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Blogs from the Mouths of Babes

2013 February 21
by Jabiz

As we continue to explore the rich world of authentic student blogging, it is important to stop and listen to feedback and criticism from time to time. It is important to understand the apprehension that some stakeholders may have when it comes to open online publishing.

You can read more about how we have been blogging with our middle school students by reading some of these post, but let me give a very brief synopsis of what our program looks like up to know. (Before I start, let me clarify that when I say we, I am referring to myself and Paula Guinto who is my teaching partner in grade 7 & 8. We both teach English; I blog here with my students and Paula writes at Meta.)

The basic manifesto as it stands, looks something like this:

I want my students to feel confident about who they are through critical and artistic exploration of their identity. I want them to learn how to clearly articulate this voice in a variety of media in order to find a network of like-minded people in order to create a community of learners that will help them learn during and beyond school.

We hope that blogging will help our students achieve this goal. The system we have set up is pretty simple: We coached every student in our class to set up a blog through blogger, explained basic etiquette and gave them freedom to own the space. We are not formally assessing anything that goes on the blog, and there is no obligation to blog at all. We are hoping to see what kids write when they are given a space and freedom to write.

Like any process at a school, there have been mixed feelings from students, teachers and parents. There have been some accurate criticism and others based on misunderstandings. As a community, we are in the process of figuring out what blogging looks like for us. We are looking to make sure that there is a clear understanding of the what and the why and the how by all the stakeholders involved.

As part of this process, I asked my students to write a short paragraph agreeing or disagreeing with this statement:

Blogging is an important part of an English classroom.

I was floored by the results. You can read all of the answers here, but let me give you some highlights:

The freedom to express ourselves is important; providing a medium and nurturing the usage of that medium improves our skills as writers and removes some of our inhibitions of writing.

Blogging is a fun way to write. It can be used for educational purposes and it also helps the student to think when they are writing “who is my audience.” Sometimes having students writing on a blog will increase a students motivation to write.

Blogging is useful. No scratch that out, Blogging is necessary. With teenagers [us] being young minds full of innovative ideas, thoughts and views, our generation needs to share them to audience and blogging enables us to do that.

It wasn’t all positive, many students had valid concerns:

Some people don’t like having their personal thoughts online because it is a public space.

The notion of writing online to a worldwide audience was not quite thrilling.

Expecting a bunch of insecure teenagers who aren’t quite sure who they can trust in the constantly moving sands of social media to write about whatever comes to their mind is asking for a lot.

Sometimes people are not able to get the time to read the blog posts with all the homework we are currently getting.

I hope you get a chance to read all of the response and maybe add some thoughts in the comments on our class page. But what does this all mean? What did I learn?

The fact that we have chosen not to force students to blog has been invaluable, however, there is still a pressure to share and this is making some kids uncomfortable. There is a lot involved in this process:  from self-esteem, to trust, to community. The notion of sharing publicly is still a major hurdle for many students and their parents. What is the point? What are the benefits?  What are the problems and the issues? I am not sure if this post is designed to answer questions. I was hoping to ask some and have you, dear reader, answer a them. What are the benefits of public sharing for students? Why go global?

I also noticed that many of the students might be blogging more if there was more structure. The total freedom, seems to have frozen some kids into inaction. They simply don’t know what to write, when they are told they can write about anything. This has me thinking of designing lessons or activities that guide students to come up with ideas. Which is interesting, because one of the questions that comes up repeatedly during reading conferences is, “How does the writer come up with ideas for his/her stories.” It is clear that middle school kids need a pool of ideas and/or prompts to get them started. Sites like this and this are great, but perhaps kids need more of a push toward them. How do you help students find things to write about? How can we foster creativity and imagination?

Ironically, many of the students who are not blogging, said they are not writing because it is not graded or part of school, so they don’t have time to waste on it. Which makes me wonder if they would write more if I forced them and graded it, which leads us back to square one that school writing is not always authentic. Or is it? How do we find this balance of what is expected and graded and what is free of choice? Still struggling with that one. How much of this is explicitly for school and how much is bigger than school? Hoping to have a good conversation about this idea of academic relevance in the comments. It is a major talking point at our school at the moment? How do we assess this stuff? Should we?

It was great to see so many students make the connections between Voice, Trust, Writing and Community, because these themes are at the heart of what we do. This is the culture we are trying to create; one where students feel comfortable and safe enough with their peers to be able to share their ideas regardless of their writing “level.” 

We have a long way to go, but I feel pretty good about where we are after only six months. Cultures take time to build, and we  need to be cognizant of the people they affect. We have to stop and ask stakeholders what they are thinking, how they are feeling.

Next step for us, is to ask parents to articulate what they know about blogging. Ask them what they value and what they fear. It is an intimidating conversation to have, but an important one. Perhaps, showing them what their kids are saying would be a good first  step.

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22 Responses leave one →
  1. avatar
    Jeff Plaman
    Twitter: jplaman
    permalink
    February 21, 2013

    I’ll dive in and take a shot at one of these…

    How do we find this balance of what is expected and graded and what is free of choice?

    I absolutely love the approach you’ve taken with the blogs here. And, at least in the beginning, I think there were very explicit links made between class activities resulting in “bloggable material.” But, that’s another question.

    In terms of assessing the blogs, I bet you probably are actually assessing them in terms of the effort grades we give at UWCSEA. As you know, once you’ve seen something, you can’t ‘unsee’ it. The writing from students that is visible to you via the blogs should (and probably does unconsciously) influence your understanding of their effort and progress as communicators.

    So maybe the answer lies in being up front about that…

    That’s not to say that kids who don’t blog aren’t writing in secret or reading Jane Austen by flashlight under their bed covers. But you can’t assess effort that you can’t see right? I don’t know how you could argue otherwise.

  2. avatar
    Wm Chamberlain
    Twitter: wmchamberlain
    permalink
    February 21, 2013

    There are lots of disparate thoughts going through my head.

    I don’t believe it is necessary for all students to blog, there is no one solution for sharing ourselves.

    I see students posting very personal information (sometimes what should be private) on Facebook. I see kids being very creative on Youtube. I see very few students writing purposefully on blogs. This is probably a reflection of what society in general is doing though.

    It seems to me there is something more permanent, less ethereal about writing online than a status update or a video. I think that may be something I am looking for because of the past importance of the written word influencing people throughout history. Maybe I value the written word more.

    I don’t think I am alone in this belief, isn’t that what the Taliban assassins believed when they tried to kill Malala Yousufzai? Isn’t that the reason the Puritans had to leave England and publish the Bible in Amsterdam?

    I think the real value in blogging comes after a lot of time and effort. I think maybe we expect too much out of the medium too quickly. How long did you blog before you started developing an audience outside of your local community and how much work did you have to put into other people’s blogs before you started to see a return on that investment? Would you still be blogging if you never had any feedback?

    I still believe that we need to encourage blogging, I really believe that when students start making connections with others outside of their local community good things happen. To be honest, I see online sharing as the best opportunity for advocating for human rights and (hopefully) world peace.

    Imagine there’s no countriesIt isn’t hard to doNothing to kill or die forAnd no religion tooImagine all the people living life in peaceYou, you may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only oneI hope some day you’ll join usAnd the world will be as one

    Lennon may not have meant blogging specifically, but if he were alive and wrote this today….

    • avatar
      Jabiz permalink*
      February 24, 2013

      Great points Will. I need to be reminded that we just started and this culture takes time. Couldn’t agree more, “I think the real value in blogging comes after a lot of time and effort. I think maybe we expect too much out of the medium too quickly. How long did you blog before you started developing an audience outside of your local community and how much work did you have to put into other people’s blogs before you started to see a return on that investment? Would you still be blogging if you never had any feedback?”

      We do expect too much too fast. We are heading in the right direction. I think. I hope. On we go…..

      • avatar
        James A. permalink
        April 11, 2013

        To Mr. Jabiz

        I have to say, there’s nothing more painful than to feel that those you teach do not understand the beauty and advantage of what you teach. But then again, I guess a teacher is a teacher because of his dauntless patience to fight against age and see his little babes become men. Thus, blogging to me will always remain a breakthrough to any classroom. It is an art that brings the sinews of education to life. Blogging brought to me a voice that has made me discover that I do actually have a flame. Mr. Jabiz, as a teacher you plant the seeds and sure, along the way some will wither or even die. But those that grow will blossom to spread the seeds that you planted. So, carry on! if the art of blogging is your gift to students, then share it. Some will reject while others embrace. After all, I took your gift and became a product of blogging and today as a student with the comments of the world, I grow to look at each situation with a new perspective. You taught me never to succumb to the status quo but to always tend my flame!

        Your student,
        James A.

  3. avatar
    Melissa Griffin
    Twitter: lissgriffin
    permalink
    February 22, 2013

    I like that it’s not compulsory but perhaps they can use the spoken word too. Add a soundcloud, youtube or even something without words. Kids then have total creative freedom.

    Words would be nice for the English teacher, but perhaps the greater goal here is reflection, expression, blogging or expanding an audience.

    For kids that don’t like the public aspect (and there are lots of possible reasons for this) could they have a closed area that only you could see while they get their feet wet.

    One last thought is you could begin this with a confidential survey to find out where kids might already be recording their ideas, thoughts, creativity and if it is private or already online. Did you keep a journal or have penpals when you were a kid? We had some very funny and creative kids at UNIS with their own YouTube channel.

    • avatar
      Jabiz permalink*
      February 24, 2013

      Yeah, they can use any media they want. We have actually had some amazing videos so far, but you are right that we shouldn’t focus on text and writing as the only way to share and connect.

  4. avatar
    Tracey Leavell
    Twitter: T_Leavell
    permalink
    February 23, 2013

    My grade 2 class has just begun blogging. They all seem to love the potential of a broader audience. We are presently using their blogs to publish their best stories. Blogs in our school division are being encouraged as electronic portfolios, a place to showcase their best work. (Not just writing, all subjects: text, photos, videos, etc.) There has been very little apprehension expressed by students or parents at our school. I can’t wait to see what these little writers will be producing by grade 8 or 9! I wonder if the resistance to going public will even exist for them after having been immersed for 5 or 6 years when they reach junior high.

    • avatar
      Jabiz permalink*
      February 24, 2013

      I think that the earlier we start, the easier it will be later. We are hoping to create and foster a similar program.

  5. avatar
    February 24, 2013

    I’d like to offer some praise for the half full side of the glass. But I agree with William that its very early and it takes time for anyone to come to find their place with writing online.

    And it should be hard. If it were easy and everyone loved it, there’d not be much gain. People should struggle with it, rail on it, and overcome their own internal barriers. Some will, some won’t. Many will remain in between.

    I think there is a problem with the term “blogging” – its a strange word and comes off almost as some arcane ritual; the days of the excitement of blogging for the sake of blogging has passed (witness the frustration shared a month ago by Clarence Fisher). It’s not even just writing, it is expressing oneself in a digital space. It is also making that space their own. Figuring what that means does not come quickly.

    Although you and Paula are not framing it as an assignment, I read in the students writings a lot of typical “assignment mindset” – there might be a dash of “writing what I think the teacher wants to read.” That too has to play out.

    The aversion for worries of privacy and not wanting to put their personal side online is common, and in a way, is important for them to at least recognize that as a concern. But why does it need to be seen as a place to expose one’s soul? There is nothing in the way it works that forces that. What not invent a character, a voice? Why not be fictional?

    I’m looking at the long lists of blogs in yours and Paula’s sidebars and will stop feeling overloaded trying to ready only 24 student blogs- and not only that you are giving them gobs of feedback.

    It’s not going to resonate for every students, so you do what you can to make it meaningful for as many as you can. And for some it wont be meaningful until later.

    The thing is you cannot explain or convince someone through your own words the “why” they should be doing this, you hope you can leverage your trust to keep them in it, but this is something that only makes sense from experience… over time.

    And that people have to figure out that their primary audience is themself. That is counter-intuitive.

    Helping them find things to write about? Wow, I could use help in reducing the things I want to write about. We are exposed to things all day to reflect, react to, news, media, popular culture, maybe just a simple thing observed outside on a walk.

    I’ve been drawn lately to some ideas Steven Johnson writes about in “Where Good Ideas Come From” in his chapter on the “Slow Hunch” – there was a practice among in England and elsewhere during the Enlightenment period to keep notes, ideas, quotes, scribble, sketches in a “commonplace book” it was meant to be a place to mingle these things together, not to be an end to themselves, but a way of generating ideas. That’s how I see blogging, its not about coming uo with prophetic answers or grand conclusions or big things, but just as a place to let ones own ideas mingle with information and ideas of others.

    It is a potential energy machine for bigger ideas. At least thats how its worked for me. But of course, everyone’s mileage will vary.

  6. avatar
    Ms. P
    Twitter: paulaguinto
    permalink
    February 24, 2013

    Thanks for all the great work that you do, Jabiz. Being able to bounce ideas, fears, doubts, hopes and intentions with you on a daily basis has been priceless in the refining of my own thinking, my own practice, my learning. So ,thank you.

    I really love what Alan said here because it’s true:

    “It’s not going to resonate for every students, so you do what you can to make it meaningful for as many as you can. And for some it wont be meaningful until later.
    The thing is you cannot explain or convince someone through your own words the “why” they should be doing this, you hope you can leverage your trust to keep them in it, but this is something that only makes sense from experience… over time.”

    and this…

    “I’ve been drawn lately to some ideas Steven Johnson writes about in “Where Good Ideas Come From” in his chapter on the “Slow Hunch” – there was a practice among in England and elsewhere during the Enlightenment period to keep notes, ideas, quotes, scribble, sketches in a “commonplace book” it was meant to be a place to mingle these things together, not to be an end to themselves, but a way of generating ideas. That’s how I see blogging, its not about coming uo with prophetic answers or grand conclusions or big things, but just as a place to let ones own ideas mingle with information and ideas of others.”

    Yeah, the idea of chance favoring connected minds. Am all for that. For sure. Love that.

    And the blogging…it can be so many things. That’s the beauty of it. We just have to keep on keeping on. And like you said, find a way to differentiate and model and see what we will change/keep/modify/spiral for next year. It’s also been so important to see that it (the blogging) is a part of something bigger. The dream. The long view.

    Let’s see what the kids say regarding the bundles we shared. I am curious, apprehensive and hopeful. In the meantime, we keep on keeping on.

  7. avatar
    Jabiz permalink*
    February 24, 2013

    Thanks for all the comments. I agree with Paula that Alan made some amazing points. I cannot wait to sit down with you and pick your brain in person soon.

    Love this line, “Blogging is just as a place to let ones own ideas mingle with information and ideas of others.”

    That is what we are trying to build.

  8. avatar
    Scott
    Twitter: scotthazeu
    permalink
    February 25, 2013

    Plenty of great comments already (commonplace book–hmmmmm), but I’d like to address the assessment piece. You’ve offered complete freedom of participation, so why not offer the same for the assessment of the blogging? If students wish to be assessed on some or all of their blog work, then give them the opportunity to experience assessment AS learning. The students themselves can help determine the quality of their own work. How great would it be for them to critically assess their own work?!

    The return on such a potentially messy endeavour would likely be improvement in the blogs, and possibly the luring of some non-bloggers who don’t participate because the activity isn’t graded. Your ongoing community conversations about the purpose and value of blogging would surely be enhanced by students who could self-assess and advocate for themselves (and you) among their parents and peers.

  9. avatar
    Tara Lee Ronzetti
    Twitter: tararonzetti
    permalink
    March 1, 2013

    My concern is, how early should blogs begin? I believe there is something to be said for knowing and automatically using the writing process before bolting out to the world. I worry our minutes in writer’s workshops will be taken up with younger students pecking away rather than thinking about building a thought or putting together a story.

    I don’t think I want my young daughter (and other young elementary students) to concern herself with how she will be received until she knows how to present her thoughts. In the end, it may make her a less automatic and more self conscious writer.

  10. avatar
    Brittany Haub
    Twitter: brittanymhaub
    permalink
    March 10, 2013

    Blogging should be started early so that way they get a better sense of what to do and how to express themselves. I am a Junior at South Alabama for elementary and special education and this is the first time I have ever had to do a blog or even considered doing one. I realized how beneficially it is for myself personally. He gives us blog posts, projects, comments and activities we have to do each week. It honestly makes me really think because everything we have to do is related to teaching and what I will be doing in my future classes. No one is telling their students that they have to put private information on there. But it is a way for them the express themselves and get excited about how anyone around the world can read what they have to say and that those people are actually interested in what they have to say. They can share ideas with one another and gain insight on other’s opinions. I mean isn’t that what we want our students or children to do? To grow and develop and become their own person. I think it is a great thing to do and I will most likely be using blogging in my future classroom.

  11. avatar
    David Loertscher
    Twitter: davidloertscher
    permalink
    March 23, 2013

    Readers here might enjoy reading Mark Barnes’ new book: ROLE Reversal. He has several years of blogging with every student in his L.A. classroom and I think his website is learnitin5.com. In working with my graduate students in library and information science, we continue to explore the idea of a Personal Learning Environment that has three parts: a personal portal to the Internet to control what’s coming at me, a personal learning network of voices I want to listen to alongside the various tools I use, and finally, the persona/private portfolio. It is in the last part where blogging would fit. Instead of an either/or situation, a student should have a semi-private blog that is shared with teachers and other students, but then have another that is intended for global communication and sharing. The open blog is the culture where we learn to face the world; compete; and demonstrate our desire to get involved, get feedback, make connections, etc. But that need not be mixed up in whatever we want to keep close to us: it is all a part of digital citizenship in a global world. This is a great conversation.

  12. avatar
    FincherW
    Twitter: FincherW
    permalink
    April 15, 2013

    Hi,
    My name is Wannetta and I am a student at the University of South Alabama in Mobile taking EDM310 with Dr. Strange. I was assigned to your blog. I will be posting a summary of your blog and my visits on April 28 2013 on my class blog. I completely agree with the approach you are taking with your students. Giving the freedom, space, and time to write is crucial. I understand some of the setbacks, however I understand how personal writing can be. Sharing your writing takes some degree of trust. Blogging can be compared to journaling. Blogging is definitely a culture shock and this will take some time to get used to. Thank you for sharing this. I am thankful I was assigned to your blog because I was having this same uncertainty earlier. Presenting both sides and a relaxed approach has definitely opened my eyes.

    Ms. Fincher

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