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!

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