For the first time, each of my 107 students has a blog! I know that plenty of other teachers have successfully launched student blogs, so I don’t claim to be doing anything too revolutionary here. Still, enough people ask me about our blogs that I thought maybe I should post a few ideas about how we do them.
I currently teach two classes: American Studies, an interdisciplinary course co-taught with an American history teacher (52 juniors) and Sophomore English (55 students). I’ve been requiring blogs from American Studies classes for three years, but this is the first year for the sophomores. (I didn’t teach sophomores last year.) The approach is slightly different for each class, so I’ll explain them separately.
American Studies Blogs
Students are required to write a blog post once per quarter. Some do it more frequently; most do not. (Does anyone else have lethargic juniors? Our class meets from 7:30 – 9:15 a.m., and most of them are not exactly bundles of energy at that hour.) The subject matter can be anything related to American Studies, which encompasses quite a bit of territory. The blog posts need to be at least three paragraphs long, and they must include some kind of media. The media can be a photo, hyperlink, video, or anything else they want to try. The final requirement is that the bloggers must specifically invite readers to respond.
Recent blog posts focused on Lady Gaga, truthfulness in media, the VeriChip, and our state’s required daily “moment of silence.” The most popular topics for the American Studies bloggers include technology, pop culture, and ethical issues. We currently have over 300 blog posts on our American Studies class web site, with more coming in the next few days.
How do I grade the blogs? Well, “grading” isn’t my favorite way of thinking about writing. I’m much more interested in developing young writers than I am in grading them. Let’s not get caught up in that kettle of fish right now though. The American Studies blogs are posted on our Ning. I have that Ning set so that all blog posts must be approved before they can be seen by others. I use that approval process to provide feedback for the students on their writing and blog design. When I receive a message that a blog post is awaiting approval, I look at it, and then send the writer a detailed message about their writing—what works and what doesn’t work. Then I invite the writer to revise and let me know when it’s time for me to look at their work again.
I find it difficult to schedule time to sit down with students one-on-one on a consistent basis, although that is definitely the best way to provide feedback to young writers. In my next life, maybe I’ll have fewer students and more time. However, providing writing feedback on blog posts can be done on my schedule, and the students can revise on their schedules. This flexibility is an important advantage of using online platforms for both teachers and students.
The final component of the American Studies blog assignment has to do with comments. Students are required to make twelve contributions to our class web site each quarter. These contributions can be almost anything. They can ask me a question or post an idea on one of the dozens of discussions based on elements of curriculum. More than 90% of the contributions each quarter, however, are comments on each other’s blogs.
I’m especially happy with the fact that my current students continue to comment on blogs from previous years, as well as on the blog posts from students in other sections whose teachers also require blog posts. This cross-pollination between sections and even between class years provides writers with an authentic way of thinking about audience and extends our curriculum far beyond the classroom walls and bell-limited class periods.
Sophomore English Blogs
When I returned to teaching sophomores this year, I began a new initiative to have them read books of their own choice for the first ten minutes of each class period. (I wrote quite a bit about that in a previous post.) I challenged students to read at least one book a month and forty books during the year. This was inspired by Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide, which also includes the idea of one-pagers, a fairly simply tool that can be used to monitor and assess student reading. In September and October, we did the one-pagers.
Then I had a nice chat with Dawn Hogue at the Illinois Association of Teachers of English conference. Her freshmen were blogging about books. I was looking for way to integrate blogging into that sophomore class, and Dawn inspired me to try book blogs with my sophomore classes.
Because I didn’t want to request that my school purchase another Ning for my use, I went through quite a decision-making process trying to decide what blog platform to use before eventually settling on the wiki format of Wetpaint.com. Our class web site isn’t perfect but it’s working OK.
The sophomore blog post requirements are mostly the same as for the juniors: at least two paragraphs, inclusion of media, invitation to respond. However, for the sophomores, I put a greater emphasis on the variety of Web 2.0 tools they could use for their media component. We looked at Glogster, Prezi, Wordle, Animoto, DoInk, and others. Since then, students have suggested other formats and we keep adding them to our tool belts.
The sophomores are required to write monthly posts about a book they recently finished. I’ve been, well, extremely pleased with what they have created. The writing is excellent; the media is incredible. I’m quite confident in saying that their understanding of and enthusiasm for the books they read is significantly enhanced by their blogging experiences.
Because the Wetpaint site is a wiki, we also needed to talk about wiki etiquette, including when and when not to add to someone else’s posts. Our agreement is that we add comments in separate threads and do not change what others have written. I know this subverts one of the purposes and advantages of the wiki platform, but at this point our blogging purpose is not really collaborative in nature, so we just skip that functionality.
The newest wrinkle for the sophomore bloggers is a requirement to add tags to their book blogs, including the book title, author, genre, and topic. Yesterday we talked about and demonstrated how the tags serve to connect related blogs and comments that our web site users might not otherwise find or notice.
You’re welcome to take a look at our blog posts and class web sites. Oh, I almost forgot to mention an important part of our class blogging: The teacher adds blog posts too. Modeling is an important part of being a good writing teacher.
Your feedback, advice, ideas, and questions are always welcome. Thanks for reading.