To Blog or Not to Blog: Blog!

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As Moving Writers readers know, one of the central ideas behind this site is authentic writing—what does writing in the real and wild world look like (versus the sometimes too-tightly controlled world of our classrooms)? Over the years, I’ve come to believe that the more the writing I ask students to do in the classroom can mirror the world outside our classroom walls, the better served my students will be.

I started my first blog in 2006, a few months after my oldest was born. Blogging was relatively new back then, but for me, it was a way for me to document our family life. I titled my blog “Familyhood: Adventures managing toddlers, marriage, family, friends, work, school, and everything in between.” In my very first post—dated January 20, 2006 (more than 11 years ago!)—I wrote about how I wanted to capture, to keep forever, all the details of my little one.

It was a few short years later that I decided to bring blogging into my classroom. I’ve used blogs with my 9th graders and my 11th graders; blog assignments have been structured and open-ended; posts are serious and funny and everything in between.

With a rapidly changing technology environment, with new tools and gadgets announced almost daily, blogging almost seems passe or “old-school.” After all, blogs have been around for more than 20 years at this point (so in 2006, I guess I was actually late to the game!).

Yet if I had to choose just one technology tool I could not live without, it would be blogging, hands-down. It’s not even close. During an online webinar a few years ago, I heard Troy Hicks, co-author of the recently published Argument in the Real World, say the same thing. As one very skeptical student once said to me, “I thought I would hate blogging, but it turned out to be a really valuable experience. Probably the most valuable.” Then after a pause, he added, “You should definitely keep doing this with students.” That was more than eight years ago, and happily, I’ve followed his advice.

WHY I LOVE BLOGGING (and so do my students!)

Authenticity. I once heard or read somewhere (I wish I could remember exactly!) that “blogging is the new persuasive essay.” As soon as I heard this, I knew that it was true. While there is no replacement for high quality longform essays—and the in-depth thinking and research that can go into them—blogging allows students an opportunity to write more frequently in a more accessible and inviting medium.

Beyond Audience to Community. The most important advantage of blogging is how it creates an audience for students beyond the teacher. When students have to consider an audience of their peers, they become more motivated to speak to that audience and their writing becomes more meaningful. Over time, as students share, they also build a sense of community that could not be accomplished if the only time they ever shared their work was in class.

Choice. True blogging prioritizes the writer and the choices that the writer makes about all aspects of her writing. In a more open-ended blogging approach, students choose the topics that they write about, but even if blogging is more structured (for example, blogging as response to a teacher-prompt), the very nature of writing allows students greater freedom to show their thinking than any multiple choice question ever could. 

Below are more screenshots of my students’ blog posts. Notice the rich variety of topics.

Thinking Like a Writer. When students blog regularly—and are given choice over what they write—they find themselves in a continuous state of pre-writing. Rather than wait for a teacher-directed prompt as in a traditional writing classroom, students can be overheard asking each other, “What are you going to write about this week?” In other words, students engage in the thinking that real writers do. Writers in the real world are always asking each other the question, “What are you working on?” Students learn to grapple with this question as they blog.

Fluency. In order for students to become better writers, they must write. And write a lot. Volume matters. Blogging allows students the opportunity to become prolific writers. The more students write, the more comfortable they become as their processes evolve.

Voice. Because blogging feels less formal than a traditional essay, students are more willing to experiment with and find their voices. Blogging feels personal, and thus, the person behind the writing shines through in ways that paper keeps hidden.

Digital Literacy. Today, we know that sharing information and ideas happens more often in digital platforms than print. Students not only need to be able to navigate that world as critical readers, but to also contribute to that world with thoughtful reflections and well-reasoned arguments. When students blog, they learn how to use hyperlinks and visual media to support their ideas. They learn how to use categories and tags to help their readers find their work more easily. And when students practice commenting on each other’s blog posts, they also learn how to engage in civil and thoughtful discourse in an online environment. Our students today could be engaged citizens or thoughtless trolls (and everything in between). I think we all know which would be better for the future of civic discourse.

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Two of the comments from a student’s blog post on the ghost pepper sitting in his fridge. Notice how one student responds as a reader with a personal connection, while another student responds with another link to some scientific information he thinks the writer might find useful.

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Without any prompting from me, students use blogging as a way to explore the very act of blogging itself, as this student acknowledges the power (and danger) of a clickbait title and lede.

THE NITTY GRITTY

If you haven’t tried blogging with your students, the good news is that it’s never too late to start. There are many forms of classroom blogging out there, but here’s how I’ve generally set up blogging with my students:

Scaffolding. I think of blogging as a digital version of the writer’s notebook. My students continue to write in their writer’s notebooks even after we begin blogging during the second semester. Notice, I don’t begin blogging until the second semester because I’ve found that moving our writing community online is more successful if I’ve already built a writing community in our classroom. Once we begin blogging, I continue to give students quickwrite opportunities in class. For example, when we started blogging, I had students read this blog post from the blog, Modern Mrs. Darcy. In particular, I ask students to respond to the following prompt in the post:

Most of us know what’s killing us, and can articulate it, if asked. Some of us are overwhelmed with hurry and worry; some of us face crushing poverty; some feel utterly paralyzed.

But few of us stop to note what’s giving us life. Taylor says it’s too good a question to not revisit every once in a while: what are the things—big or small—that are saving us?

Students can then use this writing as a possible topic for a blog post that week. In addition, we discuss the anatomy of the blog post—it becomes a mentor text for us to review as students start their own blogging journeys. In the past, depending on how much familiarity students have with blogs (and understanding the distinction between blog posts, news articles, or other types of online essays), I also have students look at the work of several blogs to determine what makes this particular form unique.

Platform. When I first started blogging, I used Ning.com, which I found to be an extremely user-friendly platform for a shared blog (one with multiple authors/contributors). Unfortunately, Ning became a paid service several years ago, and since then I’ve switched to WordPress.com. WordPress is what I used for my own personal blogging, and it’s what this Moving Writers blog also uses. Set-up can be a little tricky at first, but with some Googling and tinkering, I’ve been happy with the results. Below you can see a screenshot of what my current students’ blog site looks like:

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How-To. I used to spend a day or two in class walking students through the process of signing up for the blog and doing a lot of direct instruction on the set-up. For the last few years, however, I’ve instead directed students to a playlist of “how-to” videos (screencasts) I made for WordPress. I’ve found that if I give students a week and point them to the direction of the tutorials, 95% of students can set up their accounts successfully.

Privacy. My students’ blogs are not open to the public. Instead, I set all students as authors to the same blog so that they may read each others’ work as long as they are signed in. I have two classes of AP Lang students who blog regularly, and instead of setting up two separate blog sites, I put all students from each section on the same site. This way, my period 4 students can read and comment on blogs from period 8, and vice versa.

What do they write about? I allow my AP Lang students as much choice as possible, so I let them choose their topics for their blog posts. Again, I’ve found that this helps students do the work of real writers and take greater responsibility over their own writing and learning.

How often? How much? When I first started blogging, I had my students blog twice per week. If that sounds like a lot, it was! I don’t know how I kept up with all of it, and looking back, I’m surprised my students didn’t revolt. Today, I ask students to blog once/week. I ask my 4th period students to post by every Monday and my 8th period students to post by every Friday. Each week, students must:

  • Write a minimum of 350 words, multiple paragraphs, on any topic of their choice
  • Include at least one image
  • Include at least one hyperlink
  • Comment on at least three other classmates’ blog posts

Assessment. I check our class blog every day and comment here and there. I often “like” students posts more often than I comment, though I try to comment at least once per student every other cycle. In my comments, as in theirs, I try to respond as a reader rather than as a teacher, though when students do something particularly well, I don’t hesitate to compliment them on it. I try to check each week to make sure that students are doing the assignment—students receive a completion grade as long as they complete the requirements—and then also do a more holistic evaluation at the end of the month as I get a sense of their writing over multiple posts. I use (and review with students) Will Richardson’s blogging continuum from Blogs, Wikis, and Podcasts to help me evaluate student work. I encourage students to strive for the 5-8 range.

  1. Posting assignments (not blogging)
  2. Journaling, i.e. “This is what I did today.” (not blogging)
  3. Posting links (not blogging)
  4. Links with descriptive annotation, i.e. “This site is about…” (not really blogging either, but getting close depending on the depth of the description)
  5. Links with analysis that gets into the meaning of the content being linked (a simple form of blogging)
  6. Reflective, metacognitive writing on practice without links (complex writing, but simple blogging)
  7. Links with analysis and synthesis that articulate a deeper understanding or relationship to the content being linked and written with potential audience in mind (real blogging)
  8. Extended analysis and synthesis over a longer period of time that builds on previous posts, links, and comments (complex blogging)

All that said, for me, the most valuable part of blogging is that students are writing authentically and purposefully. If they are engaged in their work, then the grade often takes care of itself. In fact, last year, I developed a blogging self-assessment rubric that allowed students to reflect on their work and give themselves a grade for their efforts as well as the quality of the writing they’ve produced. Often, it is this reflection part of the process that is a better assessment for students than any number I could assign.

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EXTENSIONS, ALTERNATIVES, AND TIPS

  • Digital Anthology. In my AP Lang class, my students used to create a research anthology on a topic of their choice. The earliest iterations of this anthology were standard binders—binders filled with students’ research, summaries, annotated bibliographies, etc. To save paper, a few years later, I began asking students to simply send me the PDF of their anthologies. Now that they are versed in WordPress, however, students now set up their own WordPress site and create a digital anthology of their research.
  • Structured Option. While I give my older students a lot more freedom in their topic choices, whenever I’ve had my 9th grade students blog, it has always been in response to literature. I don’t necessarily give them a prompt, but I do ask them to consider the previous night’s reading to keep their blog posts a bit more focused.
  • Curriculum Connections. While my older students can choose 95% of their blog post topics, I reserve a small number of blog posts to support the work we are doing in class. For example, as students dive deeper into their research for their expert projects for third and fourth marking periods, I ask students to blog about an article they read, an interesting idea they’ve encountered, or the origin of their research topic. By the time students sit down to get to work on their actual research paper, they’ve already written at least 1,000 words on their topic.
  • College essays. I don’t do any formal “college essay” writing unit with my students. Too often, I’ve found that when I do such a unit that students’ writing falls flat under the pressure of College Essay Expectations. What many of my former students do, however, is go back through their blog posts—over a semester of blogging, many students find that they’ve already written some version of their college essay somewhere among those posts.
  • Weekly blog challenges. While freedom of choice is appealing to many students, others need more direction. No matter how much my students have been writing—and daily in their writer’s notebooks—it’s not uncommon to hear a student say, “I don’t know what to write about anymore.” Whenever students say they don’t know what to write about, I always redirect them to mine their notebooks. That said, I also provide students with optional “Weekly Blog Challenges.” In the past, these blog challenges have been things like, “Watch a TED Talk and tell us about it” or “Tell us about the best thing you’ve read recently,” or even “Take this Buzzfeed quiz and analyze your results.”
  • Student mentor texts. Our school district recently began using Schoology as its LMS. As such, when I see a blog post that I think deserves a little extra attention, I can send out a quick Facebook-like update to the class with a link to the blog post. This, in turn, drives traffic to that blog post and highlights a student’s writing as a potential mentor text.
  • NAPs. I created the idea of NAPs last year. NAP is an acronym for Notice and Appreciate. I create a simple Google or Office form online where students nominate a blog post that they found particularly well done. It’s a way of saying, “I noticed and appreciate X’s blog post because it….” I then compile all the NAPs and publish them together as a blog post. It’s a way of sending a “shout-out” to their fellow writers and again, builds community.
  • An even wider audience. Although I’ve never done it myself, the Two Writing Teachers site holds a Classroom Slice of Life Challenge each March. This would be a great opportunity to get students to reach an audience beyond their own school and classmates!

Whew! That was a lot. If you’ve blogged with your students, do you have any tips or suggestions? Or if you haven’t, why not start now? What questions do you have? Please post in the comments or message me at tricia.ebarvia@gmail.com. And happy blogging!

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