Student blogging as 'independent writing'

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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.

WP Theme Essentials for Class Blogs

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LearnerBlogs.org (where my class blogs are hosted) offers a fairly large number of themes as options for your blog, but their selection is just a small fraction of the total number available for bloggers who host their blogs on their own servers.

The problem with the LearnerBlogs themes, however, is not their number. The problem is that many of them lack features that are essential for blogging with a group of students.
Here’s my first-draft list of essential features:

  1. Authors’ names attached to each post.
  2. A login link.
  3. The number of posts displayed next to each Category.
  4. A “Recent Comments” display.
  5. RSS feeds for posts and comments.

It would be good to construct a list of LearnerBlogs themes that meet these requirements. As it is now, you can spend a lot of time trying out pretty designs that don’t function the way they need to.

How about you? What’s on your list of essentials?

Smile, teachers: you may be on YouTube

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From Canada comes the story of an angry teacher’s classroom rant being filmed surreptitiously by students and then posted to the internet video site, YouTube.

As the story points out, this is far from the only case of its kind. A search for ‘angry teacher’ on YouTube today produces 93 other examples, a number that is bound to grow. Comparisons with cases like that of comedian Michael Richards’ racist tirade or with the latest incident of police brutality being videotaped are inevitable.

In the Canadian story, the teacher’s union representative has leapt to the teacher’s defense in a strikingly sweeping way. “The teacher will be the master of his class — a closed class and confidential,” he says. “Master” is of course the 19th-century word for teacher (the term survives residually in the principals of private schools being called ‘Headmaster’). But I worry about its implications. If teachers are masters, what does that make students? Servants? Slaves? Do teachers have the right to do or say anything they please inside their ‘closed’ and ‘confidential’ classrooms? Surely not.

In Canada the school’s response has been to ban all personal electronic devices from the classroom—to which I say, “Good Luck!”

Wouldn’t it be easier to ban angry rants by teachers (along with racist tirades and police brutality, if possible)? Why in the 21st century does anyone still believe that teachers have a right to speak to students in ways they would never speak to anyone else? Teachers who think that such an approach is not only justified but effective would do well to read Alfie Kohn’s book, Beyond Discipline.

Or we could all just decide that it’s a good idea to treat everyone with respect and courtesy. As my mother used to say when I was going out for the evening, “Don’t do anything you wouldn’t want broadcast on television”.

Much less on YouTube, eh?

It was good advice then, and it’s even better advice today.

UPDATE 13 January 2007

Slashdot today has a piece retailing a Wall Street Journal article about people’s misdeeds being posted on the internet. The discussion is worth a look. One reader’s take:

“You don’t see a problem? The problem is How long does someone have to be ashamed for, and in front of how many people? You put something on the internet and potentially it’s there forever and can be seen by millions, like with Star Wars Kid. I believe forgiveness is necessary in society – being allowed to learn from your mistakes and move on to become a better person – but we seem to have a culture where nobody forgives and nobody is allowed to forget.”

Group Work: Good or Bad? My Gr. 8 Students Sound Off

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My Grade 8 students (for whom in almost every case English is their second language) respond to a post by Konrad Glogowski on his Blog of Proximal Development in which he argues against group work in schools. They also refer to some of the comments to Konrad’s post. I am impressed by the range and thoughtfulness of their responses, and by the vigour of their expression.

Introducing the SSIS English Wiki

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The SSIS English Wiki is an experiment in cooperative learning. I’ve invited my English 8 students to join the wiki, and starting Monday they will be adding to the Poetry page based on what they have learned so far this year about poetry. They will be able to add content and edit, expand, or revise content added by others.

I’ve added a link to the wiki in the left-hand column (under “My Stuff”) to make it easy for you to check it from time to time. You can also subscribe to the wiki and receive notification every time someone adds material to it. Click ‘Notify Me’ (upper right) and follow the instructions. For email notification you will need a wikispaces username, but anyone can subscribe via RSS.

Memorization vs. Rote Memorization

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Professor Steven Dutch, who teaches Natural and Applied Sciences at the University of Wisconsin, must be pretty annoyed at hearing the same complaints from students over and over, because he’s posted an entire page of his Top Ten No Sympathy Lines (Plus a Few Extra). Students considering complaining may want to check it out for tips on what arguments to avoid.

In one of them, however, he makes some interesting points about memorization.

Memorization is not the antithesis of creativity; it is absolutely indispensable to creativity. Creative insights come at odd and unpredictable moments, not when you have all the references spread out on the table in front of you. You can’t possibly hope to have creative insights unless you have memorized all the relevant information. And you can’t hope to have really creative insights unless you have memorized a vast amount of information, because you have no way of knowing what might turn out to be useful.

Rote memorization is a choice. If you remember facts and concepts as part of an integrated whole that expands your intellectual horizons, it won’t be rote. If you merely remember things to get through the next exam, it will be rote, and a whole lot less interesting, too. But that is solely your choice.

The key to good memorization is frequent review. The more often you review something you’ve learned, the more you embed it in your long-term memory. I.e., the more you actually learn it. Not surprisingly, daily review is one of the good habits in Good Habits, Good Students.

New class blogs are up and running

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Three of my English classes—English 6 B Advanced, English 7 B Advanced, and English 8 (Language A)—have started class blogs. You can see their first entries here:

Grade 6
Grade 7
Grade 8

For the vast majority of these students, English is their second (or third) language. I am really looking forward to seeing the progress they make through the school year.

The Homework Myth

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I just learned of Alfie Kohn’s new book, The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing. Kohn has made a career of debunking widely accepted ideas about education with well-researched evidence and argument in earlier books such as Beyond Discipline and Punished by Rewards. As one teacher who is already skeptical about the benefits of homework, I am looking forward to reading Kohn’s latest offering.

Are you open to new experiences?

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According to a study by an American psychologist,

It appears that at younger ages, openness to experience is the most important personality factor correlating with the attainment of facts, vocabulary, and book learning.

So if you are not by nature attracted to new experiences, make an effort and develop the habit of being more open to the new and unfamiliar.

The same study, interestingly, found that crankiness in older people is a sign of higher intelligence.

Breathing is more important than reading

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Besides breathing, there are some other things more important than reading—but not too many. Sadly, most students don’t read enough to do as well as they should. Many years ago I realized that in school, students do whatever they do to earn grades, and if I wanted my students to read, I would have to give them grades for reading.

I describe the system I worked out in my 2003 article An Independent Reading Program That Works!.

Teachers who would like to give this a try may also want to download copies of my introductory handouts and book-rating sheet, which can be found in the Public Folder where I keep many of my handouts and podcasts for students (and colleagues).

Social Bookmarks

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When you bookmark a web page, you save its location for yourself. When you ‘social bookmark’ a web page, you save its location for yourself and, if you wish, everyone else. Social bookmarks are saved on sites like Digg, Technorati, del.icio.us, and Rojo. People who view such sites can then check the pages you’ve bookmarked, and you can see the ones they’ve bookmarked. Result? The best—or goofiest—pages on the internet are seen by more people. Continue reading “Social Bookmarks”

Great resource: Word of the Day

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Students in Grades 8-12 and even university students can benefit from the “Word of the Day” feature at Dictionary.com. A good vocabulary programme features words not often encountered in casual reading, but which occur often enough in academic reading to be useful for students. Dictionary.com has hit this spot perfectly. In the week beginning June 28, for example, their words were venal, timorous, aficionado, plaudit, depredation, complaisant, and emblazon.

Definitions are followed by quotations from published writing and an explanation of the word’s origins.

To visit the Word of the Day web site, go here: http://dictionary.reference.com/wordoftheday/. To have the Word of the Day delivered to your email inbox daily, go here: http://signup.dictionary.com/wordoftheday. To subscribe via RSS, copy and paste this link into your RSS reader: http://dictionary.reference.com/wordoftheday/wotd.rss.

Students, here’s a painless way to learn a new word every day! Even if you do no more than read each day’s entry, you will benefit. Teachers looking for an easy way to incorporate regular vocabulary work into their classes should take a look at this great resource, too.

Add a comment, please!

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Anyone may post a comment on this blog, and I certainly hope you will contribute questions and add your ideas. You do have to register, but this is very easy, and I will never share your email address with anyone. When you post a comment, it won’t appear immediately. This gives me time to preview comments and delete spam or anything else that might be inappropriate. Please join the conversation!

UPDATE: The link for posting a comment should say “Post a comment” but in some cases it may say “No comments” if no comments have been posted yet. Once a comment has been posted, it will say, for example, “2 comments”. I’m trying to eliminate the “No comments” link, which is not very intuitive.

So long, Charlie!

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Charlie McBride

Charlie McBride is leaving SSIS to teach in Nanjing. Charlie’s energy and vision are responsible for the SSIS Garden Project. A true leader, he got out in front, inspired others by his example, and called on them to follow. Everyone at SSIS, and especially those of us involved in the Garden, will miss him terribly. Nanjing, you don’t know how lucky you are!

Bye-bye April

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April was extremely busy for me. On top of my normal work, I marked 212 World Literature essays for the IBO, an educational but exhausting undertaking. I also put the finishing touches on my book manuscript, Good Habits, Good Students, which is now in the hands of the designers and typesetters. My Grade 6 students created ‘heart maps’ (another great idea from Nancie Atwell), picked one item, and wrote ‘heart stories’ which I am still working to post online. Then they turned their heart stories into speeches. In Grade 9, students worked mostly outside of class to complete a biography of some acquaintance or family member who is at least 60 years old. In class, we studied To Kill a Mockingbird. When we finished, they wrote comparison-contrast essays based on Harper Lee’s novel and Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, which they had read independently. My Grade 11s have been working on developing topics and doing practice essays preparing for their own World Lit papers (our three WL texts for Assignment 1 are Oedipus, The Odyssey, and Agamemnon). My Grade 12s worked on practice exams and are as I write sitting their IB examinations. Meanwhile, the tempo in the Garden Project picked up as warm weather arrived and seeds began jumping out of the ground. And did I mention that I have a family? Ah yes, the easy life of a teacher . . . .