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Blogs Rule

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After two years of growing my own here on Teacher, I am finally using blogs in my own classroom. And I’m wondering what took me so long.

This is a real live example of the pace at which technology gets integrated in a meaningful way into one’s practice. These days we throw a lot of money into Smart Boards and other electronic widgets for our schools. Some take, some don’t (what ever happened to laser discs?). The good stuff is only good insofar as we teachers are able to use it effectively. Not as shiny tech bells and whistles, but as tools that help us do what we do—reach kids—better than we could the old way.

Patrick Welsh, who has taught long enough at TC Williams High School in Alexandria to tell the truth on a regular basis in the Outlook section of The Washington Post, recently wrote about how lots of fancy technology has come along with their newly renovated building. His is a cautionary tale about what happens when teachers get tech gifts they never asked for and may or may not be ready to use. (“Technolust: A School That’s too High on Gizmos, Sunday, Feb 10, 2008)

On the other hand, useful technology with appropriate support in the hands of a willing educator can eventually pay dividends. For me, I’m starting to see these payoffs with blogs my students are writing about The Canterbury Tales, The Inferno, Candide, and Gulliver’s Travels.

Instead of taking lit-book-sized bites of these canonical works, I decided we should read them all at the same time. In this unit I call "BTB's" (Big Travel Books), kids had the choice of which classic they wanted to tackle in a reading group with their peers. I structure lessons along the way to facilitate their understanding. For example, each group is doing research now on the context and time period in which their book was written.

But, for the most part, I’ve done my best to stay out of the way. I want these kids to encounter the Great Books-- all books-- head on. Struggling to make meaning, drawing on other things they know… in short, doing all the stuff that makes reading so demanding and rewarding. What I don’t want them to do is take my opinions about the book and spit them back at me. And here’s where blogs strike gold.

Blogs give people license to think. Out loud, and at some length. And what makes them even more powerful is that blogs think back, via readers’ comments. (This dialogue becomes especially fruitful when I can compel students to respond thoughtfully by giving big points for writing comments. Read below the fold for the how-to info I gave the kids).

Before I share some tasty morsels, I should explain where I learned to cook. I was first exposed to educational blogs through professional presentations given by other teachers in the Northern Virginia Writing Project. Teachers teaching teachers… imagine that. Eric Hoefler told us about all things 2.0 a couple summers ago. When I first heard him talk I suddenly felt old.

Shortly thereafter Teacher Magazine took a pass on my offer to write an article about my upcoming attempt at National Board Certification, but sent me to the online guys who immediately suggested a blog. Having heard the word used a few times, I felt eminently qualified to write one. “Certifiable?” was born.

Last year, I wrote about my education blog as one of my documented accomplishments in Entry 4, for which I was tragically dinged. Ironically, this year I’ve moved a few steps further down the path and started using blogs with my kids. So there really is student achievement in them thar hills. It just took a while to find it.

Do blogs really help kids learn? Check out this excerpt from the comment board, where students discuss Voltaire’s vision of human nature in Candide (emoticons theirs).

S writes:
Mmm.
I find it interesting that by reading this book, people assume that Voltaire is displaying the nature of mankind - greedy for gold, reaching for power, so on and so forth. Okay, maybe a generalization isn't the right way to go - but it seems like it would be easy to squeeze that idea from Candide. It's interesting though, because Voltaire actually believe that all men…were born with kindness and pretty much - good characteristics. So by showing us all of these emotions - what exactly is Voltaire trying to tell us? =]

K writes:
In respose to S, I'd have to say that Voltaire is displaying truth.

By showing us the two polar opposites, Pangloss and Martin, Voltaire presents to us the different perspectives in which we can view the world, but by making both of them equally ridiculous, there's some other message involved. That's where the question comes in, what is the other message? Form the 2/3s we have read thus far, I think it may be something along the lines of "the world is not a perfect place where everything is for the best, nor are all men inherently bad. It's an imperfect world with a mixture of all kinds of people, and that's what we're going to have to accept." I may be completely wrong, but if that is indeed the message, then I agree with Voltaire.

In terms of J's insight about Biglugs with no money, I have to disagree. I don't Voltaire was actually showing that uncorrupted nature is good with the Biglugs. First of all, he was himself a part of civilized society and disliked Rousseau, who propagated the theory that uncorrupted nature produces the best results. Thus, I think he was trying to satirize this aspect as well, by showing how the Biglug women loved monkeys and how the men were such savages, who would have killed him for being a Jesuit (which is no better than civilized society). But I liked the fresh perspective on money, although my interpretation was completely different.

M. writes:
I sort of disagree with P. I believe that the people in Eldorado are both rich and happy because they don't care about the money, and they don't really need it. Everyone is rich, so everyone is pretty much equal and ordinary. It's the very fact that no one in Eldorado cares about money and are so generous that makes the country the "perfect" place.

I thought it was interesting that even though Candide was suffering due to his newly acquired fortune and the change in the way he was thinking and feeling was apparent to us, he still thought that giving money to Paquette and Brother Giroflée would make them happier. We haven't read far enough to see what happens to them yet, but I'll bet that Martin was right; the money will only increase their unhappiness the way it did for Candide.

Pretty cool. Maybe reading isn’t just a lonely struggle after all, but also about the meaning readers make when they share the sort of immediate but informal communication to which blogs lend themselves.

I encourage all old and new dogs out there to learn blog tricks, when you’re ready. And don’t worry, if you find creative ways to screw up, there’s always a kid around to help. For example, this morning I sent a student this email: “Hi D- I don't see a blog post #2 by you. Did I miss it, or did you?”

To which D. patiently replied, “I made my second blog post fairly early, it might be below some other people's first blog post. By the way, there's an option on right of the blog to filter posts by author, which lets you find people's posts.”

Blogging "BTB's" (Big Travel Books)

Rationale
A blog is an online diary (short for “weblog”). It allows you to set down your thoughts in the flow of things, as opposed to more formal types of written response, which might be composed after an experience is completed. As we explore these challenging canonical works, I hope the blog format allows you to capture and share responses during your reading in a way that will lead to a richer experience than you might have reading alone.

Content: posts and comments
For purposes of this assignment, a post should be 200-400 words, and linked to a specific reference in the text. Your thoughts may be more expansive, but it must have this anchor for full credit. Feel free to make connections within and beyond the text (even to appropriate external links, if you want).

A comment can be any length, but yours will be evaluated based on engagement with the blog and the book (something like “nice job” wouldn’t receive a lot of credit). Comments are to bloggers as water is to plants. Nourish your peers and the garden of discussion will flourish.

How to
Each group member should post once per 1/3 of the book, and comment on at least 3 posts during that section. We will create a schedule for posting in class.

To access the blog, click on “BTB Blogs” in the course menu on blackboard. Then just click on your book> new entry (or “comments” on an existing entry). You’re on your way. Note that you can read any book’s blog, but only write on your own (I think).

Netiquette
The same rules apply as in other conversations we share. Be respectful and appropriate, though feel free to challenge someone’s ideas. Don’t write anything you wouldn’t want your parents to read.

Voice in blogs is welcome, and can be conversational, but let’s not descend to the level of informality that you might share with friends while texting (“lurl”). Also, please don’t jettison basic rules of punctuation and grammar. Nuff said…blog on.

4 Comments

How do you deal with inappropriate comments on blogs by students? I use them in my middle school G/T classroom and I recently had to deal with some students criticizing each other and picking back and forth at each other and each others' blog entries. I enjoy using them in my classroom, but how do you handle situations like this...any ideas?

An excellent opportunity for students to enjoy and engage in a variety of writing! When Emmet writes, "...there's always a kid around to help" and "Teachers teaching teachers," he reminds me again of the Attitudinal Healing principal, "We are all students and teachers to each other." How would schools, and our society change if we all believed in learning from each other, regardless of age or appearances?

Regarding inappropriate comments, I would show and discuss the comments I have problems with...(or if you don't want to name names, then make them more generic) and see if the students agree that the comments could hurt feelings. Then I'd give them sentence stems with appropriate ways to agree and disagree. For example, "I disagree with you because..." "I had another idea..." "I agree with ___part of your argument, but my view is different because..." It's an important conversation to pursue so that all feel safe expressing their opinions.

Hi, Emmet - I love your blog! I'm curious which format(s) you and others use for student blogging... edublogs? blogspot? What else is out there? Which do you and others recommend and why?

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