Writing for Authentic Audiences #4: Blog Ahead!

What is a blog anyway? In a world of Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook, Google Sites, Wix, Weebly, Twitter and Pinterest, where do blogs fit in? Here’s my own working definition:

A blog—

  • Is written using web-based tools.
  • Contains several entries organized in reverse chronological order.
  • Is based on EITHER writer interests or some kind of central theme.
  • Often combines words, images, and hyperlinks to convey its message.
  • May invite comments and discussion.
  • May be shared on social media.
  • Is somewhat more conversational in tone than most academic we do in school.

Blogging is my favorite way to have students publish their writing. I’ve found it motivates them more than anything else I’ve tried. Here are four reasons I think it works, particularly with junior high writers.

Why Blogging Works

  1. Student writers design their own blogs—this allows them to show who they are as individuals. The design process is creative and fun. Also, the visual components should add to the writer’s message, not detract from it. We need to teach students the best ways to use images, fonts, and colors to support what they are trying to say.
  2. Blogging gives student writers an immediate, authentic audience, whether it is their classmates, their school, their families, or the wider world.
  3. Nothing is absolutely permanent. Yes, I know we say everything on the web is permanent, but it is also constantly changing. Student writers like being able to fix their errors or even change their minds about what they said after they publish.
  4. Student writers have ownership over their blogs. It feels different than turning in a completed essay to the teacher. This is their own project and they generally want it to be their best work.

To be fair, student blogs may be the new version of “glitter on the poster,” as one of my colleagues likes to say, but if it works, it works. Once the “glitter” stops motivating students to write that’s when I’ll move on to another form of publication.

If you decide to start blogging with your students, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Tips for Getting Started with Student Blogs

  1. It is essential that students have some control over how their blog looks. Giving students time to make their blogs look how they want is not a waste of class time. We live in a visual culture and more and digital writing often includes visual components.  This is an opportunity for students to consider their aesthetic choices and to learn some basic design strategies.
  2. Emphasize online safety and privacy. I work with twelve- to thirteen-year-olds, so I am constantly worried about online safety. First, I don’t want them to inadvertently give out personal information, and second, I want to prevent all forms of cyberbullying. Here’s our mantra: If you wouldn’t want your grandmother (or your teacher or your coach) to read what you are typing, do not write it! I also have students sign a blogging contract, which I created based on Scholastic’s Blogging Rules.
  3. Keep parents informed and involved. I send home a letter with information about our blogging project and I invite parents to participate. This step has become even easier in recent years with family communication apps like Remind and Parent Square.  Now, I don’t have to rely on students to bring the paper from school to home (and back). After students begin publishing, we invite parents and others to read and comment on the blogs. This part often feels a little scary. I know the student writing is not perfect—they are in seventh grade, after all, and I want to make sure guest commenters stick to the positive. I do not want a budding student writer to become discouraged when a parent publically corrects his or her grammar. To help with this, I send home a brief guide on how to write supportive comments.
  4. Become part of the blogging community yourself. I know time is an issue, but if you actually blog with your students, you are sending a powerful signal that this is important work. The blogging classroom is a community of writers, and the community includes the teacher. Plus, a bonus to blogging with students is that you’ll find they are very appreciative readers. I confess it’s as fun for me as it is for them to read supportive comments about my own work.
  5. Go slow. Start with simple introductions and simple supportive comments. I give students a few sentence starters (see below) to help them write positive comments on each other’s blog posts.  Click here to see my introduction post.

Commenting for Beginners

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 6.32.00 AM

What Platform Should Students Use?

Right now, my favorite platform for the under-thirteen set is Kidblog.org. Even though it says you can sign up for free, it ends up costing $36 / year. This is worth it for me because Kidblog has all of the features I need to make the project successful:

  • Students sign up with a simple code, so I don’t have to manually type their names in.
  • After that, they can log in by choosing their name or, better yet, with their school Google Drive accounts.
  • Teachers have a lot of control about how and when students publish posts. You can make sure all posts and comments come to you before they are published to the wider world.
  • Finally, I like how Kidblog encourages students to add their own creative flourishes through its library of backgrounds and headers. Students can also easily edit and add text to their own images in Kidblog’s editor (see my example below).

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 7.25.04 AM

Next Steps

I am learning more about blogging every time I try it with my students. This year’s Blog Ahead 2016 project went well overall, but I am already thinking about what I want to change for next year. It’s always a work in progress. For example, I’ve realized that student choice is paramount. It is very tempting to assign topics and themes, but I am beginning to think the very best student blogs are completely lead by student interest. For the past few years, I’ve used blogging to teach argument writing—students could choose the topics they wanted to write about but they had to write arguments. Instead, maybe I should encourage blogging year round and encourage students to write about whatever interests them. I suspect the writing would be better but, of course, there are Common Core Standards I’m required to teach… I’ll have to figure that one out later.

Also, I think I may start on paper next year. I got this idea from Notes from McTeacha blog by seventh-grade-teacher Karen McMillan (no relation). The idea is to have students start designing and writing on paper first because sometimes the technology distracts students from their writing. Students can even learn how to comment by using Post-it notes and sticking them on each other’s blogs! Of course, the point is to eventually publish online but using paper first may be a good way to start in the shallow end.

 

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