I’m spending the next few posts sharing how I’m using Genius Hour to help kids follow their passions to deeper research, learning, and, of course, writing! You can see past posts here:
Beyond conferring with students, blogging is the only formal accountability system I am using in Genius Hour. I could have students log how they are spending Genius Hour work time each week … but then they’d be logging, not learning.
I ask students to spend two hours per week working on their project. This can mean many things: watching something, reading something, listening to something, taking a course on Skillshare, making something, trying something, researching something. It’s intentionally loose and open to interpretation. After all, an essential skill students are learning through this project is project management itself!
To help them think through the challenging question of what’s next?, I offer some guiding questions each week:
- What did you do last week that you could build on this week? What’s the next logical step in your project?
- What do you need to look into that you haven’t looked into yet?
- What question do you have that needs answering? What question might someone else have about your topic that you could answer?
- What have you learned that you need to put into action?
- Where has your work gotten stale? What research avenue is still unpursued? How could you pursue it this week?
To document this weekly work, students compose a blog post that should represent around 30 minutes of active writing work. (My students have been doing independent writing for homework for a year now, so they know what 30 minutes of writing work should look like. And I know what it looks like for each of them.) Does that sound like a frighteningly loose requirement, too? Well, it kind of is. On purpose.
I want my students to research, learn, and reflect rather than jumping through hoops. So, there’s no need for me to play “gotcha” with the blog posts — counting paragraphs or sentences. If it feels like students have done a solid amount of reflection, I leave it at that. (If they haven’t, I make a note on their rubric for the week and have a quick conference on our next Genius Hour work day — always Thursdays in my room.)
We made our blogs on Weebly because they are free, pretty, and the drag-and-drop features are relatively easy to use. It’s not as slick as some blogging platforms, it sometimes glitches, and you can’t embed videos which is a bummer. However, it works for now. (I might investigate Google Sites next year?)
One thing I love about Weebly, though, is that it’s real. It’s not a just-for-school platform. It’s a platform real, adult writers might choose. And this is why I chose blogging in the first place — it’s authentic. It gives writers a public platform and a real audience to write for. And while not all of my students might grow up to become professional writers, they could all potentially grow up to write a blog!
I kept the blog setup to a minimum; students need only have two things: a blog page and a Works Cited page. Their Works Cited pages are more than just resources directly referenced in the blog — it’s a list of everything they have consumed in the process of their research. This is how they show that they are researching new things each week and adding to their knowledge base.
(And to be completely honest, I didn’t really “teach” how to make MLA citations. Why would I? I linked to examples of Works Cited pages for formatting, and an online citation machine. In 2019, this is as hard as we need to make it.)
In the interest of full disclosure, one particular frustration for me in this project has been my school’s fear of Kids on the Internet. (Cue rousing speech by me about how this is our opportunity to teach students to be safe on the internet!)
Since I teach middle school students, privacy concerns are somewhat higher than for the high schoolers I used to teach. My administration wanted these blogs to go private; I wanted them to be completely public. We compromised: blogs are public but hidden from search engines (using a simple toggle-button option in Weebly). This solution definitely doesn’t match my ideal (but in my ideal, students would also be marketing their blog via social media); however, we do what we can, right?
Ideas for Blogging
But what do they actually write, you ask? Well, I don’t think I could make it if each student only wrote a diary entry of what they did each week. Blah. If the purpose of blogging is to have an authentic audience, then students need to be writing with audience awareness in mind. (In fact, you’ll see later that audience awareness is a quality I am looking for on our rubric!)
To help, I made a hyperlinked document of blog post formats and links to mentor texts:
If you click on the link to the whole document above, you’ll notice that it’s unfinished. I just keep adding as I come across new ideas for posts in Twitter and in my own online reading. You’ll also notice that I’m not giving students ideas for content — I’m giving them forms to pour that content into!
Assessing Student Blogs
As of this writing, I am two weeks behind in grading blog posts. It’s a lot. And it’s also totally worth it.
This year, when my grading pile has been manageable, I’ve given a grade for each post. And when it hasn’t (like the last two weeks), I’ve bundled grades — giving one grade for posts #4 and #5, for example. Next year, I might try a different assessment strategy, giving students a “completion grade” for having a post each week, but only digging into a few for larger writing grades.
If I have to put a grade on something, I am a big fan of the single-point rubric. Here’s my rubric for individual blog posts:
And here’s the rubric I’m using to put a grade on their Works Cited pages twice this semester:
I’m not in love with either rubric (will I ever be in love with a rubric???), but they work.
Still, the very best Genius Hour assessment tool I have at my disposal is conferring — weekly, intentional conversations with kids about what’s going well, what’s not, what they are learning, where they need to push themselves. This is how I know they are doing something each week. This is how I know whether or not they are successful.
If I’m going to take time to grade a piece of formal writing each week, though, I need that assessment to really work for me. Next time, I’ll show you how I use these posts as an opportunity for individualized grammar instruction and practice!
How is this writing workshop?
- Kids are still in control — they have choice each week over what they do, what they research, and how they write about it.
- Each week is a mini-writing-study as students look at mentor texts, get guidance and inspiration, and create their own pieces of writing.
- Students have in-class time for this work — they might spend it on research or writing!
- Students are conferring with me about their writing in weekly Genius Hour check-ins.