5 Things Your Students Can Learn From Blogging

5 Things Your Students Can Learn From Blogging

This year, my AP Literature students had the opportunity to participate in a poetry blog share with students from other AP Lit classes across the country (shout out #aplitchat squad!). I liked the idea of this writing opportunity from the get go for several reasons—students would have an authentic audience, sharpen their critical reading skills, have the opportunity to see how other students develop insights about complex texts, give and receive feedback, and have a long-term, self-directed writing opportunity.

But what appealed to me the most? The chance to turn my kids loose to write in the wild. Recently, Hattie wrote about growing independent writers through blogging and Tricia put her finger on the many ways blogging is both powerful and useful. And this week my friend Brian wrote about the ins and outs of his blogging unit.

To tailor to my students’ needs, my poetry blog requirements have remained simple and flexible: Student blog posts must analyze a self-selected contemporary poem. Easy enough, right? Right. But there’s a ‘but.’

Our quest this year has been to narrate our ideas, insights, and conclusions about literature in our own unique and authentic voices—aiming always towards engaging, effective, sophisticated, and intentional writing that is conversational (but not a conversation), and offer readers not just proof of reading, but a depth of analysis that is interesting and thought provoking.

It’s a tall order, I realize. But that’s why student blogs are awesome. It gives students a chance to practice writing in a virtually fail free zone, and they learn important lessons not just about reading and writing, but themselves as writers and what it takes to craft engaging, effective writing. But the freedom of blogging is what makes this type of self-evaluation and practice possible.

My students have embraced this, too. I love the message of Ashton’s headline.

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Here are 5 things your students can learn from blogging. (I know, because I’ve learned them, too.)

  1. Voice and style 1

Think of blogging as the anti in-class essay.

Of course, you can focus student blogs on any topic, theme, or style to meet any academic purpose, but for me, blogging frees my students from the constraints of what they believe assigned essays should sound like.

For starters, there’s no official rubric or handbook, the style is incredibly familiar, and the pressure of page length is off. Because blogs offer students creative control of layout and themes, it’s this same ownership that encourages not just a unique layout but a considered style and voice in their writing.

My students are discovering over time that who you are on paper is who you are, so they strive to show how interesting and intelligent they are with the voice and style of their writing.

 

  1. Mentor text habits of mind2

It will come as no surprise to you that every author I’ve heard speak this year has this one thing in common: all of them read. They have influences and mentors and other writers they aspire to.

The beauty of mentor texts is they’re all around. In our blogging project, students have taken cues from mentor texts we’ve studied in class, but just as importantly, they’ve paid attention to the writing of others, both professional and non. They’ve assessed what works, what doesn’t work, and what makes for an interesting and engaging post. And blogging provides them a safe space to play with different craft moves they might not try in class.

This risk-taking and awareness is difficult to teach. So the prize goes to blogging.

 

  1. Quality control3

Last month as I was drafting a post for WVCTE, I knew I was writing something that I was going to be proud of. Conversely, I’ve written plenty of posts where I’ve left it and let myself feel quite the opposite — sometimes a tinge of disappointment or even a cringe. My students are learning this, too.

Because of our blogging project requires students to comment on one another’s posts, my kids are learning what kinds of topics, format, analysis, and style elicits comments from their readers. My students are learning that depth of thought, voice, and authenticity win over their readers far more often than fancy formats or photos.

I hope my students are discovering the awesome balance of professional and personal in their writing. That yes, they write for their audience, for me, for the grade and the assignment, but that their work and their writing is far more satisfying when it’s writing they can be proud of.

 

  1. Audience awareness4

Speaking of readers, how great is it that blogging offers students an opportunity to be published writers? My students have shared their posts on social media, tweeted them at the poets who penned the poem they analyzed, and even extended their blogging into personal topics, as well.

What I like most about giving students a real, living, and available audience (who isn’t me) is the intrinsic drive to craft quality writing.

 

  1. Writing on a deadline5

Students are used to copious due dates and deadlines in their academic lives. Teachers, of course, live by deadlines as well, the bells signaling us constant reminders of what we need to do and when. But writing on a deadline? That’s its own animal.

I realize I’m going to contradict myself with Quality Control, but sometimes, you just have to crank out the words and get the job done. This is a fitting lesson for my seniors who are so close to crossing the threshold into demanding college majors.

I’ll thank blogging once again for reminding my students of the grit it takes to meet your deadlines and get the job done the best way you can.

 

Are your students blogging? I’d love to have you tell me more about it! 

Leave a comment below, find me on Twitter @karlahilliard, or connect with us on Facebook!
-Karla

 

 

 

 

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What Article of the Week is Adding to My Writing Instruction

Article of the Week

Kelly Gallagher is well-known for a lot of reasons in our English teacher world.

Killer writing activities.

“Readicide”.

Clark Kent vibe.

(Allison and I once stalked him around a breakfast at NCTE. Remind me to tell you that story sometime.)

But I would argue that the thing most frequently associated with Kelly Gallagher is the Article of the Week. So much so that it has become a beloved institution. Google it and see how many versions of it live in classrooms and schools and whole districts all over the world. It’s stunning.

And yet, until six weeks ago, I had never tried it with my own students.

I’m still figuring out this middle school thing (truth: I’ll be figuring it out for awhile to come), and with the sudden realization that my students needed more nonfiction reading experiences before high school, I added the Article of the Week when we returned from winter break.

Article of the Week is a part of reading instruction, right? Students are reading an article, turning it over in their head, annotating it, and then crafting their own response. But I am a sucker for an instructional practice that does double-duty. So while my students are working on comprehension, Notice & Note signposts, and interacting with a text as a reader, I am also using Article of the Week to boost writing instruction in four ways:

Continue reading

Permission to Play

The other night, my four year old broke my heart. “Why don’t you ever play with us?” he asked.

“What do you mean? I play with you all the time!” I responded, obviously feeling defensive from the sting of his question. My kids are the loves of my life. I try to spend as much time with them as is humanly possible for a mom who’s also a teacher.

“No,” he pushed back. “You are always makin’ dinner or doin’ somethin’ else.”

I paused and, in my head, did a quick inventory of what I’d done during the time we’d spent together recently:

  • prepare meals
  • empty and reload dishwasher
  • pick up mess
  • schlep the kids to the store to pick out a birthday present for their cousin
  • read stories

He was right. I was with them, but I was so busy with the day-to-day work of being a parent that I wasn’t doing what they really needed: spending time with them doing what they were doing.   

This struggle reminds me of one I’ve noticed in the classroom, too.

My students regularly keep track of how they spend their workshop time, but aside from conference notes and formative data, I hadn’t really been keeping track of how I’d been spending my own time, so I challenged myself to start. In a week, my inventory for how I spent my workshop time included:

  • Conferences – lots of them
  • Get kids caught up after absences
  • Pull small groups for guided instruction and re-teaching
  • Answer emails
  • Read over a mentor text I plan to use the next day
  • Pretty up an anchor chart
  • Enter notes on goals into the online gradebook

I’m sure that inventory looks familiar to you. But there’s a big, gaping hole there. My students were hard at work writing. Why wasn’t I? I see myself as a writer, but I wasn’t actually spending my time that way. Sure, I was busy. We’re teachers. OF COURSE we’re busy. But I worry that sometimes I get so wrapped up in the work of being busy that I neglect what’s really important: playtime.   Continue reading

Independent Writing — a Mid-Year Update

Happy EnglishLanguage Day to thee!You might remember that this fall, on a whim, I jumped into a year long independent writing routine with my students. I did it because I know that students needed more time to pursue their own writing interests, because I know it will build students’ writing muscles, because I know some of my own teacher heroes do it.

But I didn’t quite know how I would manage it. Or what the outcomes would be.

We’ve been doing this for months now — long enough to both form habits and fall into slumps. Here’s where we are mid-year:

What’s Working

  • Routine

    I wanted a routine, and we’ve got one! That routine is probably a little stronger for some students than for others, but students are now used to the regular assignment of working  on independent writing for 20 minutes at home, 5 nights per week.  Image-1 (2).pngThey come into class each day and record their nightly writing on the wall o’ charts (pictured in my first post on this topic).

    Building In Time For Other Writing

An unexpected fringe benefit has been that students now have built-in time to work on the extracurricular writing that might come up in their lives. My 8th graders are applying to high schools, and high school essay writing abounds. Many students participate in Model UN, and they use some of this time to work on position papers.

Initially, I paused at this “double-dipping”. While not for a particular class, should they be allowed to use independent writing time for other official kinds of writing they need to do? Is that really the spirit of the assignment?

I think YES! Students are spending outside-of-class time building writing skills. That’s what I am aiming for. And so, whether that’s planning for an application essay or preparing for a Model UN debate, they are writing. And the writing is the thing.

Building in the time for independent writing, however they use it, validates that our lives are filled with all kinds of writing tasks everyday. And hopefully, it becomes a writing habit that sticks.

  • Polishing Independent Writing in Workshop

The biggest highlight of our independent writing journeys has been students’ eagerness to polish and perfect some of their own work through a workshop study. In fact, it has worked so well that I’ve begun to wonder if every writing study should be independent. Because it always feels like the more freedom I give students, the deeper their focus, the more authentic their process, the more engaged their effort. When we limit their choices at all — even limiting it to a certain genre — we seem to limit some of that natural buy-in and ownership. (I haven’t answered this question yet or figured out what that might look like in my classroom. But I keep thinking about it.)

Students have written graphic novels and pieces of sports analysis and a commentary about the failings of a new video game and mini-novels-in-verse and album reviews and short stories and fan fiction. All the things. And they have been more loved than any other writing we’ve done in writing workshop this year.

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  • Fake Writing

For all that love and passion, there is still fake writing happening. I know it. I don’t know exactly who (though I have my guesses) and I don’t know how much, but I am certain that every piece of writing recorded on our independent writing sheets isn’t real. Just like I know that every student who shows me that she has met her reading goal for the week probably hasn’t. That’s part and parcel of teaching my students, trusting them to do the real stuff of reading and writing (which is always the hard stuff), and building levels of independence that will live on past my class.

So, sure, there is probably some fake writing happening. I don’t know how to change that. I’m not sure there is a way to change that. I’m trying to make the right kind of peace with it.

  • Conferring about Nightly Writing

In my head when I started this thing, I envisioned regularly dipping in to confer with students not just about our whole-class unit of writing study but also their independent writing? I’d ask open-ended questions like, “Tell me what you’ve been working on recently? How is it going?” and I’d offer sage wisdom beginning with, “You know, a lot of times when writers are doing this kind of work, they try …”

Truth: I haven’t conferred with a single writer on nightly writing.

have conferred with them when they choose a piece to take to publication in a workshop but not on regular, ordinary nightly writing. I want it to happen — I think it would build in meaningful accountability while also helping students continue to move their writing forward. I just don’t know when it would happen. This is a problem to figure out.

Image-1 (1)What I’m Tweaking

  • Breaking Writing Slumps

If I were conferring with my writers regularly about the things they are working on after-hours, I would probably be able to help them out of their writing slumps. While some students have certainly found momentum in longterm projects during independent writing, many others have fallen into a monotonous slump.

I have tried to remedy this by reminding students all the different kinds of writing activities they could do during this time. Not just writing in sentences, but also brainstorming, writing off the page, annotating a mentor text, outlining a piece of writing, revising past writing, extending notebook time.

Intentionally and regularly introducing writers to different kinds of writing would also help if I remembered to do it. This semester, I have introduced Kelly Gallagher’s Article of the Week. I need to talk with students about how writers could do this kind of writing on their own.

  • Moving More Writing Into Workshop

Like I said, the thing that is going best is asking students to take something from their nightly writing and developing it into a “best draft”. So, I need to do more of this. In fact, I’m thinking that we might need to do MOSTLY this, and punctuate these free-choice writing studies with whole-class genre studies (instead of the other way around). I would love for students to be able to write three more pieces like this before the end of the year.

  • Periodic Nightly Writing Portfolios

To build in accountability and reflection, I am asking students to turn in a portfolio of nightly writing every so often. (Depending on how it goes, I’m thinking this might be a regular staple of independent writing).

Here’s what I’m asking students to do:

  • Choose 10 pieces of nightly writing (or writing that represents 10 different nights of writing work).
  • Move these into a new Google Folder called “Nightly Writing Portfolio”. (If the work happened on paper — in your notebook or on a mentor text — take a picture of that artifact and then put that picture in the Google folder.)
  • Add a document to the folder called “Nightly Writing Portfolio Reflection”.  In this document, explain why you chose each item for the portfolio, what is shows about you as a writer, and where you want these pieces to go next (Extend the work? Combine it with other writing? Abandon?)

I think these portfolios might help less-enthusiastic students take the work more seriously and also let students who ARE enthusiastic about their nightly writing feel like they are really doing something with all of it. We could share these in small groups to share ideas.

Okay — do you have ideas for me? How do you manage independent writing in YOUR classroom? What questions do you have about my classroom? Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter (@RebekahODell1), or on Facebook

Managing Independent Writing

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I love a giant leap. A big swing.

I want to tell you that I carefully research, weigh, and plan each and every instructional decision that rolls forth from my desk. But I don’t.

More often than not, I don’t think all that much.  I come up with a wild “What if?”, jump, and see what happens. This is how “What If I Just Threw Away Everything I’ve Ever Done With Writing Before and Do This Writing Workshop Thing?” and “What If I Stopped Grading Individual Assignments?” were born.

(Note that these are particularly successful examples of this principle. These experiments are not always so successful. See: What If I Taught Pride & Prejudice To These Seniors? and What If My Students Wrote Letter Essays? and What If My Students Used Voxer for Book Clubs Across Classes? and What If I Wrote an Entire Chapter Comparing Literary Analysis to Both Pizza and Broccoli?)

This school year, in my brand new middle school classroom, there have been a lot of these giant leap moments as I feel my way through the days and weeks. I blame the biggest one on Colleen Cruz and Nancie Atwell. Last year, I read Colleen Cruz’s Independent Writing, and it completely knocked my socks off. (I very awkwardly and inarticulately told her so at a cocktail party. I hope she doesn’t remember.) This book reminded me that if students should be choosing anything they wish to read, they also need opportunities to choose anything they wish to write. As in, completely free choice writing. But, of course, not pages of random “free writes”. Rather the ultimate choice in writing workshops that are meticulously planned as the best genre study.

Of course, In the Middle has been on my bookshelf since college — the very first professional text I owned.  And Nancie Atwell is the best teacher in the world. So, when she assigns 20 minutes of outside-of-class writing to her students each night, who am I to argue?

And thus I made a giant leap, a big swing, and told my students that this year they would write independently for 20 minutes outside of class each day on completely free choice, independent writing.

They balked. I spent a week trying to generate good PR with parents and students about my writing plans. We generated lists and lists of 20-minutes-of-writing ideas. (Here you go: 20 Minutes of Writing- Ideas)

And then I panicked, wondering, “How in the world will I manage all of this writing?” Because beyond the simple and beautiful act of regular writing, there were some other things I needed:

  • I needed to teach the rest of my curriculum. Although throwing out everything and doing only independent writing all year is a little bit appealing, it’s just not realistic. (Yet.)
  • I wanted my students to share what they were writing — as publication, as community-building, as a source of ideas and inspiration for one another.
  • I hoped for positive peer pressure to keep writers on track and truly writing (rather than fake writing).
  • And if I was going to walk out on this limb, I knew I needed to do something with this writing. More specifically, parents wanted to know how I would assess it. So I needed a plan.

One day, after a lot of thinking and even more texting with Allison, I devised a plan:

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I went full A Beautiful Mind -meets –Tricia Ebarvia and wallpapered a white board with charts where students record their nightly writing work. This has helped accomplish a few things for me:

  • Students feel they are being held accountable — whether or not I’m carefully scrutinizing each entry (I’m not), students feel like they are “doing something” with their writing immediately. That is, recording it. Each week, students earn five points per night for writing. This adds ups to a nice little homework grade. If you miss one night, you lose 5 points. It’s very concrete, it takes me about 10 minutes tops, and both parents and students easily understand the “assessment”. (Students will soon use and develop this writing. But more on this later.)

Let me hasten to add that in order for this to work, I had to quickly let go of the same chest-tightening need-for-control that has so often threatened to consume their independent reading. Some kids will fake this. Even with a vigorous honor code, some students will lie. A handful will find clever work-arounds and loop-holes and fail to honor the spirit of the assignment. Just like they do with independent reading. To do what is right for all students, I have to be okay with knowing that I will not be able to micromanage every student.  We need to take a deep breath — it will be alright.

  • The charts let me do a quick check to assess student progress & make plans — Casually glancing at the charts last week told me that I probably need to chat with Mary (who has been writing a “log of my day” every day for the last three weeks) and Caden (who has missed at least two nights of writing each week). They could probably use some topic-brainstorming help or strategies for squeezing in time for writing.  It also told me that most of my students are writing fiction — short stories, novels, even a graphic novel — so, I did a quick mini-lesson on other genres (argument! persuasion!) to help them branch out if they are ready.  Six students are writing in partnerships! I know a little something about this, and Ways to Write with a Buddy might be great fodder for a mini-lesson down the road!
  • Students love spying on the charts & stealing ideas — Since we have not yet gotten to the point of polishing and publishing any of this work, these charts are as close as we get. But every day, I hear murmurs from the board: “Cool! I want to write about my soccer game!” and “Man! I didn’t know we could write comics” or “Oh yeah, I need to write some thank you notes, too.” Students are sharing ideas and running with the inspiration they take from the charts.

IMG_6229So, What’s Next?

Like Notebook Time, this rhythm of nightly writing would be good for my writers even if they never did another thing with it. The muscles built through regular writing are a worthy end in themselves. I hope that this will make writing such a normal part of each student’s day that they will find themselves a little bit lost without it when school ends. And then they’ll find their writer’s notebook and start again.

I’ve always thought about beginning the school-year with a brief Tour of Writing Genres. This little experiment has almost certainly given me the nudge I need to do it next fall.  But I have noticed that students don’t seem to know how many different kinds of writing are available to them in the world. So, I also intend to use this writing work as a reason to intentionally introduce students to different genres of writing. This can be a great way for students to preview genres we will hit down the road ( Op-ed, perhaps?) or explore genres that we just won’t get to this year (historical fiction or “how to” writing).  I’m planning a regular (every 2 weeks or so?) Genre Spotlight during which I can quickly introduce students to the purpose of a given genre, where it lives in the real world, and a couple of mentor texts to glance at.

But, of course, we are going to use this independent writing for something bigger. At least some of it.

Like Colleen Cruz, I plan to soon launch a whole independent writing study — helping students find their own personalized mentor texts and encouraging them to sign up to teach mini-lessons on techniques at which they are an “expert”. While I am not as brave as Colleen and don’t think I can yet manage whole class writing + whole class reading + independent writing + independent reading simultaneously, I do hope to punctuate our regularly-scheduled writing studies with independent writing studies throughout the year. In fact, I’m thinking this could make a great “exam” when I am forced to give one! (And if you haven’t read Colleen’s amazing book, you have time to read it while I tinker! I’ll update you on how this plays out.)

Do you assign your students nightly writing work? If so, how do you use it? How might you use the ideas shared here? How do your students engage with independent writing? Leave us some ideas (or questions) below, on Facebook, or Twitter @rebekahodell1.