When I use technology in my classroom, it’s never just for the sake of using technology. I use technology when it will do a better job of achieving my learning goals than traditional methods. I have rigorous goals for my students and little time to achieve them. So we use computers (and iPads, iPods, etc.) only when they give us a greater return on investment.
That brings me to one really smart investment: blogs. Blogging is all about writing. To write a blog well, you need to be organized, include details, think about your audience, develop your voice, and edit for conventions. What makes blogging different from normal classroom writing? When students write blogs, they can share their writing with the world. Perhaps “the world” is limited to their parents, grandparents, and other family members. Perhaps “the world” really is the world, as in, everyone in the world can see what they write.
Blogging is writing with the volume turned up to 11. Students are more excited to write blog posts than practically anything else they write in the classroom. And so, as their teacher, I love having them blog so I can take full advantage of that drive in order to teach them to write well.
I am going to describe three approaches to blogging with elementary students. I’ve done the first two with great success, and I’ve always wanted to try the third (we all have our goals!). Then, I’ll wrap up with some ideas for how to ensure students are safe on the internet.
Approach #1: The Class Blog
This is the easiest way to start blogging with your students. First, choose a site to create and host your blog (check out this list of hosts and this doc comparing the features of different sites). Most of my colleagues use Blogger. Blogger is perhaps the easiest because it’s run by Google, so it coordinates well with your other Google products (calendar, Picasa, gmail, Google Apps for Education). Blogger also has simple, beautiful templates, doesn’t feature ads, and is fast and easy to use.
For privacy, you can choose to remove your blog from Blogger’s search and make it invisible to search engines. You can also limit your blog’s audience to specific users, such as parents. The only drawback is that parents then have to create their own Google accounts and log into Google before they can see the site.
Realistically, if your blog is invisible to search engines, no one is going to stumble upon it. Someone will have to share the link in order for people to gain access. My advice is to (1) consider the needs of your specific students, (2) work within your school’s technology policy, and (3) find the right balance between ease of access for the intended audience and the safety of children.
Once you create a blog, you choose a template and layout for your page. There are many, many places online where you can learn to set up your blog — the steps vary depending on which host you choose and they change all the time — so I’m not going to go into detail here. My advice is to do a Google search for “how to set up a [name of host] blog,” set aside a couple of hours, make a nice cup of tea, and be patient with yourself as you figure it out. And have fun! (Or, you could recruit a tech-saavy parent to help.)
Back to pedagogy: how do you use a class blog to enhance student learning?
I like to start with weekly blog posts. Every Friday, my students write Friday Letters to send home to their families. With practice, it only takes 25 minutes to write Friday Letters, which help kids reflect on their week, practice writing fluency and conventions, and set goals for the following week. Parents also love the Friday Letters, which keep them informed about what’s going on at school.
While the class writes Friday Letters, I choose a student to be the blogger of the week. I choose a student who has shown leadership that week, and I use the opportunity to give them some public praise. That student chooses a partner (I prefer boy-girl partners) to work with them. Everyone gets a chance to write the blog, and I keep track of who has had a turn.
If students are too young to type efficiently, I have them write the blog longhand until they have had more experience with computers. But if they can type as well as they can write, they get to work on a laptop or iPad. Either way, kids are really excited to write the blog.
What they write is really a summary of what we did that week. As kids get older, I teach them to write the blog as a feature article, where they elaborate on a single exciting event or lesson. But younger students benefit from having practice summarizing events. Early second grade blogs tend to be pretty simple and formulaic: “This week in reading, we… In math, we…, In science, we… It was an awesome week!”
Over time, we incorporate more techniques for good writing into our blogs and our Friday Letters. We talk about exciting titles and leads, satisfying conclusions, and “juicy” details. Last week, we did a lesson on conjunctions: all the special words you can use to make your sentences more complex. Writing blogs and Friday letters is also a great opportunity to practice specific conventions in a short piece of writing that will quickly be shared with an audience.
One of the best features of having a blog is that students and parents can read and comment on it. In my third grade classroom, replying to blog posts is one “Academic Choice” students can do when they finish other work early.
Once you’ve established a class blog, you can use it to have students share their learning regularly throughout the week. Writing a blog post, either as a whole class, small group, partner, or individual activity, is a great way to have students summarize important ideas from a lesson, field trip, project, or unit of study. You can have students post as often as you want, or as often as time and your school’s tech resources allow.
Approach #2: Individual Student Blogs
If you’re ready to take blogging to the next level, I highly recommend having students write their own individual blogs. I have to admit, I’ve never done this with children younger than third graders. But I know of people, like Kathy Cassidy, who do this with first graders, and I am considering trying it with my second graders this year. The challenge is having the technology resources you need to make this happen. You either need a class set of computers or iPads that you can access regularly, or you need a station of 4-5 computers or iPads that students can use throughout the day or week.
You can make the blogs a once-a-week project simply by having students write their Friday Letters as blog posts. I did that last year, and students and families loved it. Here are two examples: Quinn’s blog and Abby’s blog (scroll down to see how she embedded one of her Google presentations).
You’ll see the design of the blogs is the same. We were using EduBlogs, which, at the time, was the only solution my district would allow. I would much prefer to have students use Blogger, which is easier to customize.
The great advantage to having individual student blogs is that a much wider audience can read and comment on students’ writing. After writing their blogs, my third graders would visit their friends’ blogs and leave comments. Not only parents, but aunts, uncles, and grandparents would read and comment on the blogs faithfully each week. Writing individual blogs gave my students a chance to work on what we called WOW writing: writing that is Worthy of the World. It’s the kind of writing I aspire to do in this blog, and that students will have to do as they grow up in our increasingly digital society.
Writing that is WOW — Worthy Of the World — is writing that:
- Shows our best selves. It is true and positive.
- Comes to life for our readers because it is filled with juicy details
- Is edited carefully for COPS (capitals, organization, punctuation, and spelling) so others can understand what we write.
- Is appropriate for everyone to read, including our parents, siblings, teachers, next year’s teachers, grandparents, friends, pen pals, and people we don’t even know.
- Is safe. We never put personal information on the internet.
We had many lessons on the qualities of WOW Writing, especially the last point — safety — which I’ll write more about below.
Beyond just blogging on Fridays, I experimented with using blogs for other writing assignments. For example, when a guided reading group was working on a poem by Langston Hughes, I asked them to write about their reactions to the poem on their blogs. Then, the students in the group read each other’s blogs and wrote comments agreeing, disagreeing, or adding to each another’s ideas.
There is so much potential for individual student blogs, and I have barely scratched the surface. Which brings me to the third approach…
Approach #3: Primary Digital Portfolios
Now to leave well-charted waters. Primary Digital Portfolios is an idea invented by Kathy Cassidy, a first grade teacher in Canada, whom I met at the BLC 11 conference in Boston. On her wiki, Kathy explains how students can use their blogs to capture and share all of their best work throughout the school year. Students post ideas and reflections in their posts, plus pictures of their drawings and projects, and even books they write on Storybird and audio recordings they create on Vocaroo.
Just like the paper portfolios many students make, the digital portfolios become a tool for assessing student learning, setting goals, and sharing with parents. Kathy has student-parent-teacher conferences in which students present their digital portfolios and everyone sets goals as a team.
I love this idea so much! The only thing that has held me back is having the tech resources needed to do it. Kathy has a few computers in her classroom that students use as a station throughout the day. I don’t have that, but I have other ways that I might make it work. My current idea is to use iPods or iPads for blogging using the Blogger app. Hmm… updates to follow.
Keeping Kids Safe
When it comes to kids sharing information on the internet, I take a longterm view. I imagine my students in middle school and high school, with Facebook accounts and their own blogs, and I think about the way I would want them to act. Our students will live a substantial portion of their lives online. I see it as my job to give them a solid foundation for their future. That’s the purpose of many of my lessons about WOW Writing: to teach students lessons about safety, responsibility, and respect that I hope will last a lifetime.
I also follow some basic rules for safety, based on my research, experience, and district policies regarding student internet use:
- If a class blog or website is password-protected or visible only to specific users, we post pictures, kids’ names, and all kinds of details about our classroom. I just ask parents to be thoughtful about the people with whom they share the password: just close friends and family.
- If a class blog or website is visible to everyone, we can post group pictures, but without names. We never post a child’s picture with their name next to it. We use first names only (or first names plus last initial if two children have the same first name). We can talk about living in Massachusetts, but not the name of our town or school. We never share our address, phone numbers, or birth dates.
- If I have a class where there are special reasons to be concerned about a child’s safety, all of these rules need to be re-evaluated.
When you decide on your rules, it’s essential that you communicate them to parents and, if your school requires it, get parental consent. Here is the permission slip I sent home last year.
The potential dangers of having kids share online are manageable, and the benefits are enormous. When students blog, they have tremendous energy, enthusiasm, and excitement for their writing. They have an authentic and caring audience who will give them nearly immediate feedback. And they have a chance to practice being their best selves in a forum where all the world can see.