Breaking Their Digital Soapboxes. . .

Strangely enough, I’ve spent the better part of the past two years reading and writing in digital forums and I’d NEVER made it over to Steve Dembo’s Teach 42.  Considering that Steve—the coordinator for Discovery’s online learning networks—has almost 3,000 subscribers, it looks like I’m the ONLY guy who hasn’t!

Got there today, though, after seeing a post in my aggregator that hit home.  Its title:  Comment unto others.  Its topic:  The importance of doing more than just reading and writing in the digital teacher workroom that we call the blogosphere.  As Steve explains:

Beyond that though, if you truly believe that blogs are a conversation, then commenting is just as important as blogging is. In fact, it’s important enough that a few people organized a 31 Day Commenting Challenge. This announcement page for it explains simply and eloquently why it is such a significant activity to engage it in order to be a productive member of the blogosphere.

This is such a hugely important point for anyone involved in blogging projects, whether they are teachers or students—all too often, people think blogging = reading and/or writing.  I see it with middle grades students all the time.  They’ll happily churn out entries for our classroom blog, but they rarely go and read anything that anyone else writes, wrapped in the echochamber of their own thinking.

What they don’t realize—and what teachers fail to teach—is that blogs aren’t JUST about creating content.  Sure—that’s an inevitable part of the process, but it’s only one small part of the process. Blogging REALLY = writing + listening + responding + reading + arguing + listening some more + rethinking + revisiting.

When bloggers—whether they’re 12 or 42—get stuck in the “blogging is about the posts that I write” mindset, all we’ve got in the blogosphere is a heaping cheeseload of digital soapboxes, don’t we?  Selfish people electronically droaning into cyberspace hoping for a listener, yet unwilling to listen?

And that’s sad because the commenting side of blogging has been great fun for me, forcing me to consider my own positions related to the author’s initial posts. Sometimes I agree, other times I disagree—but articulating that response ALWAYS improves my own understanding.

That same interplay between what one knows and challenging outside evidence can be incredibly motivating for our students, too.  We just have to change our classroom blogging practices.

Here where to start:

Resisting the urge to write:  The biggest mistake that many teachers interested in blogging make is creating a classroom blog and turning their kids loose on new entries.  If you’re really interested in creating successful student bloggers, that’s the LAST thing you’d do.

Sounds like a strange recommendation from a long-time language arts teacher, doesn’t it?  Shouldn’t I be promoting tons of writing?  But it makes perfect sense—if your kids get wrapped up in their own blog from the beginning, they’ll forget to go looking for the thoughts of others.

Promote blogs as a legitimate source of reading material for your kids:   One of the things that has always frustrated me are teachers who refuse to recognize blogs as “reader-worthy” in their classrooms.  “Student blogs are never meaningful!” they tell me, “so they don’t count during silent reading time in my room.”

I’d argue the same thing about those crazy Japanese comic books, but librarians keep telling me that students need more self-selected reading opportunities and that self-selected reading opportunities should be just that:  self-selected. 

(Those nutty media chicks sure have a way with words!)

And if you turn your kids on to blogs, you just might be surprised by how motivated they are to read the thoughts and opinions of digital peers.  There’s something special about knowing that you’re reading the mind of someone just like you in a different corner of the globe.  The idea that blogs are about connections and communication comes naturally to kids—after all, they’re driven by communication.

So embrace the blog.  Make it a choice during silent reading.  Celebrate great blogs in the same way that you celebrate great books.  Do regular “blog talks.”  It’s time that blogs lost their status as second-class citizens in the pantheon of reading materials, don’t you think?

You ARE here after all?

Providing age-appropriate blogs to read:  If you’re going to embrace the blog, you’re also going to have to provide a collection of age-appropriate blogs for your students to explore.  And finding student bloggers is half as hard as it used to be!

Check out Support Blogging’s list of student and classroom blogs for starters.  While not all of the blogs in these lists are updated regularly, with some careful screening, you’ll definitely be able to find a few quality titles to introduce to your kids.  And don’t forget to look at the blogrolls of the titles that you like.  Blogrolls are a source for leads to other great sites.

When you’ve finally found a collection of blogs for your kids to read, organize them using a public feed reader. I used to recommend Pageflakes because it had a beautiful visual layout and allowed teachers to create open collections of feeds for students to explore, but Pageflakes hasn’t been working for three weeks!

(Anyone from Pageflakes reading this?  What is GOING ON?!)

So I’ve moved on to using Windows Live instead.  It’s got a similar look and feel to Pageflakes—which is important because it makes scanning more approachable to kids.  Here’s the collection of blogs that my kids are currently reading.

Teach tips for leaving a good blog comment:  Once you’ve gotten your students to embrace blogs as a source of reading material, it’s important to teach them a collection of tips for leaving good blog comments.  Without a bit of direct instruction, they’ll get stuck in an endless circle of low level internet shorthand babble!

The good news is that teaching good blog commenting isn’t all that hard to do.  While I’ve written about the elements of good blog comments before, the best advice that I give to my kids goes a little like this:

While commenting, try to respond directly to other readers. Begin by quoting some part of the comment that you are responding to help other listeners know what it is that has caught your attention. Then, explain your own thinking in a few short sentences. Elaboration is important when you’re trying to make a point. Finally, finish your comment with a question that other listeners can reply to.

Questions help to keep digital conversations going!

When responding to another reader, don’t be afraid to disagree with something that they have said. Challenging the thinking of another reader will help them to reconsider their own thinking—and will force you to explain yours! Just be sure to disagree agreeably—impolite people are rarely influential.

If your thinking gets challenged by another reader in a blog conversation, don’t be offended. Listen to your peers, consider their positions and decide whether or not you agree with them. You might discover that they’ve got good ideas you hadn’t thought about. Either way, be sure to respond—let your challengers know how their ideas have influenced you.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that blog commenting HAS been overlooked by educators—both in our own online lives and in our instruction.  I hear a lot of people talking about starting classroom blogs, but very few seem to have bought into the idea that reading and responding to classroom blogs is equally important.

And teaching students to embrace the interactive aspects of becoming a participating member in the blogosphere is not some mysterious process that’s hard to understand.  It starts with making blogs available as a reading source in your room—and then letting students know that it is okay to challenge the thinking of authors while allowing their own thinking to be challenged.

Blogging is about collaborative dialogue—and collaborative dialogue is fun.

Do these ideas make sense to anyone?

6 thoughts on “Breaking Their Digital Soapboxes. . .

  1. Ginny P

    Bill, I’ve finally taken the 2.0 plunge and set up a class wiki and now Edublogs for all 100+ students. When we started with wikis, the commenting was the part they liked the best – they rarely ‘started’ anything. Now with Edublogs they have ownership of their own design and much more content. My selfish goal is to keep from lugging home crates of journals every 4 weeks, and instead evaluate their topical writing and responding via in ‘net. But the educational goal is for them to use a blog to get at that 7th grade NC writing focus: argumentative writing. Posting an opinion statement backed up with facts begs their classmates (and teacher) who do or do not share the same opinion to comment, ‘argue’ or spin off comments onto their blog, too (as you said above).

  2. Bill Ferriter

    Hey Bill,
    A semi-selfish delight in commenting is that you can convert your comments into content for your own blog, too!
    Often, my comments serve as first drafts for future posts—so I never see them as wasted time. Instead, they’re entries on “layaway.”
    Does this make sense?
    Bill

  3. Bill Gaskins

    Bill,
    I am so guilty of not commenting and now I realize I miss the big point. Commenting is equally important as posting a blog post. Between you, Steve, and other blogger friends Pat and Cathy, I need to reform.
    Thanks for pushing my thinking.
    Bill

  4. Bill Ferriter

    Hey Annie,
    Didn’t mean to push you into the digital waters, but glad that you jumped in!
    One of the things I’ve learned is that passive bystanders are learning too—but I don’t think they’re learning as much!
    The act of articulation really forces one to polish their positions—so getting your comment on will improve your own understanding of your thoughts and allow you to polish the language around your ideas.
    It’s good stuff….so keep playing, whether it’s here or on other blogs that you explore….
    Rock on,
    Bill

  5. Annie Condron

    Well if that’s not a dare to comment, I don’t know what is….
    This post couldn’t have come at a better time because I’ve been a passive bystander in the edu-blog world, just waiting for the push to move into truly interactive mode. Thanks for that push!

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