Thursday, September 30, 2010

Rethinking Student Blogging, For Real

         "So, does anyone know just what a blog is?" I asked the class.
           A student raised his hand,  "um, yea.  They are those websites where you respond to teacher's questions and stuff."

The blog has never made my ed tech "favorites" list.  Sure, I've had my students use web logs before, but I've never been that impressed with the thinking and learning that grew out of them.  At last year's end, the blog was no more than a rusty four letter word taking up space at the bottom of my toolbox. 

Recently, however, something happened that has caused me to rethink the blog and its potential in my classroom.  I started blogging for myself. 

Not the watered-down version of blogging that I had been having my students do these last few years.   You know the kind....where students write about what I tell them to and respond to each other because because I make them.  The kind they would never consider doing outside of school. 

No, the kind of blogging that I'm now doing is the kind that "real" bloggers do.  I write about what matters to me, and enter in to a conversation with others of the same interest.  I learn from these other bloggers and integrate their ideas into my own, composing my new knowledge in a digital space where writing is no longer constrained to a pencil and daybook.  A space without limits on who I can reach, where the world is my audience. 

In blogging for only a few months, I've felt myself become motivated to write, think, and learn on an entirely new level...the one of the digital learner.   The same level I feel responsible for taking my students.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the place I'm going to make for blogging in my class. I want to use the blog to empower my students.  I want to create an environment that facilitates my students' ownership of their blogs and identities as bloggers.  I'm still not entirely certain what that's going to look like, but I knew where we needed to start.  I had to introduce my students to blogging, the way it really is.


I began class by having students respond to Mike Fisher's last blog post, where he called on teachers to have their students answer several questions about teaching and learning on a Google Form, which he linked to his blog.  This only took my students a few minutes, and when most appeared done, I looked at them and asked, "isn't this cool?"

Silence.  One mumbled, "no," under his breath.  Several snickered.

 A student in the back commented, "well...I guess that the questions were kind of cool." Nobody else had anything to say.

This was going exactly as I had planned.

I turned to the student who last spoke up.  "Oh, I agree that the questions are important, but that's not what I was asking about."

I saw a sea of puzzled faces.

"What I thought was cool was that here you have this guy, Mike Fisher, who last week was sitting on his couch in New York, watching Oprah, watching these people talking about how schools needed to change.  It bothered him that nobody was asking kids, the ones who actually go to schools, about their thoughts on the topic.  So he got on his blog, asked teachers to have their students send him responses to a few questions, and now, the next day, he has answers from all over the world."  I pointed out how on the side of the blog is a little globe showing the locations of all of his readers.  "Don't you think that's cool?" 

Students perked up, some nodding their heads and others voicing agreement with Mike's position.  "Mike Fisher is a blogger,"  I said.  "What does that mean?"

A student in the back responded hesitantly, "he is a celebrity?"

"Um, sort of," I answered, then backed up a bit. "Does anyone know just what a blog is?"
A student raised his hand.  "Um, yea.  They are those websites where you respond to teacher's questions and stuff."  

Nobody seemed to disagree with the explanation, and at this point I realized the importance of this conversation.  If I tried to get my students blogging without first changing thier view of it, they'd never buy into it.

My students needed to see a different side of blogging, the real side. I let CommonCraft do the explaining:

This explanation, while simple, was not what my students expected.  They were interested, though, and I went on to share my own experiences, to give blogging a face.

I described briefly my interest in teaching and educational technology, how I found a lot of other people talking about these subjects in their blogs and started following them. 

I explained, "there are really a lot of blogs out there talking about cool technology to use in school, but I noticed that there weren't many people writing about how this technology actually worked in their classroom.  I figured that I could add this to the conversation, so in August, I started a blog."

I pulled up my blog for the students, showing them my last posts.  They saw how I was writing about what we had been doing in class, seeing in my blogs the YouTube videos I had shown them and even some of the work they had produced.

Students were leaning forward in their chairs.

I continued, "I thought that people would be interested in what I had to say, and I was disappointed when I realized that after a month, I was the only visitor to my page."  I demonstrated how Blogger displays the blog's traffic.

"I had put a lot of work into writing my blog posts, and I felt like what I was saying was important.  So, I decided to tell someone about it.  Two days ago, I let Mrs. Smith know about my blog because I thought she might like reading it.  She did, and she asked me if she could tell others about it. When I agreed, she sent out a Tweet about my blog to her Twitter contacts.  So, I looked the stats at my blog today, and look at this..."

I clicked on the "Stats" tab of my dashboard, opening a graph illustrating a spike in visitors to my blog.  I pointed to the steep line, " Tweet brought 40 people to my just a matter of hours....."

My excitement was transparent, and when I told students that today they would be getting started on their own blogs using the same site as Mike Fisher, myself, and real bloggers around the world, their's was too.

They were hooked.

Before I could finish getting the directions out of my mouth, their laptops flew open.  The sounds of intrinsic motivation, clicking keys and whispered ideas for blog titles, filled the room.   With a taste of what real blogging was about, my students were ready to dive into it head first.  They too wanted to be bloggers, to compose in new ways, to write and be heard.  An excited group of 8th graders is an awesome force; I could feel their momentum building; nothing could stand in their way.

Except for the one thing I failed to consider.

Blogger requires users enter a code before they could write their first blog post.  A code that gets texted to them after the useer enters a cell phone number into a box.   A task, of course, precluded by students not being able to have phones in school.

We collectively felt the impact of the wall we just crashed into.

Staying as calm as I could, I told students to begin drafting their first blog post in their daybooks, and to complete the sign-up process for Blogger at home tonight.  I wrote in my daybook, too....cursing Google the whole time.

I was disappointed, but today was an important step in the right direction....though I can't say exactly where were to.  We'll pick up tomorrow where we left off today, and this weekend I'll finish hammering out the details (and of course, I'm open to ideas :)).   I expect our journey to begin to take shape next week.  As it does, I'll be writing about the process and our learning that grows out of it, blogging along side of my students. For real.