas of interest, primarily because opportunities to interact with ideas is motivating. One of the tenets of constructivism is that true learning only takes place when deeply held personal beliefs are challenged by contrary evidence. In those moments, individuals are forced to refine and revise ideas that they once held to be true.

In a sense, blogging makes such experiences possible for everyone. It is, in some ways, a remarkable opportunity for differentiation because writers of all ages are wrestling with interesting ideas at all times. With a bit of poking around, challenging content can be found for anyone.

What makes this search for a network of like-minded bloggers even more powerful in a school setting is that all middle and high schoolers really care about are connections, right? Today’s kids are naturally networked to begin with! Why else would teachers spend half of our days shooing kids out of the hallways in between classes and fussing about neverending text messages sent from hundreds of hands hidden beneath desks each period?

As Jeff Utecht brilliantly explained in his Sustainable Blogging session for the 2007 K-12 Online Conference, the best blogging efforts begin when teachers work to embrace the collective nature of the teen mind. Highly motivated student bloggers see themselves as a part of a larger group of students that are reading and writing about powerful ideas together.

That “larger group” may contain peers that live two doors down or two continents away—location is irrelevant, really.  All that matters is that your kids become regular readers of blogs being created—and regularly updated—by others with similar interests.

Whenever I doubt the important role that social networking plays in student learning, I remind myself of the kinds of comments that my students leave in every survey that I give them about digital tools. My current favorites come from students thinking about Voicethread—a tool that, like blogging, provides students with opportunities to think together about ideas:

    • I really enjoy Voicethread because it’s a cool way to have a digi- conversation with people from your class, or other web surfers invited to view it. Several new ideas that I wouldn’t have thought of bounce around my head after I visit. It’s something new everyday.”
    • “Voicethread is a cool way to interact! I’m proud to say that several amazing comments fill the pages and they’re written by bright students in our class.”
    • Voicethread allows me to hear the thoughts of many other students just like me! I can think differently about the same topic, and people really do challenge my mind. I also like to respond to people and challenge their thinking and share the way I think with them.”

Notice the role that connective thinking plays in student motivation. Each of these kids is driven by something more than publishing their own work for the world to see. They’re driven by interactions—the sense that their ideas are a part of a larger conversation that matters.

So how do you make that happen in your classroom blogging projects?

Begin by using a feed reader to create a collection of age-appropriate blogs for your students to follow.  Here’s the collection that I’ve assembled for my students. Over time, your students will find favorite bloggers and begin to discover ideas that challenge their own thinking.

Then, encourage your students to begin leaving comments for other bloggers. Commenting is a quick and easy way to get kids writing and reflecting—and it builds a sense of community between readers and writers. Each time that a student in your class responds to the thinking of a digital peer, they are building relationships based on thought and intellectual interactions with other bloggers—who are likely to reciprocate.

You’ll need to teach your kids some strategies for leaving good comments, however. All too often, early comments left by kids aren’t terribly meaningful because no one ever bothers to explain to students that commenting is a powerful form of reflection—or that the thinking of authors can be directly challenged by readers! In some ways, breaking children of the “author-awe” they’ve learned since they picked up their first books in preschool is one of the greatest challenges of creating well-rounded student bloggers.

I’ve spent some time trying to teach my students to leave good comments over the course of the past school year  The tips in this post—written earlier this year for a digital project that my class completed with a sister class in Washington, DC—might be a helpful starting point when working with your students.

Finally, encourage your kids to expand on their comments and respond to other writers in new posts for their personal blogs—-much like I’m doing here with you! By doing so, student bloggers find connections between their own thinking and the thinking of others. Blog entries become much more than “just another writing assignment.” Instead, they become a part of an ongoing conversation between peers—-and nothing drives kids more than conversations with peers.

Do any of these ideas make sense?

For readers that are actively blogging with students, what have I left out?

3 thoughts on “Two Critical Tips for Classroom Blog Projects

  1. Ben

    Bill,
    I have had many conversations with my 8th grade students about the nature of language, and I still haven’t come to any conclusions about how much we should be allowed to stray from “proper” English in our writing. From a historical perspective, the English language has changed drastically over the past few centuries; from the change of the shapes of letters, to the spelling of words, to the massive increase in vocabulary. In going through this single post, I found very difficult reading from even a 1990’s perspective. Blogging, wikis, voicethreading, and instant messaging are all terms that were nonsensical just a few years ago. I guess my question is this; “Aren’t there drawbacks in enforcing a static view of language in a constantly shifting technological landscape?”
    🙂
    IMHO,
    Ben

  2. Fred

    How long does it take for these activities to take on a life of their own? How long is it before you stop having to remind them to blog etc…?

  3. Cindy Zautcke

    Thanks for the thoughtful blogging on using technology in the classroom to improve learning. I’ve starting referring my network of parents to your blog. Most recent referral was to parent comment at http://www.ourschool.ca/classroom-blogs-parent-teachers-interviews-making-connections-with-classroomblogs.html#comment-151
    I’m wondering if in a future post(s), you could talk about how you are
    1) using Web 2.0 tools to improve communication with parents/engage parents in their children’s learning experiences
    2) how you are using the Web 2.0 to improve communication with teachers/administrators/coaches AND
    3) how you are training parents to use the tools.
    Thanks much for your considering and your efforts with children in Wake County schools.
    Cindy Zautcke
    Mequon, Wisconsin

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