Using Student Blogs to Empower Learners and Personalize Learning

The vast majority of adults experienced school in a way much different than today’s students. We were passive learners. Our classes were dominated by teacher-talk and working out of the textbook. The main method of learning was outlining from a textbook or note-taking during a lecture. There was little opportunity to demonstrate the 4 C’s (creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration). Thankfully the American education system is shifting away from the ‘sage on the stage’ model to the ‘guide on the side’ model.

Technology has provided the driving force for change. Today’s students have the ability to take ownership of their learning through technology. The first ISTE Standard for Students states, “Students [can] leverage technology to take an active role in choosing, achieving and demonstrating competency in their learning goals, informed by the learning sciences.”

Since my background is English Language Arts, my mind immediately went to blogs and how they are an ideal tool to meet the first ISTE Standard while giving students voice and choice in the classroom.

I chose to explore the topic of blogging in part because it was a tool I had previously tried—and failed—to implement in my middle school Language Arts Classroom. A slow yet steady trickle of Tweets from educators raving about the experiences they’d had with student blogging kept nagging at me to revisit the topic and reflect on where I went wrong. Consulting the Pedagogical Preparations section within this checklist by Bill Ferriter would have ensured the project went much more smoothly than it did.

I used my past experience to frame a series of smaller questions that would help me answer my larger inquiry: How to balance student choice with meeting educational standards? How to explicitly teach what quality/constructive feedback looks like? What are best practices in monitoring student blogs and the feedback given to peers? How to best grade blogs? After sharing my initial research online with my class, I added two questions. At the suggestion of my professor, I also decided to explore how student blogging can promote metacognition. I also wanted to address student privacy concerns based on a thought-provoking comment from a fellow student.

How to balance student choice with meeting educational standards?

While I want students to set and achieve personal learning goals, I also must fulfill my duties as their teacher in ensuring they are college and career ready via the Common Core State Standards. I wondered, what does a happy medium look like?

In this excellent Google Doc guide written by Michelle Lampinen and linked within her article ‘Blogging in the 21st-Century Classroom,’ students have ten types of blog posts to choose from: passion blog post, class-related response, outside text response, interdisciplinary post, current events post, Vlog, collabo-blog (collaborative post), wordless blog, how-to, and free choice. Lampinen does not mandate a certain type of post on each due date, rather students are required to use a variety throughout the year. (Lampinen, 2013)

The Common Core State Standards for Writing encompass the three main types of writing (argumentative, informative, and narrative) as well as writing for research purposes. These standards allow for endless amounts of personalization. Argumentative writing does not need to be the entire class taking a stance on a single issue and limiting their research to prescribed sources (looking at you, State Tests and District Benchmarks). All of the blog post types suggested by Lampinen fall under one of the writing purposes.

Nearly any assignment within the English Language Arts classroom can be easily converted to a more personalized one via blogging. For example, I am a big fan of doing Article of the Week with my students. Based on the model by Kelly Gallagher, all students receive the same nonfiction article. After performing a Close Read, we discuss as a class. Students then respond to the text in a short essay. Their insight and opinions are fascinating and it’s the one assignment I look forward to grading. However, aside from me, no one gets to see the witty remarks and lightbulb-moment insight.

What if instead, students chose articles that interested them (within parameters) and posted their responses on a blog along with a summary and link to the article? The exact same standards are being met. What has changed is that students chose a topic that interested them, so there was ownership. Then students received feedback from an audience of their peers (and others, if you choose). They were able to engage in real-world dialogue about informational text.

How to explicitly teach what quality/constructive feedback looks like?

Part of my inquiry question was how to facilitate quality feedback between students. In my previous attempt, most of the peer feedback was limited to a few words and lacked substance. It was simplistic and did nothing to foster a conversation–a large part of the goal of student blogging. I had lots of comments like, “I agree” or “This is cool.”

The starting point for teaching effective online communication would be differentiating between in-person conversation, comments on friends’ social media, and comments on peers’ academic blogs. The following resources support ISTE Student Standard 2: Digital Citizen by encouraging students to “engage in positive, safe, legal and ethical behavior when using technology, including social interactions online…” (Iste.org, 2017).

As always, hands-on learning cements knowledge in a way that reading and listening cannot. After learning about what quality comments and feedback look like, students should be given the opportunity to practice. One way to facilitate this practice would be by having students practice using a teacher-made post in Google Classroom. Another hands-on learning method might be finding real-world examples of poor comments online and converting them into quality comments. An appropriate site to accomplish this task would be DOGOnews.

Another option is to connect the type of feedback given by the teacher to the type of feedback you’d like to see in student blog comments. We’ve all had teachers who responded to our hard work with generic value-driven statements like, “Nice work.” Or worse, just a letter grade at the top with no explanation. Why not share your own standards for feedback with students?

What are best practices in monitoring student blogs and the feedback given to peers?

The procedures of turning in a blog post or blog comments can vary from teacher to teacher. Some teachers checked student blogs quarterly (which seemed like a lot of work with little opportunity for formative assessment). Others assessed student blogs on a weekly basis by having students complete a Google Form with a link to their post/s. Michelle Lampinen also used Google Forms to monitor students’ comments on peer blogs. She had student submit the URL of their comments via a separate Google Form. Another option would be to have students capture a screenshot of each comment (I like the Awesome Screenshot Chrome extension) and upload or share the image.

How to best grade blogs?

I’ll just admit it upfront: I’m a huge fan of rubrics. I like when students know exactly what they need to do to achieve success on a given assignment. Rubrics also help me to provide fair, consistent, and objective feedback on student work.  Throughout my research I found many options for rubrics that can be used to assess student blogs.

How can student blogging promote metacognition?

Metacognition is “…essentially reflection on the micro level, an awareness of our own thought processes as we complete them” (MindShift, 2014). Asking students to reflect on their own learning is a vital component of the learning process that often gets forgotten as we plow ahead to the next unit or novel. But pausing to reflect on what was learned, how it was learned, and what could have been done differently, teachers can encourage students to view learning as an ongoing process and not simply a means to an end. Metacognition can also foster resilience by encouraging students to stop and ask why they are struggling and what new approach they might take. Blogs create a powerful platform to facilitate this metacognition.

How to balance privacy concerns with student voice?

While the thought of giving students a voice that can reach a global audience is thrilling, caution must be exercised when dealing with minors.

Even if your students are “just” sharing their blog on a closed network, they have an audience much larger than the typical one (of only their teacher). Students can safely share and respond to blogs within your district via closed network. You might consider having students interact with other grade-levels or other teachers’ classes.

Finally, why go to all this work?

Students can utilize blogs in the English Language Arts classroom to set and achieve personal learning goals that correlate to the Common Core State Standards. Students can choose how to demonstrate their learning and exercise choice in what they want to explore and write about. Blogging provides students with an authentic and real-world way to write frequently over an extended period of time for different purposes. Blogging is also an ideal way for students to collaborate in a way that is measurable by the teacher. For this peer feedback to be successful, online communication and collaboration must be explicitly taught and should be practiced informally before students move to actually commenting on live blog posts.

Sources:
Iste.org. (2017). ISTE Standards For Students. [online] Available at: https://www.iste.org/standards/for-students [Accessed 15 Jan. 2018].
Lampinen, M. (2013). Blogging in the 21st-Century Classroom. [online] Edutopia. Available at: https://www.edutopia.org/blog/blogging-in-21st-century-classroom-michelle-lampinen [Accessed 15 Jan. 2018].
Magiera, J. (2017). Courageous Edventures. 1st ed. Thousand Oaks: Corwin, p.123.
MindShift. (2014). What Meaningful Reflection On Student Work Can Do for Learning. [online] Available at: https://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2014/12/03/what-meaningful-reflection-on-student-work-can-do-for-learning/ [Accessed 20 Jan. 2018].
What Meaningful Reflection On Student Work Can Do for Learning. [online] Available at: https://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2014/12/03/what-meaningful-reflection-on-student-work-can-do-for-learning/ [Accessed 16 Jan. 2018].
Wiggins, G. (2012). 7 Keys to Effective FEEDBACK. Educational Leadership, 70(1), 10-16.
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