Oct 31 2006

Schools Use Blogging to Excite Students to Write

It's not the movie classic, but this tool for posting online journals helps students improve their writing.

Noemi Beltran is like most teenage girls: She writes poetry, raves about the latest blockbuster movies and rants about boys. Unlike most teenage girls, she publishes these insights on the Web—and gets graded for it.

Last year, her English teacher, Neal Locke at Sunset High School in Dallas, introduced the concept of blogging, or Web logs, to his students. Locke believes that writing online journals and having an audience read their prose gets students excited about writing. So he offered students extra credit to create and regularly update their blogs. Locke also encouraged students to turn in their homework by posting it online.

Locke’s strategy worked. Students wholeheartedly embraced the concept. Beltran, who regularly updated her blog as a freshman last year, continues to blog in her sophomore English class this year.

“Asking teens to write is like pulling teeth,” says Locke. “It’s not something they enjoy. Blogging encourages them to write regularly. With class assignments, if the audience is only their teacher, it’s less motivation. But with blogs, if people all over the world can read it, it’s more authentic for them."

Blogs have become a popular Web phenomenon. Blog authors, or bloggers, post musings on topics that range from politics and social issues to personal matters. Some chronicle their private or professional lives and provide links to other blogs and mainstream news.

Blogs are also legitimate sources for news and opinion. Mainstream publications, such as the Seattle Times, have caught the bug. The Seattle daily publishes readers’ political blogs on its Web site.

It’s hardly surprising that blogging is catching on in education. Some teachers write blogs of daily classroom activities, letting parents keep close tabs on their children’s education. Some principals have made blogs a feature of their school’s Web site, posting announcements and pictures of field trips for parents and students.

Educational Benefits

Teachers say blogging enables students to learn from the larger Internet community and join in the fun themselves. Susan Hunsberger, who taught at Chicago’s Galileo Elementary School last year, created a blog as an information-gathering tool for her second graders.

She was teaching her students about the differences among animal groups, and the topic piqued the students’ curiosity. They began asking questions such as, “Why do people hunt?” and “Why are some people vegetarians?”

Hunsberger suggested the students post their questions on a blog. The Galileo principal funded a subscription to post the blog through a blogging service. Soon after, the students’ blog was inundated with comments from all around the world. “The kids were very excited,” says Hunsberger.

She showed the blog to her students via a classroom LCD projector and read the responses. Each student was given computer time to respond to bloggers’ comments.

The blog experience provided more than just insight into animal behavior. “It’s one thing to study animals and say these are the characteristics of mammals and reptiles,” Hunsberger says. “But for them to ask questions, go over people’s answers and come up with responses gives them a deeper level of learning. It’s really developing critical thinking skills.”

The blog also generated stronger parental participation in the classroom. When Hunsberger posted poetry written by her second-graders, a mother sent the link to some of her friends, who posted encouraging comments. “Parents do visit,” Hunsberger says. “They like to see what students are doing.”

Technology teacher Paul Allison, who teaches literacy through computers at East Side Community High School in New York City, has seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders blogging. Students are required to read 25 books a year and keep an online journal about those books.

Students read and comment on each others’ postings, which creates a sense of community, says Allison, whose blogs are hosted online through a partnership with another school district. Some students read a book on NBA basketball star LeBron James and posted comments about it on their blogs. The book’s author discovered the blogs and engaged in a discussion with the students, Allison reports.

“The students were already doing journals, so this was a natural extension,” he says. “I feel good when kids come to the computers to work on their blogs rather than play games.”

Keeping Close Watch

While a blog can be established in minutes through commercial services, schools should not jump into this technology without preparation. Before incorporating blogging in their own classrooms, teachers should attempt blogging themselves, so they can answer the questions that their students will pose, advises Sunset High’s Locke.

Schools also must ensure that students—and blog readers—publish content that is appropriate. It’s important to review all content, says Locke, who regularly reads his students’ blogs. He checks them for content, grammar, spelling and inappropriate language.

While many teachers don’t censor students’ personal blogs, they do review content once it’s posted. If they find objectionable material, they delete it. At East Side, the principal and two teachers who have embraced blogging help Allison scan the blogs.

Allison’s school has launched a new student-written blog newspaper. His principal, who approved the project, will review each story for appropriate content.

At Sunset, Locke serves as moderator for the blogs, ensuring, for example, that postings don’t deteriorate into name-calling. When a student from another school posted negative comments in his students’ blogs, Locke put an end to it by posting a follow-up response, explaining what the school was trying to accomplish and asking the student to respect that.

Evangelizing Blogs

Educators say it typically takes one teacher advocate to introduce faculty members and administrators to blogs as educational tools. Because blogs are a new concept in education, most schools don’t have formal policies or procedures on integrating their use into classrooms. That is likely to change if more teachers embrace blogging for their students.

Teachers point out that blogging in education is still experimental, and what works for one class may not work for another. For example, allowing students to submit homework via blogs may work better for English or social studies classes, where assignments are in the form of essays. It may not work as well for math and science classes, in which the correct answers will typically be identical and are easily copied, Locke explains. But math and science students can blog to discuss the concepts they’re learning in class.

Students’ responses to blogging are ensuring that the practice will spread at both East Side and Sunset schools. Allison, who last year worked with two ninth-grade humanities teachers, this year began teaching two tenth-grade humanities teachers about blogging. In Dallas, Locke converted the tenth-grade English teacher to blogging, so his former ninth-graders, such as Beltran, could continue blogging.

That makes Beltran happy. She admits she started blogging to get extra credit, but now she’s hooked and has a regular readership of classmates and teachers. While the goal was to get her to write more, using a blog has taught her a lot about herself as well, Beltran says. For instance, some classmates have told her they think she’s a humorous writer—a talent she didn’t realize she had.

“I really like to express myself, so I got addicted,” she says. “At first, it was kind of weird having people in school read my blogs. They didn’t know that was the way I was, and they would question a lot of it.

“I don’t mind it now. It’s who I am. Blogging has really helped me develop myself as a student and a writer.”

Wylie Wong is the co-author of Giants: Where Have You Gone? about San Francisco Giants players of the past and a veteran technology reporter.

Practice Safe Blogging

Keeping a personal diary is one thing. Publishing it on the Internet is another matter. If schools want to use blogs as educational tools, teachers need to get parental approval and keep a watchful eye on their students’ blogs to ensure their safety, educators say. Teachers also should read their students’ blogs regularly to make sure the content is acceptable.

To guard against legal liability, parents should sign a form allowing their children to publish work on the Internet, advises Will Richardson, supervisor of Instructional Technology and Communications at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington, N.J.

New Jersey law also requires parents to decide how much personal information can be published, such as students’ names, photos and contact information. Richardson, who has had full participation among his students, tells them to use only their first names in their blogs.

“The privacy and safety of our students is paramount,” he says. “We make blogs as anonymous as possible without ruining the effect of getting some credit for what they’re publishing.”

For extra security, subscription-based blogging services offer the option of making blogs private. That lets schools password-protect blogs and make them accessible only to an approved list of people, such as students and teachers within a school.

For a more secure environment, schools can use commercial software and house blogs on internal servers. Schools gain much more control over student postings if they manage their own blogs, says Neal Locke, a teacher at Sunset High School in Dallas. With this approach, students would use school e-mail addresses rather than personal accounts.

“It gives me more supervision to offer them e-mail addresses,” says Locke, who manages his school’s blogs under his own domain name. “I’d rather have them on my domain name than on Hotmail, where I have no control.”