For a while, I have been struggling with how to teach writing well. Sure, we write every single day almost, sure we blog, we write by hand, and we type. We have authentic purposes and authentic audiences. The kids write, we discuss, we create. And yet, something has been missing and for the longest time I couldn’t put a finger on what it was.
Then I watched this video from Brad Wilson – please stop and watch it right now, it is 6 minutes, and it is so powerful.
Brad is right, “…the containers have hijacked the concept.” I have compartmentalized everything we do in writing rather than just teach the craft of writing. I have created barriers for my students so they think that writing is a completely different thing depending on the purpose. The ideas of writing, the craft has been lost, and students are going through the motion of writing as drones, even if we are blogging, even if we are doing something “fun” with our writing.
We need to get back to the core of story-telling. We need to focus on the journey we are on as writers and celebrate how we develop our stories. We need to see that in all of the writing we do, we are working on becoming better writers, not better bloggers, not better editors, not better persuaders, but writers and that being a great writer is an essential skill to all. Not just those that gravitate toward it. The conversation within English has to change. The language I use has to change. Enough with the self-invented purposes and barriers, back to the core of writing we go.
One of my biggest “crazy ideas” I knew I wanted to try when I switched from the elementary classroom to the middle school was to continue blogging with students. Nowhere else had I seen the same impact of just what empowering my students to find a voice to the world could do for them than student blogging. At first, I didn’t think it would be a crazy idea, just a natural extension of my classroom as always, but then I thought about it a little bit more.
You would think that blogging with students would look the same no matter the age. In fact, I used to think that it probably wouldn’t look that much different between 4th grade and 7th grade. That is until I woke up in the night, realizing just what my constraints would be with my new position and wondering if it was even worth trying. After all, I was already wondering how in the world I would get through the curriculum let alone add on anything else. Thankfully, I realized that blogging with students and giving them a voice to the world is one thing that I cannot cut from my curriculum, and neither should you. Yes, just because it looks different than what I had tried with elementary students, does not mean it is not worth your time, or not worth exploring. In this case, different simply means different, not wrong, bad, or worthless.
So while blogging in elementary classrooms can be cross curricular and deeply embedded within the classroom culture, blogging in the middle school has to look different solely based on the time constraint. It also has to look different based on how most middle schools are set up, with one teacher teaching one or a few subjects, and often being the steward of more than 100 students. After 3 months of blogging with my 113 students, this is what I discovered.
Before: We blogged every week, with blogging challenges assigned Friday and due the following Friday. Everyone got them done, few problems.
Now: We blog every other week on a set schedule. The students know and look forward to it and few ask for the blogging challenge until that day.
Before: We used our 8 computers to blog in the classroom and students would rotate throughout the week thus ensuring everyone got it done.
Now: We go to the lab every class period in one day so that each child gets it done. If they do not finish it within 45 minutes, it becomes homework and they have 2 weeks to finish it. I have to remind them a lot that it needs to get done.
Before: I would approve posts whenever they would pop up, checking every night.
Now: I approve posts the day they blog, thus getting most read and posted the day of, and then check in every 3 or 4 days when I know more have blogged. This allows me to save my check-in energy and focus to a few days a week.
Before: I would try to leave comments on every post or every other at the least.
Now: I gave up. There are too many posts but I do try to make sure that every single post gets a comment from either me or someone else from our school. I didn’t want to just leave short comments, and leave many of them so now my students know that if they get a comment from me, I really thought about it.
Before: All blogs were public, except for very rare circumstances.
Now: Almost all blogs are public but some are private between the student and I. I ask at the beginning of the year and set up their privacy settings as needed. Why the change? 7th graders are more aware of their place in the world and thus experience blogging on a perhaps more emotional level than my younger students. They really want to be viewed positively by the world and not have more things that they feel can be used to judge them.
Before: We talked how to stay safe on the internet and how we needed to represent ourselves once or twice a trimester.
Now: We not only discuss safety every single time we blog, but also how we present ourselves to the world. In 7th grade the students are much more fearless when it comes to putting themselves out there, which can be a double edged sword. It is a wonder to see them embrace the mode of communication so readily, but also terrifying when they don’t always think things through before they post.
Before: Their blog posts were meant to start a global conversation so they were never graded,
Now: This remains true. I will not grade my students blogs ever. It flies in the face of what I am asking them to do; start a global conversation baring their deep thoughts. If I ever wanted to squelch their voice all I have to do is slap a grade on it.
While there are many other small things that have remained the same, these are a few of the big differences. In the end, blogging with middle school students is definitely a must do, one just has to find the time.
PS: If you want to visit my incredible students’ blogs, please leave them a comment here and here.
Every so often I get asked to present on student blogging, one of my favorite things to present about. I always tell people I will upload the presentation, even though it doesn’t make a ton of sense without me speaking about it, so here it is
We have been hard at work on our paper blog as we prepare to unveil the actual blog experience this Friday. One of the essential things I do (and tweak) every year is the using paper blogs to get my 5th graders to think about how to comment, and more specifically how to start a conversation with their comments. While the idea is not mine, I borrowed it from McTeach, it has developed over the years into something I love doing and find essential as we prepare to blog and converse with the world.
The whole idea is very simple.
Creating the blogs:
Show students samples of previous years’ paper blogs to give them a visual of what to expect. I accidentally kept one class set a year so I have a great variety of blogs that I lay out on tables so they can see and read them. Otherwise, I take pictures of them year and after year and have those ready as well if needed.
There are a few rules here: It should showcase something the students are passionate about, it should include their name, and every paper blog should have a border. I also ask students to write their “post” in pencil first so that I may check their spelling. We want to emphasize spelling in their blog posts from the start.
Students are encouraged to be creative with their title, their layout, and what they write. We discuss what would make a great introductory post and how they can let their readers know what their blogs will be about. I have students choose all sorts of things they are passionate about: The Badgers, various sports, books, ribs, their family, dogs etc.
I tend to give them several class periods to work on these since it is a nice break in the hectic schedule of beginning of school and it allows me to see what pace students work at.
When blogs are done:
When most of the blogs are done, we get to the main point of the lesson: Commenting – this is why I do all of this.
Students are each given a pad of post-its and lay their paper blog out on their table. Then armed with post-its they walk around and read each others’ blogs. On a post-it they are asked to leave a comment and sign their name. This is in order to teach them that comments should never be anonymous, they need to stand behind their words.
We have discussed what makes a great comment in previous lessons so I only ask them to remind me.
I give the students 15 to 20 minutes to walk around and comment.
After the walk-around
Once time is up students return to their blogs. If they have comments with questions on them, they answer the question and pass the post-it back to the person who wrote it. This symbolizes the conversation that could take place.
I then ask for a student volunteer who helps me act out the conversations we will have based on post-its I have grabbed from the blogs.
I want the students to understand the difference between a “dead end” comment and a “highway” comment. Dead end ones end the conversations and may include the standard “I like your post” comments. Highway comments include comments that ask questions, share experiences, and link back to their own blog (here by leaving a name). Because we act these out, the students quickly get what makes for a better comment
We wrap up the whole experience by creating another reminder poster of what makes a great comment and students either bring their blogs home or I showcase them in the hallway.
I am a passionate 5th grade teacher in Wisconsin, USA, proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children. I have no awards or accolades except for the lightbulbs that go off in my students’ heads every day. First book “Passionate Learners – Giving Our Classroom Back to Our Students Starting Today” will be released this fall from PLPress. Follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.
I had the fortune of being asked by Kidblog (which I love so much) to write a little about how student blogging has changed my classroom and although this was published a long time ago on their blog, I forgot to cross post it here.
“Do you really mean it Mrs. Ripp, you want the truth?”
The student is hesitating, eyes are cast downward and they are waiting for the inevitable, the answer that most teachers will give, but it doesn’t come. Instead I tell them, “Yes, don’t hold back, tell me how you really feel about being a student in this classroom. My feelings won’t get hurt, I promise…”
The spring is back in the student’s step and they bounce over to the computer, log on to our Kidblog classroom blog and happily answer this week’s blogging challenge. And just like that, with that little question and one website, I have given my students a voice.
I didn’t use to want to hear how my students felt about their role in the classroom or our school. I didn’t use to care about what my students thought about their education, about their feelings or desires. I certainly never asked them to tell me what I could do better, or solicited advice. Yet, here I am, two years into a student blogging journey, and that is exactly the types of posts that I love the most. Those where the students bare their thoughts and really tell it like it is.
For too long, education has been done to students. We graduate with our teaching degrees thinking we know best. We know the research, we know what students need, and we know that we know. So we enter our classrooms as experts on education and students. We plan and create the lessons that students have to soak in whether they want to or not. We take just enough time to build a relationship and to listen to students but we often don’t ask the questions that students want to be asked. How often do we take the time to ask them what they think of what we are doing? How often do we genuinely care about how they feel about us, how they feel about their part in the classroom? How often do we ask them to please be honest, don’t hold back, and then don’t hold a grudge when they follow our directions. It is hard to be told that students are bored but a necessary step for us to become better teachers. Yet it takes time, students won’t be honest from the moment you meet them, we have trained them too well to be “rude” like that. So I start with blogging challenges that speak to their creativity like, “What is the color of fifth grade?” Then I ask them to change just one rule at our school, just one, and we inch into unknown territory. Students are always hesitant at first, after all, teachers don’t usually ask them to take ownership of their classroom. They are waiting to get busted by you or for your relationship to sour. It never does, I am thankful instead and I communicate that to them.
I have tried to start out having these conversations, rather than through their blog, but it was too much too soon. Blogging provide us with a venue in which students feel in control. They can record their thoughts, edit them, mull them over and then hit publish when they feel ready to do so. They have time to think of the question and of their response. I acknowledge that I am asking them to open up and at first it is frightening for them, but then, when they see that I change according to feedback, when they see that their words hold power in a positive way, then they find their voice. They don’t hold back and offer up topics for discussion. What they write on their blog, how they share, translates directly into our classroom. The trust grows, the discussions get livelier, and students become more invested.
Blogging allows us to take it to the next level; international discussion. Now students are not just telling me how they really feel but anyone who will read it. Blogging allows us to start discussions, to compare our school situations to those around the world. To realize that we can change the world when we discuss the every day. School stops being done to students and instead becomes something they also have some control over, they also have an active part in because we have provided them with a mouthpiece and a captive audience. Finally, students know that they do matters, what they think matters, and what they say matters. So when they see assignments change because of their feedback, when they see the role of the teacher change because of what they told me, that’s when they know that their voice matters. Students run to their blogs to tell me their thought of their prior week, they use their blogs to invite others to debate the merit of homework, tests, and grades. They write directly to our principal asking for longer lunches, extra recess, or perhaps just a little of his time. No longer needing an adult to pass on their message, they have found a way to share it with the world. All through the power of a blog.
I am a passionate 5th grade teacher in Middleton, Wisconsin, USA, proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children. I have no awards or accolades except for the lightbulbs that go off in my students’ heads every day. First book “The Passionate Learner – Giving Our Classroom Back to Our Students Starting Today” will be released this fall from PLPress. Follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.
For three years I have assumed that my students loved blogging. For three years I have assumed that they wanted to share their thoughts with the world, be role models for others, and have many people comment. I have tweeted about it, I have blogged about it, and I have presented about it. I have held up their work as pictures of exemplary blogging and I have pushed them to share, reflect, and bare their souls. Never did I stop to ask them if they wanted to. Never did I take my own advice to give the students a voice and ask them how they felt.
Today I did. I had opened up their Kidblog, noticed a few kids that had not done the weekly blogging challenge and I got upset. After all, how much more time could I possible give them to blog? How many more opportunities to get it done with? Then I realized that perhaps they didn’t want to. One child for sure did not since he had told me pretty much every day, but the others I had no idea about and the truth is, I had never asked. I had just assumed they loved it as much as I did.
So today I stepped back and asked them if they wanted to blog. I told them it was their discussion to have and that I would await their answer. And I meant it to, as much as I love blogging and it is something I am incredibly proud of, I no longer want to push them into something that is so open without them being ok with it. So I sat back, slightly on pins and needles, and just waited to hear their thoughts.
At first hesitant chatter but then a student took charge and told everyone to sit in a circle and they would all share their opinion. One by one they got their chance to speak and one by one they were listened to.
…I love to blog because I love writing for other people than Mrs. Ripp… …I love blogging because we can talk to other kids… …I love blogging because I have no social life… …I love to blog because people care about what we say…
In the end they decided they wanted to keep blogging. They wanted to share, to reflect, to discuss. They wanted me to read it but they also wanted others to discuss their lives with them.
When they had decided and told me, I added only these thoughts: …I love when you blog because I get to see your growth as writers… …I love when you blog because you are considerate writers and others can use you as role models…
But most importantly, I love when you blog because it allows me to get to know you better. We have such little time in the classroom but blogging allows us to connect even more, and I am grateful for that. So thank you for sharing, for growing, and for writing. My students are bloggers; not just because I tell them to be but because they want to be. And for that I am thankful.
If you would like to visit them, please leave them a comment and tell us where you are from – we map all of our connections, wont you be one of ours?
Epilogue: Two days after I wrote this post I asked my students what the students who chose not to blog should do. After another student-led group discussion, they decided as a class that any students that chooses not to blog will do a weekly journal prompt to me instead. They felt that since they were writing as bloggers and sharing their thoughts with the whole world, that others who chose not to should have to do the same but only to me. I stand by their decision and look forward to seeing who will blog or not.