Using Blogging to Grow Independent Writers (or: How to Kick Your Little Birds Out of the Nest)

Copy of wilson james

It’s second semester and my AP Seminar kids are knee-deep in their official Performance Tasks. For those unfamiliar with the AP Capstone program, that means my kids are doing giant, independent research projects and I am required to take a very “hands off” approach.  I can give general instructions to the whole class, and I can ask lots of questions, but I can’t give specific feedback on drafts or tell kids what to change or add or delete. At times (read: All the time)  it can be a little (read: A LOT) frustrating. My students have so many questions and sometimes I just want to tell them what to do.  

Though it nearly broke me last year, this year I’ve come around to this idea of independence. Teaching this course has forced me to rethink how and when I give feedback.  It’s made me consider how I prepare my students to be ready for all this independence– how I can relinquish control and kick my little birds out of the nest.

I can’t just cross my fingers and hope for the best; I need to help them build habits of good writers and researchers. How do you craft quality research questions? How can you give useful feedback to one another? How do you look critically at your own work? How do you use your own reflection to push your writing forward?

There are tons of great resources on this very blog for helping with all of those steps–the practicing and skill building steps.  This one from Rebekah gave ideas for different ways to approach writing conferences. This one has awesome suggestions for how to help students begin to be more independent and ask better questions during conferences. But that final step–the pushing them out of the nest step–that’s always just been the last day of school for me.  Until this class, I’d never considered what it might look like to step back completely and let them take charge. 

This year, I introduced reflective blogging with my students to slowly release control. They write, everyone reads, and everyone comments. Here’s how it’s made them more independent:

Instead of me answering questions, my students write through their confusion.

The practice of reflection has driven much of our work this year, and I’ve found that when I build in opportunities and time for students to reflect on their writing–to write about their writing–they move much more quickly and confidently toward the independence that they need to be successful in this course. Though few classes have these strict teacher-hands-off requirements, I think many students could benefit from a gradual release into independence.

Last week, my students posted blog entries where they grappled with their research questions.  Many had questions about their questions and long, rambling justifications about those questions. As they wrote, some discovered they were going in the wrong direction. Others hit on just the right phrasing through that writing process. All of this thinking could have happened in peer to peer verbal conferences, and it could have happened in their writers’ notebooks, but the act of publishing their thinking gave it more weight. They were forcing themselves to articulate their thinking and putting that thinking on display for one another.  

This week, they’ve begun their research and I asked them to post entries about where they are in the research process and what is challenging them.

I’ve included some opening paragraphs to give an idea of how they’re sharing their confusions:


 This student dug into her research and realized she had to start over.



This student kept his research question but discovered he was going in the wrong direction.




This student uses his blog to take his readers on a rambling walk through his research process. I love it. He shares every ah-ha moment.



All these realizations could have happened during writing conferences with me (and, honestly, the process may have been a little less stressful for some of them), but there’s something very empowering about figuring something out on your own. They’ll walk out of this experience knowing that this is something they can do on their own, in the wild.

Instead of waiting for my judgement, they look to one another.

Though I do comment on all the blogs, my comments are largely motivational in nature. I need to be careful to not overstep the bounds of the AP performance task. My students, however, have learned to fill that void.  First semester I gave all kinds of specific feedback on their blogs; now they’re doing it for each other.

A student commenting on the North Korea blog sampled above:

I like how you’re looking specifically at the different actions American presidents have taken in regards to this issue. But you should also try to look at it from the North Korean viewpoint, and see what the effect of the action is on both the U.S. and North Korea.

A student commenting on the long, rambling post:

Gosh your blogs are so funny! Where you’re going with cameras and documentation is really neat and intriguing. Keep digging, but i recommend maybe staying within a certain time period. Keeping cameras in the mix but also not reaching too far into history pre cameras. A lot happened before 1839, and you could get lost in history real quick.

I’d be lying if I said class still isn’t a daily struggle for me. I read things in their blogs and sometimes my fingers are itching to type “Have you thought about….” but I stop myself.  My role in the room has shifted. I pose questions for blog entries. I encourage students to read each others’ work and remind them to give feedback. But the time for draft conferences and idea generating is done.  This is their writing, and their process.  They’re ready to use the skills we’ve practiced together and see what they can come up with on their own.


How do you encourage independence with your writers? Or, how are you using blogging with your students? I’d love to connect and share ideas! Comment below or connect with me on Twitter @TeacherHattie




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