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.
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.
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.
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.