I’ve written more than a few times about class blogs and I think they are a pretty awesome, versatile tool for teachers to use. I’ve got guides for there three major platforms (WordPress, Blogger, Posterous) and while they have changed a little bit since I posted, I still feel my guides still hold up pretty well so check them out.
To get all the good people out there caught up, I used WordPress last year and it worked well, but the hassle of getting all the students signed up was a real pain in my ascot. I also required all my students to post to the blog on every subject which had its own problems (read about those here). So I switched platforms and changed how I wanted the blog to work for my class.
Basically I picked 3-5 students to write on a given topic and then follow up that topic by having those students lead a class presentation. I’ve made sure to pick some very relevant topics that I feel they can relate to (middle school students that is). Well, the search for the perfect fit for the classroom blog continues. Click past the link to figure out what worked and what has fallen short.
Getting set up on posterous.com is crazy easy. All it takes is an email address and voila! You are off and running. No need for students to sign up, no need to set permissions, no need to troubleshoot with less tech savvy students signing up or joining the blog instead of creating their own. You see posterous.com lets people email their posts to the blog and then you, as a teacher, can approve, edit, or delete them. It is a very easy system and that works very well.
Students have been able to easily send posts to the blog and for this matter is has been very successful. When a student sends in their post I get an email that alerts me of a new post that needs moderation. A few times students have sent in duplicates or early versions for my opinion. This is definitely the primary reason why I switched from wordpress.com to posterous.com for my class blog and posterous has not let me down once since September 2011.
Students do seem to do better with the scaled down version of the blog. Knowing that they only have to blog once or twice a semester instead of every couple weeks has really improved the quality of the blog posts and the comments. It has been quite a difference. When everyone was posting an article we would be lucky to get 3-4 quality comments. That has more than tripled (easily). 🙂
The Bad (actually more annoying than bad)
Images make a huge impact on blog posts. They just do! Don’t believe me, go to your favorite blog (www.itbabble.com) and use PrintFriendly to print out your favorite post and have them remove the images. Now compare the two . . . go on I’m in no rush. There, hopefully you see what I mean. Images speak volumes and my students (for whatever reason) seem to have a real problem placing images into their emails. Some have tried (and failed) while others totally ignore the requisite for the post. I’m pretty sure I’m being pretty clear (heck I’ve made a guide for it here) but it doesn’t seem to work for most of my students. The ones who do add an image are more read and more commented on than those who don’t. Not surprising in my book.
Ye olde typeface! This is just a personal preference. I love to see a blog, website, book, menu, billboard, leaflet, etc. with the same (or complimentary) typeface or font. My class blog’s typeface is all over the place. Some posts have small, medium or large fonts and completely different typefaces. It looks unprofessional and I think detracts from what they have to say. I know I may be nitpicking here but presentation (especially on the web) is very important to me; if you don’t believe me check it out the images below all from the same blog (there were plenty more to chose from as well). I want people to stop by the blog and take what these digital natives have to say as seriously as I do and this does not help. I wish posterous.com would step in with a stricter CSS (maybe this is something I can control) and standardize all typeface in the post.
The last annoying thing is comments. With wordpress.com I had to only approve comments one time and wordpress remembered them and they were free to comment which led to a more communal atmosphere and encouraged more commenting (which is extremely important). The fact that each and every comment must be approved by yours truly really backs up the whole system a little. Again, this may be something that I can tweak in the preferences but I haven’t found it yet.
Microsoft Word, you know I love you and all yo have to offer, but when you email a Word document to Posterous, it will use Scribd to make it viewable on the blog. The problem is it looks like this:
Not very attractive in the least. It’s hard to read to boot and just not a good solution.
The Potholes I Stepped In (otherwise known as the pile-o-poop)
These problems I’ve either created, ignored or have totally overlooked. Hopefully you will read this and not make my mistakes. The first one is hubris. I thought by creating this system and selecting who would post/present and when would motivate the other students in the class and it would be something they would look forward to. I was partially correct. They loved it when someone else was presenting, but not themselves. The presenters seemed to wait to the last minute to prepare their presentations or post their article to the blog. It is frustrating but my own fault. I seldom met with the bloggers (except for a few minutes every other class) to support them. I now realize I need to set aside more time to support their endeavors. As a blogger I overlooked one of the major hang ups – reputation and self esteem.
Being pawned on a blog is not a good feeling (trust me) and having middle school students put their opinions out there for the world to see is something that takes courage and a bit of risk on their part. I totally overlooked this and was too focused on the process and the product. I need to sit and help these kids with their thoughts and to develop their ideas, even if it is one-on-one. That is a lot of time, but I think that what they say is important and as children I want to encourage their voice, not stifle it. At the same time I don’t want to be putting words in their mouth either. A difficult balance to be sure.
Those damn presentations! For the most part the presentations have been very good. The reasons they have been very good is due to the relevant topics I’ve chosen and the audience being very connected to those topics. Here are a few of them (Should Facebook be banned at our school? Should YouTube be blocked, Can people resolve their problems online? and more!) They may not sound too sexy to you but at the time it was big news for me and my students and I needed a mop to clean up the saliva after introducing the topic (not literally).
So when presentation day comes and the those students present, the presentations kinda stink. Their content is usually OK and they are usually well prepared to answer questions and engage with the audience but the presentations themselves are quite boring. They are usually either a very ineffective PowerPoint or just talking. This falls back on me. I need to set the bar a little higher next go round and make sure that students put a little more planning into their presentations and I need to be available to make sure they have plenty of support in that respect.
Yeah, I’ve screwed up a bit. One, I clearly underestimated (as noted above) the time I needed to provide the students to meet the standards I had envisioned. In my mind, grading 3-5 blogs at a time instead of 20-30 would save me time and it has, but to get the quality I need to increase the time and amount of support required before the post and presentation.
Two, I need promote the blog a lot more. I mean what good is a blog if only myself and the students are reading it? It’s basic blogging 101 – grow your audience. If they’re going to publish to the world they need to understand that there are people out there who are not part of the class who are reading. Their opinions way a lot heavier than their best friend saying how great they did. If a stranger from thousands of miles says yeah, you are right and add a new perspective to the discussion then . . . WOW. That makes it worth all the time put into it. Even if a stranger calls them out, hopefully they learn a little from it and apply those lessons next time.
To sum it all up I am far from the Holy Grail of the classroom blog but I think I am still getting closer and making progress. The blog still engages my students. It still gets them thinking about real conundrums that really affect their life right now which is good. I just want to give them the opportunity to turn this blog into something great. I think I’m on the right path but more experimentation is out there. In the meantime check out my class blogs here and here.