Tag Archives: Digital Age

What It Might Be- Authentic Student Blogging

I started writing, blogging, whatever you want to call it nearly seven years ago. I started with some important questions,

What if we are English teachers and we talk all day about why writing is important and we want to prove that by actually doing it? What if we tell or students that writing helps us learn how to think? It helps us break down the world and recreate it in a way that makes sense to us? What if we believe that writing is the last form of communication, and that the freedom on the Internet and Blogging may help us connect with ideas we never knew possible? What if we believe in the honesty of the Blog as a venue to connect and share? What if we are tired of cynicism? Read more

I’m not sure if I’m closer to finding any answers, or if I have become lost or more deluded. Sometimes it feels like I have been spewing the same sermon for nearly a decade? Perhaps, but I still believe– I still believe in the power of Internet; this power of sharing. I still believe in fostering creativity, empowering students and creating spaces where they can shine and share and connect and grow.

The problem is that student blogs don’t always achieve this utopian wonderland of blissful connected learning. As a matter of fact, blogs often become dull, boring, dead spaces weighed down by the institutionalization of school environments.  Dumping grounds for forced reflections, glorified worksheets, and poor writing no one but the teacher reads– these potentially vibrant spaces are transformed into vacant shells of what they might have been. So how do we create authentic spaces for students to reach their potential? This is a question I have been trying to answer for seven years, but never more urgently than now, as I prepare for a webinar later this week and a presentation next month on this very topic. I hope this post helps me narrow my focus and gain some clarity for myself and for you.

As soon as I saw the potential for in blogging as a tool for myself, seven years ago, I began experimenting with student blogs. I began under the tutelage of Kim Cofino and since then I have worked with Edublog, WordPress and now Blogger in a variety of schools and platforms. But not until this year, have I felt so excited about where my classes are heading. Things seem to be happening. I am not sure what is happening exactly, or where we are headed, but something feels different this year. I don’t want to jinx it, because like a young sprout our program is still very tender and potentially susceptible to failure, but many people have been asking me what is different about this year.

This post is meant to highlight some of what we have been doing and why it seems to be working. The following ideas are not ranked by importance and may not even be fully thought out or accurate. This list is that I came up with as I brainstormed the reason why we are finding success this year.

We Are A Team On The Same Page

I chose the word we, when I referred to some of the things we are doing intentionally. I have been on teams before, all wonderful in their own ways, but this is the first time in a long that I am in a group of teachers who are not only passionate about online sharing, digital citizenship, blogging, but skilled and well-versed as well. What’s more we understand that we, as a school, are at the early stages, at least when it comes to blogging, so we are not encumbered by system-wide guidelines or restrictions. We are free to experiment and let the dog loose on the leash so to speak. Furthermore, our skills and expertise are spread out across the school. Some of my most successful bloggers have had exposure to many of the ideas and values surrounding blogging earlier in their schooling. They were taught things like Creative Commons, design principles, and online etiquette by Keri-Lee and Louise in our Junior School.  When they get to us, they are well versed in the basics. I cannot overstate how important this early exposure is for students, if you want them feeling comfortable sharing online.

Here in the middle school, I feel blessed to work closely with Paula, as we begin to lead the vanguard forward. It is crucial to have a few peers with whom you can exchange ideas. We also have Ian, who is new to blogging, but along with his enthusiasm brings a critical eye to help make sure we are blogging for the right reasons. I have spent so much time being the only person on a team trying to change minds and convince others of the value of blogging. It is so important to have a few team members who get it and are ready to push the possibilities. We also have an amazing librarian resource in Katie who helps us both on and off line create a literate and text rich world. . Add to this mix a tech coach who is not only on board, but can make things happens with the higher ups, and one who allows you the freedom to run, unafraid that you might trip up once in a while, for that we have Jeff! Finally we have an administration who trusts us and  is steered by the excitement and potential of blogging and not held back by the fear or anxiety. I could go on and on, (Sorry if I forgot anyone)  but staffing and like-minded teams really help.

It is difficult to succeed when you are the lone voice in the wilderness. A supportive vertically spread-out team and a supportive administration are key components to a successful student blogging initiative.

Personal Experience

I get blogging. I know how to do it. I understand the purpose of commenting. I know the value of RSS and can set up 22 feeds in reader with my eyes closed. I understand design. In short, I have been doing this for a while. At any given time I am administrating four to five blogs at a time. This experience comes with time.  It is difficult to build organic student blogging environments, if you don’t have at least a few people on your team with this experience. I am not saying you can’t do amazing things when you are just starting out, but it takes time to get to a point where the small hiccups do not become major obstacle to your success. It takes time and practice to to gain this invaluable experience.

The best way to mentor others is to do yourself. If you want to create a student blogging environment you HAVE TO blog yourself. Write, read, immerse yourself in the blogosphere and play. The fact that you are here is a great first step, now join the conversations. Leave a comment, get involved. Your students will not blog successfully if you yourself do not blog!

Expectations vs Possibilities

Don’t start with what a blog must be or what it can’t be, but focus on what it might be. Give students freedom at first, let them drift and open up and build faith and trust. Don’t even mention the word portfolio. Instead exploit their natural tendency to share in other social network sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I explain to my kids that a blog is just a deeper version of what they already do. Teach them to take time in explaining why they share photos or video clips.

Blogging is about trust. Trust takes time. Students must feel safe to become vulnerable and open up. This trust is not built online, but in your classroom, when you are together, as a group, face-to-face. It is built through effective classroom discussions at the table and understanding the power of commenting and conversations. It is building offline spaces that are fun and creative and open to new ideas and projects. It is built by  sharing as much of yourself with your students as you can. Share your music, your ideas, and texts that move you. Share your contacts and friends and model what you teach. Use your network to show the power of networks. Before you know it your students will be writing about all kinds of things:

Home– a poem by Myra
Blogging is Like Minecraft– by Kaymin
Illustrations– by Wendy
Japanese History– by Keito
F1 Fever– by Ananya
Focus Africa– by Max
Slam Poetry and another one on Imagination – by Aditi M
What Am I Doing With My Life– by Aditi P.
Basketball– by Glen
Music is My Life– by India
Sharks– by Pavitra
Mad Dogs (Book Review)- by Shashu
Food Questions– by Rohan

If you want your students to blog effectively, give them the freedom to experiment and write about what interests them. Stay away from portfolios and forced reflections on their learning, at least until they get the hang of it. Wait until they find a voice, find an audience, and become involved in the conversations around ideas, before you push your agenda of meta-cognition and reflective learning. 

cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo shared by Daniele Rossi

Playground vs Classroom

Kids play on playgrounds. They take risks out there– jumping off monkey bars, going down slides on tummies. They bully each other and form friendships. They get dirty. They have fun. They learn to stand in cues or get in fights. They learn not to go up the slide. It is not always easy being out there, but they  stretch and learn and grow. Kids need playgrounds. Sometimes these spaces are supervised. Sometimes they are not.

I see social networks as digital playgrounds. Our students are out there. They are playing and experimenting. They are learning social norms: bullying and forming communities. They are sharing with positive and negative results. Sometimes these spaces are supervised. Most often they are not.  Just as we need  “real world” playgrounds,  we need these online spaces as well. Kids need to have places where they socialize and learn without supervision. They need to jump off the monkey bars and figure things out on their own.

But they also need a classroom space to unpack and articulate their playground lessons. I see the blog as this space. While they play on cyber-playgrounds like Tumblr and Facebook, they need a middle ground to process what they do. I try and convince my students that they need a space of their own to explore their thinking and get constructive feed back from the community we are trying to build. We all play with our own friends out in the playground, sometimes crossing paths, but we meet in the classroom. We share, expand and really open up on blogs.

Students need to understand that there is value in an online space where they can have some structure in order to learn how others socialize online. A place they can practice lessons on digital citizenship and build community. They need to understand the role of the blog before they are asked (forced) to share. I find this playground and classroom model is a good way to get my head around it.

Space of our Own

Student understanding of the why of blogging is vital to successful student blogs. They will often think that blogs are just another school chore they must complete to appease the teacher. Another hoop to jump through. Another place to dump homework. I mentioned earlier that we did not start with portfolios or reflections or anything mandatory  this year. Instead we are selling the kids on the values I have mentioned above. We are  trying to build an understanding of the value of constructing an honest and  authentic digital footprint. I think Jeff P.  said,

We visit other places online, but a blog is your home where you invite people on your terms. You decorate and entertain and store yours stuff there. You live there. Without a blog you are cyber-homeless, simply wondering or couch surfing.

I love this image. We have found that helping students understand the homely feel of a blog has been invaluable. We encourage kids to share and find their voice and to house it on their blog–a place they hopefully feel comfortable.

cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo shared by herefordcat

There you have it. I am by no means an expert, but experience has taught me some lessons that I have shared with you. I am not sure where our blogs will go this year, but things are happening and we are excited. I just hope we don’t over-think them. I feel like they are young saplings at this time, I just hope we don’t over water them.

What have you done to create authentic student blogs or online spaces? What questions do you have? Let’s start a conversation and see here it goes. See you in the comments.

If you are interested in this topic, please join us this week at , Authentic Student Blogging: Empowering Student Voice in the Social Media Age. I could not be more honored and humbled to be presenting with Alec, Jim, Bud, Melanie, Alan and Howard. I am thrilled to be involved in this event with my heroes and mentors. You want experts? I am sure they will have a lot to say on this topic. See you there.


Sunday Night Ramblings

Technology need not be some abstract construct. It need not be some terrifying futuristic robotic dystopia. Technology and the tools it enables: Internet, digital media, social networks can be and should be reflections. Not mere reflections of what we do, but who we are. The sooner we begin to understand that technology is a bridge that links minds-to-minds, thoughts-to-thoughts dreams-to-dreams the sooner we can stop being so afraid of it and begin to harness the power it affords us to be collectively human.

For so long humanity has demanded voices for us all, and not withstanding the digital divide, we now (at least those of us living in the first world)  all have that voice. Perhaps the understanding that we can now connect our fears and insecurities as well as our passions and talents to others is what is so frightening for people. Perhaps the realization that students can now voice their disinterest in what we do, is why so many people are fearful of jumping into the digital age.

I feel like a broken record, a blogger who simply writes the same posts over and over. I don’t know what more to say than what I feel to be true. I get this sense of excitement every time I open the ole WordPress editor, or Youtube upload page, or send a photo out to Instagram. Every time I participate in this upload culture, I feel lighter and more free than I did before I shared a piece of my brain, my soul with some vague fluctuating audience that may or may not be there.

There was no point to this post other than to say- it is not the quest for perfection in some finite permanent cypespace that should guide how we act online but rather the ephemeral, fleeting, sharing of random tidbits of who we are into the impermanent flux of of the Internet. If even one person connects to, relates to and/or understanding the essence of what I have said here, something magical has happened. Something organically and authentically human. The technology has become moot and the only thing left is you and me.



Conduit to Reality

I noticed that my last post is dated September 10th. To say I had a busy September would be a gross understatement. I traveled three out of four weeks, first to lead a cohort, deliver workshops and present a keynote in Shanghai at Learning 2.011. The following week, I was back to Shanghai for Category 2 Language A MYP training, and finally off to Bukit Lawang for a school trip in which I took 45 kids into the Sumatran jungle to see, amongst other thing, semi-wild Orangutans in their natural habitat.

Upon my return, I organized and participated in our school’s, mini-conference called Learning 2.011.1. A successful event in which 65 members of staff voluntarily came in on a Friday between 4-6pm to learn about technology. Saturday after that, I received some training on how to present an IB workshop for a conference coming up in Jakarta. Oh, yeah, I have been having a blast teaching my classes. I could go on and on, but I am sure you are busy too and do not want to waste your time reading about how busy I am. I wanted to write about a Facebook status a friend of mine posted a few days ago and its connection to my recent thoughts upon returning from Sumatra.

Take a look:

I had planned to go to Sumatra completely disconnected. After my hyper-connected month of September, I needed a break to detangle the wires both literally and figuratively. I agree with Kenny in saying that, “ We have a need for mental, social, physical, spiritual,  and emotional fulfillment.” I will comment later on how many of those needs my laptop fulfills, but for now I will agree that we need time away. We need time in the mud. We need time connected to the earth and the sky.

Unfortunately, (careful what you wish for) blog fever is strong at our school, and our AP asked that I create a Week Without Walls blog to help document each of our trips. I was against the live blogging of these trips, but relented and said that I would add limited content while I was away and decompressing. The blog has actually been a great organic place to document the trips.  We are now working on a syndication system that will agrregate all the reflective blog posts written by staff and students. We hope it will act as a great resource of personal testimonials and photos for students going on trips next year.

I guess the point I am trying to make is why does it have to be so black and white? Why do we always create these false dichotomies between technology and the real world? Why do techies insist that things must be tech all the time, while luddites wax-poetic about features of an analogue past that is quickly fading? We can have natural experiences. We can use technology to help connect us to others who share our love of life. I argue that we can have the best of both worlds. I remember the warm feeling of absolute mental, social, physical, spiritual, and emotional fulfillment, as I sat on the edge of a river; the sun was setting as I watched a community of children come to life. I had many such experiences during my time in the jungle; the value of these experiences is incalculable. There is no doubt that we need to engage the world from out behind the screen.

As an adult, I am able to wrestle with my need to experience reality and my need to document and record it. It is a struggle no doubt, but I enjoy the challenge of finding a balance to my desires and needs. Kenny asks if we need more tech in schools and if that is what students need.

I say that we need to help students understand how to find that balance. We need to guide them in learning how to use tech to feel comfortable in their own skins and how to express what they find. Demonizing or glorifying technology will not help our students. We must help them use it to meet their needs. So often these digital natives use tech only to alleviate boredom, and to be fair many of the students I work with have very little experience in an non-urban, disconnected environment. While I agree with Kenny, that perhaps more tech is not the answer, I would argue that we need to expose kids to nature and see how they choose to use tech to document experience. Take’em to the woods. Get’em dirty. Sing around fires. Then come home and use tech to create, connect, and communicate experiences to others. Technology is not a substitute for reality it is a conduit to it.

I think it is shortsighted to forcibly separate the tangible and the virtual. You are right Kenny! Technology will not substitute our biological needs, but I disagree that it cannot help us connected to social groups. Online relationship are as valid as “real” ones- for me often times they are more rewarding.

The people I have met online help complete me. They are becoming my closets friends. You can read more here, and I suggest you watch the presentation about the power of online communities, but before you begin to say that we need face-to-face interactions as well, let me stop you. Yes! Of course we do. Again it is about the balance.

I understand your frustration Kenny. After all, you and I have spent lots of quality time in the jungle, fishing, and playing music together. We get the value of the organic. It may appear that schools are chasing a technological dream in hopes that it will make them more relevant, but we know that is not the case. More computers and an emphasis on technology will not make a better school.

We need teachers, guides, and mentors dedicated to understanding what it means to be human being in the 21st century. We need to be open to exploring ideas and technologies that make us uncomfortable and challenge our very humanity. We need to help our students gain a diverse range of experiences, equip them with the skills and wisdom to know how to find a balance. There is value in mud, in the sun, in the clouds, but there is also value in the “cloud,” online communities, and the power of connectivity afforded us by technology.
I didn’t need technology to appreciate these moments, but the tech is helping me share them with you and others.

What do you guys think? How do you find a balance in your lives? How do approach the  people who force you to choose between nature and technology?



Sometimes it’s the simplest stories that have the most meaningful impact. I outlined the fledging collaborative project that has begun with some SLA students in Zach Chase’s class in Philadelphia in the letter I wrote them.  A look at the comments could prove useful for context of this post. As promised, I have taken the nuggets of poetry from their comments on my Flickr Set and set them to song.

Here you go SLA, my song to you. What will you do with it? Download it. Remix it. Add your voice to it. Set it to images. Create a video. Rap it. This version is only a draft and is not even close to being “done.” Tear it up!

Stones by intrepidflame

Here is another version by a teacher in Canada:

Stones by Bryanjack

Looks like NoiseProfessor in California has added his take to the mix. Take a listen here.

The nature of art in the twenty first century is that it never ends and doesn’t belong to any one artist. We are in this together…your move!


sometimes I wonder how many stones
there are in the world.
i found a light in your simple “Hello”
like the way grass dances in the breeze
Choosing between clashing vibrancies
she sings ohh how she sings

i can erase what i choose to forget
we fear the pen because it leaves a stain
like the lives of rocks and flower,
that tell the story of the world.

These are the years in which life is beautiful.
Each and every day a miracle.
A tiny person in a large world
filled with intrigue and wonder.

a warm orange flower rests against my skin
sweet serenity full and wide
I grab the spoon of your smile and dig
in these moments we forget ourselves
we breathe the ecstasy of golden silence
heaven has not been that far off after all
we just had to open our eyes
we just had to be open

These are the years in which life is beautiful.
Each and every day a miracle.
A tiny person in a large world
filled with intrigue and wonder.

I don’t watch television much anymore
but whenever I do I can feel it on my hands
the dusty residue
from carrying fistfuls of stones.

lonely I lay flat
Among dull gray stones
I want to go home

I want to go home

lonely I lay flat
Among dull gray stones
I want to go home


Peak Out From The Edges

There is a lot of talk these days on the Interwebs, and I suppose for many days before now, about the new ways in which people are communicating, collaborating, connecting, and creating online. Eager teachers are promoting the use of the web in almost zealot evangelical ways, trying to convince everyone that the world will fall apart if their students are not creating Glogsters instead of posters, or having  Skype calls with a class in India or Indiana.

I agree, for the most part,  with the passion exhibited by these wide-eyed teachers.  It is clear that we are in the midst of a monumental shift in the way human beings not only communicate and share reality, but more importantly in the ways we create and share stories.  I am always asking myself, what does this all look like? Always the eager student (much more fun than being a teacher) I am always trying to push the ways I use my network. I want more form my PLN, Personal Learning Network ( I shudder at using those three letters, but can’t think of a better word yet.) than to troll through links to blog posts extolling the virtues of Web 2.0. I want my network to be a living breathing part of everything I do. I want to allow you into my spirit and see what comes out. I want to enter your reality and make a mess. I want to make you think. I want to rearrange your mental furniture. I want you to do the same for me. Nothing will be learned as long as we stay behind walls and peak out from the edges. If you really want to know what this web can do, come on out at play.

I don’t think this level of connection is possible without letting down my guard and being open to any and all opportunities to make as many connections as possible. This philosophy has opened so many strange doors for me in the last three years, that I can’t help but want to explore it further. Sure, I want to help expose my students to what it looks like to connect with people worldwide, but I am in the process of seeing what this looks like for myself.

These networks, this web has to be more than what we say it is. If there is more to the web, than what we have seen so far,  how powerful could it be?  How far can we push this idea of connectedness? Ultimately, I want to make authentic, lasting, powerful connections with the people I interact with online, but all that is theoretical mumbo jumbo. Let’s see what this looks like:

A few months ago I attended the Learning 2.010 conference in Shanghai where I met several people I had known quite well for a some time. These are people  I have worked with and met in “real” life.  I mention this only because apparently face-to-face meetings  make relationships more authentic.  The real reason I went to this conference, however,  was to meet the other people, the ones who I had never met. This post is meant to be about a song, so let me try and stay on course. Long story short, I met several people and we found ourselves sitting at a bar talking about life, the Internet, teaching, music, freedom, revolution etc…

Leslie was one of those random, (I mean random in the best use of the word), connections who had  joined our newly formed  cohort. For the sake of brevity, I will let her tell you the story from her point of view. She does a great job of writing about it here.

I think that brings us up to the song. Here is that story:  @onepercentyello, @klbeasley and I used Indaba to record a cover of Pearl Jam’s Nothingman. It was pretty simple really, I had known Keri Lee for almost a year through Twitter and our blogs. We hit it off really well when we finally met. That night in Shanghai @klbeasley gravitated toward @onepercentyello’s Ukulele and voice. I can’t remember exactly how we reconnected after we returned home, but there was surge in Tweets and someone mentioned that we should record a song together. I sent out the Indaba link and within days, @onepercentyello had laid a simple track with voice and Uke. I added my part a few days later and with a few gentle nudges @klbeasley added an amazing track with her voice.

The song could have been a bit more polished, and next time it just might be, but for our initial attempt it turned out pretty well. Once it was done, I couldn’t  help but think that it had a soul but no body. I wanted a way to get more people involved and find a way to present it back to the webs. I am trying to drive this web 2.0 as fast I can get it to go. So I wrote this quick post and waited:

Over the next few weeks I sent constant reminders and watched the photos come trickling in. Interesting that no one from my “real” friends on Facebook even acknowledged the project, but the following people from Twitter sent images:


This is by no means a @zefrank project, but I feel it is special in it’s own way. Three people living in three different countries who had never met a few months ago made music together. Then another group of unrelated people felt a strong enough need to send images to a song many of them may have never even heard. I can write all night about the implications of a project like this, but I will let you do that in the comments. The important thing is the art we created. Without further adieu, nothing man:

So am I wrong? Is this not a big deal? What does a project like this mean to you and your classroom? What have we learned about ourselves, art, our new reality? I will wait to hear from you before I comment further.

But it is not over yet! What can you now do with this post, this song, this video? Looking forward to hearing your thoughts. We are already talking about the next song ( I am leaning toward this one.) and maybe a name for the band. What do you think? Do you want to be involved? Leave it all in the comments where it belongs!