On Their Turf: Making the Change To Student Blogging

This semester I’m teaching two courses for prospective teachers – Writing Pedagogy (4th-8th grade) and Language and Literacy (PreK – 5th grade). I’ve never taught the middle grades course and have taught the elementary course just once before. I’ve also never taught two groups at the same time – much less different courses (although I’ll admit that some of the content overlaps). Needless to say, here in week 2 it is already an adventure.

I am experimenting with many new approaches and activities in these courses this semester. I’ll be sharing more about these as time goes on, but for the moment I want to talk about blogging.

First, a bit of history. My students write weekly in my courses (after all, they are writing courses), and post their thoughts electronically. I read every word they write, and try to respond to each post. I enjoy the chance to keep up with their thinking this way, but after three semesters reading discussion threads in a course management system (CMS), I was tired. I wanted to make a change but just hadn’t done it for a number of reasons, until my university changed the CMS this year. One of the first things I found out about this new system was that students in my courses would automatically be wiped out of the system at the end of each semester. I guess this was supposed to make my life easy – hey, I didn’t even have to copy and reload the content (since, of course, I would be using the same content over and over and over again, right?) Just add a new set of names and away we go. (a joke.)

With the old system, students had access to courses for as long as the professor left us in the system (often years). Considering that I’ve been a student myself in graduate school for 5 years now, you can imagine how much information I had access to through that system. I referred to it often, even though I had downloaded much of the content elsewhere.

So, the new system and the default to purge students each semester bothered me, but I wasn’t sure why. After all, students could download content just as I had, as long as they did it before the end of the semester. What was the problem? Then, I figured it out. Wiping my students out of the courses represented something completely against my growing philosophy of education. In the past year or two, I’ve realized that my job as a teacher educator is not to cram my students’ heads full of all the knowledge they will need to be a great teacher for their entire (hopefully lengthy) careers. Instead, my job is to offer them the chance to engage with important experiences and ideas, to help them get to know themselves as writing teachers (both as teachers who write and as teachers of writing), and to start them on a path where they can continue to learn about language, literacy, and teaching long after my course is in the rear view mirror. As I told them on the first day of classes, the best teachers are learners, always.

Erasing my students from my course once the semester is over, then, didn’t line up with my ideas about my job as a teacher educator. I wanted to give them ideas and experiences that continued with them into the future. So, considering all of this, I made many changes this semester (basically circumventing the course management system in most regards). The one that has been the most obvious (and exciting) is the switch from posting their weekly writing on the course management system to posting on student blogs. I encouraged each of my students to start their own blogs. I gave them a range of sites to choose from – blogger, wordpress, posterous, edublogs, and the students also used tumblr of their own initiative – and had them link their blogs to our course wiki.

Why do blogs make a difference? Now, when I read my students’ weekly posts, instead of reading paragraph after paragraph on the gray, bland course management system screen, I go to each students’ personal writing space. Many of the students have chosen interesting, colorful designs for their blogs. Some have added photos and quotes. (By the end of the semester, they will each develop a blogroll as well, as part of creating their learning networks). Even at this early stage in the semester, each blog is already unique.

I realized last night that I was having the same reaction to the old CMS that my students often have toward textbooks. We know what a textbook looks like – it has a genre all its own, no matter how hard textbook publishers try to change it. The content, the pictures, the writing can be wonderful, but we still can spot a textbook a mile off, and get that same revulsion. My students were writing great things over the last semesters, but dealing with the system still made me impatient while reading their work. The container just didn’t appeal to me. It was a disservice to the writing my students were producing.

Now, reading their blogs, I feel like I am personally connected to each of my students – I am “on their turf” when I comment. I am the visitor in their writing space, not them the visitors in my CMS space, and I like that. I hope that this practice will encourage them to develop an online presence for themselves as writing teachers, as well as a web presence for their classrooms and students in the future. I also feel like their writing is improved. Is that just because I am more attentive? Are they really doing a better job? It’s hard to say just yet. But with their blogs, they have a chance to build their writing and work over time. And, it won’t disappear come summer semester.

I’ll admit, it was a scary risk to take to leave the security of the CMS behind for blogs (and the semester is still young), but it seems to be paying off so far. Sometime soon I’ll share my students’ thoughts on blogging. If you blog with your students (at any level), I hope you’ll share your thoughts and impressions. Or, I wonder, what have you done to give students their own educational turf?

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2 Responses to “On Their Turf: Making the Change To Student Blogging”


  1. 1 Knaus 01.21.2010 at 2:35 am

    Great post. I’ve added you to my RSS. I’m just starting out with blogging with my middle school students. We’re using http://kidblog.org. I can’t wait to see what they come up with.

    I’d love to use Blogger and WordPress but the TOS won’t allow that.

    I can’t wait to read more of what you are doing with your learners. Sounds like a couple of fun classes. Good luck!!!

  2. 2 Natzook 01.26.2010 at 1:32 pm

    I hope using tumblr will not inconvenience you, once we figure out commenting on all the blogs! I actually feel like I’m deleting a piece of my past when I would have to delete a course off of WebCT, and with our courses within the major a lot of links that the professors share will come in handy again once we are in our own classrooms. So thank you for starting this new way of organizing information.


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