Learning to Blog and Blogging to Learn

I love the discussions we have with each other in our blogs! I can talk to people online, in school, and when I am at home.

It is this observation from a Grade Five student of mine several years ago that captures much of the transformation possible for students and teachers when they venture into blogging and the connected digital world. Just as many deep conversations may begin with a simple and familiar greeting, the practice of blogging with students may also start with something similar to what is already known. Though, I have to state, at the outset, my sense of the journey my students and I were about to undertake as bloggers in the 21st century was not at all fully imagined so be prepared for a wonderful adventure!

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As I introduced blogging to that first group of Grade Fives, I approached it as an offshoot of what was already established in my writing classroom. I felt, then, that all we needed to do was to become familiar with the features of whatever site I chose and what we could do with them to ‘write’. My initial thought was that I would simply continue, and extend out from, word-processing skills and the writing process, already part of our classroom experience, to this new medium. I encouraged student to view the digital pages of our site much like the paper journals and notebooks they were already using for memoir and creative writing. It was pointed out how easy it would be to revise and edit on the screen and to more quickly arrive at having a publishable quality product. (Hand-writing legibility would no longer be an issue!) Additionally, I also looked forward to expanding the opportunities for peer review as they would be regular readers for the blog posts.

In hindsight there were many things I didn’t get about blogging but with a little trial and error and a closer look at where more experienced blogging teachers went, I feel the course my students and I now chart together is headed in a more meaningful direction.

Begin at the Beginning

  • What do you want to accomplish with the inclusion of blogs in the teaching and learning that is your classroom?
  • Which blogging platform will you use?
  • Who will the audience be for your site?

If “the community of ripples” as Kathy Cassidy, a Grade One teacher from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada, calls it, remains within the first ‘ripple’ – the classroom – or extends beyond the family and friends circle to the widest possible ripple of a worldwide audience, it remains the teacher’s choice. It is important to note that within any of the suggested blog platforms, the teacher can maintain administrative control over who can have access to the student blogs; viewing and commenting can be extended to just the students, to the parents/guests or to an open and potentially worldwide audience.

A critical aspect of classroom blogging is the potential sharing with an audience other than the teacher.


There are a variety of blog hosting services that for little or no expense – Kidblog, Blogger, Edublogs, Weebly and WordPress are frequently chosen – blogs can easily be set up by teachers, students or schools. In deciding where to begin with my Grade Fives, I checked out the advice and selected Kidblog, which is a free and frequently used site in elementary schools. Its dashboard was simple enough to a newcomer like myself at the time but had the capability to expand to incorporate more ‘tech tools’ as our horizons expanded. It would easily suit any purpose you might envision for your classroom blog.

So What is Your Purpose?

This is the next step but note—it is not set in concrete! What works for you at this point in time will, in all likelihood, evolve into something more as your comfort level adapts to what is possible with blogging in the classroom. So consider these as you reflect on what you would like to achieve with a class blog.

Many teachers establish blogs as a class website with posts about homework, announcement of special events and chronicles of what is happening in their room. The teacher is the main producer of information for the blog with some writings from students that would resemble entries in a class newspaper. You can have students post as a comment, as guest bloggers while you learn the ropes or have each student set up with their own page.

Others set a blog up solely as writing receptacle, another place for individual students to draft, revise and publish both independently selected topics and/or responses to teacher-assigned prompts.

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This is where I started. My students responded to questions, images or posts I authored. They completed a wide variety of pieces about the books they had read independently. And they wrote personally and creatively about unassigned topics, documenting their thoughts and opinions, recording journal-like entries about their lives and writing stories and poems. That first year the only audience was within our four walls as I set the moderating controls to allow students to view and comment on their peer’s works.

Many educators use blogs in the classroom to gather, archive and showcase the learning that students are producing, and to which they are contributing. Mrs. Cassidy has blogged with her Grade Ones for many years now and is a fantastic role model for the power of a connected classroom. Many believe, as she does, a critical aspect of classroom blogging is the potential sharing of what is written with an audience other than the teacher, and receiving and responding to feedback from those readers. This requires students to be active participants in the writing, reading and reflective process. That’s a big step if you have never blogged before however, that is the exciting part of the blogging adventure!

My students have since participated in the Global Read Aloud and widened our network considerably. This one endeavour connected us with other classrooms around the world, all around a shared reading experience. The flurry of follow-up blogging was an eye-opener for my students as they realized students in other countries have similar interests, opinions, dislikes and questions!

So now that you have had a look at a possible destinations, let’s map out where to start.

Netiquette 101: Clear Expectations

Will Richardson asserts that students need to consider how well they will be “googled” and learn to grasp that “what we say today in our blogs and videos will persist long into the future …is copyable …and searchable to an extent never before imagined.” Thus, teaching safe and appropriate online behaviours needs to be taught and taught early.

The discussion and activity that must take place will build on existing classroom work around expressing opinions and having different viewpoints; bullying/cyber-bullying; privacy and sharing personal information, and copyright, fair use, creative commons and plagiarism, now for authentic reasons as they enter online environments. As you develop this with students and share it with parents, the framework for respectful online activity becomes the norm.

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Blogging can be one way to introduce the notion to students about how they represent themselves to the world, while also helping to create, archive and share purposeful content that goes beyond personal and interest-based online activities (often conducted outside school hours).

Part of your decision-making will also be around the expectations for the quality of the writing necessary before the post is published, something that makes for a great discussion about respect for the reader and social versus academic purposes!

Commenting 101

Whether you only feel comfortable [at first] establishing the give-and-take of having students responding to each other within a closed classroom blog, the importance of teaching students how to provide feedback cannot be underestimated.

While my students were familiar with peer feedback given during Writing Workshop conferencing or other classroom activity, blogging students need to know how to thank people, how to answer their questions, and most importantly, how to ask questions back. To impress upon my students the necessity of moving beyond “I like your blog. It’s cool!”, I now use this video developed by Linda Yollis, a Grade Three teacher from MountainView, California with her students:

Hearing the tips from other students is memorable! Discuss and make an anchor chart for future reference.

Paper-blogging: Pointers to Practice

One of the most powerful pointers about beginning to blog with students came from a teacher Pernille Ripp, a teacher I follow on Twitter, who passionately shares her thoughts about teaching. One of her posts opened my eyes to practicing the art of commenting before we actually used the blog site! And she got the idea from Mrs. MacMillan who heard it somewhere else and shared it it on her blog.

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In order to help students experience the immediate impact of receiving feedback, have students complete their first blog on paper with comments being attached to the individual ‘post’ on sticky notes. Students are reminded to refer to the anchor chart as a guide to include a specific compliment, a related comment and a question that may engage the writer in further discussion.

Getting Dirty

Teaching how to write quality blogs and commenting requires explicit teaching and modelling. I am now convinced that this is something that is enhanced if teachers also get their hands dirty (at least figuratively) by working with the tools, platforms and processes involved with blogging.

As I began a parallel adventure as a blogger, my initial thought processes changed. I ‘unlearned’ as I became familiar with the tools and went from chronicling the establishment of class blogging experience to writing for myself and my audience and their feedback – not the marks my ‘teacher’ was going to assign. I engaged with the tools to learn, to connect and to share my thinking. I also began to unlearn the fear of putting myself and students ‘out there’ as I realized we can do it in safe, relevant and effective ways.

I now also have a much a deeper understanding of what blogging has to offer students as part of a “community of practice”as my own personal learning network grew. The tools, and more importantly, the networking made possible by getting my hands ‘dirty’ has indeed shaped my vision for how powerfully digital literacies can be enabled with blogging

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In the beginning, using blogs with my grade five students was, for the most part, to introduce them to writing ‘online’ and to eventually expand the horizons to a wider audience than myself. However, the more I pursued this activity, the more confidence my students and I gained as bloggers, the more I recognized that with blogging, we could do so much more than ‘just write’. We could connect, collaborate and create … with just about anyone, anywhere, any-time! Now that’s quite the trip!

 

Feature image adapted from image courtesy of Flickr, Thomas Leuthard.

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