Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Writing into the Student Blogging Challenge

I first heard about the Student Blogging Challenge last year.  The event is hosted semi-annually in the fall and spring, each lasting for a period of 10 weeks.  Each week, Miss W, the teacher/organizer of the event, posts a new challenge consisting of activities intended to guide students in learning about blogging, develping thier own blogs, and connecting with other bloggers from around the world.  Ever since I first learned about it, I had an interest in working it into my classroom, but it's taken me some time to figure out how.

When the 2010 Fall Challenge rolled around, I decided I just wasn't yet ready to have my students dive in. At that time, I was uncertain about how the event should best fit into the writing my students were already doing and the direction I envisioned in taking them as writers, thinkers, and bloggers. To be honest, though, at that point, I was only just beginning to figure that direction out for myself, as I discussed in my September post, Rethinking Student Blogging, For Real.

As we have had some time to forge our identies as digital writers and learners (and teacher), mainly thanks to our Digital Inquiry Project, I decided that it was the right time to jump in to the March Student Challenge.  Now, about five weeks in to it, I feel like it's a pretty good time to write about it, sharing the expectations I had developed for the role it would play in my class, how I went about working it in to the writing we were already doing, how I approached assessing student learning, and also how it is all actually turning out.

The Student Blogging Challenge seemed like a pretty cool idea, but being cool alone didn't seem like enough of a reason for me to ask my students to devote a chunk of the valuable time for learning that we have together each week.  I asked my school's literacy coach, Cara, about what she thought of my students getting involved with this event.  Like me, she thought it sounded pretty cool, and though we didn't spend a lot of time talking or planning, she did ask me one important question that I would need to answer before I had my students move forward.  What did I want my students to get out of the process? 

It's a simple question that any teacher should ask before designing any learning activity.  And after quite a bit of thought, I arrived at an equally simple answer:  I wanted my students' participation in the Student Blogging Challenge to facilitate my students growth as writers, thinkers, and members of a global learning community.

Figuring out ensure this experience would send my students down such a path was far from simple, however, and after much thought, I settled on the following expectations that would guide what I would ask my students to do:

1. The Student Blogging Challenge would be Meaningful

Sure, this sounds like a no-brainer, but when I first looked over the format of the Student Blogging Challenge, I saw potential for it to be seen through students eyes as being "just another thing the teacher is making us do." 

 I didn't want to just tell my students each week to read Miss W's post and complete all the challenges by Friday.  It had to be more than a weekly to-do list.  Even though the challenges seemed to me pretty cool and engaging, and they did guide students in developing the blogs they were already using, I wanted my students to have a personal reason for doing them. 

I wrote earlier in the year about wanting to give my students the opprotunity to blog like real bloggers do.  To a large extent, I feel like the regular, semi-unrestrained writing they have been composing in workshop and publishing to thier blogs has placed them well on thier way to actualizing this initial vision. 

My students are at a point where they are starting to like writing.  They are engaged with blogging because they are discovering that they have something important to say,  can compose on new levles with digital tools, and publish in an online space where they can be heard by the world.  Blogging has empowered my students.  If what I asked my students to do in the Blogging Challenge encroached on this freedom, they'd resent the activity and me.  This is the last thing I wanted to happen after comming so far, but if I set it up right, it didn't have to be that way.

 The Blogging Challenge, as I see it, gives students guidance in developing aspectes of this online space where they post thier writing, as well as a chance to connect to a greater global audience.  The Blogging Challenge would be an excellent compliment to how my students were already using thier blogs, but it's predetermined tasks should by no means substitute for the meaningfull writing my students were already doing.

The key, I decided, to make The Student Blogging Challenge meaningful,  would be to allow my students to engage in it while also giving them the space and support to continue the real writing that has become so important to them.

2. The Student Blogging Challenge will engage my students as readers.

Every week, the activities that Miss W posts for the student challenge are completed by students in elementary through high school.  The directions of the challenge are clear and text based, and they are not written at a level that is beyond my 8th grade students' abilities.

However, I had a feeling that completing these tasks would indeed be a challenge for my students because they would be presented with a new type of reading.  How often are students just given directions in text form for an assignment they are expected to complete?  Unless they are taking an online course, the answer is most likey never.  We want our students to understand, so we present to multiple learning styles, model, and demonstrate. We repeat directions when nececssary and answer endless questions. 

I am not saying that such support is necessarily a bad thing, but I have noticed that students can grow to rely on it.  In addition to challenging them to blog (the slogan of the Student Blogging Challenge) I also wanted to challenge them to read carefully for information and follow directions. Yes, I will model and demonstrate for them, but as for figuring out how to complete the tasks, they will be on thier own.  I'm sure that I'll be asked plenty of questions, the help I give will most often take on the form of redirecting them to the text.  I've taken this approach of other aspects of my teaching, like I wrote about here, and while I'm sure I'll encounter some pockets of resistence, I'm pretty sure my students will end up being suprised at just how much they can do on their own.

3. The Student Blogging Challenge would be student-paced

I teach an incredibly diverse group of students with a wide range in reading ability and technological literacy. I didn't want any of my students, particularly those who struggle with reading and writing, to feel that the Blogging Challenge was a task they were going to fail before they even began. To ensure all of my students were included, I told them that they didn't have to complete every activity in each week's Challenge.  Rather, they could choose the tasks they wanted to complete and work on on their own to get them done.

If they got stuck on a particular task, they were to revist the directions and work through the problem, even if this meant they would only get a fraction of that week's challenge done.

4. Assessment of The Student Blogging Challenge would be about learning, process, and metacognition.

If you're still reading this post, I'd like to thank you for not giving up after reading #3 above.  I promise, I'm not completely out of touch with teaching middle school students.  I just have come to conclude that if I want The Blogging Challenge to make my students better readers, thinkers, and learners, than the environment in which students engaged in it needed to also faciliate that type of problem solving...a process they would surely shy away from if I emphasized primarily the product over the process.

So, to guide my students in embracing the process of thinking and learning through the Blogging Challenge, I made students' assessment a metacognitive one.  After each week of the challenge, my students would complete an assessment that required them to think about their own thinking over the course of the week while they worked through whichever parts of the Blogging Challenge they decided to undertake. The most current version of the self assessment can be seen by clicking here.  Each week, students, with their notes (I'll explain this later) out and blogs open, would have time to write their reflections in response to each item listed on it. 

5. Commenting on the blog posts of others was non-negotiable.

Sometimes, as part of the Student Blogging Challenge, Miss W would include an activity involving visiting and commenting on the blogs of other students participating in the Student Challenge. This is one area I did not want to leave as "optional."  Each of my students would have time to visit other blogs, read what others are writing, and post thoughtful comments in response.

Responding to the writing of others is not a new area for my students.  We established guidelines for composing quality comments at the start of the year (thanks to the help of this video published by Ms. Yollis), and students have read and commented on the writings their classmates have posted throughout the year. I feel like now they see value in getting thoughtfull responses from readers, but the importance having space for commenting in The Blogging Challenge goes beyond reading and responding.

The Blogging Challenge provides students the opprotunity to connect with students outside of our school's walls. They become introduced to new writers and exposed to new ideas. They encounter different points of view, topics for writing, and possibilities for composing. And through connecting with other bloggers, students broaden the audience for thier own writing, as after recieving a comment, students often visit the blog of the student who left it.

Bringing It All Together

With only seeing each of my classes for 55 minutes, five times a week, I realized that organizing lesson plans which met my above expectations was going to be pretty tight on time. Add to it that I also needed to make time throughout the week for students to read and discuss thier novels (which students had began before the start of The Student Blogging Challenge), I honestly didn't know if the vision I had would actually work.

Even so, I went ahead with it anyway, breaking up my week something like this:

  •  Reflect our thinking and learning throughout the previous week of the Student Challenge by completing the self assessment.
  • Preview the activities of the current week, and begin working on them. 
  • With 5 minutes left in the class, students would write a few reflective notes in their daybook discussing the activities they had worked on and how the process went, being sure to point out any frustrations they were feeling or problems they were trying to work through.  *Each day after working on part of the Student Blogging Challenge, students would add another entry onto this page, to which they would refer next Monday when completing the previous week's reflection.
  • Begin brainstorming, drafting upcomming writing piece, and have time to share ideas and get feedback from writing group.  We would only be doing this on every other week, as students would be required to publish a piece of writing to thier blog every two weeks.  This time next week would just be spent as an individual writing/conferencing period.


  • Students would have the option on these days of either working on thier own writing pieces or continuing with the Student Blogging Challenge. It was for them to decide how their time was spent, but they are expected to spend some time on both.

  • Fridays are comment days. 
  • On the weeks when students had to have completed their own writing pieces, about half of the class will be devoted to reading and commenting on the posts of their peers.  At any time during the commenting period, a student can come to the board and write down an author and title on our "Most Awesome Blogs of the Week" list.  Students also keep thier daybooks open on their desks, so they can write down any ideas they find for writing pieces of their own they will compose in the future.  The last 20 minutes of the class, students turn their attention to thier own piece that they had published, and complete this self assessment.
  • On the weeks when students are not commenting on each other's published posts, they are given time to visit and post comments on the blogs of students participating the Students Blogging Challenge, who are not from our school.  For one of the comments they post, they complete this form, which I use for assessment and share with the students so they can see their classmates' responses to the blog posts their classmates have visited. The latter reason is why a rating is included on the form.
So Far, So Good

If the schedule that I described above sounds impossible when considering that I'm also having my students do literature circles, you're partially right. My students don't have near as much class time that they need to complete both thier writing and the Student Blogging Challenge.  Good thing that both can be done at home, too. 

While I haven't formally assigned my students specific homework tasks, I've told them throughout to take what time is necessary outside of class to ensure they are doing quality writing and participating thoughtfully in the Blogging Challenge.  Many are putting this extra time in...more so than what I typically see with homework I assign.  And overall, the work that my students are doing is incredible.
Though my students are participating at different levels in the Blogging Challenge, they all seem to be finding it challenging.  For most, the level of difficulty is just right, while for others, there is a pretty high level of frustration.  These latter students, I've concluded, are those who are most used to having directions explained for them.  

But regardless of the level of frustration, all of my students are enagaged and participating.  Just last week several students had commented to me that they noticed themselves having an easier time reading and completing the directions for the weekly activities.  And even for my more frustrated students, I've noticed that they are making progress too, both in their abilities figure out text directions on thier own and articulate the areas where they are finding themselves stuck. For these students especially, not having the requirement of completing all tasks has facilitated their willingness to engage in the problem solving process and put forth the extra time they need to develop this neglected set of reading skills.

The response to the actual activities of the Blogging Challenge has also been mixed....much more so than I had anticipated.  I've heard a suprinsing number of complaints. 

No, it's not the fact that my students are complaining that suprises me....I'm no stranger to second semester 8thGraderitis (the middle school version of Senioritis.)  What suprised me is that the majority of the complaints had to do with that the time they spent working on the Blogging Challenge took time away from the writing pieces.  For this reason, I'm really glad that I left the writing component in, Click here to see some of the top student posts from last week.

But I also have no regrets about keeping the Blogging Challenge component in either.  Though my students may have complained when, for example, they had to take the large part of a week to create a comment avatar and link it to thier blog, they all loved seeing avatars appear next to the comments posted and how much easier the link made it to visit people's blogs who posted comments on thiers. On Friday, a few even complained that some of comments made on thier blogs didn't have an avatar linked to the commenter's blog.

That's pretty much how it went for all of the other aspects of the Student Challenge that my students initially disliked. After they had completed the tasks and saw the purpose, they were glad they did it.

I feel like my students are seeing this too, and I'm hearing less least those related to the Student Blogging Challenge.