Monday, February 04, 2008

Three questions to ask anyone thinking about using blogs in a classroom

My first electronic writing implement was an electric Smith Corona typewriter. I took typing in high school and, thankfully, I could quickly transcribe my rough draft (scribbled on line paper in which I skipped every other line) onto the final draft. That's how I started writing. As computers became more prevalent, I followed much the same process, eventually learning to write my first draft directly on the screen, saving it, and coming back for revisions. My years as a daily newspaper reporter honed my skills at deadline writing.

So here I am looking back at that as I think about about Thursday's two-hour professional development session on using blogs and wikis in the classroom. Whether I wrote on my Smith Corona or tapped away on a PC, my writing was still confined in the same way. Print it and hand it in. My teachers didn't spend anytime teaching me how to type or how to press ctrl-s to save (in the pre-mouse days). Today, students still write and still "hand it in." Thursday's PD session, I hope, will help spread the word to other teachers that we have many more options these days, more than they might know.

Teachers might come in to the session with a vague idea that some kind of new technology is available to broaden students' writing experiences. And like the promise of all new technological advancements, this one has come with some promises to improve student writing and reading. It's also possible that teachers may come into Thursday with nary an inkling about just how a blog fits into an English - or any other - classroom.

Here are the questions I need to ask of any teacher who wants to use blogs as part of their classroom repertoire.

What do you expect to get out of using a blog? First of all, it's not going to cure the ills of the English classroom. That is, students aren't likely to start magically devouring the written word as if recovering from a lifetime of literary starvation. Throwing their words up into the realm of the blogosphere is probably not going to make them instantly better writers. However, it's reasonable to expect that using a blog can be another tool to promote student reading and writing. And a quite powerful one at that. It doesn't have to be the cure-all, for it to simply be of help. Think about it. A blog offers a student a venue for "publishing" work in the real world; a tool for a reader to respond to what is read; a way for a writer to link to others with his or her writing. Exploit those characteristics. Beyond posting their own writing, use blogs to require students to read others. To leave comments on others. To write posts in response to what they've read and hyperlink to that source. To read comments you leave them about their work. Teach them all those things and more.

How do you want students to use these digital tools? We still must tease out the important concepts and skills embedded in anything we ask the kids to do. Whether it's on a blog, a wiki, or ripped from an electric typewriter, good writing is good writing. One of the biggest realizations I made last year was that just because it's on the internet and requires some up to date technology, doesn't mean students are going to embrace it. For most adolescents, it's probably still a lot cooler to log onto Facebook or Myspace than it is to respond to the ideas of 1984 through a classroom blog. Don't compete with those sites, but rather use a blog or wiki to meaningfully engage your students in their work. They'll respond to that. Exploit the characteristics of a blog for those purposes. (See previous paragraph)

How are you, as a teacher, going to use them? This is quite possibly the trickiest of the three questions. If students are expected to use them, then so are we. Be ready when they have technical questions. They might ask: How do I change the settings for who can leave a comment? How can I import a picture? What's the proper way to hyperlink to something I've read? Make sure you know the answer. The best way to figure it out is to experiment yourself. Look to see what other teachers are doing and borrow their ideas. Tweak it to make it your own. Then try something else.
The thing is, when I handed my papers in way back when in my high school days, that was the end. I waited for the teacher to "correct" it before I got any return on my investment of time and thinking. There are some many more valuable opportunities these days for student writers. It's up to us to take full advantage.

1 comment:

Cindy said...

Hello Mr. Miller,
I am curious as to how your session went with the teachers! What were your thoughts afterwards? I find myself in the same boat often... trying to encourage teachers to use the 21st Century tools that are available to them and their students. Sometimes it's a huge task! Just wondering how things went!