Monday, December 1, 2008

Blogging for Summaries

If I had a dollar for every time the bell rang as I was just getting into my lesson summary I'd have fourteen thousand three hundred and nine dollars (I keep very accurate notes.) The longer I've taught the better I get at "beating the bell" but I could always use a few more minutes for class discussion and so that I can really know if everyone in the class is going home with the meaning of the days lesson emblazoned on their brains. As much as I'd like adding four more minutes to the period or standing in front of the door with a whip and a chair so that I can elicit one more meaningful response from my students before they stampede forth into the hall way, we all know that the school is not going to adjust the bell schedule for me. This is where the class blog earns its stripes.
Blogs aren't the latest rage on the Internet anymore. These days we switch back and forth seamlessly between Websites and blogs without even knowing the difference. (If you're still not 100% sure of the difference, here is a video that will explain far easier than I ever could). The question of the day is how do you take a Web 2.0 tool that is designed to bring people together from far flung places and use it in a classroom community that meets face to face everyday. Complicating matters are the restrictions of living in a K-12 environment in an era when parents are increasingly concerned about their children's Internet footprint and the posting of personal information on the Web.
My solution to these issues was to create a private blog for my classes here on blogger (the image is a screen shot as opposed to a full link because the blog is set to "private"). The advantage of using a private blog as opposed to a public one is that I can limit who has access to the page to only my students. By limiting access to the blog I can help calm the concerns of nervous parents that ner-do-wells will be following their children's every comment on the blog. Next I had my students create free Google accounts to access the site. The advantage of giving them Google accounts is that it identifies them when they post. Now they are directly accountable for the things that are posted to the site under their name. This makes monitoring of the blog easy and will help calm the nerves of anxious administrators who have a hard enough time policing the halls of the school, the neighboring streets and the one thousand three hundred and thirty six Facebook and Myspace pages specifically dedicated to trashing your school.

Now that the nuts and bolts were done it was time to get creative with the blog. I've always believed that technology for the sake of technology is counter productive. Technology needs to enhance the product, not become the product. The blog in this case became the place to check for understanding and seek out those meaningful responses. In the course of all our lessons we ask numerous questions (in the language of eduspeak those would be transition questions, summary questions, essential questions, content questions, unit questions, etc. I call them all questions). Each day I take two of those questions and post them on my class blog and I require the students to answer them as part of their homework. I have the blog set to "moderate comments" so that the students answers are not instantly viewable. This accomplishes two goals, 1) students can't have inappropriate comments instantly posted (you always need to be on guard for this) and 2) The students can't simply copy the previous students entry.
In the morning before school I sift through the previous days comments and publish the 10 best or most unique answers. Students are required to have 10 comments published over the course of the semester ensuring that they will all continue to comment until they reach that threshold (and obviously once a student reaches published comment #9 I will not publish #10 unless he or comes up with the cure for cancer and even then I might not, until the final days of the marking period.)
By doing this my students will have created a collaborative online notebook that they all have access to. The blog entries can be used by one and all as a study resource prior to unit tests, midterms and the dreaded Regents Exam at the end of the year.

Steps:
#1 Create a blog account. (Obviously I recommend using blogger, but there are others Wordpress for example or edublogs are both good free blog sites)
#2 Set up your account settings. For a classroom environment, I recommend making the blog private and limiting the readers to only people that you invite (your students). I also highly recommend that you use the setting for moderating comments. This will keep students from posting comments without you first seeing what is being posted.)
#3 Create your first post (it's as simple as writing an e-mail).
#4 Invite your students to join the blog (this is done either by sending them an e-mail from your blog inviting them to join or by manually creating blog accounts for them.
#5 Give students an assignment to answer a question on the blog. Most students will adapt to this very quickly, but for some it will take time to adjust. Be sure to have a good ole' fashioned pen and paper version of the assignment ready as an alternative for those kids who have trouble accessing the blog or understanding what is expected of them.
#6 Happy blogging!

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