Blogs from the Mouths of Babes
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.