Sunday, April 11, 2010

Help Your Students Become Bloggers

In a previous blog post, I detailed how I got my own students blogging, using's powerful and safe features. In this follow-up post, I'll cover how to help your students come up with catchy blog topics, titles, and blog posts, as well as ideas for keeping them motivated to blog.
Assuming all your students have their own Gaggle account, they will be prompted to select a title for their blog.  Get your students to talk with one another about hobbies, areas of interest, and activities in which they have a high interest, and already know a lot about. Some of the discussions you'll inevitably overhear are topics ranging from sports, cooking, and fashion to video games and music.  The key question each student needs to answer yes to is: "Is this a topic I believe I can write about knowledgeably for about 15 to 20 minutes, once a week?" If they can answer yes to that, then this may be a good topic. It's not necessary the topic be of any interest to you, or anyone else in the class, for that matter. The only rule of thumb is, it should appeal to him or her. It may go without saying, but I'll mention it here: It should be rated G in appropriateness.  Remind students that as bloggers, they have a responsibility to themselves and to others, to be careful about what they say. Unlike a journal or diary entry where you write for "your eyes only," a blog is out there for all to see. As a professional educator, remind students to use their best discretion. If you are concerned, check your district policies as to the appropriateness of the content of your students' blogs. 
Coming up with catchy blog titles
It's hard to find a title that's both catchy and descriptive at the same time. Titles can't be too long or they risk being forgetful; they can't be too short, because short names can be ambiguous.  One of my students wanted to blog about video games, sharing tips and tricks on how to win a given video game. He chose the name Game It! I liked it because it was short, snappy, and said a lot with few words. One of my girls loved fashion and keeping up with the latest clothing styles. Her favorite thing to do was go shopping, so she named her blog, Shop-o-holic. Give students ample time to come up with a blog title, and time to brainstorm, either in a journal or sheet of paper, future topics they'd like to write about. One of my students wants to one day play for the NFL. His idea was simply to comment on one of the games he watched that week, so he called his blog NFL Weekly. 
Setting up a classroom blog schedule
Before you set up a classroom blog schedule, there are a few questions you need to consider. How many computers are available with Internet connections? How many instructional minutes can you allocate for your students to blogging? The answer to these questions will impact the frequency your students can blog. In my sixth grade class, I have five computers. It just so happens that my students are seated in groups of four or five. I teach writing for 45 minutes per day. If each table group blogs for 20 minutes, once a week, I can have two table groups blog during my writing period. I have seven table groups, and on Mondays, it's Table One and Two's turn; Tuesdays, Tables Three and Four; Wednesdays, Five and Six; and Thursdays, Table Seven. Therefore, by Thursday, everyone in my class has had the opportunity to add a blog post. What's more, they have the entire week in between to be thinking about what they will write about. Hopefully, by the time they sit down at the computer, they will be able to unload all that's been on their minds all week. I have a poster where the schedule is posted. Students have other opportunities to blog, too. What's great about the Internet is that they can access their blog controls from anywhere they have an Internet connection. Several of my students simply can't wait until it's their turn to blog in class, so they blog much more frequently throughout the week from the comfort of their own home.
How is blogging beneficial?
Students' interest levels vary depending on the academic pursuit. Some subjects are more fun than others; but one thing I've found to be true is that if you can put a technology "spin" on the subject - any subject - students' interest levels increase across the board. It's one thing to see childrens' faces light up when they open a present they got for their birthday. But I see that same face when I tell a child their account is "live" and give them the green light to start their blog. They can't wait. Then, when they type their URL into the address bar and see their post, you get an idea how Santa Claus must feel every Christmas day. Part of the reason they have such a high interest is that they feel empowered. With blogging, they suddenly have a platform from which to share opinions, feelings, thoughts, and ideas. From a writing strategies standpoint, blogging improves writing through peer editing. It's important that students be required to read one another's blog posts and to offer positive and constructive criticism. For example, when anyone encounters a blog post with grammatical errors such as capitalization, usage, punctuation, or spelling, they are expected to leave a comment, but not before they make a positive comment. One comment may read: "Hey, I loved your post about caring for your pet, but you spelled "dalmation" wrong."
Encourage students to use their first blog entry to introduce themselves and what their blog will be about. For example, One student writes:
"Yaaaaaaaay! Welcome to my blog. My name is Sara, and my blog is going to be about DANCE. Now I'm not just talking about boring, one type of dance. I'm talking about ballroom, modern, and many others. So all those dancers out there, tell your friends and tell them to tell their friends because my blog is going to be fun and not boring!!!!! See ya' at my Blog Dance-a-Palooza."
I encourage students to write at least once a week, for about 15 to 20 minutes. This works out to be about 100 words, although some write significantly more or less, depending on the student's age and ability level. It's important to maintain a classroom schedule so you have a minimum expectation of one blog entry per week. Any more than that should be left completely up to the student. You will find that some students will barely make the minimum expectation. This could be because they ceased being interested in the overall scope of their blog. If this is the case, I always let students change their topic. Joe is one such student. He started blogging about NASCAR, but realized one month and four blog posts later that he really didn't tapped out his knowledge and interest in it, and asked if he could cover WWE Wrestling, and his creative juices began to flow again. Then, you'll have the students who blog as though they've finally found their higher calling. These are the students who post every day, from home, from grandma's house, from Starbucks, and anywhere in between. These are the kids you've simply hooked. It's fun to see kids take to it like they do and run with it. There's simply no stopping them. 
How to stay motivated to blog
There are a few tricks that you can try mid-year that can keep students' interests up to continue blogging. One idea is to select certain outstanding blog posts to be part of a classroom or schoolwide newspaper. We all like seeing our own ideas validated in print, even though we're in the digital age. And what better way to  highlight some of the great writing your students are doing than to have some of the best rise to the top in the form of a published work.

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