Thursday, June 20, 2013

Why Wouldn’t We Let Students Blog? Reasons to Get Students Blogging

One of the greatest battles I fought as an English teacher was the in-authenticity of my students’ writing. English teachers know exactly what I mean. After slogging through a stack of literary essays, that only English teachers read, your eyes begin to glaze, and if you are really honest with yourself, you realize, “NO ONE READS THIS STUFF! WHY DO I SUBJECT MYSELF TO IT?” Of course, we also know the English teacher, scholarly argument: “They need to know how to do this when they get to college, so it is a worthwhile activity.”

But really, do college English instructors still make students engage in kinds of writing that they never do again once they leave English 101 or 102? Sure, the “literary essay” serves some purpose. It's purpose is limited, however, and it is important to remember that it is hardly a truly authentic piece of writing, except maybe for literary scholars. Yes, it can force students to think critically about a literary work, but is it the best way to get students to engage that work critically? There are probably more engaging ways to get students to do that kind of thinking. That’s perhaps where blogging is different and could help. It has the potential to allow students to engage in authentic writing for authentic audiences.

I have written about its potential before, but in a conversation the other day, I became aware that there are still school leaders who do not allow students to engage in blogging. The reason why I asked the question in the title, “Why wouldn't we let students blog?” is because school leaders still  fight to keep blogging away from their students, perhaps out of fear that students might reveal something very private about themselves or make connections with unseemly characters lurking in cyberspace. But cyberspace monsters aside, there are absolutely good reasons to allow students, especially high school students, to use blogging as a way to engage in authentic writing with authentic audiences. In our quest for getting students to do authentic writing, we have at our disposal one of the best ways to do that with blogging. Here’s some good reasons for getting students blogging today:
  • Blogging is an authentic publishing platform. As a former classroom teacher, it was a struggle to find places where my students could authentically publish their work. I tried copying and sharing, posting on bulletin boards and in the hallways, but while that was publishing, it was still not authentic. Students knew it and so did I. It was too superficial. Besides, that kind of publishing usually severely limited students to verbal media, which brings me to my second reason to get students blogging.
  • Blogging allows for publishing in multiple forms of media. In old days, my students mostly just communicated their ideas through words, sentences, and paragraphs. Now, with blogs, students can use video, photos, graphics, to communicate their ideas too. Blogging allows students to engage audiences using most of the media tools available, which also allows them to struggle with the authentic question: "Which media best communicates the idea or message I am trying to send?" You just can't get much more authentic than that.
  • Blogging gives students the potential to engage authentic audiences. To me this is blogging’s greatest strength. You post your ideas for the world to see, and if your ideas win the contest for attention, people read and respond. That’s gratifying feedback. Students struggling to be heard on the web is about as authentic as a writing and communication experience can get.
  • Blogging is easy. Chances are, your students are already doing it. If they aren't, the blogging platforms available are easier to operate than word processing software. The more difficult part of blogging is trying to write engaging content that attracts readers. Also sufficiently promoting the material written is important too. Once again, these are two authentic things writers do.
Perhaps one of the best reasons for getting students to engage in blogging is best illustrated by one of my own recent, personal blogging experiences. In my post on “Data-Driven Decision Making Usually Means Test-Score Driven Decision Making” I made a serious error, that I am a bit reluctant to admit. But, I see it as one of the most powerful lessons blogging can teach. In that post, I used the word “quantitative” instead of “qualitative." What made the error even more serious, was that the use of the correct word between these two choices was essential to my entire argument. I messed up and then some! What happened that demonstrates the power of blogging occurred when a reader emailed me and politely asked about my error. It was then I went back to my post, and sure enough, I used the wrong word. I quickly changed the error, and emailed a big thanks to that reader.

My point about this blogging experience is simple: I made a crucial error in my writing that affected my entire argument. Never mind the embarrassment and never mind the fact that I probably destroyed my entire argument by choosing the wrong word. The real power of learning through blogging lies in the fact that these kinds of authentic experiences have the power to teach students real writing and communication. What better way to learn about the importance of choosing the right word or words as well as proofreading and revising carefully? I should have known better obviously. I have been blogging for some time. I have written more academic papers than I can remember. Still, I failed to edit and revise thoroughly enough, even though I always review, edit and revise a post multiple times before clicking the publish button. This is authentic writing experience, and our students need it too.

7 comments:

  1. All of your points are well made, Jon. I am with you on this. Blogging is an incredibly authentic and meaningful tool for writing. Several of my teachers have started using it. There is no need to engage students in this activity; the activity itself is motivation enough! I think the idea that their writing is "live" brings a whole new level of engagement for the students.

    For those that are worried about the cybermonsters out there (as you stated so well), I have found Google Sites and Edmodo as nice web tools for keeping things a bit more closed. It can be a nice way to transition to a more global audience.

    Great post!

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    1. Thanks. You are absolutely correct. Blogging is powerfully engaging for our students. Thanks for the Google Sites and Edmodo suggestions too.

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  2. This blog rocks--I'm reading through your posts--(singing) AWE-SOME (stop singing)!

    My kids have blogged, used epals, published their work on our website, etc. I've never had an issue. This year, the fifth grade teacher had his kids researching online for a paper and they were emailing themselves good links to use while writing at home. Of course, the teacher can't monitor 34 laptops and one of the kids sent a sexual remark to another student. All hell broke loose. The parent of the child who received the email contacted every parent in the class via email warning parents and asking them to check their student's accounts without telling them what happened. Parents were leaving work to check email at home, freaking out, ugh! Parents were angry at the mom and there were email wars, etc. Principal was then contacted, the child was suspended but that didn't satisfy the parent so the super was contacted--nightmare!

    Do you review all the blogs before they go live? Reviewing seems the only way to prevent this problem from happening in the blogosphere. Of course, my school is now gun-shy and the idea of blogging again will probably get shot down.

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    1. I think it is important to remember that problems like the one your describe is not a technology issue; it's a behavior issue. We address the inappropriate behavior, not the technology.

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  3. Love this. You can also look into a wiki account for educators. I created a wiki for my reading groups the last year I taught 5th grade. Each group had their own wiki for the book they were reading. As they read they controlled the design of the front page, and carried their socratic discussion to the book forum. Regardless of reading level, everyone participated eagerly... students who typically didn't finish reading and preparing for the discussion not only finished on time or ahead of schedule, and contributed to deeply rich conversation. The asynchronous format gave students who often didn't speak up due to shyness or a need for more time to gather their thoughts the opportunity to say their peace. And, as Matt mentioned, concerns about cybermonsters are alleviated by the privacy settings you arrange for the wiki. Lastly, each student account acted as an email, so it was a chance to bring many of my students online despite not having access or computers at home. I simply reserved the lab every two days to give them time to post, made arrangements with the local library, and ensured access to classroom computers throughout the day. Glogster makes vlogging accessible to students in similar fashion...

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  4. Thank you for your thoughtful post about blogging. However, I have been grappling with the question of how to use blogs as workspaces vs. showcases, or a combination of both. As a ninth grade English teacher, teaching students to write more clearly and compellingly is one of my primary purposes. How would you recommend striking a balance between blogging that is free-formed and writing that receives composition-based feedback? Are blogs simply more low-stakes writing spaces for students?

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    1. Personally, the value in blogs, in my opinion, lie in the potential for students to engage authentic audiences. Blogging becomes "real writing" if that is the case, so the motivation is natural for students to write clear and compelling pieces. The problem with blogging, however, is that when it's used just to post non-virtual types of writing, then the writing is still not authentic. I personally see a blog, not as a place for students to showcase their best writing, but a real-world place to experiment with what it takes to engage a global audience. That might mean initially partnering with another class on the other side of the world, but once the conversation in the blog starts, then authentic, clear, meaningful and compelling writing will happen.

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