Beyond Blogging? Student Choice

If I were to write this post how I feel it needs to be written– long, comprehensive, timely and engaging, then it would never be written. So instead I am going to try a quicker, choppier, more get it down approach. Going to try some Guerrilla Blogging . (I might have just made that term up, because when I looked it up there were little to no references.) But what’s up with this lengthy, rambling, irrelevant intro. This is not Guerrilla Blogging! Get to it.

What You Need To Know:

I haven’t blogged professionally since September when I Backed Away From The Edge, and consequently upset a few people in the process. But I am back now. I am revamped, energized and seeing things with a fresh outlook.

I’ve just returned from Japan, where I facilitated a two day EARCOS workshop with Rebekah Madrid called Beyond Blogging.  We were primarily looking at why shared online school spaces like class blogs and portfolios seem to fall flat. We decided that we knew, or at least thought we knew, what these spaces could do or have done for adult learners, but we were flummoxed, like many of you, as to why  K-12 spaces looked more like glorified teacher created worksheets, than dynamic authentic student created spaces designed for identity exploration, content creation and community building.

Big questions I know.

Everyone I spoke to before I left said, “Looking forward to seeing what you find!” And upon my return? “So what did you find out?

Here goes:

I started by talking with some students who I knew were active online. Two successful Youtubers from our school. I chatted with them for two forty-five minute sessions and this is what they said.

I was struck particularly by the key words which I highlighted in the video.

These words seem pretty straightforward. I think most teachers would like to think that they attempt to incorporate at least a few of these ideas into their daily teaching. But listening to the girls, it is pretty clear that they do not see the work they are doing in school at all similar to the work they do on their own.

This discrepancy, to me, seemed like the crux of our issue. The dichotomy between school generated curriculum and what kids w0uld choose to do if given a chance appears to be wider than many of us think.

You can take a look at the agenda from the workshop and explore some of the work the participants did here, but I wanted to take some time in this post to try and consolidate some of my own thinking. I thought about the Do’s and Don’ts we generated, and wondered what next. Here are some raw thoughts fresh from the weekend:

1. Choice matters– No one likes to be told what to do, and we like it less when we are told when or how to do it. Kids are no different. True, we are all working with a written curriculum which needs to be taught– a set of skills, concepts and understandings that we have pre-determined are vital for learning, but kids will always see this as “work.” It will be rare to find kids enthusiastically reflecting or sharing this type of teacher assigned work. When kids create or share online on their own accord, they seem to share ideas, skills and understandings which they choose an care about. No amount of forced reflection will make the work we assign authentic. Blogs will not magically make students care about what you want them to care about.

2. An Audience Matters–  Kids are not worried about being exposed to the world, but they are aware of who might be watching, and they want feedback from this audience. Perhaps, the idea that every kids has the same method of sharing (a blog or portfolio) with one massive audience (The world their school or class) is false. It is important that students create their own spaces and connect to smaller interactive audiences that give them feedback, instead of sharing everything with everyone and never connecting in a meaningful way with anyone. The tools learners use to create these spaces and communities must be chosen by the user.

3. Diversity of Tools- Kids need to create their own unique audiences and choose the methods and tools with which they connect to this community. Perhaps the readers in your class connect to other readers using Goodreads, but the actors choose Youtube as a place to connect with other actors, and the writers use a blog designed for Harry Potter fans. We cannot expect every member of our school community to use one platform to share their learning.

4. Being Open Requires Trust– Students have to know that their teachers are not looking for reasons to doubt or question student choices. They have to feel free to be themselves even if their identities do not always illustrate the perfect student. Life online requires risk taking, exploration, and the awareness that sometimes we all make mistakes. If we want students to be authentic we must allow them the time and space to find out for themselves what that means–without our own systemic institutional expectations.

5. Time– True student interests often exists beyond the curriculum. Kids need time to explore questions and solve problems of their own choosing. We need to make time for students to think, play and learn beyond our curricula. Things like the MYP Personal Project or Google 20% time could be key areas to allow for real blogging and online sharing. Allow students the time to learn, create and share the things that are important to them. Beyond assessment, school and work might be where students can share their learning. Take a look at this great pitch by Madeline Cox:

The problem, as I see it, with student blogging is not technological but curricular and institutional. We are expecting students to be excited about content they never chose to be excited about, and then we are disappointed when they are not super keen to write about it or share it with people who are not really their friends and who also lack interest in said content.

Share everything with everyone will never work. The better model is share what you love with those who care and can help you.

What does this type of sharing and learning look like in our schools? Most teachers do not work in student-centered, problem-based, inquiry model, project based institutions. No matter what we tell ourselves most of us are responsible to a curriculum and all the restriction it includes: explicit instruction, assessment, and reporting.

I think we need to think about what the learning looks like beyond our curriculum, so that it makes room for looser, freer, student choice. I have been hard on curricula in this post. I do not mean to say that students do not need the skills, concepts and understanding we teach them, but perhaps they do not see the value in sharing their school work in the place that we tell them to.

In a perfect world, we would see evidence of the curriculum in these more independent projects, and like Sidney said, the teacher can build the learning around what has already been done by the student. I am not sure what this model looks like in different schools or different subjects, so I can only share  examples of what we are doing in our MS English department at UWCSEA East.

We are using the Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Workshop. Coupled with our benchmarks, we have a pretty solid set of skills we are responsible to teach. I think these skills are important and I think teaching them explicitly is valuable. I also feel that assessing these skills, offering feedback and reporting on student progress is crucial for their growth as readers and writers. But I do not expect them to share their reflections of their learning on a blog. Who would want to read that?

I do see the value, however, of offering them choice in content. The beauty of the workshop model is that it offers absolute choice of what they write about and what they read. The units do focus on certain text types and this can prove problematic for everything I have mentioned in this post, so what we have done is intersperse independent writing units in between the more prescribed units of study.

For our last unit, students were given the choice to write about any topic or issue in any style or text type they found relevant. They wrote a range of pieces from cookbooks, to Rubic’s Cube tutorials, poems, songs and short stories. The next step is to coach these kids how to create communities around the content they create. Instead of publishing their assigned article on a blog, they need to learn how they might create a space to share their independent work, in hopes of finding other chefs or musicians.

As adults, we build communities around the content we create to express our passions and foster our learning. Why then do we not allow students the time and space to do the same? It’s not that blogging is dead or that we need to find out what lays beyond.  Schools as we know them are dying and we need to look beyond them.

This what I am thinking so far. What do you think? Share some thoughts and let’s see if we can’t figure this out together.


13 thoughts on “Beyond Blogging? Student Choice

  1. avatarKayo Ozawa

    After reading this blog and the EARCOS workshop, I realize that students may sometimes may not want to do the task because they don’t want to share with everyone. The presentation we’re asking students to do in our EWW class, “This I Believe” may just be a bit too embarrassing for 15 or 16 year olds to handle. To act as facilitators and to give students space, to give them alternatives. Otherwise, technology just becomes a dictatorial tool.


  2. avatarSally Nicholas

    Sitting here nodding my head and trying now to work out how to articulate why. What resonates with me is student choice – how, what, where. Marrying this to the curriculum is where it becomes a little more challenging – but not impossible.
    I do feel that it is important for the students to reflect upon their learning. I see blogs as a platform to do this. Also, as I teach younger students, the parents are very engaged in their child’s learning and want to be involved. So I guess that’s the audience – right?
    Anyway. It is very early morning here in Australaia. Thanks for waking my brain up. :-) I will continue to ponder and check back on other people’s musing at a later date.

  3. avatarElizabeth Durkin
    Twitter: LizDk

    Hi Jabiz

    Great to read this. Thanks for including Madeline’s video too – that was fantastic to see. Your post just really reinforced to me that it is all about CHOICE. Choice of how they share, what they share and when they share. I also think that not only do we get more authentic results, but we will also get much more creative results, which is exactly what we are striving to elicit.

    Thanks again for the workshop – it has really helped me and our school as we consider both individual classroom decisions and school wide strategies.



  4. avatarKevin Johnson

    Thanks for leading that very productive workshop. I agree fully with your observation regarding genius hour or 20 per cent time. There actually is a PYP UoI that simply gives a loose frame for true, independent research. In Singapore, they speak of getting out of the kids’ way. Today also, as with your You Tubing female students, there are powerful online learning opportunities. More about that in this CoETaIL blog of mine:
    I also used Cerego (one of three adaptive learning companies in the K to 12 field, along with Knewton and Loudcloud) to make for free a “Learning Readiness” 61 item vocabulary cluster. Jabiz, I highly recommend that you try learning something (about 500 free items are up there now – from Hebrew to Icelandic and erudite English). It is the most powerful vocabulary teaching tool I have experienced, and it is free and easy to build on.
    Thanks for sharing the blog Jabiz and nice to see you return to the blog:)

  5. avatarAdrienne
    Twitter: amichetti

    I love that you’ve shared this, and I love hearing these two very real voices of our students. Thank you so much. I also love all the resources you and Rebekah created and shared. You’ve given us much to think about. Okay, so I’m now going to push back a bit on a few things. Firstly, I think it’s important for us to remember that these are the feelings and experiences of *two* students, both girls, both who happen to be active in internet media spaces outside of school. I realize that is why you drew on them and their experiences, but I wince a bit when we make generalizations and come to “big conclusions” after talking to only 2 students. What do the rest of their peers think / experience? They are the 1%. Now, onto your raw (generalized) thoughts:

    1) On choice: So, my question is (and always is!), How can we build choice into curriculum? If we are not doing this, we have failed. The curriculum is wrong without student choice. And this isn’t just true for MS English. It’s true for all subject areas. I’m not suggesting that there should be no curriculum (I’m not a fan of the unschooling model), nor am I suggesting that all curriculum should be student choice — there are key skills and understandings that I do think need imparting. What I am suggesting, and it seems you are too, is that in every course there must be an aspect of student choice. Period. Honestly, this is why I’m an MYP fan. It’s the only curriculum I know that has this built in.

    2) On audience: Okay, so when? at what age is it appropriate to start? And what about the kids who don’t care, or — more realistically — don’t want the audience? What if they don’t want to make mistakes publicly? Where is their safe space? Where can they be nurtured? Because the internet is a wild and mean place to screw up in front of all your friends. Examples of how this can very easily turn into a bullying /harassment situation are abundant. It’s unreasonable and insensitive to push every single child into a situation where they have to be public with their work. In this case, I might bring up point 1 again… with a suggestion that it’s the teacher’s role to gently nudge those who are ready to publish their creations in wider circles.

    3) On tools: I agree, in theory, that we can’t expect everyone to use the same platform. But in practice, this becomes a bit of a nightmare. How do we give exposure and skills to all of them? When and how do we empower kids to try them all? And then how do we, their teachers, monitor them all?

    5) On time: yes! yes and yes! And I agree that the MYP personal project is one answer to this, as it is then built into the curriculum. It is the epitome of student choice in learning. To a lesser extent, the IBDP’s Extended Essay also does this, but it’s more research-based and less about an inquiry project. A bit too “schooly” for my tastes… though to be fair, most of the students whom I’ve supervised have really found it valuable and later report that they loved being able to dig deep into one area that intrigued them (I’m always surprised by this).

    Lastly, you say “As adults, we build communities around the content we create to express our passions and foster our learning. Why then do we not allow students the time and space to do the same?” I absolutely don’t think this is true across the board. Not all adults do build these communities around content we create. Some do and then realize how challenging and time-consuming it is to maintain them, and so they die ( :::raises hand slowly::: ). Some never try, because they don’t value the extended community, or they are very private people, or they would rather be out there on the soccer field than behind a screen. While communication and communities are important, they won’t and shouldn’t look the same for all people. I might argue that in some professions / fields these networks are more important than others, and in fact perhaps they are mandatory (education, journalism, medicine come to mind). But your average bartender or arborist might not need or want the same — and that is okay. Right? As long as they have the basic decoding and literacy skills to educate themselves about the world they inhabit… I’m cool with that.

    1. avatarJabiz Post author

      Wow, Adrienne! Such great questions and push back. It is clear from your questions, the rawness of my thoughts, and the activity this past weekend and the last few years, that as a collective we are nowhere close to getting any of this right. We all seem to have a vague ida of what we want, and because we are shackled by our various systems, we have no idea (well, vague notions) how to get there.

      Anyway, I appreciate your thoughtful response. Let me try and address some of what you said.

      The 1%. Great point. I found these two kids who are doing exactly what I wanted to showcase, and who are passionate and articulate in expressing what I agree with. So you are right this is not scientific research data that can be extrapolated into any “big conclusions.” I guess my question is why don’t we have this data? Or do we? Can we ask more students? See what they think, what they want? This seems to be a re-emerging theme: Involve students more in their learning. Involve students in conversations that affect them. I have shared this blog posts with students and asked for their feedback. I will see if they respond, but perhaps part of our PSE and/or mentor program can be eliciting student feedback on questions like student sharing, portfolios etc….

      Choice: “Every course there must be an aspect of student choice. Period.” We are on the same page. I think this has to move beyond simple things like choosing how you show learning in an assessment. The typical— write a haiku or a song or whatever, but what we need is to really give kids space to explore what they want to learn, how they learn and show their learning. They not only need choice about what, where, when and how they learn, but also in showing this learning.

      Audience- You brought up great points about age and the fear of public failure. You are right that there is much anxiety about being “exposed” on the web. I guess, I am starting to see audience as small, personal, and interactive. We don’t all want to be explodes to the web, but it would be nice if we had smaller spaces public or private where our PLN or trusted communities can engage with us on what matters. Think of our FB music page, or a small cooking blog just for fellow foodies. Or maybe a Goodreads book club. I don’t mean a wide open public audience, but small, personal, and interactive. How and when kids are ready for these spaces is a great question. Perhaps in primary they explore the idea of class blogs and extensions of work done in class. Private walled gardens where they learn basic skills: format, posting, etiquette etc… then in MS they move onto more personal methods of sharing with smaller audiences. Then in HS they venture into larger spaces with more risk of exposure.

      Tools: Ha! Maybe that is the DLC’s roll. Seriously though think about how many different tools and spaces we use as adults. We need a scope and sequence that helps students learn to function in these spaces. What came up on our workshop is that teachers want control of student spaces because it makes monitoring, assessing and recording taught curriculum easier. But if the purpose is for students to connect their learning with people that matter to them, then we need new systems of keeping track. Rebekah has some simple solutions to this, but you are right this is an area where we can be sharing what works on developing new systems. By looking how we function as adults, we may be able to recreate similar systems for kids.

      Time: We have to work with timetabling committees and carve out time at every level of our schools to let kids have free time to learn. Personal Project EE, 20% whatever we call it, but this must be part of a culture of a school. For teachers as well.

      Your last point is an interesting one, but I will think on it more and maybe wait to see other reactions, or maybe we can chat in person. Thanks again for this great comment.

  6. avatarRich Nies

    Very interesting stuff as always…you have a unique ability to challenge in a meaningful and open way. Could not agree more with the “choice” aspect. I wonder where assessment fits in with all of this? I am hoping a shift from grades being the chief indicator of success to a culture of meaningful feedback will somehow foster a stronger “choice based” curriculum.

  7. avatarRebekah Madrid

    The thing that still amazes me is how we didn’t have the answer at any point in the process. We did the best to meet people where they were and let them do what they needed to do. We still don’t have the answer. But we know that learning happened. I’m still pondering and thinking and reflecting. But I would like to capture that feeling of not knowing, trusting, and not worrying about when things end. I’ll keep pondering and maybe I’ll do in a blog post. Or maybe not :)

    And just to say publicly how much I loved working with you. Thanks so much for everything at every level. Hopefully we can do it again soon. It was a joy.

  8. avatarIan Tymms

    Such an interesting read – both your post, Jabiz, and the responses. I find it validating to see the emphasis on choice coming through so strongly as I think this is a key pillar of the “Workshop” model we’re investing so much energy in in our Middle School. TC has an almost magical way of weaving a very structured approach to the teaching of skills through a strong focus on the need to build students’ autonomy as readers and writers – as individuals creating and forming their individual identities through what they choose to read and write.

    It occurs to me that, while we may be preparing students to complete one homogenous Grade 12 exam, we are also preparing individuals to take on all kinds of different reading and writing lives and the power and permission to take those autonomous steps is the foundation of a healthy democratic society.

    Thanks yet again for being so thoughtfully engaging and generous with your sharing of ideas.

  9. avatarSarah Glenn

    Once again, I enjoyed reading your blog. I agree with you completely on using blogging in the classroom. It is a great way to assess students’ reading and writing skills, but even better- it allows students to be creative, especially when choosing their own content. When students have the choice to write about what they want to, they are able to give us, the educators, an insight into their personal life! I believe the more we know about our students, the more successful we will be.
    Thank you again for sharing your thoughts.

  10. avatarSolal

    I’m loving the Guerrilla Blogging.

    I’m not sure if it’s because of your constant use of rhetoric devices or whether it’s because there is so much truth to your words, but I sit in the back of my bus, nodding my head in complete agreement. I have noted that there is a proportion of schoolwork that I do enjoy, that I start as soon as I’m able to. This is schoolwork due in a week that I will prioritise over that test tomorrow. This is the work (although I don’t see it as work) that inspires me, that I am passionate about. This is the work whose audience I know personally. (This work always happens to be English. No flattery intended.)

    I simply don’t see how you can get kids to be interested in things that they’re not interested in. Even if you get a girl to make youtube videos about Maths, this not only annoys them but also decreases their interest in making youtube videos that they’ve now seen as an academic platform. As you alluded to, the curriculum won’t change, but the method of teaching it certainly will. This idea of choice intrigued me because of it’s inherent truth but also because of its complexity. To get all kids to choose and love the curriculum would be to manipulate them into it. I am much less likely to do something if I feel manipulated.

    You said ‘Sharing everything with everyone will never work. The better model is share what you love with those who care and can help you.’

    The problem with this statement is that in order for it to become a reality, all children must love the curriculum to begin with.

    In Alduous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, he envisions a world where all people are conditioned to love what they do from birth and are thus eternally happy with their craving for work. This is an extreme example, but I believe it ties into your blog post. Do you want to give kids the illusion of choice or a real choice? Because a real choice would mean dumping the curriculum. Or maybe my point of view is as outdated as the current system of education.

    I’ve taken this a bit far.

    Anyway, back to blogging. I wrote a personal essay a few months ago about my own experiences. I have hesitated in sharing this because of how incredibly one-sided it is.

    Disclaimer: The events described in the document below have been carefully selected. I have left out most of my positive experiences with blogging to support my argument.

    Here it is, for the sake of discussion:

  11. Pingback: E-Portfolios and Blogging: Enhancing the Experience | thoughtfulchanges

  12. Pingback: What’s Next: Beyond Blogging | Rebekah Madrid

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