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Reflecting in Action - My First Attempt at Classroom Blogging

As I have been blogging my way through Classroom Blogging, I have, in fact, been trying out my own classroom blog. I was anxious to try it this year in a limited way to discover whether it would be as beneficial as I imagined – because let's be honest, not every teacher can pull off every tool in the classroom. The personality of the teacher, and the school culture, go a long way to excluding certain tools from being effective. However, having blogged on my own before, I was confident that this could be a good fit.

So I looked at some blogging suggestions, and one that was recurring was blogging through a book. At my school, honors classes are expected to have additional out-of-class reading beyond the regular content material. This seemed, therefore, like the ideal project, since it would be extended in duration, but limited in scope. Also, since it was with my honors classes, I would get the best possible response. Rather than compose a book report on their reading, students would blog their way through the book, under my direction.

The Nuts and Bolts of the Class Book Blog

The project began by me teaching students how to log in, set up their blog, and other basics. I chose Kidblog, which as I have mentioned in previous posts on this topic, is structured as a blog-within-a-blog: the class blog is the master blog, and students each have a sub-blog within it. It is password protected, so only students can access the content of the blog. But, to widen readership, I lumped all my honors sections together as one class. Then, having chosen a title and template to suit their tastes, chosen audience, and particular book selection, it was time to blog.

Students read and composed a one-paragraph synopsis for each chapter in the book. Yes, that meant that the writing expectations were not uniform (since not all books are exactly the same length), but they were free to choose the book that most-interested them, so on balance I think that was still fair. I recognize that summary writing is low on the Bloom's taxonomy, but it is also crucial. Also, it furnished me a tool with which to hold the students accountable for the reading. Since I had read, or was familiar, with all of the books students were reading, I was in a position to know if they were reading or not. I cannot promise there was no cheating, but natural consequences being what they are, not reading on the front end greatly lengthens the time it takes to complete later posts.

Scheduling of Blog Assignments

After teaching how to compose a synopsis, students had to read-and-post on their own time. However, I did eliminate most weekend homework for the duration of the project to compensate them for the additional reading and writing expectations. I was not ultra-strict on schedules so long as they met the check-in deadlines every few weeks. This way they could complete the reading anytime. Truthfully, I was a bit hands-off when it came to scheduling. Other than the first week where I was validating that the students were composing adequate synopses, I wasn't that concerned about micro-managing as long as students were completely finished this aspect of their work by the end of the 6-weeks I had set aside for reading their books.

Additionally, each week I introduced a directed blog assignment. I would post the assignment to the class blog, and in cases where a model was useful, I included one. After a few minutes of direct instruction, students were to use the class time to blog. This way I could circle the room and look over students' work as they were composing, rather than try to make constructive comments later. Which, as all teachers know, are less useful and more laborious.

Grading the Writing vs. Having a Conversation

I think this may be one of the more significant aspects a would-be blogging teacher must do: check the writing in class on the spot while it is in process, not on the blog. The purpose of the blog is to facilitate conversation, it is not designed to be a public critique of student writing. I realized pretty early that I should not assign any more blogging than I could oversee in the classroom if I was going to hold them accountable for the compositional aspects of writing. Thus, if the blog was completed outside of class (which, incidentally, was only the synopses) I only graded for content. That doesn't mean overtly sloppy writing is given a free pass, but I addressed those issues individually with the few students who were the big offenders. If we want students to write more, then there has to be some give about what can reasonably and consistently be graded.

The great thing is that by the time we got to the end of the nine weeks I had set aside for the book blog, students had composed the equivalent of a 5-7 page critical book report, with both summary and analysis. If I had assigned such a paper as a paper, it would have been attended with much groaning, and parents would doubtless have thought (perhaps rightly) that it conflicted with an already heavy writing load in English class. But here, the students seemed largely unaware and seemed surprised that they had written as much as they did. That said, I was careful to choose books which I knew to be pretty interesting in themselves, and so I think they viewed the whole experience with less angst than is cutomary on these occasions.

Trouble Spots to Correct for Next Year

On the whole, this project went very well, and most everything went off about how I thought it would. But there were two troublesome points. First, grading. As I mentioned earlier, blogs are supposed to be conversational. I think the most effective form of evaluation I did was to read their posts, and then post my own individualized comments, which were specific to the actual post the student composed. But, assigning a grade to it was more difficult because this meant having to access each and every student's blog individually, and then recording a score somewhere off-book, using a rubric that is highly subjective. It is cumbersome and inefficient. Whereas, I could post comments to a few blogs during a planning period, or during a few quiet classroom moments, or sitting in bed at home. Ultimately, my fix was to suspend grading individual posts, and just comment. I saved one large test-weighted grade which assessed the project comprehensively at the end.

Next year I will give a P/F grade (of some arbitrary point-value) for timely and diligent completion of blog posts. This would be something my TA could do once every two or three weeks, on a rotating basis so that we are not being swamped by 60 blogs at once. Then, I will choose certain other posts to grade formally. Students will not know which ones I will grade, so the incentive always to be writing well will still be there. Otherwise, I want to focus on informal grading: posting meaningful comments which provoke further discussion, and which the student must himself reply to. Here again, I am trying to keep the larger conversational objective in mind.

The other difficulty was that I was not able to get the other students interacting with (commenting on) one-another's blogs. The problem here was simply time. I had backed myself up too close to the end of the school year, and I worried that allowing the blogs (which were on outside reading) to monopolize too much class time would not be responsible. In order to allow for conversation to take place (the kind of conversation blogs can effectively facilitate) there has to be time; time to post, and time for others to read those posts, and then more time commenting and replying to comments. This is time-consuming, though I am convinced that this will be time well-spent. Were I to go back and make one change, I would have begun the blog in January rather than March.

Two Thumbs Up for my Class Book Blog

Taken in sum, my blog went well-enough that I am planning to re-do this activity again, in much the same way (with the two changes I mentioned) for next year. I had briefly considered expanding the role of the blog in my class. But, I am already making some substantive tweaks to my classroom routine for next year, and I will need time to ensure I have the bugs worked out of those before I am convinced that my schedule can bear this additional work (my class is pretty busy already, so I have to be careful I don't overload). Also, our school is mandating some other technology changes related to our LMS which I think will require my attention, so it is probably wise not to make too many changes at once.

Instead, I plan to set up a different blog for a Humanities elective course I am teaching next school year, which I anticipate will be geared for more regular blogging on timely humanities-related topics. But, as I am still thinking the details on that one out, I will have to let you know later how it goes.

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