Monday, November 23, 2009

Student Blogging - starting discussions

My lucky middle school students! Even though they are new bloggers this year, they have had the good luck of some early (and timely) traffic to their blogs!

For those of you who may not know, I use Twitter, and every once in awhile I put out a "tweet" asking other educators who follow me to check out my student blogs and give me some feedback (my students also like to see the dots pop up on their ClustrMaps). This has generated a lot of good discussion for me - I have had several teachers contact me to ask questions about my students' blogs, and also make comments and suggestions about them.

Recently, I have had several emails from educators in the U.S. and Australia wondering why there were so few comments on my students' blogs. Excellent question, and one I have been wrangling with for awhile now.

Up until recently, most of my work with the student blogs has been technical in nature - I want the kids to learn how to embed videos, upload pictures, copy code, etc.

After that, I want to give them varieties of applications to know better - that way they can make choices about which kind of application (video, slideshow, animation, mock interview, virtual tour, etc) would be the most effective at getting across their information with the style and voice they are trying to project.

But the teachers giving me feedback are absolutely right, and their questions couldn't be more timely for me AND my students. Time to start commenting!

When I explain the purpose of blogs to my students I use the example of a nice poster with pasted on pictures and information about the Mughal Empire hung up on my bulletin board. I ask them if it looks good - they agree it does. I ask them if they have looked at it closely or read it - they admit they have not. I ask them if they have any comments or questions about it - no, not really. I ask who will see this poster - easy, everyone in this classroom. I ask who will give feedback on the poster - also easy, just me. I ask them what will happen to this poster after the unit is over - they know it will come down and never be seen again - we are done looking at it and any possibilities of talking about it are definitely over. I ask them if they would like to have some kind of discussion if there were any new or interesting information on the poster - they think maybe they would. I ask them how that discussion would take place - not sure.

Then I remind them, that with a blog, the answers to these questions are much much different. They know that from their own experiences with blogs this year. The questions we need to focus on now are the questions about feedback and discussion. Because a good blog can be a conversation starter.

To that end, the students are now beginning to practice commenting. We are starting in what I call a "forced" situation - they are required to comment on two other student blogs each week. Comments must be somewhat substantive and related to the post. They can be observations or questions about the content itself, or the technical aspect of the post. There was a little groaning initially. I feel their pain on that - I really hate taking a class where a requirement is a forced posting on a blog or ning. I don't feel like it's authentic conversation - not at all like when I read a blog that inspires me to comment or join in the discussion. However, we all have to start somewhere. I have a feeling that students will begin to enjoy seeing the comments about their work from their peers.

When they become a little more used to putting it "out there", we'll begin reading other blogs and entering into those conversations. As I said at the beginning of the post, one real piece of luck my students have had is getting an immediate audience, and knowing it. Although the excitement has worn off, that awareness of audience has not - it gives them confidence, and helps them to self-assess their posted work very critically. I think the commenting aspect will take that a few steps further.

What do you think? For those of you who run student blogs, how do you move students from a strictly presentation mode to a more participatory conversation mode?

If you have time, check out the posts and comments on my students' blogs (the links to them are on the right side of my class blog). What do you think? Are they moving in the right direction?
For those of you thinking about beginning student blogs - this is a bridge you will eventually have to cross - some planning ahead would be useful!

Thoughts and ideas about student blogging and commenting are most welcome!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Internet4Classrooms is a wealth of resources

There may have been a few of you who have already happened across this fabulous site. Internet4Classrooms is definitely worth your time to check out! You can choose your grade level, choose your subject area, and even choose your focus of study and you will find a mind boggling amount of great resources.

What makes the resources on Internet4Classrooms great? One - it is easy to narrow down your choices to find what you want. Two - all of the resources listed are usually visual and interactive in nature - you won't just find some web page full of text. There are web quests, explorations, and all kinds of interactive activities for all grade levels to let students really explore a particular strand of content. Their symbols tell you quickly what kind of resource link you're looking at.

Just take a second to go to Internet4Classrooms and see what they've got!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Class Blog or Class Wiki?

For people who are just deciding to get something set up for their classes, a big question seems to be blog or wiki? And of course my answer is - "depends"!

I'll try to give you some points to think about that may narrow your decision making process so that you can get something that will work for you. So, here are some questions to consider...

1. Who is your primary audience for this site? I will say that if your primary audience is parents - my opinion is that a blog is the way to go. They read just like a newsletter, they are easy to navigate, and the posts show in dated order, with the most recent at the top. People can easily navigate back to earlier posts, and the information never goes away, it is just archived. Blogs can host links, pictures, videos, and other embedded programs, and they are very easy to use. You can also have "guest bloggers" (like students) to get a little student voice. Side bars are handy for helpful links and other widgets like polls.

If your primary audience is students, then next question...

2. Will the site be used for news updates for students? If the site will just be used for news updates, like a "scrapbook" showing highlights of student work (articles, student pieces, videos, pictures, etc.) then I still think a blog is probably the way to go - same reasons as for question #1.

If you do not want to run a general student "bulletin board", then next quesion...

Will the site be used for regularly posted class information? Do you just want a place to post the homework assignment? Your lesson plan? One or two important links students will need for an activity? If this is the case, a basic blog will still do the trick. Daily small doses of information in the form of text or links would work nicely in a blog. Students could easily navigate back to previous days, or access assignment or class information when they are absent.

4. Do you want to host a class (or classes) online - posting assignments, project outlines, class calendars, syllabus, links, places to categorize units of study, classes, and student work? Definitely go wiki. Wikis are great in their versatility. They can work like a blog, but work great as a way to categorize and add to a growing body of information for your students. You can give your students access to certain parts of a wiki too if you want - then they can post information as well.

Of course my answers are not the RIGHT answers - many other people have some pretty creative ideas for ways to use these. I would suggest that if you are just beginning with this (and you are a middle or high school teacher) that you pick one class to start with and go through the decision making process I have just outlined. As your comfort level grows, expand your class, or add more classes.

I personally use a combination of blogs and wikis for each of my 6 classes. I use a blog as my "portal". This is a central place that all of my students in all of my classes go. The blog serves as a general newsletter - mostly for students, but parents may enjoy the "lite" news on there as well. I try to get lots of pictures of the kids on there - students and parents like to see that. I use the side bar on that page for links to each of my class wikis (I host a wiki page for each of my 6 classes). I also use the sidebar of the blog to post links to all of the student blog pages. The blog is a central page where all of my students can get to anything they need.

Each of my class wikis is like a growing online "textbook" for that particular course. I have a main introduction page, then a page for the class calendar, and different categories - an assignment page, and different pages for different units of study.

That works for me - I would definitely suggest you use the guiding questions I have posted above to find your starting point and go from there.

You've made the decision - now what?
Two good free and easy blogging platforms I could suggest are Blogger and WordPress. I have used both, although I am more familiar with Blogger (this blog is hosted by Blogger).

I highly recommend Wikispaces for a super-easy wiki. They are simple to set up and very easy and versatile. I have found them to be a very dependable wiki host.