Thursday, 31 October 2013

What Teachers Need to Know about Student Blogging

Yesterday, my administrator and I had a great one-on-one chat about student blogging. I think it has 3 clear advantages:

Image Courtesy of CC

Student Portfolios 
A blog's content is versatile. Image courtesy of CC

It can serve as a beautiful portfolio of learning. I cringe when I hand back paper assignments to the students to see them dumped in the trash after class; never to be seen again. What if students kept all their work? Wouldn't it be so awesome for students to be able to "look back" over all their learning over the years to see how far they've come as learners? I for one, cannot remember any projects I did back in middle school.In this capacity, so blogs can serve as great mementos of work from a variety of classes.

Writing for an Audience 
Schools place an emphasis on reading. They also place an emphasis on writing. What I see many schools not doing though, is placing an emphasis on students reading what other students write. All too often, writing pieces are published or handed in and given some "hallway bulletin board time" before being taken down. Maybe a small handful of the better written works are circulated by the teacher. Usually, the pieces are handed in, assessed and then handed back. A blog gives students a place for not only the teacher to read student work, but other students and the rest of the world as well.

Better Quality Writing 
Research has supported that content and quality are supported by computers. It should come as no surprise. Students can move text around. Words can be spell-checked, and word processing gives a great line to thesauri. Internet access gives an immediate tab to links, quotes from authors, research studies and writing can mix and mingle with visual media giving a writing piece much more to look at.

"With all this, it would seem like student blogging is a natural compliment to learning. So why don't more teachers utilize this tool? Frankly, because the strength of blogging is also its weakness."

Students Can Create Portfolios, But What Should be Included?
There is a huge divide with what teachers are doing in this regard. Many use the blogs for only summative tasks and projects. Some use them for formative tasks. With the formative tasks, there tends to be less revision and peer editing prior to publication so the work may be of a lower quality. If it is low quality, why publish it for everyone to see?  These questions are particularly relevant when discussing what to publish for the world. I tend to use blogs for summative projects where students can show their "best" work.

Writing for an Audience That Isn't There
Video book talks on our school's Youtube page with few views
A couple of years ago, I polled my students in class and asked them some questions about their blogging prior to coming to my class for the new school year. The results were really interesting and explain why many adults blogs are abandoned after a few months. They were

  • 98% of my students felt that their work was not being read as indicated by lack of comments and their site visitor widgets. 
  • Only 10% of students were writing on their blogs for "fun" or on topics not related anyway to classes or the behest of the teachers. 

With the emphasis on "content creation" as being part of the emerging 21st century classroom, I think there is now a danger on creating beautiful student work, but it's still work created for the purposes of assessment. On our school's youtube page (pictured above) I have found dozens of videos uploaded many months ago, with no views at all. In a more real sense, students are now presenting not to their peers, but to a device. They're creating content, but not learning from one another.

Image Courtesy of CC

Is It Better Quality Writing Through Plagerism?
Sites like turnitin are thriving from the problems of students not citing resources correctly. With a wealth of information easy to access, why should students write when it has been written before and is a "Control-C" away? All educators have raised an eyebrow when a sentence or paragraph suddenly appears with words that the students could not define and language with a clearly different voice. Also, writers workshop may be easier to conduct simply be passing paper around in small groups rather than pass a hefty machine around when posts are in draft form. 

 "Is student blogging a passing fad in education?"

This was the question posed by my administrator and it's a very good one. Blogging is not a fad, but merely another publishing tool for student created work. I think the question is not "Should students blog?" but "Is this work that they should put on their blogs?" No educator would belittle the importance of writing in the classroom, but we must ask: who are the students writing for? To combat these challenges, there are solutions:

  • Teachers need to explore blogging as a professional practice. We can't teach this tool if we don't know how to use it ourselves. Instead, teachers are devoting much of their time to how to meet state standards and pass high stakes tests. While teachers are doing this, "students are embracing the building blocks of one of the more powerful tools for learning ever invented, and most don't even know about it." -Will Richardson
  • Give students the freedom to differentiate their writing. They will enjoy reading what their peers write if there is a greater variety of topics, titles and styles.
  • We need to develop opportunities for students to read each others work. Next week, my science students are having a "publishing party" for a biological study as the culminating activity for biology. We're devoting a whole period for reading and commenting on each others writing. Peer review is essential.
  • Provide assignments that can't be plagiarized. If your assignment is to "report on George Washington's accomplishments", it should come as no surprise that students grab text off of wikipedia. However, you can have students remix and apply knowledge in ways that are are not so easily copied with a little bit of creativity. Some options for the above:
    • Compare George Washington's and Barrack Obama's style of leadership and/or voting record.
    • Based on George Washington's political history, how would he lead our present day Senate and House of Representatives?
  • Schools need to explore Professional Development of social networking. Many administrators feel that a smart board is the most innovative technology being used in the modern classroom. Will Richardson also comments "In our experience, the reason most educators don't see a place for these tools in schools is because many have not had the time to figure out the roles these networks have in their own lives". 

Personal Learning Networks-Richardson and Mancabelli pg. 39, 41 (Copyright 2011)

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Digital Story Telling to Demonstrate Understanding

Image courtesy of CC
Image courtesy of CC
Walking out of my daughters soccer practice this Saturday morning, I spied inside the auditorium where approximately 70 students were taking the SAT. Teachers bemoan standardized tests, but I will confess, they have their perks. They're quick and easy to standardize (which is inherent in their name) as there is no teacher bias, partial credit and no-retaking or resubmission. In short, they say: "Tell me what you know". The SAT is designed to show a student's academic understanding at one point and the results are not divulged to the school or disaggregated to learn from the student population what skills they are strong or weak in.

I've felt good for doing well on tests, but the elation was from "beating the system" through telling the teacher merely what they wanted to hear.


A colleague of mine and I were musing last week that "test taking skills" is the proverbial "can" that gets kicked down the road in education. Why do students take tests in elementary-to get them ready for middle school testing. And why should we teach good test taking skills in middle school-because the middle school years are practice for high school and we want students to have those skills on arrival so their GPA is unblemished. Of course, high school is a college preparatory platform, and so on and so forth. Still, I don't recall a single test that I've enjoyed or remembered fondly. Never I have looked back in my life and felt like a good test score was a huge accomplishment which demonstrated my learning in a way that gave me pride. I've felt good for doing well on tests, but the elation was from "beating the system" through telling the teacher merely what they wanted to hear. It is in effect a blunt tool that shows understanding but doesn't give any opportunity to teach others. So many of our students are feeling testing burnout these days and many US teachers spend their time teaching to tests to keep their school's open, funded and keep themselves employed.

A revolution is brewing. Teachers are doing some great things with creative media and as we increasingly connect with other teachers through professional learning networks, we're able to get ideas to how we can show understanding in many ways that may in turn, teach others. Although we're in this new era of using content creation in education, we are finding varying degrees of mastery and in-depth content knowledge or skills. If students are merely reading a slide from information that they have copied and pasted, have they learned anything? Also, for projects that span several periods, who is to say they're not getting help from a parent, older brother or tutor? Such questions make the case for traditional testing discourage reform efforts.    

Image courtesy of CC
Image courtesy of CC
My Digital Story-Chemistry
If you've been following my posts lately about digital media I've been learning that "less is more" to make a better presentation. This forces the presenter to not rely on reading text, but rather synthesizing information in a way that shows understanding of a topic. Rather than have my students take a test at the end of our unit, I've decided to use a digital story explaining their depth of knowledge which will be a much more authentic way not only to show their learning, but teach others about the properties of specific elements. My rubric category will focus on the following:
  1. Atomic Structure: Atom structure such as number of protons, electrons, and neutrons.
  2. Periodic Table: Atomic number, commonalities that an element has with its group. Reactivity and density, physical and chemical properties and common uses that we use this element for.
  3. Bonding: How does this element bond with others?
Although the digital story design elements are important to a good presentation, I may use the rubric when the students present just to give feedback on one another's stylistic elements when they present. With each student (or working in groups of 2) they'll each present on an element to teach the class and we'll have a presentation celebration as our last day of the unit. I've done enough formative assessments through group labs, quizzes and summative labs like the one below for them to demonstrate lab skills and content knowledge and so far the data on their learning has been impressive.


Enter Puppetpals
50+ 2.0 Tools to help you tell a story helped me storyboard this first. Dr. Anne Bamford talks at great length on how visual stories can help us retain information that is longer lasting. However, I do disagree with her point that teachers do not need to be experts in media creation. If we are going to suggest tools to use to make and send a message, we had better know what we are talking about so we can provide technical support to students that need it. A few years ago, I offered scratch animation as a possibility for a differentiated product extension on various astrological phenomenon such as orbiting, moon phases and seasons. Because I didn't know how to use scratch animation well, I was a poor resource and could not help. For our digital story on the elements, I wanted to create one exemplar for which the students could see and also so I could anticipate and troubleshoot problems, not to mention plan realistic steps using the project based learning model.

By becoming a maker myself, I could anticipate and troubleshoot problems, not to mention plan realistic steps using the project based learning model.



Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Genius Hour Chronicles: Literature Review

Here are some groups doing a literature review before starting their experiment for "Genius Hour". It was my (and their) first time using the app "touchcast" but we were able to do it in one period with a little preplanning.

 I will have all students get their literature review up on their blogs by Friday. If any genius hour teachers might be interested in commenting on my student's blog early next week, that would be awesome!