Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Headfirst into Blogging

As I mentioned in my last blog post, my students were excited to get started with blogging.  I was too.  With only loose long-terms plans, we dove right into it this week.

For their first post, I gave students some direction, instructing them that their post in some way needed to reflect an opinion they now had or were forming about our latest topic of investigation: teens' self-image, and the media.

I know, I know....with all the talk in my last post about giving students free reign over the direction of their blog, leading with such a teacher-directed assignment seems a bit contradictory, but I wanted students to have  a simple place to start....a place where I knew they would have something to say and would be able to explore the ideas our class had generated in a format that was new to them.   

So yes, this first assignment didn't necessarily conform to the ideal I envisioned for blogging in my classroom, but it got us off the ground and had enough going for it to be meaningful.  The fact that students were genuinely interested in the topic, combined with the freedom with which they could direct their writing within it, and the digital composition tools available to them (hyperlinking, embedding images and videos), kept their engagement pretty high. 

Click here or here to check out the blogs of a couple students who agreed to let me share their work. 

Experiential Learning

For our blog site, I had students use Blogger. I rationalized that having them use this site, rather than an education blogging site created for classroom use like Class Blogmeister, Edublogs, or Kidblogs, would enable them to feel more like actual bloggers and would be convenient since most of them already had Google accounts.   Was this a good decision?....I'm not totally sure.  I've been looking at (and impressed by) other classroom blogs on Edublogs like this one from Ms. W. in Tasmania, one of the teachers who have taken the lead in the Great Blogging Challenge.   For now, however, I'm still sold on Blogger.  It's public, fairly simple to use, and completely free.  

As I'm coming to see, using a site not specifically directed toward teachers and students does present obstacles to overcome.  The first we encountered when getting students' blogs set up, and the second which we would have to encounter this week before we could create anything that would resemble a blogging community. Each of the 80 blogs my students created was floating around in cyberspace on its own.  Before students could read and comment on the ideas of their fellow class blog-mates, they needed to be able to find them.

Thanks to digital tools, making this happen only took a few minutes.   I put a link to a Google form that I had created on my homepage for students to enter their names and blog URLs.  I then embedded the resulting spreadsheet with students' blog information on my home page, allowing students to access classmates' blogs by clicking on the link next to their names. Easy.

Before turning them loose to read and comment, I gave students a few guidelines on how to respond thoughtfully, and instructed them to read and respond to the blogs of the peers in their writing groups before continuing on to other student's blogs. The task was simple, but during this process, I saw some pretty cool things happen.

Blogging and Learning

Over the next 30 minutes, students were genuinely engaged with reading, writing, thinking, and viewing.  They were exposed to different ideas and perspectives on a topic that we had been discussing in class, but in a way not possible through discussion alone.  Students were able to hear the voices of classmates who don't otherwise speak up in class, see ideas more complex that some typically articulate through words, and were able to experience how digital writing tools could add a depth to composition not possible with pen and pencil alone--on more than one occasion I had to shush conversations across the room that would begin with, "hey, on your blog, how did you....".

I wouldn't necessarily nominate this activity for lesson-of-the-year,  but it solidified the place I thought I might find for blogging in my classroom.  My students learned and were engaged.  They used the strands of of Language Arts to express and understand, and  they connected with the ideas of others.  I saw that blogging could guide my students in developing their identities as writers and members of our classroom community......seeing this, I'm ready to let the real work begin.

The Construction Zone
Now that I've started my students blogging, I have no intention of turning back....even though the specifics of my plans are drafts in progress.   The base off of which I will build these plans....the role that blogging will play in my class......I DO, however, have figured out.  These principles look something like this:
1. The blog as a daybook extension

Our daybooks are a place for students to gather and grow ideas...and I don't want this to change.  The physical daybook serves a need that couldn't be fulfilled with pencil and paper.  In addition to the fact that  act of writing by hand is a tool that all writers need, the daybook serves as an easy storage place that can be accessed anytime, anywhere....It's even the place where students can write badly, where they can work through the mess of thinking and trying out ideas. 

Out of this messes will grow blog posts, and with them students will have a dated and organized digital portfolio of their writing pieces this year.

2. The blogs will serve as a space for students to interact in their writing group.

The blogs my students write are all public, but gaining a wide audience is not going to be our primary concern (although this may still happen).  Students should know, though, that what they write on their blogs will be read by individuals besides just the teacher.  Students, while they are free to follow any blog that they like, are required to follow the blogs of those in their writing group and to expected to respond to any post made by a member of their group....a task that Blogger makes easy, as new posts will show up as they are published in each student's reading list.  In receiving responses to all of their posts, students will be assured that they are indeed writing for an audience, also learning first-hand the value to writers of reader-response and continuing to develop their small writing community.

3. All students will be authors and followers of our "Community Blog"

One drawback to not having students follow of all of their classmates is that unless a classmate visits their blog, the student's writing is not readily accessible to the entire team.  For this reason, I created another blog titled "The Community Space" and invited all of my students to be authors of it (Blogger allows up to 100 authors to a blog for free...not the case with Edublogs).   When students have a polished piece of writing or something they would like everyone to see, students can post it on our Community Blog, knowing it will show up on the reading list of every student I teach. 
      My next post, which I am presently drafting, will discuss our first use of this new space.
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*A note from the author before publishing this post:

I feel like moving forward on the principles above will result in some amazing learning experiences for my students.  I won't lie....it has taken a lot of time to get here.  I've spent hours racking my brain trying to figure out how to best align the features of Blogger with the vision I have for my students.  In getting students' to set up their blogs (as I mentioned in my last post), we encountered some unforeseen obstacles, ones that required additional time before students could start their first post.  And, of course, the task of composing this first post took longer than expected because I underestimated the time students would need to become familiar with Blogger's features. 

And the payoff of this time investment....there will be one, but I'm going to have to revisit it at a later point.

Two days before posting this, something on the network end at my school changed, preventing students to blog on Blogger.  They can still access the site.....just not compose.  I'm not sure what to make of this one......However,  my students and I are no strangers to technology roadblocks, so we'll suck it up and move on to Plan B. And once I figure out what that plan is, I'll write about it in my blog.