Saturday, July 5, 2014

Bored Teacher Summer Learning Series -- Making Writing Meaningful Through Blogging

It's 8:00 am on a gorgeous Saturday morning in July and I know you are having EXACTLY the same issue I am -- you miss your students!  You are sitting there thinking of ways to meaningfully engage them in the fall and to make writing just a little more meaningful and interesting for them.  Trust me, I'm right there with you!

Well, Bored Teacher, start thinking more deeply about ways to have your students write more and have them write more online through the use of a blogging tool.

Sound interesting?  It really is.  In fact, it can even be somewhat addicting.  Imagine that; writing can be addicting!

What is a blog?

What is a blog?  Well, put simply, it is a website that is regularly updated by an author (or team of authors). Blogs in Plain English.  Although it is six years old, it STILL accurately describes this lasting technology.  As you watch it, think about how this opportunity could impact your students if put in the role of writing the content, not just reading it.
 There are other parameters as well.  Typically, blogs have the newest content at the top.  They also typically have a "feed" or a means of subscribing to them for regular readers.  There is a great video that nicely sets out a working understanding of what a blog is:

Key Questions

Okay, so we've set the stage.  At least we now know what a blog is.  However, the two primary questions are: 1) Why would I use a blog with my students in my classroom?, and 2) How would I go about setting up a blog?  What tools would I use?

Why would I use a blog with students in my classroom?

Well, the "why" isn't a question that we can provide an adequate answer that suits everybody's needs.  Generally speaking, though, blogs provide a couple of important opportunities.
  1. Students have an opportunity to write for a "real world" audience.  That means that anybody in the world, or at least anybody that reads their blog, sees their thoughts, ideas, feelings, and engages with their work in some way.  Compare that with a more standard view many students take of writing, where they feel they are writing for a single or small group of adults, and possibly a few students.  That expansiveness of audience can be an important element for many students.
  2. People might comment back on their written work.  By people, I don't mean a teacher marking the text for "teachery" technicalities.  I mean their fellow students, maybe other teachers, maybe their parents, maybe a partner classroom from across the country/world, or possibly even an outsider who stumbled upon their ideas in a Google search.  This level of exposure raises the bar of accountability for MANY kids and encourages them to give a better effort on their written work than they may have otherwise engaged in.
  3. Their body of work amasses neatly on their blog.  We all understand the power of maintaining a portfolio of written work to reflect upon, to inspire us, and to proudly point to when it comes time to share with others.  A blog neatly organizes student thinking and writing in a way that is searchable, easy to share, and lasting.  It's something to be proud of when you spend a semester or year writing and realize that you have generated and fleshed out a LOT of ideas over the course of your class.
  4. Blogs posts are EDITABLE, so they truly emphasize the process of writing.  This does drive some teachers crazy from an assessment perspective, but blogs can always be edited.  Previous posts that were not well thought out, or ideas that have been further developed can be re-written on a blog.  It's a powerful opportunity for us to share the process of writing over the finality of hitting print and turning in whatever we have done at the time.
Those are just a few key reasons.  If you can think of more, add them in the comments section to this blog post.  We'd love to hear your thoughts on the topic.

What tools would I use for blogging?

In some ways, this question can be the catch point for many teachers.  They want something that is easy to manage, safe, and valuable to students all at the same time.  Finding the perfect tool that does ALL of these things without sacrificing one of those three for the other is tough.  As is the case with most choices in life, when selecting a blogging platform/tool, there are choices and trade offs to make. Let's see if we can give you some help, though.

The primary tools we will look at in this blog are the tools most readily available to students and staff in our district: Blogger and the Blackboard blog tool.

Blogger

Blogger is a Google owned blogging tool (the same tool used to create this very blog) that is available to all students and staff in our district.  The same email and password used for your staff or student Gmail account will allow you to set up a blog with Blogger in minutes.  It is typically very easy to use, used by millions of bloggers around the world, and is directly connected to a wider audience of readers.

The advantages to using Blogger:

  • Incredibly easy to use.  Teachers will not need to spend a lot of time learning to set up or use the tool, and little instructional time is needed to teach the tool to students.
  • Already works with the Gmail accounts provided by the district.  That means no additional usernames and passwords to recall.  This also provides a safety valve in the event that a teacher or staff member needs to log into the blog for security/safety reasons.
  • Wide variability in the scope of each blog's reading audience with Blogger.  Blogger can be used to publish publicly to the world, or it can be limited to just specific email addresses.  Publish your class blog to the world.  Limit your student blogs availability to teachers and students only.  It's all possible.
  • Commenting is built in to each blog.  This opens the door for feedback, conversation, and interaction between writers and readers.  Commenting can often be the biggest hook for writers as they receive genuine feedback from their audience.
  • Customizable look and feel for each blog.  With millions of users out there, that's a lot of templates and tools that can be added to each blog to change the general feel of the blog.
  • Tech support is a Google search away.  With so many users of Blogger, learning to do ANYTHING with Blogger generally requires a simple Google search to find the answers you might need.
The disadvantages to using Blogger:
  • The blog can be opened to a world of readers, but not all readers are trustworthy or have the best intentions of students in mind. As a teacher, this means you need to have a ongoing conversation with students about Internet bullies, trolls, and appropriate conduct, as well as an action plan that students know and can follow when their blog receives inappropriate comments.  It is ALWAYS recommended that teachers engage with parents about the decision to publish a blog publicly (to the entire world).  
  • Commenting opens the door for inappropriate communications.  Just as with the decision to publish the blog to the world is an option, turning commenting on/off is also an option.  However, commenting is the primary hook of blogging for many students.  Although it is possible for the student to turn comments off, they can also opt for turning comments on just as easily, and they are likely to do so!
  • Students are the owners of the blogs, meaning they are in control of the blog.  Depending on your viewpoint, this may also be a positive as they take on responsibility for their blog.  However, students can make decisions about their blog settings that teachers are not informed of.  While the district has the ability to log into student accounts and make changes, that is an action typically performed by request AFTER something undesirable has happened.  This means students need to be empowered and educated on the proper uses of this platform.
  • Scatter can be a BIG problem for teachers when it comes to blogging.  Each blog has its own web address, meaning a teacher will have a different website to visit for each student assigned to them.  That's a lot of links to follow.  Savvy teachers will use a Google Form (students submit the URL for their blog so the teacher has one spreadsheet with all of the blog URLs in one place) or a RSS Feed Reader (I like this one...Feedreader) where they enter the URLs and each UPDATE is pushed to the Feedreader so teachers are seeing the most recent changes to each blog.  However, this is an extra layer of management that turns some teachers off.

Blackboard Blog Tool

There is another option for blogging in our district in the Blackboard Blog tool.  It truly is an alternative solution with varied advantages and disadvantages from  Blogger.  Generally speaking, it is a more controlled, all-in-one solution to blogging, but it does not offer the same "reach" as Blogger, as readership is limited to student enrollment in the course.  Let's learn more.

The advantages to using Blackboard Blog tool:
  • Blackboard Blog tool is a part of a Blackboard course.  Every student and teacher in the district already has a username and password for Blackboard, and a growing number of teachers are using this tool for placing resources online for student access.  With the flip of a switch, the Blackboard Blog tool can be turned on and active in your Blackboard course, giving the teachers and students a single place to go for both content and communication tools.
  • Blog posts in Blackboard are limited to a SMALL audience -- the teachers and students (and possibly parents) enrolled in the course.  Nobody else.  Depending on your perspective, this can be a huge advantage to blogs that are open to the entire world.  This also eases the concern of some parents who do not wish for their children to publish to a much wider audience.
  • Commenting is built into the tool, but again is limited to only the students enrolled in the Blackboard course.  However, each comment is tracked and teachers can easily see who made each comment and when.  This gives teachers an advantage as they are maintaining accountability in their classroom and teaching commenting/feedback skills.
  • Teachers have a single link to visit to see ALL of the student blogs, comments, and interactions.  This makes assessment of a blog much more manageable.  
  • Blogs can be built into lessons easily.  Using the power of Blackboard, a teacher can organize videos, content, readings, and then ask the students to blog their thoughts and reflections within the context of what was just covered.  This can give the blog assignment/reflection greater value as it flows well within the scope of the lesson plan instead of being an add-on after the fact.
The disadvantages to using Blackboard Blog tool:
  • Audience is limited.  This is a biggie not to be underestimated.  A Blackboard Blog can NEVER be made public to the whole world.  It will always be limited to a small audience of peers within the course.  For some students knowing the world might be reading ups the ante and they take writing more serious as a result.  That will never be an option with the Blackboard Blog tool.  One work around is for teachers to set up a single class blog on which to copy and paste the best student reflections (from Blackboard Blogs) to a class blog opened to the world using a tool like Blogger.
  • Commenting is limited.  This ties into the first disadvantage, but there will never be any surprise responses/comments from readers.  Those are the types of things that infuse excitement and authenticity into blogging for many students.  With a locked down audience, this is nearly impossible to reproduce in the Blackboard environment.
  • Teachers need to utilize Blackboard.  While we don't necessarily feel like Blackboard is a disadvantage, there is a steeper learning curve to learning to use Blackboard over Blogger.  That can take some time.  However, once you learn Blackboard, you'll be amazed at all it can do to make teaching and learning a more efficient process.  It is time well invested.

Learning to Use These Tools

With the exhaustive list of advantages and disadvantages, you probably have some thinking to do.  However, when you are ready to learn to use these tools (and YES, you can try them out on your own without using them with students right away...in fact, we recommend you do),  the next question is simple -- How do I learn how to use these tools?

Well, we have built two playlists with videos that may help you get started.  They have been curated to give teachers a starting point for using these tools.  Once you feel comfortable with getting started, there is no substitute for playing with the tool to really get a feel for how they handle.



So, what are you waiting for?  Let's get started with blogging as a way to make writing a more engaging, authentic experience in your classroom this year!  As always, if you have questions, comments, or thoughts, feel free to contact a member of the SDW Instructional Technology team to share.