In spring 2007, when I first used blogs with my students, it felt practically like an accident. Before that semester, a blog in my mind was the cyber-territory of those much more internet savvy than myself. It had never occurred to me that it could be used as a tool for reflecting on academic research or a medium for peer critique.
I first used blogs as a way for students to document their progress through a highly student-directed project called “The Plague of Circumstance”—an investigation of how some countries and cultures are more susceptible to disease exposure than others as a result of historical, political or economic factors. Because this project was so individualized, my teaching partner Janel Holcomb and I decided that the blogs would be a good way for us to accomplish two things: first, to allow students to become assets in each other’s research by requiring them to list and annotate all their sources and share them with their peers; and second, to allow us as teachers to observe the direction and progress of each student’s studies. One student put it this way in her post “The Truths That All Teachers Know”
” So, this blog idea is both ingenious and evil. As I understand it, the idea is to make sure that students are actually, you know, doing their research. Generally the idea is that the teacher pretends that the students are taking the entire time given to complete the assignment, even though everyone knows that the assignment will get started maybe around 10:00 the night before it’s due.
Of course, I myself am not guilty of this….In fact, I am so responsible that I’m posting on the weekend after the blog was assigned (this is only because I saw that other ‘responsible’ students like John and Becky had posted on their blogs and I wanted to seem as awesome as them).
So Truth #1 is that students procrastinate. Truth #2 is that most students use Wikipedia, despite its bad rep for unreliable information. So I’ve decided that in the spirit of honesty I will first post the information that is found on Wikipedia. Now, have no fear teachers, I will not rely on this information. I will merely use it as a starting point…”
After reading this and other similar sentiments expressed on students’ blogs, Janel and I knew that we had hit on something. Although students were quick to recognize our original focus of accountability, their writing also hinted at the potential for a sort of online learning community that we hadn’t anticipated.
The thoughts we read on the students’ blogs revealed an important development: they were not only reading, but were also responding to, each other’s blogs. That meant that students could learn from each other by looking to their peers’ blogs for possible research sources and by initiating a dialogue about those sources. A student might post a small annotation about a website he had found, and another student studying a similar topic could use this information to locate new sources, focus his or her research, and contribute to the evolving dialogue. Mejias describes this process as distributed research—whereby “knowledge is collectively constructed and shared” (2006, p.1). In this way, the blog is a tool not only for recording what students learn, but also for students to share newfound information with their peers and to construct knowledge together.
From a teacher’s perspective, this kind of student-to-student modeling was an exciting process to witness during those early stages of what I still viewed as an experiment. It wasn’t until much later—about a year after first using blogs in my class—that I realized the parallel that might exist for teachers to follow the students’ model. Teachers everywhere already understand the value of learning from other teachers; it happens all the time at conferences, in education journals, and in school department meetings. However, the blog’s immense potential as a forum for ongoing, far-reaching dialogue and reflection is still, to many of us, uncharted territory. In my own blog about teaching, called “School(ing): Reflections of a Teacher and a Learner”
(http://spencerislearning.blogspot.com), I explained it this way:
“Much as a Captain’s Log is written to keep a record of the semi-private experiences of a sailor traveling vast oceans, with the knowledge that the only way it will ever be read is if he makes it home safely, a web-log can be an intriguing forum—both private and public; possibly never read and possibly read only by a very selective audience; and charged with the potential for an occasional fantastic discovery afloat in a mundane, featureless seascape.”
This passage brings to mind an issue that also comes up in the student’s blog above: audience. In her writing, she acknowledges the explicit audience of her two teachers; however, in referencing the work of her peers, she implies an understanding that every other student in her class might also be in her audience. In my own writing, I explore the question of audience more broadly: to take the analogy further, a Captain’s Log amidst the debris of a sunken ship might never be unearthed, and yet the log of a successful mission might find its way into the hands of inspired young sailors with their sights set on similar accomplishments. My blog can serve as a tool for my own learning, to reflect on and investigate questions in my own practice; it can also, I hope, be a tool for teaching other practitioners about strategies and resources that have worked for me.
Another element that arose through my in-class experimentation with blogs was the increased confidence exhibited by my shy students regarding their work. As technology is increasingly integrated into practically every aspect of our lives, it’s clear that there are some students who are more comfortable interacting with one another online than they are doing so in person – an observation that is both useful and frightening (the implications for the future of society are staggering, but far beyond the scope of this piece). For those students, a blog is liberating for its publicness yet privacy, extroversion yet anonymity. They can have the confidence they are afraid to exhibit in person, and they can say what they think with the safety of knowing that if it comes out wrong there’s always an “undo.”
Again, we can draw the parallel to teaching here. To some teachers, the idea of telling people about the grim details of what goes on in our classrooms might be a terrifying prospect; for many of us, the concept of actually publishing information of that kind might feel a bit like airing our dirty laundry. The traditional conceptualization of teaching as a private practice, where teachers work in isolation from one another (Nespor 1997), comes into question when we think about publicizing what we do.
However, the safety and insulation that a blog provides might be a remedy for such reclusive attitudes about sharing our work. From observing my students’ successes, I learned that I, too, could use this forum to edit out typos and careless words, to look up supporting evidence from better-informed authorities, and (above all) to hit “undo” if at the last second I lost my nerve. This liberating discovery, mined from the blogs of my decidedly more tech-savvy teenagers, led me to brave the terror of exposing my work to the world. In this way, blogs hold us to a standard higher than ourselves by encouraging collaboration between teachers, but without the tensions that can sometimes result from face-to-face collegial feedback (see Johnson & Donaldson, 2007 for further discussion of these tensions).
Because the blogs were essentially an experiment for me in those first months of use, the students and I had begun posting blindly, with only the idea that research sources should be cited and annotated as one might do while amassing a traditional bibliography. There had been no formal rubric and very few explicit guidelines. At first, of course, that meant that the students’ posts were hit-or-miss. One way that I further developed the effectiveness of the blogs was to pick out exemplary posts to share with the class. We would read the posts together and tease out what elements made them successful, keeping a list as we went of all the things they could replicate later. This method of modeling and analyzing excellent work is not only applicable to blogs; Berger (2003) suggests this practice for almost any kind of work. One particularly positive element of this process was that we were able to look at and celebrate the work of students who typically struggled in more traditional research and writing tasks, such as this post from one student’s blog (recorded as posted):
“http://www.dhpe.org/infect/rift.html—This is the URL for my topic Rift Valey Fever. In this article it was giving facts and a clear understanding about…Rift Valley Fever like , what it is, how you can get it, where it orginated from, the treatments for getting it, and the symptoms. One part of this article where I got confused was when the article started of by saying that rift valley fever causes viral disease. Then later in the article it said that rift valley fever the diease is caused by rift valley fever the virus. I didn’t understand which one my group and I were studing and couldn’t get a clear understanding of which one was the right one until I went to Janel for help, and she made it clear that a viral disease and a virus were the same thing, which means that rift valley fever is a virus that causes viral disease.”
The honest inquiry and research skills evident in this post (and elsewhere in his blog) were exciting to witness, as they demonstrated deeper critical and analytical skills in this student than he usually revealed in the classroom. The blog form seemed to give students who often struggled in school a voice and an equal opportunity for success. Using their work as a model for their peers helped them to feel valued in our classroom community.
Since doing the “Plague of Circumstance” project, I have continued to use blogs in a variety of ways—as project logs, as creative writing journals, and as news reporting, to name a few. However, one benefit of blogs has so far eluded my students and me: their ability to attract a potentially unlimited, global audience. The kinds of tasks for which my students have used blogs in the past are not the type that would interest someone outside the context of our class, nor are the students framing their writing in a way that invites outsiders into that context. In order to unlock our blogs’ wider appeal I will need to revise my thinking about the kind of writing students might include. Similarly, this thinking will need to include more consideration of how teachers might use their own blogs to reach a broader community (see Ganley, 2006 for a discussion of this topic). For example, teachers’ blogs might be used for showcasing student work, drawing parents and families into investigating what their children are learning, or networking with other educators about helpful strategies and ideas for teaching.
One way I’ve already begun thinking about helping students grow in their understanding of a blog’s potential is to use examples of professional blogs with large readerships—the kind that, these days, have the power to make or break box office sales, celebrity charity causes, or even political campaigns (see Daily Kos: State of the Nation or Instapundit.com, each garnering approximately 300,000 subscribers). If students see blogging as more than a homework assignment, it will help them to find value in the effort required to do it well.
Another, more humble way in which I’m trying to revise my thinking about blogs is to use my own blogging as a model for my students. Up until recently, I had a blog that I used purely for posting homework assignments or writing prompts (see http://spencerpforsich.blogspot.com). However, as I mentioned above, I now have another blog. It is useful for my students to see that I use this medium for honest, reflective thinking much in the same way that I ask them to do. In my case, that thinking is about issues that relate to my work as a teacher, which is a good corollary to the thinking they document in their blogs about issues related to their work as students. One example comes from a post I did about Adria Steinberg’s “Six A’s” (Steinberg 1998, pp. 24-25) as they applied to an upcoming project:
“When I look at the project work we’ve been planning for the coming semester, I see a lot of things we’ve incorporated into them that [Adria Steinberg’s] Six A’s suggest doing. For example…I’m planning to incorporate some element of inquiry into the world of gallery and museum curation by having students interview curators about what is valued in the world of contemporary art, with the goal of developing that contact into something that will provide them feedback as they produce their own work (“Adult relationships”).
There are some things that we haven’t yet incorporated but would like to. For example, she suggests that students should be a part of setting project criteria, rubrics, etc. (“Assessment practices”). This is something that I think about but often neglect to incorporate into my planning…I want to make sure this happens with our next project.”
By showing my students the process of developing ideas—such as projects, as seen here—I give them a glimpse into the rationale of my teaching practice. I also allow them to see me falter in working out difficult problems, which lets them know that this is a natural part of work worth doing. If they see that even adults struggle with new ideas, then perhaps their own struggles will feel more like a natural part of the learning process.
Berger, R. (2003). An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship in Schools. Chicago: Heinemann.
Ganley, B. (2006, August 9). Blogging: Moving Student Blogging Beyond the Classroom. Retrieved February 17, 2008, from http://mt.middlebury.edu/midblogs/ganley/bgblogging/2006/08/09/.
Johnson, S., & Donaldson, M. (2007). Overcoming the Obstacles to Leadership. Educational Leadership, 65(1), 8-13.
Mejias, U. (2006). Teaching Social Software with Social Software. Innovate, 2(5). Retrieved February 17, 2008, from http://www.innovateonline.info/index.php?view=article&id=260&action=article.
Moulitsas Zúniga, M. (2008, February 1). Daily Kos: State of the Nation. Retrieved February 2, 2008, from http://www.dailykos.com/.
Nespor, J. (1997). Tangled Up in School: Politics, Space, Bodies, and Signs in the Educational Process. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Pforsich, S. (2008, January 20). School(ing): Reflections of a Teacher and a Learner. Retrieved February 3, 2008, from http://spencerislearning.blogspot.com/.
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