Monday, June 4, 2012

A year of student blogs - Warts and all

Time to take a look at the way things evolved this year with my grade 10 & 11 math students' blogging. I have no hesitation in recommending this to anyone, because the potential for learning is HUGE. If blogging worked so well for me as a vehicle for growth, it should do the same for my students.

But it wasn't rosy for all my classes. Some kids took to it, some didn't, and in the case of one of my classes, it seemed that the entire class just didn't see the point. I do have at least 3 students, though, who now post simply because they love it, which makes me very, very happy for them.

First a look at the sequence of events, which worked out really well, even though I sort of made it up as I went along. So as not to overwhelm the kids, I gradually introduced the world of blogging. It began as assigned posts, then gradually morphed into optional use of their blog to publish their work.This sequence worked well, and the only thing I might do differently is maybe begin earlier in the school year.

Here are the milestones in brief, with more detail below:
  1. December 2011: Created the classblog, to serve as the hub for all the others. 
  2. January 2012: Sent out form for parents to sign so that kids could have their own blog.  
  3. January 2012: Had students create their own blogs, using either blogger or wordpress.
  4. Immediately after that: Get everyone to follow everyone else, and the classblog.
  5. Immediately after that: Assigned the first post. 
  6. January 2012: Showed other tools like codecogs.
  7. January - February - March 2012: Assigned a scribe post everyday.
  8. Simultaneously: Assigned other blogs to read and comment on.
  9. Simultaneously: Used hub, or classblog, to upload info - some fun, some business.
  10. March 2012: Assigned small homework examples to be posted rather than handed in.
  11. March - end of year: Some major assignments, like projects, could from now on be published on their blog rather than handed in to me.
  1. December 2011: Created the classblog, to serve as the hub for all the students' blogs.  I wrote about that here. Took me a while to get my head around this. Like till December. 
  2. January 2012: Sent out form for parents to sign so that kids could have their own blog.  Actually, my principal did this part to cover all the web tools and activities that Learn's students were doing. I wanted their blogs to be open to the world, because a real blog works that way. But making it open came with some risk, of course, and as a parent, I was worried about the weirdos out there who might make a comment that was inappropriate. The safest thing would have been be for me to moderate all comments on their blogs, but then I would have had to be the owner, which misses the whole point of it being their own space. So if they own it, they have to moderate their own comments, which meant they might see something inappropriate. Took the plunge, parents signed, we were off to the races. Fortunately, nothing bad happened, not that I know of anyway.
  3. January 2012: Had students create their blogs using either blogger or wordpress. For blogger, they needed to use their google accounts to do this, which they had already created earlier in the year. I took some time to familiarize them with settings and tools for blogs, like design options, and how to post/comment, but most did not need much help here. It's super intuitive on blogger. Once they had created their blogs, it was a simple thing to just link to them from the classblog using the "link list" gadget, which you can see on the right hand side of the above image. Next year, unless they already have a blog, I will insist on blogger. That's what I'm familiar with, and I still find wordpress, even the edublogger version of it, really difficult to learn and get stuff to actually work properly on.  Anyway it was a lot of fun to see the designs they used, some of which they custom-made! Jack Black backgrounds! Awesome!
  4. Immediately after that: Get everyone to follow everyone else, and the classblog. Next year I'll get the parents to follow their child's blog as well as the classblog. This will be an opportunity for parents to really, actually see, firsthand, what their child is doing in math class! Also, I will use the opportunity to help the kids with managing web content, for example, how to use google reader, rather than letting email accounts get cluttered up with notifications every time someone posts.
  5. Immediately after that: Assigned the first post. Everyone had to post about anything remotely related to math. This was just to get them to dip their toes in. Some posted at length about something on which they were experts, and some just posted a tiny little cartoon with a math joke. All good. But I found I had to assign it, because as usual, if you don't require it, and you just say "Post whatever you want" you will be waiting rather a long wait. Plus, if they're all doing it at the same time, it takes away any self-consciousness they may have about putting themselves out there.
  6. January 2012: Showed other tools like codecogs, or how to embed something like a voicethread or a video. Very quickly, I could see the blurring of lines between teacher and student. Eventually, learned about Cmap tools, and prezi!
  7. January - February - March 2012: Assigned a scribe post everyday, one person per class per day, so that everyone got a turn at this eventually. They had to post a summary of the current lesson. Again, some put in minimal effort, some had pictures, formulas, etc. You could see who was really sinking their teeth in. And some started to post things even when I hadn't assigned it to them! Not only math stuff, either, but other topics of interest to them, for example, this student's tribute to her beautiful hometown. Of course, to get conversations going, I required that everyone make 5 comments during a unit. The idea was to get them critiquing each other's work, so that the posts would get better and better. I gave some guidelines on commenting, for example, "Awesome post, dude" was NOT going to count, but that is one area that will need lots more coaching next year. And rubric-ing.
  8. Simultaneously: Assigned other blogs to read and comment on. Like betterexplained. Reading other blogs is inspirational, fun, and helps them get the point of blogging. When they see the kinds of conversations that go on out there, they see a new kind of community, that they likely have not experienced before, even on facebook or twitter. Also models commenting for them. Had a wonderful moment in one class in which one student's comment on betterexplained was replied to by the author during that very class, and I wrote about that here. Definitely went into my feel-good file.
  9. Simultaneously: I used classblog to upload info - some fun, some business. Fun stuff would be like one of Vihart's videos, business would be the week's video lessons, or how their work should look for a given assignment. I found this really useful for little how-to demos, reminders, and things that I hadn't had time to mention during class. But they didn't all get into the habit of reading the classblog, because of course they were going directly to their own blog, not via the hub like I was. Hmmm have to think about that.
  10. March 2012: Assigned small homework examples to be posted rather than handed in, gave choice about what example to post, and how to post, ie use codecogs or some tool that makes things look really professional. Some just scanned and uploaded their handwritten work, which was fine. If I start the whole thing earlier next year, this will be used way more for this. Makes a great homework checker. And gets them hooked, after all, it's work that they have to do anyway, so we're killing two birds with one stone!
  11. March - end of year: Some major assignments, like projects, could from now on be published on their blog rather than handed in to me. And now I see who really and truly has adopted blogging. You hated it? No problem. You loved it? I know! Next year - more reflection and self assessment on their blog, including - what tools can I now add to my portfolio to show prospective employers? Or universities?

I hope this is helpful to anyone looking to get their students blogging!


  1. Hello from Finland! This was definitely useful and interesting. I am a teacher of EFL, and used blogs with one group for the first time this year. Had very similar experiences to yours but you have also given me a lot of food for thought for next year. I am so amazed that a math teacher would do this, though! I couldn't imagine my math colleagues ever considering blogging! Thank you so much for sharing all your knowledge and tips!

  2. Hi Sinikka! I checked out your blog and your classblog - it seems we are on the same page. Thanks for your comment, it's wonderful to know that someone else out there is having the same blogging experience, whether or not it's the same topic we teach. There are lots of math teachers out there who are getting their kids to blog, actually. The idea is to get them to show others what they are thinking, and to express their reasoning coherently, which is probably the same idea for English. Thanks again, wow Finland!

  3. You have a really informative blog that many students will surely find interesting.

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