Friday, June 10, 2011

Revisioned Student Blogging

*This post is a follow-up to two posts I wrote earlier in the year, Rethinking Student Blogging, For Real and Headfirst into Blogging.
It is also the extended version of a piece I wrote for the UNC Writing Project Newsletter.  Portions not included in the Newsletter article are written in bold.

When I was first presented with the idea of using blogs in the classroom, it was suggested that they be used as a way for students to respond to a question or text and the ideas of others. I set up a classroom blog, had my students use it as a space to respond to a story we read, and quickly decided that I wasn’t impressed.  Physical class discussions elicited greater depth and participation, and besides, there were better online venues for students to interact share.

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

I created my own blog where I write about what matters to me and enter into 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, where the world is my audience.

How I have come to know blogging hardly resembles my initial conception of it, as a teacher-centered space for student response.  Real bloggers are engaged writers because they write about what is important to them, and knowing this helped me to understand that meaningful writing needed to exist at the heart of student blogging if it is to be successful.  

With this realization in mind, I decided this year that I would make a second attempt at using blogs in my classroom.   I've always had my students compose and share pieces of thier choosing in our writing workshop, and if meaningful writing was my goal, our existing workshop provided just the place to begin our journey into blogging.
Getting Set Up

In order for students to feel a sense of ownership of their blogs, I decided to have them each create their own (as opposed to creating a single class blog where each could contribute) on the educational blogging site, Edublogs.  While it wasn't my first choice because of the learning curve presented to new bloggers, Edublogs was free, provided plenty of options for composing and customizing, and had an incredibly simple sign-up process.  Within minutes, students created accounts, named their blogs, and were ready to start blogging.   
To give students access to the blogs of their classmates, I created this Google Form.  On it, students typed in their name and pasted the url of their blog.  I then shared the resulting spreadsheet on my website, were students could then be able to browse through their classmates (and those in other classes I teach) and access their individual blogs.

Becoming Bloggers

During class time that we devoted to writing workshop, I made sure to have computers on hand so that students could write their final drafts to their blog when they were ready.  Every two or three weeks students would publish a new piece to their blogs and also take time in class to read and post comments on the published posts of their classmates.  The process was fairly simple and on the surface wasn’t much different than how we did things before blogs.  What happened after we began these digital sharing sessions, though, was pretty exciting.

I noticed it on our first commenting day when a student turned around and told her friend about a post she read that was really good.  After she made this comment, I noticed that student in earshot was reading the piece the student mentioned.  By the time I got to my computer and read it, seven students had posted comments.  By the time the author arrived to my class (the last of the day), 25 comments had been posted on it.  She came in the next day with the sequel to that post in hand, and her enthusiasm for writing has only grown since.  And she was just the first.

As we continued to blog, so did this trend of students talking during class and in the hall about student writing.  Students gained reputations for their writing, and networks began to emerge both in our school and beyond.  They established their identities and started thinking like writers, borrowing ideas from the posts of others and viewing the events that unfolded in their lives and in the world as new topics to write about.  They jotted down notes in their daybooks and freewrote with purpose. Revision was taken seriously, and proofreading gained a new significance.  

In years past, I've observed my students growing in such ways as writers over the course of the year through writer's workshop,  but the scale at which this growth took place this year was unlike anything I had seen before, and I'm confident that blogging had a lot to do with it.  Sure, I am a better teacher of writing this year thanks to participating in SI last summer (shout out UNCC Writing Project!), and without question my students' experience would not have been near as powerful it were not for my improved practice.   That being said, writing as bloggers afforded my students opportunities not avaliable to writers in physical spaces alone. 

Blogging gave students a chance to do more than tack their final drafts to the classroom wall.  It broke down these walls, and entered students into a new type of writing community, one where their words could be read by anyone at any time, where their ideas were widely received and could be disseminated instantly, and most importantly, one where they were able to feel that writing about what mattered, mattered.
Blogs as Digital Daybooks
As students became more familiar with writing in these digital spaces, it wasn't just their attitudes that changed.  The role of their blogs evolved as well.   Rather than only using them to publish final drafts, students would use their blogs to jot down ideas and start new pieces with the “save as a draft” feature.  Sometimes they would abandon drafts and began new ones.  And other times they would return to the ones they’d abandoned.   By the end of the year, students’ blogs functioned much like their daybooks, and many found a balance between working through ideas in both spaces.  

Growing into Digital Writers
The types of writing that students were doing changed, too.  Blogs provided students the opportunity to add new depth to their writing through integrating various digital elements.  Of course, this didn’t happen all at once.  Along with those I typically do on craft and mechanics,  I also led mini-lessons on different digital composition tools, many times learning right along with students. 

By the end of the year, they became quite good, too, at drawing upon digital tools to compose ideas beyond words alone.  Within their pieces, students included hyperlinks to outside web pages, past posts, and the posts of others; they  inserted Creative Commons images, videos, and music within their writing; and they also embedded digital projects they created themselves like podcasts, slideshows, animations, and comics.  Listed below are a few examples.  I'm sure they'd welcome any feedback that you'd like to leave!

  • After writing this poem, Carol retold it in this post using only images that she created using Pixton
  • Juan created this comic retelling a scene from our team's canoe trip, using Toondoo.  Pierre, his canoe partner told his version of the event with this animation he created with xtranorml.  Will, who did not go on the trip, created this animation with Goanimate to explain how the day went for those who stayed back with the substitute.
  • Heather created this book using Storybird, which was inspired by previous posts she had written.  Check out her blog here and see if you can notice the recurring theme of her writing :)
  • Allison created and embedded this 3D pop-up book about her experiences in 8th grade using Zooburst
  • Lorenzo embedded a video slideshow that he created on Animoto into a post he wrote about child abuse.
  • Shaytania and Katelyn wrote this poem on a relationship told from perspectives of both people in it.  Along with the text, they also recorded themselves reading their poem, which they posted as a podcast created using Audioboo.
  • Ta-Layza wrote a rap about what she had learned about gymnastics and recorded it using Audioboo.  She posted her performance of it here.
  • Erin created the Alice Jacob fictional series.  With each chapter, she gave readers links to other pieces in her series.
  • Belen wrote this piece on her favorite music, where she included multiple links to related pages and sites to listen to the songs.