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During the 2008–2009 school year, in an effort to integrate more technology into my classroom I started blogging with my students about history class. Because I was pretty new to blogging and wasn’t sure how it would go, I did one collective site for the 8th grade. Basically, the students wrote and I uploaded it to the blog. As the year went on, I logged in for students and they took over the maintenance of the site. Sometimes the writing was an assignment and I chose the best ones to post. Other times, I offered extra credit if they posted about a topic provided. And still other times I loved what a student wrote and typed it up for the blog. This site ended up being a wonderful compilation of our year come June. I still use it as a preview site for students, parents, and pre-service teachers I work with, as to what we do during the year. The blog can be viewed at http://shmshistoryclass.blogspot.com/.
That same year, an after-school group that is co-sponsored by myself and a friend from the National Park Service took a cross-country trip for Lincoln’s Bicentennial. I created another blog for the students to document their adventures and for friends and family back home to be able to find us. What was nice was that because I had been working with the blog in history class, my students were aware of how a blog works and were familiar with how to write for it and their audience. Each student was required to write three times for the blog during the course of our week-long adventure. Each night after our full day they would write on either paper or share the two laptops we brought for blogging. Before going to bed each night I would upload any remaining blog entries. The system proved effective for sharing our adventures and for students documenting their days. The site has also become a great way for Jen Epstein, my National Park Service co-organizer, to share what she is doing in schools for outreach. View it here: http://stampslincoln.blogspot.com/.
With two school group blogs under my belt, I decided to ramp it up for the 2009–2010 school year. I wanted students to be able to learn how to blog . . . not just post, but learn the process. I set out the planning of it before school started. Basically, I decided to have students choose their groupmates in the class they were in. I have approximately 100 students each year and about 25 per history class. I asked them to be in groups of three or four students.
Once they chose their groups (and we discussed the characteristics of a quality groupmate, both in a group partner and as a group partner—they are 8th grade after all!), I gave them a sheet that asked them to record their group member names, create a name for their blog, and to write a username and a password that they would remember (not one that was already in use by one of the group members!). I created Google accounts for each student using the information provided, noting on their sheet, if a username was taken, the reassigned username.
Generally, I’ve found that it takes about a week for me to set up the 30 or so email accounts and blog sites. I introduce the blog and what it will be about, how it will be used, etc., and then come back to it about a week later once I’ve created the accounts and site. We spend a full double block learning to log in, changing the appearance of the blog, and learning to post. We generally do the first blog post together. We discuss the elements of a quality blog post—what am I looking for? Points I stress are that it is still for class—correct English grammar must be used. For all intents and purposes, I am their audience (so it should remain as formal writing), and the blog is only for history class. I do not want to read about their weekend experiences on this blog.
Usually, after a guest speaker they have a blog update to do. Sometimes they turn in an assignment and then I ask them to cut and paste what they have typed and to post it. Other times I have them work as a group to post a response to something in class.
I find that they’re pretty excited about the blogs and they like to write on them. I’ve learned that a clear rubric is key to success—for the students but for my grading as well. Just as any teacher would do for a writing assignment, it is important to lay out the criteria for the post in advance. Am I grading on content? Spelling? Grammar? Reflection? When grading 30 blogs, it becomes ultra important to be able to know what I’m looking for, especially because their posts can vary so much.
Another important note to consider is deadlines. Because students aren’t turning in a physical paper, it’s easy for them to forget deadlines and to overlook them. I find that it’s important to have a final cut-off date for grading blogs . . . along with a lot of reminders. Many parents are not familiar with blogging and so I find that it is important to be very clear with parents about expectations as well. Last year I ran a parent workshop and walked parents through the what, how, and why of blogging so that they could better support their children at home . . . and because I was getting a lot of questions!
I’m fortunate enough to have a classroom set of laptops and a relatively new and working internet system. However, the number of computers is what has dictated my choices for class blog site vs. small group blog sites. When I started in 2008, I had only two laptops and a desktop, with no permanent and/or regular access to a classroom set of computers.
My recommendation would be to start small—either with a classroom blog or with a select group of students. Simultaneously, I was blogging on a personal blog and it helped for me to play around with my own blog. I found the Google help site for Blogger very helpful when teaching my students. Pages can be printed and copied for students and then put in their notebooks to be referenced. (Editor's note: If you're using a different blogging service, look for that service's support documentation.)
For me, blogs are really flexible—for both time and content. While I’ve used them for the duration of a school year, they would be great for a unit project or a semester project. And for those students who are really savvy, it’s a great way to engage them by having them add other multimedia objects to their blogs and to embed links to related content material.
The ideas truly are endless! The winter break and other school breaks really lend themselves to my own exploration time on the blog. It allows me to see what I could implement with my students and to think about how it might further benefit what I am teaching in the classroom. Just remember to give yourself a head start and don’t be afraid to play around! Blogging can be wonderful for both you and the students!
For more information
Curious to learn more about blogs and blogging? Our Tech for Teachers entry on blogs looks at some possible platforms, and, in a Teaching Guide, high-school teacher Kyle Smith details one way of using a blog in class.