Initially, the student blogs were nothing more than a class journal posted online. They were digital notebooks. However, over time, they became a place for student's voice. They evolved as my thinking about blogging evolved. So, here is what I’ve learned along the way:
1. Encourage discourse.
It may feel a little contrived, but I’ve found that providing discourse stems and sample questions helps students figure out how to leave and respond to comments.
2. Consider the platform.
Some teachers prefer Kidblog or Edublogs. As a co-founder of Write About, I’m obviously partial to a publishing platform that incorporates visual writing ideas and customized user groups.
3. Communicate with parents.
Explain to parents what a blog is and why it can be a powerful tool. Ask for their feedback on safety issues and let them choose layers of safety (name only, first name only, pictures/no pictures, etc.) based upon their own beliefs about what’s necessary.
4. Switch from prompts to ideas.
I’ve found a lot of success in letting students choose from the ideas I’ve created along with those of Luke Neff. Although I used to call this “photo prompts,” the truth is that they are ideas. Prompts are mandatory, but ideas are a source of inspiration for students. Allowing students to choose from hundreds of ideas expands their options and helps them find to figure out what they want to write.
5. Think about the audience and privacy.
I’ve had years when students created private and public blogs. I’ve had years when students created blogs that were viewable only by the students in the classroom. This year, all blogs are public, because I want students to get a chance to speak to a larger audience.
6. Treat blogging as a format and as a genre.
William Chamberlain encouraged me to think about blogging as more than simply a medium where people post their writing. It has become its own genre, limited and enhanced by the features of the medium. It’s why I will show students sentence stems such as “Seven Reasons ___________.” It’s why I encourage them to come up with catchy titles. It’s also why I encourage students to look at blogs that exist outside of school.
7. Teach kids how blogs work.
Let them understand how blog feeds, comments and embedded media work. I’ve learned that students won’t add labels, pictures or links unless they see it modeled. For all the talk of Digital Natives, students don’t initially get blogging and they aren’t quick to go explore it themselves.
8. Teach copyright.
Typically, I teach copyright with a concept of intellectual property and why one would want to protect their work. We then get into Creative Commons and I tell students to check out sites like PhotoPin (a phenomenal site). I later show them the Creative Commons options on Flickr and Google Images.
9. Make it authentic.
It makes me sad to see how student blogs are often nothing like real blogs. I try and avoid having students reflect on assignments or answer very direct prompts on their blogs. I’d rather use Google Forms, e-mail or Google Plus for that. Blogs are a place where they write their stories and persuasive pieces. In other words, I want students to write something that someone would actually find interesting.
10. Push for autonomy.
I realize that we are limited by the subject standards. However, blogs can be a place where students have a little more agency in their learning. So, in social studies, it becomes a place where students write about current events or get a little more philosophical with history. It becomes a place where they post community needs assessments or living history interviews they conduct. In writing, the blog becomes a place to write about any topic they want. In math, it becomes a place where they can show the real context of applied mathematics.
11. Let it evolve.
It takes time to figure out how to blog. In my own experience, it took me a while to let things sink in. It’s why I tell students that they should have one person in mind when they write. This helps them find a voice and eventually reach an audience.
12. Collaborate with other teachers.
Partner with another class in the building or another class around the world. This is one of the features we have included in Write About. We want to give teachers the chance to do cross-class blogging cadres.
13. Use scaffolding.
Sometimes students need sentence stems or graphic organizers. Just because they are blogging doesn’t mean they won’t need some extra help. When I taught ELL, I would start with a verb tense study that would eventually lead to student-centered blogging.
The Current Approach:
For about seven years now, I’ve had students use blogs in my classroom. At first, I social studies blogs and one class blog. However, I noticed that students in my class quit blogging when they left. I also noticed that the blogs looked nothing like the blogs I write or read. They weren’t authentic. They were mostly just a social studies journal project plopped online.
So, I decided to go with a blended approach:
Personal Learning Blog: This becomes their portfolio, their resource, their space to reflect on their learning. This is a place for an ongoing dialogue between the student, the class and the teacher. It is, in this sense, semi-private. Note: In accordance with FERPA, I don’t “grade” anything here. That’s done on Google Docs and e-mail. This type of blog is more academic in nature.
Individual Public Blog: This is more like the kind of blog I would typically read or write. This is where students choose the topics, write, add personal podcasts or post their photography and artwork. Over time, these blogs typically become themed, though not necessarily on purpose.
Blogging Co-Op: Students work in small groups to blog about a particular topic or interest (an art blog, a social justice blog, a skateboarding blog). It becomes a mini-community.
Class Blog: This is a place where we showcase our work, where we put finished products and where we engage in class discussions that are also open to the public.
I got some interesting push-back on this idea when I brought it up on Twitter. People suggested having students write one blog and then do tags for different topics and concepts. Others said that students most likely wouldn’t continue to blog on their own anyway and that multiple blogs become confusing for students and teachers. However, my process continues to evolve.