The undeserving poor

I ask you, what am I? I’m one of the undeserving poor: thats what I am. Think of what that means to a man. It means that hes up agen middle class morality all the time. If theres anything going, and I put in for a bit of it, it’s always the same story: “Youre undeserving; so you cant have it.” But my needs is as great as the most deserving widow’s that ever got money out of six different charities in one week for the death of the same husband. I dont need less than a deserving man: I need more. I dont eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more. I want a bit of amusement, cause I’m a thinking man. I want cheerfulness and a song and a band when I feel low. Well, they charge me just the same for everything as they charge the deserving. What is middle class morality? Just an excuse for never giving me anything.

—G. B. Shaw, “Pygmalion” (1914)

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3 Reasons I Love Class Blogs

Reason #1: They show me what students are thinking.

Here’s a recent post from one of my Grade 9 students about ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’:

Response to chapter 12

The main event in chapter 12 is that Jem and Scout follows Calpurnia to the church where Cal goes. They experienced some uniqueness in ‘blacks’ church. And by experiencing, they were able to find some unfairness of blacks. For example, author described the church in detail to show how the church for the black were different; I believe that the author described the church on purpose to show the unfairness. Hymn-book also represent for differences of black. Not from the amount of the book, but from their melancholy murmur in page 138. In chapter 12, like these factors I described, there are lots of evidences or examples that show the situation of blacks in early 1900s.

In page 135, author described churchyard. She said the clay was as hard as the cemetary beside it. I checked the definition of cemetary, and it said ‘an area of land used for burying dead people, especially one that is not beside a church.’ When I realized meaning, I wonder why did the author placed the cemetary beside the church. I believe it was to emphasis the differences between whites and blacks. I was confident that author placed the cemetary beside the church on purpose to show that how whites in early 1900s disdained blacks. Author did not have to describe the churchyard, but I strongly believe he described it on purpose and to show the situation of blacks in early 1900s.

There is other factor that shows disdainess even in certain. From present of Lula, I was confident that author was to emphasis the disdainess. I also believe author presented the Lula on purpose. Lula did not welcome childrens. She did not welcome scout and Jem because they were whites. Whites in early 1900s gave the blacks prejudice that the whites are all color racists and they are all bad. And so from present of Lula, author could benefit to show that how whites were bad racists that even made stereotype for black.

I learn so much from a post like this. The writer is generally quiet in class, so without this blog post I would likely have no idea that he has no experience of cemeteries being in churchyards. This misunderstanding is cultural, and his post alerts me to it: having discovered it in him, I can expect to find it in other members of the class, too, and can clear it up at the next convenient moment. With other sorts of misunderstandings, I might respond with a comment on the blog, or with a private message on the blog, or with a personal conversation—each possibility being appropriate in different circumstances. And of course I see, too, what sort of writing errors occur, and over time I see which ones are chronic, which others are careless, both for this writer and for the class as a whole.

Reason #2:  They give students a chance to have fun with a story.

In this recent post, one of my Grade 11 students writes about Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd:

If Bathsheba were real… oh believe me, she wouldn’t be alive right now

Weekly Reflection νούμερο δύο (apparently thats Greek for Number Two… how COOL is that?! … yes, i do realize this is english class)

Can someone just kill Bathsheba already? I know that in my previous weekly reflection, I said that Bathsheba was kickass, and that she should be the next Oprah. Well, apparently I was wrong. Bathsheba is not kickass, if anything else, I would like to kick her ass. I want to complain so much about Bathsheba and criticize everything she does, but I do realize that it would be a major spoiler to people. Thus, I shall leave my ranting to another weekly reflection.

What we did in class this week, was mostly independent reading. We however, did discuss about ‘foils’ and how both Troy and Boldwood are foils of Oak’s. We also discussed the similarities and differences between Boldwood’s and Oak’s proposal to Bathsheba. Though why anyone would want to marry Bathsheba, I don’t know. Go marry Liddy instead! She is so nice, and probably the only character I don’t feel like killing, besides Oak. Let’s face it, who seriously does not feel like killing Boldwood and Bathsheba at this point? Perhaps killing is a too severe word, maybe seriously injure or put them in a hospital would be more appropriate.

Dear Boldwood. Oh man, take a hint already! The girl doesn’t want to marry you! That’s why she hesitates, that’s why she will not promise you anything! He doesn’t even really love Bathsheba, like we said in class, he would have loved whoever had sent him that ‘marry me’ valentine. Hey, who knows, maybe if Troy had decided to play a prank on him and sent him a ‘marry me’ valentine instead, Mr Boldwood might have turned gay and gone all desperate on Troy. The point is to just give up on Bathsheba already Boldwood! As if Bathsheba is any better! Stop giving the guy hope or hints! Just drop the bomb on him and make it clear that you do not want to marry him. Is she afraid that if she just outright tells him no, he would hate her or that he would not look at her again. Thus, defeating the purpose of the valentine. Or perhaps she likes the fact that there are 3 guys going after her and it’ll make her feel like she is, I don’t know, ‘popular’?  Oh gosh, and that time when she shouts at Liddy, I swear I was this close to ripping the book into pieces. How dare she shout at Liddy?! Liddy is way more awesome than Bathsheba would ever be! Despite that, I loved that whole scene in Chapter XXX where she is mainly trying to convince herself that Troy isn’t a bad person. It just gave me more reason to hate Bathsheba.

One of the best part of the book has got to be in Chapter XXI. Oak, you are so far, a genius in this story. When you indirectly told Bathsheba that ‘beggars mustn’t be choosers’… … … HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!! Is this the comedic part Mr Macknight?  I love how Bathsheba was the one who kicked him off the farm and now is practically begging for him to come back! HAHAHAHAHAHA!!! Oh, it sucks to be Bathsheba.

So far, I love this book as I am able to envision many killing sprees which mainly involves Bathsheba, Boldwood, and Troy. Oak, you are safe… for now.

This would not, of course, pass muster as a piece of formal analysis. But for energy, humour, and sheer enthusiasm I would put it against any of the essays in D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature. What fun the writer is having! In class she, like the first writer, is very quiet. Without this blog post I would not have suspected Thomas Hardy was provoking such a strong reaction. Her post does more than inform me, of course: it entertains and challenges and provokes her classmates, who can then respond with comments and posts of their own. Everyone benefits, in an upward spiral of value. And once they are engaged, once they are having fun, then they are much more willing to make the effort required to analyze deeply and write carefully.

Reason #3: They give students a chance to show what they can do.

Another Grade 11 student, writing for IB Theory of Knowledge:

ToK 15 – Ethical Reasoning

Last week, we did an exercise in Ethical Reasoning, and we approached the issue of abortion from several perspectives—the utilitarian approach, the rights approach, the fairness or justice approach, the common-good approach, and the virtue approach, and we were asked what we have learnt about ethical reasoning.

So, what I’ve learnt from that exercise:

– Very often, the different schools of thought contradict each other. I saw that it was possible to explore a single issue from many different perspectives. There were entirely different schools of thought with varying—and often, contradicting—ways of reasoning when it comes to solving moral dilemmas.

– Ethical reasoning is subject to our own deeply rooted moral values. Our built-in personal prejudices and moral code make us reason differently when it comes to judging right from wrong. It seems to me that deciding what’s right or wrong relies on our own personal beliefs and is bound to vary from person to person. Even though we were asked to explore the issue from those 6 specific philosophical schools of thought, and come to 6 different conclusions, I found that very often, I simply disagreed with those conclusions. Despite the apparent reason and logical progression that we underwent to formulate these conclusions, I still found myself not persuaded. It seems that when it comes to moral values, ethical reasoning doesn’t overcome beliefs forged and strengthened over years of culture.

The exercise did little to change my own stance on the moral dilemma of abortion simply because I am strongly against it. However, the exercise did pull me out of my comfort zone, and forced me to take on perspectives different from my own. With each different way of reasoning, I realized that for just this one issue, we can go down many paths and we can go into a lot of detail, and could proverbially ‘cover more bases’, so to speak. This could help remove some of the subjectivity when it comes to making moral decisions. The problem of these different schools of thought conflicting with each other still persists, though, which makes me feel that ultimately, moral dilemmas don’t have any answers. In the end, we have to rely on our own intuition to try and extract the ‘moral’ choice from the murky mess of all these possible ‘right answers’ and try to make moral choices that best fit our moral code.

OK, I’m impressed—how about you? This student is thinking and writing at a very high level. He has understood the exercise we did in class, thought about it carefully, integrated it with his own beliefs, and has even been able to analyze his own beliefs in light of the alternative perspectives offered in the exercise. The act of writing helps him to deepen his own thinking, and his classmates benefit enormously from his example, which shows what good thinking and writing can produce in response to the same activity they all did together.

As I hear myself saying repeatedly, class blogs are the best thing to happen in education since the pencil.

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We get mail . . .

I received this email message today—

I am an ESL Instructor at [redacted] and I came across your blog and website. I enjoyed reading it and want to try some of your ideas. I also believe in independent reading (I call it extensive reading). Each student reads different books to the ones we read as a class. I have taught my ESL college-bound students for about 10 years requiring them to read a certain number of pages each day depending on their proficiency level. I started this at the English Language Center at [redacted]. It works, and every semester my students thank me for it too. I like your idea of having them respond on a blog. I will try this with my next class.

This blog does not have thousands of readers, but it is gratifying enough for me to feel once in a while that someone finds my work useful. Thanks so much! As I wrote in my reply,

I can’t express what a profound change class blogs have made to writing instruction. I highly recommend them! The details are more important than one might initially think: threaded comments, ‘Like’ buttons, lists of recent comments, number of posts per author, number of comments per author, etc. That’s why I use WordPress with the ‘Atahualpa’ theme, which can be customized so easily. If you start with a free option, I would recommend edublogs.org—run by teachers, it uses WordPress MU (multi-user), which has many (but not all) of the features you can build into an individual WP blog.

Good luck! Let me know how it goes.

Another teacher wrote to me on the English Companion Ning. We had some correspondence back and forth, and in her latest reply she wrote this:

Thanks for your previous response.  The responses from your students made my day, and I’m glad you linked me to them.  I’d read some of those responses in June, and I remembered why I wanted to try this in the first place.

I’ve been making some changes to what we were doing.  I was having the students answer a question each day about their reading in their diaries, and after looking at what you do again, I realized it was too much.  You are right.  If we want them to read, we can’t heap extras onto the students that take away from getting them to get into the reading habit.  I think it’s going better now.

I was pretty discouraged.  Your message helped me, and I wanted to thank you for everything you’ve done to help me in succeeding in this.

I thought I’d share a quote from one of my student’s blog entries.  She did happen to stumble on a good match for her, but her response gave me a “fuzzy” teacher moment.

Lauren in Missouri said–

My personal reaction to this book was different from all other books I have read. This book grabbed my attention from the first page. As I read this book I didn’t want to stop. I have never wanted to not put a book down. I used to hate reading, and now I hope to find more books like Sweet Hearts.

Thanks,

[name redacted]

These two correspondents, and others like them, have brightened my days. Teaching is hard work, and sometimes we do get discouraged—or at least tired :). So if you have learned something, been inspired, or otherwise benefitted from a colleague’s work, please do take the time to write a note of appreciation and brighten up someone’s day.

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Edublogs Challenge: great school blogs

The other day my English 9A class blog was named by Mrs. Burton and her class as one of their favourite ten school blogs, and now it’s my turn to pass on the accolades as part of the Edublogs challenge. So here’s my list of 10 great school blogs, in absolutely no order whatsoever:

1.  http://yhsjuniorcommunitybookdiscussion.wikispaces.com/

YHS Junior Community Book Discussion Wiki

2.  Larry Ferlazzo’s TOK class blog

A great resource!

3.  TOKTalk

Oliver Kim’s TOK site, with lots of audio material.

4.  http://www.theliteraturemachine.com/english10/

Greg Clinton’s Gr. 10 English class blog.

5.  Secrets of Teaching Writing Revealed

Linda Aragoni’s great writing site

6.  http://whiteswrite.ning.com/

Grace White’s Grade 6 ning.

7.  http://intrepidteacher.edublogs.org/

Jabiz Raisdana’s blog with links to his students’ work.

8.  http://www.tellraven.us/denali/

Doug Noon’s Grade 6 class blog in Alaska.

9.  http://anthonyservicelearning.edublogs.org/

Susan B. Anthony Middle School’s service learning site.

10. http://talentedtexans.blogspot.com/

Miss T’s Talented Texans (Grade 4)

I urge you to check them all out.

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Blogging with Students: A Primer

Caroline Ellwood of IS (International Schools) magazine asked me to send her a 1000-word introduction to blogging with students, and this (with some minor variations) is the result:

As a secondary-school English teacher, I use student blogs primarily as a form of ‘independent writing’, very similar to the ‘independent reading’ that my students have been doing for years.

I also find blogs very useful in higher-level courses like IB Theory of Knowledge, or IB English A1, where they help to create a community conversation among class members.

Finally, blogs make it much easier for students to read and comment on each others’ work than was ever possible using traditional methods—an occasional paper copied and distributed, or papers posted on the classroom wall for others to read.

If you are a teacher inclined to dip your toes into this student blogging pool, you may benefit from some of what follows. Please note that I am not an expert, just a teacher with a bit of experience, but I will point you toward some sources of information that will take you beyond the confines of my own limited perspective.

Getting Started

1. Begin by reading some blogs. You can find blogs on any subject that may intrigue you. Go to http://blogsearch.google.com/, type in a topic that interests you, and begin browsing.
2. Do some blogging yourself. The easiest entry-point is one of several free blogging sites such as Blogger.com or WordPress.com. Even if no one reads your blog, you will become familiar with the conventions of writing a new post, saving a draft, publishing, and adding tags or categories.
3. Read some blogs about educational blogging. Try Will Richardson, Konrad Glogowski, Anne Davis, and Bud Hunt. Those four will provide you with plenty of links to other blogs about teaching and learning.
4. Start using RSS. By now you will be having trouble keeping track of all those blogs unless you use an RSS reader or aggregator. My RSS primer will show you how.

[If you are in a country where blogging sites are blocked, try using Anonymouse. In some cases, the blog itself will be accessible, but the FeedBurner rss feed will be blocked; again, Anonymouse works for me.]

Blogging with Students

So you’ve played around a bit reading and writing blogs, you’re convinced that your students would benefit from blogging, but what’s the best way to manage a classroom of bloggers? What blogging software should you use? Where should you host your blog?

I don’t have definitive answers to these questions, but I will share my experience and the preferences that go with it.

1. WordPress: When I started out I did a fairly extensive survey of the various blogging platforms that were then available. As I wanted to host the blog on my own site, I needed something I could install and manage myself without having to hire a web site technician. I soon found that WordPress was my best option. It’s open-source, which means not only that it’s free, but that hundreds of amateurs and professionals are out there producing new themes and plug-ins and helping to make each new version of WordPress even better than before. WordPress.org will get you started downloading and installing on your own server. If you don’t have a server of your own, you can use WordPress.com, which provides hosting for your WordPress blog.
2. Edublogs.org. Last year I used Edublogs for my class blogs during the first part of the year. They use a special edition of WordPress—WordPress MU—designed for blogs that have multiple authors. I found that they provide an excellent service, easy to use both for me and for the students. I had problems, however, connecting to the site with a whole class of students at one time, at least from China. Even when we limited the number of simultaneous users we continued to have serious slowdowns, so I had to move all the class blogs to my own domain.
3. 21Classes.com. This year, following a suggestion from Konrad Glogowski, I switched to hosting four of my class blogs on 21Classes.com. With 21Classes, each student has his or her own blog, and the class blog is a ‘portal’ where the teacher can post messages. Performance has not been such a problem, and the portal can be set up to include links to all the student blogs, recent posts and comments, etc. If you come to 21Classes after using WordPress, as I have, you will notice the differences in the user interface and perhaps not always be pleased by them, but none of the site’s idiosyncrasies present more than a minor annoyance. You can see 21Classes in action on my current blogs for English 7A, English 7 B Adv, English 9 B Adv, and IB Theory of Knowledge.

My Ideal Set-up

For international schools in developing countries, especially, accessing sites hosted in the U.S. can be difficult. Ideally, a school would install WordPress MU on its own server, ensuring that connection speeds would be as fast and direct as possible. Every student could have his or her own blog, and the teacher could link to all student blogs on the class’s blog. This would combine the advantages of 21Classes with those of WordPress.

[Update, July 2010] My views have shifted on this question. I now strongly favour a class blog, with each student being an author on the blog. My experience with 21classes.com showed that students rarely read each other’s blogs, when each student had his or her own. Putting everyone’s posts on one blog builds a much stronger sense of a learning community.]

Finally, to get started trying to imagine a future in which all students blog in almost all of their classes, see my discussions here.

And let me know how it goes!

Eric MacKnight has been teaching English since 1980 in public, independent, and international schools in the United States, Morocco, Switzerland, Austria, Canada, The Netherlands, and China. He currently teaches at Suzhou Singapore International School in Suzhou, China.

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School-wide blogging #3: the questions

[Adapted from a comment I posted replying to ‘Julie’ on EduBloggerWorld.]

I agree that one blog per student is best. The problems follow from there, however. Questions like these arise:

  • Who controls content on student blogs? What happens when students post something inappropriate?
  • Who manages updating the blog software? Can it be done one time for all school blogs, or must each blog be updated individually?
  • How are blog posts managed so that on my English class blog, for example, I see links only to my students’ English posts, not to their math, history, and science posts, too?
  • Are the blogs hosted remotely, or on school servers? What are the pro’s and con’s of each?
  • Is the blogging software commercial, or open-source? Pro’s and con’s?

If we imagine even a small high-school with 500 students, plus 50 teachers, and let’s say 4 class blogs per teacher, we’ve got 750 blogs to manage—a big job!

So far I know of WordPress MU (multi-user) and 21classes.com, and I know of remote hosting solutions like Edublogs / Learnerblogs, which uses WPMU. I’d like to hear from folks with experience hosting WPMU blogs on school servers, and also from folks using 21classes.com on school servers. How do the costs and benefits of these two solutions compare? Are they equally good in meeting the needs of blogging students and teachers, or is one superior, or is neither quite yet what we need?

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School-wide blogging #2: why do it?

All of us involved in using blogs with our students understand the value of the activity: students become real writers with a real audience, can read and respond to each other’s work, become a community of thinkers/scholars/readers, etc.

But is there any added value to blogging school-wide?

I can think of two advantages of school-wide blogging over blogging in a class here and there.

First, a student’s blog—including posts for all of her classes—would become an automatically updating digital portfolio. We all remember student portfolios; did they ever take off where you work? Me neither. But imagine a student’s blog including work for almost all his classes extending over several years of schooling. What a document!

Not all blog posts are equal, of course, and casual writing typically predominates in a blog. But nothing would stop students from posting more formal, polished work in their blogs as well.

And with the ability to tag and categorize and archive posts, there’s no need for such an online portfolio to become unwieldy. It would be simple for a student applying to university, say, to select posts from a variety of classes over the last 2-3 years of high school, tag them all ‘portfolio’, and send them as a single hyperlink to any interested admissions office.

The second advantage of school-wide blogging? Think of all the paper a school could save. Or a school district. Or a whole nation of schools.

That’s a lot of paper.

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School-wide blogging: how would it work?

At the moment individual teachers here and there are using blogs with their classes in various ways and for various purposes, using various platforms and hosting solutions.

I’ve started to imagine how things might look in a school where students blog for almost every class, just as they have traditionally handed in assignments on paper for almost every class. If this blogging business really takes off we could have some serious scaling problems.

Imagine a secondary school in which students blog for almost every class. A separate blog for each class would soon become unwieldy, so they would have one blog, with categories or tags for posts in each subject. Each class would have its own blog, where the teacher would post assignments and links to all the blogs of the students in that class. Or would only a student’s history posts, say, appear in links on the history class’s blog? One of the main values of blogging in schools is that it allows students to read each other’s work, but what setup would make it easy for a student to see his classmates’ work in a particular subject without having to wade through 20-30 blogs searching for the history posts?

Perhaps it makes more sense for students to post all of their history work on the history class’s blog, their English work on the English class’s blog, etc. But then the student’s own blog becomes . . . what? A poor substitute for a Facebook page? It makes more sense for a student to post ALL of his or her work on his school blog, where it can remain and be easily accessed, serving as a kind of portfolio that updates automatically. But I’m not sure how these separate blogs could be linked selectively to show, say, links to all the history posts on the history class blog and links to all the English posts on the English class blog.

Here I am getting out of my depth, technically. Is there a solution for this problem already out there? Would individual RSS feeds for each subject tag show up on the class blog for that subject?

In short, if educational blogging really takes off, how will we manage it? Does anyone out there have experience that would shed light on this problem?

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Blogging with students: my adventures so far

As a secondary-school English teacher, I use student blogs primarily as a form of ‘independent writing’, very similar to the ‘independent reading’ that my students have been doing for years. See the post I wrote about this in February 2007 for more details. (All links will open in a new window.)

I also find blogs very useful in higher-level courses like IB Theory of Knowledge, or my IB English A1 classes, where I hope they will help to create a community conversation among class members.

Finally, blogs make it much easier for students to read and comment on each others’ work than was ever possible using traditional methods—an occasional paper copied and distributed, or papers posted on the classroom wall for others to read.

For one example of what a class blog might look like after a year, have a look at my Grade 8 blog from 2006-07. (Note that, as usual with blogs, the most recent articles [‘posts’] come first, so to see what the students wrote at the beginning of the year you will have to dig back several pages, or use the archives links. Or you can explore by topic, or by author.)

If you are a teacher inclined to dip your toes into this student blogging pool, you may benefit from some of what follows. Please note that I am not an expert, just a teacher with a bit of experience, but I will point you toward some sources of information that will take you beyond the confines of my own limited perspective.

Getting Started

  1. Begin by reading some blogs. You can find blogs on every subject under the sun. Go to http://blogsearch.google.com/, type in a topic that interests you, and begin browsing.
  2. Do some blogging yourself. The easiest entry-point is one of several free blogging sites such as Blogger or WordPress.com. Even if no one reads your blog, you will become familiar with the conventions of writing a new post, saving a draft, publishing, and adding tags or categories.
  3. Read some blogs about educational blogging. Try Will Richardson; Konrad Glogowski; Anne Davis; and Bud Hunt. Those four will provide you with plenty of links to other blogs about teaching and learning. [UPDATE 23 October: In a perfect example of how connections are made on the web, I discovered a great blog from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education when they linked to one of my posts on The Good Habits Blog. Instructify is a great introduction to blogging in general and educational blogs in particular.]
  4. Start using RSS. By now you will be having trouble keeping track of all those blogs unless you use an RSS reader or aggregator. My RSS primer will show you how.

Blogging with Students

So you’ve played around a bit reading and writing blogs, you’re convinced that your students would benefit from blogging, but what’s the best way to manage a classroom of bloggers? What blogging software should you use? Where should you host your blog?

I don’t have definitive answers to these questions, but I will share my experience and the preferences that go with it.

  1. WordPress: When I started out I did a fairly extensive survey of the various blogging platforms that were then available. As I wanted to host the blog on my own site, I needed something I could install and manage myself without having to hire a web site technician. I soon found, as thousands of other users have also, that WordPress was my best option. It’s open-source, which means not only that it’s free, but that hundreds of amateurs and professionals are out there producing new themes and plug-ins and helping to make each new version of WordPress even better than before. WordPress.org will get you started downloading and installing on your own server. If you don’t have a server of your own, you can use WordPress.com, which provides hosting for your WordPress blog. I use WordPress for this blog, for my Good Habits blog, and for my English A1 blog.
  2. Edublogs. Last year I used Edublogs for my class blogs during the first part of the year. They use a special edition of WordPress, WordPress MU, designed for blogs that have multiple authors. I found that they provide an excellent service, easy to use both for me and for the students. James Farmer does a wonderful job administering the site and responds personally and very quickly to calls for help. I had problems, however, connecting to the site with a whole class of students at one time, at least from China. Even when we limited the number of simultaneous users we continued to have serious slowdowns, so I had to move all the class blogs to my own domain.
  3. 21Classes. This year, following a suggestion from Konrad Glogowski, I switched to hosting four of my class blogs on 21Classes.com. With 21Classes, each student has his or her own blog, and the class blog is a ‘portal’ where the teacher can post messages. Performance has not been a problem—perhaps because each student’s blog has its own address—and the portal can be set up to include links to all the student blogs, recent posts and comments, etc. If you come to 21Classes after using WordPress, as I have, you will notice the differences in the user interface and perhaps not always be pleased by them, but none of the site’s idiosyncrasies present more than a minor annoyance. You can see 21Classes in action on my current blogs for English 7A, English 7 B Adv, English 9 B Adv, and IB Theory of Knowledge.

My Ideal Set-up

Ideally, the school would install WordPress on its own server, ensuring that connection speeds would be as fast and direct as possible. Every student could have his or her own blog, and the teacher could link to all student blogs on the class’s blog. This would combine the advantages of 21Classes with those of WordPress. Of course, if every teacher starts blogging and each student has a separate blog, things could get out of hand both technically and otherwise, but at the moment we’re a fair distance from having to confront those problems.

Questions?

I had to shut off comments on this blog following a flood of comment spam, but if you have read this far and still have a question, please use the ‘Contact Me’ link at the top of the left-hand column and drop me an email. And good luck with blogging!

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Another use of class blogs: teach proper formatting of quotations

Bruce Schauble shows how blogging software can be used to teach students proper formatting of quotations. If you teach English, you know that students often struggle to get this right. With a blog, it’s much easier for them to get it right, so that when they are producing formal essays in a word processor they will know through experience what they’re aiming for. Brilliant!

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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.

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WP Theme Essentials for Class Blogs

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?

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