Lessons Learned from a Group of AMAZING Student Bloggers

Regular readers of Radical Nation know that one of the classroom projects that I am proudest of is our #SUGARKILLS blog, started three years ago by a group of students passionate about raising awareness about the sugars in the foods that teens and tweens eat on a daily basis (see here, here and here).

I learned a ton about teaching with technology from the core members of the #sugarkills gang over the years.  Perhaps the most important lesson is that kids don’t care about technology nearly as much as we think they do.  What they REALLY care about is doing meaningful work with their friends.

That core team — a group of five or sixth eighth grade boys — finished middle school yesterday and left a pretty remarkable reflection over on #sugarkills that is worth reading if you are at all interested in listening to the voices of the kids sitting in today’s classrooms.  

Here’s a few highlights:

Blogging wasn’t always as easy as my students thought it would be.  In fact, the boys got into a few memorable dust-ups with audiences.  Ried described one of those dust-ups — and the lessons that he learned from it:

On May 19th, 2013 we got our highest ever page views in one day: 863. Unfortunately, it was from a group of people hating on our blog. They claimed that we were “fat shaming,” or posting too much about the bad effects of sugar. We learned a couple lessons from that day:

If you are writing online, there will be people that will hate on your blog. They will claim that you are lying, or writing useless information (like that doesn’t happen on the internet).

As a blog, we needed to write more healthy options posts so that we don’t get accused of being overly biased or “fat shaming.” Looking back on the this, I think we still need to include more healthy posts on our blog. We never wrote nearly enough healthy posts to keep up with all the “sugar is deadly” posts we write.

How AWESOME is that, right?  We often argue that the reason to get students blogging is because they can have exposure to authentic audiences — but all too often, the writing they do for classroom blogs isn’t all that authentic to begin with.  While it was initially uncomfortable for the boys, the controversy that our #sugarkills theme generated in the “thin privilege” community led to some REALLY valuable learning.

Another highlight of the #sugarkills experience for me has been the sense of ownership that the boys have felt over their blog.  You can feel that sense of ownership in these comments from Dylan:

I find it hard to believe that all of us eighth graders will be gone in just a couple of days [note: we are gone now]. My thoughts are: who will take over the blog as the leader? Because that has been the eighth graders’ role. Who be the leader and control our content and our editing and our designing on Canva or WordPress? Who will that be? Maybe it can be the rising eighth graders.

Compare that to the feelings that students have for traditional assignments?  Do you think that the kids from your class are worrying about what is going to happen to the test they took during second quarter or the project that they finished during fourth quarter?  Heck, do you think those tests and projects even made it home?

#notlikely

There’s a lesson there, y’all:  EVERY kid should have the opportunity to be involved in a meaningful project that takes several years to complete.  The simple truth is that being invested in something increases effort and motivation — but it’s almost impossible to be truly invested in anything that you finish in a week.

One of the things that I always get a kick out of is the fact that #sugarkills gave my students TONS of opportunities to write — and those opportunities weren’t lost on the boys.  Here’s what Daniel had to say:

I’ve noticed my grammatical understanding has increased. Slowly, I have been making fewer edits to Ried’s posts, too, so I suspect others have also become better writers by working on #sugarkills. In fact, the best way to become a better writer is just to write a lot.

At school, we might have 7 or 8 writing assignments per year. With #sugarkills, or any other blog that is updated frequently, you do that much in like, ten school days. Even with 100-word posts, that’s somewhere around 12,000 words per school year. No wonder we are better writers now!

And here’s Ried’s input:

The thing I don’t like about school writing assignments is that you are not encouraged to write what you actually think, you are encouraged to write what the teacher wants to see. And that is just a waste of people’s time. What is the point of writing if you don’t mean what you write?

Even in argumentative papers, you have to write it in such a way that takes out the opinionated part of paper and just focus on what everyone wants to hear.  Don’t get me wrong, some of my favorite teachers have taught language arts, but the way we are taught to write essays is flawed.

Those comments just plain blow me away simply because getting middle school boys to write ANYTHING can be an exhausting battle.  My gut reaction was always that middle school boys just don’t enjoy writing.  I chalked it up to living in a digital world where visual content played a more important role in our lives.

But if I’m reading Daniel and Ried right, the problem isn’t that middle school boys don’t like to write.  It’s that they don’t like to write in the structured, formulaic ways that schools have long forced on kids.  Or that they don’t like to write on predetermined topics.  Or that they don’t like to write for a grade.  Or that they don’t like to write papers that are turned in, returned, and stuffed in a notebook.

#lessonlearned

Finally, listen carefully to what Joel had to say about the notion of doing work that matters in school:

I also like changing people’s lives through a blog in school. I wish all classes could be used to change people’s minds and lives. Mr. Ferriter is always asking us around the room if we’re “being productive.” I think classes that were used to make a difference in the world would be more “productive” than any classes that we’re taking right now.

This also educates us on more than just “textbook work.” We are learning science through #sugarkills. We learn about complex and simple carbohydrates, natural and added sugars, and diabetes and other diseases. #Sugarkills is more productive than any class we could be taking now.

Stew in that for a minute, would you?  That’s a TEENAGER pointing out that “being productive” means a helluva’ lot more than “making good grades” or “finishing your classwork.”  Maybe it’s time for TEACHERS to start talking about the differences between engaging and empowering our students.

So which of these highlights resonated with you?  Did any of them catch you by surprise?  Do any of them have you rethinking your classroom practice at all?

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Related Radical Reads:

Creating Purpose Driven Learning Experiences

Technology is a Tool, NOT a Learning Outcome.

More on Technology is a Tool, NOT a Learning Outcome

Saying Goodbye to the #sugarkills Gang