Student blogging as 'independent writing'

For years my students have done “Independent Reading”. Now student blogging offers “independent writing”, in which students write frequently for real audiences, read and comment on each other’s work, and can actually enjoy that indispensable element of any skill development: practice.

I began my experiment with student blogging in September without any firm ideas about how to do it. Going on gut instinct, I decided not to comment on my students’ work, nor even edit it. I check each post before it’s published, and if it’s incomplete or shouldn’t be published yet for some other reason, I let the author know. Then I wait for the needed changes to be made.

I also vet every comment. In a few rare instances, I have deleted comments that I thought were hurtful and unproductive, and have let the commenters know why their comments were unwise. But the vast majority of comments have been kind, generous, and helpful.

My guidance of students when it comes to choosing writing topics is analogous to my guidance of their independent reading. They must read novels, and I reserve the right to approve or disapprove their choices. When they get into a rut, I suggest a book or require a book or require that they stop reading, say, fantasy novels. But within those parameters, they choose their own books.

With the class blog, I usually direct students to write on certain topics. I began with assignments related to class work—personal responses to poems and other readings, pastiches of a passage from Great Expectations, profiles of authors from the students’ home countries, original stories based on a Greek myth. Then I began finding interesting articles on other blogs or elsewhere on the web, sharing them with students, and asking them to write their own posts on the same topic. Is group work a good thing? How do you feel about professions that involve working with your hands? What makes a student passionate about learning? Is it right to have a Starbucks outlet in the Forbidden City?

I also created a ‘category’ called ‘On your mind’ and regularly gave students time to write on topics of their own choice. And in December I asked them to write about blogging, to find out how the experiment was going from their point of view.

The results of this mostly hands-off approach have been gratifying. The students in my Grade 8 English class have responded enthusiastically, with just one exception (more about that in a moment). Feeling free to write as they wish, not worried about handing in paper that will be returned with red ink and a grade, they have done more writing on the class blog than they would have done on paper in the same length of time. Their readings of news items and posts from other blogs have expanded their intellectual horizons and broadened their general background knowledge. Most importantly, many of them have begun to discover their own voices, and have actually enjoyed writing.

The analogy with Independent Reading is almost perfect. Students who read only the handful of books assigned for class study never read enough to become really good readers, and students who write only the small number of assignments their teachers are able to assess formally never write enough to become really good writers.

The teachers reading this will be wondering . . . “Sounds great, but how do you assess their blogging?”

Short answer: I don’t. I read all of it, of course, note strengths and weaknesses, and address them indirectly in my choices of assignments and activities.

But when I want a piece of writing for formal assessment, I require students to print a draft. I mark these closely, and the students then produce a finished version which I grade. Keeping the “independent writing” on the blog separate from the pieces written for assessment seemed to me a good idea, and experience so far confirms it. The students, too, say that they enjoy blogging more knowing that their pieces won’t be marked up and graded. I did, however, ask them to post their finished pieces on the blog.

Another way to handle assessment would be to ask them to pick their favourite piece from the blog, revise it, and hand it in to be graded.

Of course, no single approach works for everybody. One of my Grade 8 students hated writing on the blog and having her work read by others, so I told her she could do all of her writing the old fashioned way, on paper, and hand it in to me. Similarly, my Grade 6 and 7 students who are still mastering English have not taken to blogging with the same enthusiasm as my Grade 8s. Essentially, the difficulty in both cases is the same: discomfort. When writing an English sentence is too much of a challenge, the blogging bogs down.

My new idea to help these students (and many of my Grade 8s, as well) is to add another blogging lesson to our weekly schedule. In this second lesson, students will be asked to choose a favourite passage from anything they have read recently (say, one of their Independent Reading novels) and copy it exactly and perfectly into a blog post. This will give them practice writing English sentences that are correctly spelled and punctuated and even, one can hope, well written. I hope to use this activity to build fluency and to work on specific issues like the proper use of quotation marks.

And here’s one last wrinkle: the convergence of Independent Reading and independent writing. Up until now my students have written 3-page journal entries in small exercise books about each novel they have read for Independent Reading. Over the Chinese New Year holiday I have asked my Grade 8s to choose their favourite journal entry and post it to the class blog. Only a half-dozen have been posted so far, but I like it already. When students can read each other’s journal entries, they not only learn about the novels their classmates are reading but pick up ideas about how to write a plot summary, how to describe a character, and how to explain their personal response to a story. I will wait to see what the students think, but I am strongly inclined to ditch the exercise books and have all Independent Reading Journal entries posted to the class blog.

Meanwhile, I would love to hear from teachers or students who have been involved in student blogging. What has your experience been? Any good ideas or suggestions to share? Drop me a comment.

1 comment to Student blogging as 'independent writing'

  • Eric,

    There is so much here to comment on. I’ll start by saying that it takes guts to say that you don’t mark blogging. I, of course, wholeheartedly agree with you. I don’t mark it either. Most teachers who understand the importance of free expression and the development of individual voices, also understand that it is impossible to support and encourage developing writers by correcting their every sentence. I agree that when students are “not worried about handing in paper that will be returned with red ink and a grade,” they can do “more writing on the class blog than they would have done on paper in the same length of time.” It’s not surprising that, given the climate that you’ve established in your classroom, “many of them have begun to discover their own voices, and have actually enjoyed writing.” Our students need to have the freedom to make mistakes, and blogging in the context that you’ve established lets them do exactly that. One of the most important things that I have learned from my experience with blogging is that student writers will learn much more from their online interactions with their peers (posts and comments) than from my corrections or rubrics. The power of the community can have a wonderfully encouraging effect on struggling or reluctant writers. It can also have a truly empowering impact on those who already enjoy writing. Can our congratulatory and mostly trite comments, written in the margins of student assignments, have the same impact? Rarely. Your entry shows that, as a teacher, you view your classroom as a community of learners. That is what makes it so inspiring.

    I also understand your decision not to comment on student blogs. It does make sense, given your approach. Unlike you, I have always commented on student blogs. I do enter their space, but my comments are often filled with links to other entries in our class. I do it to help my students become aware of this web of correspondences that develops in a community of writers. It’s not a bad strategy because it allows me to help them connect as writers, readers, and thinkers. So, while I understand and wholly respect your approach, I also want to add that posting a comment is not always synonymous with assessment. In fact, one of the things that I am still learning is how to start conversations without sounding like a teacher. Not an easy task, as I’m sure you can imagine!

    I also want to comment on the following passage which I found reassuring because it reminds me of my own approach:

    “My guidance of students when it comes to writing topics is roughly analagous to my guidance of their independent reading. They must read novels, and I reserve the right to approve or disapprove their choices. When they get into a rut, I suggest a book or require a book or require that they stop reading, say, fantasy novels. But within those parameters, they choose their own books.”

    I applaud your efforts to create a context within which you can guide writing and reading while, at the same time, giving your students a lot of freedom. I get impatient with teachers who advocate complete freedom and argue that students need to be given opportunities to write and read whatever they choose. Rubbish. While it is important for them to have a degree of freedom, it is also important for us, their teachers, to create a community where their skills and ideas can flourish and where they can receive the guidance that they still need. They are, after all, in grade eight.

    There is nothing wrong with guiding their efforts or, better yet, creating a context for their work where their writing, while deeply personal and expressive, is part of a larger community where every member contributes to the collective knowledge and where students can co-construct their understanding of the studied material.

    Here’s an example: next term, we will be reading The Diary of Anne Frank. However, I don’t know exactly what my students will be exploring. I do not have a set number of supplemental readings, for example. I do know, however, that I will establish a context for them by asking them to research and write about genocide, human rights abuse, social justice, discrimination, World War II, anti-semitism. They will be free to discuss whatever aspect they find engaging within the context delineated by the topics I listed above. They will have a lot of freedom as writers, but within a context that will serve the whole community. Not surprisingly, your idea of setting “parameters” reminded me of my approach.

    You are also right when you say that “when students can read each other’s journal entries, they not only learn about the novels their classmates are reading but pick up ideas about how to write a plot summary, how to describe a character, and how to explain their personal response to a story.” When there is a context within which the students can explore their ideas, they end up learning with and from each other. They engage as thinkers and human beings who discover, share, and co-construct their knowledge and not as students who write because they have to in order to “do well.”

    Thank you for an inspiring post, Eric.

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