Sunday, July 20, 2008

A Blogger on Blogs Part II

Part II of II

I have asked an esteemed colleague and true friend, Phil Sinitiere, to share his thoughts on blogging in the classroom. I had the opportunity to witness Phil's creativity and innovation firsthand while serving at Second Baptist School in Houston, Texas, where Phil chairs the Social Studies department and teaches AP European History and U.S. History. Phil dared to be different and offered his students the opportunity to learn with technology that included blogging, interactive whiteboards and podcasts. What follows is the second part of the interview.

NB: What has been the general reaction of your students to the blog?
PS: Visitors to this blog can read student comments for themselves in the posts about feedback, but overall I think students liked the blog. Although sometimes they saw it only in terms of homework, if they gave it enough time students were able to learn great deal about history. I found that most of my students really didn’t know what to expect at the beginning of the year, and I suppose remained that way throughout the year since I tried to vary the topics and types of posts I created. It was a bigger hit with juniors and seniors overall, I’d say, but a few of my sophomores thoroughly enjoyed posting their thoughts. My students really enjoyed the clustrmap site traffic monitor I use—it features a world map with red dots indicating from where in the world people visit the blog. It really drove home, visually, the globalized, interconnected world in which we live.

NB: Has the blog been a success? How do you measure the success of your class blog?
PS: I would certainly like to think the blog has been a success—and again the reflexive nature of the kind of communication blogs provide offers a window into this question so I’d direct readers to my student comments to decide for themselves. In terms of what criteria indicate success, on a blog I would examine the content of the posts, the range of topics covered, as well as the kinds of conversations that took place.

NB: What advice or recommendations would you give to teachers or administrators considering blogging for educational purposes?
PS: In no particular order, here they are: first, be willing to take the risks that using and incorporating technology requires. Don’t assume students know the ins and outs of EVERY bit of technology, and at the very least try to incorporate one new technological element each year. Of course you are not going to know anything and everything the first time you use it, but at least give it a TRY.

Second, see what else is out there, listen and learn from what others are doing, and then figure out how to apply it to your own setting and your own classroom. What works in Texas, for example, won’t always work in South Dakota, so you’ll have to get those creative juices flowing to find your niche.

Third, if you decide to have a class blog, post regularly, communicate that the blog is not an exercise in social networking but a serious academic enterprise, set some ground rules in terms of appropriate comments on the blog (which I think I did well), and be as clear as you can in terms of letting students know how they will be assessed for spending their time on these e-assignments (at which I could’ve done a better job).

Fourth, be willing to take risks in another way and ask for student feedback—but have them post their thoughts. You will most likely be pleasantly surprised at their frank observations, but in my experience the feedback typically involved constructive criticism.

Fifth, have fun and be flexible, allowing blogposts and e-conversations to shape and be shaped by what goes on in the day-to-day dynamics of the classroom.

Sixth, feel free to tailor posts on interests of your own choosing—students like to “see” you communicate on their turf as it were, and of course if you are passionate about a particular subject that can have drawing power as well.

Seventh, I consider every day that I use the class blog (or new technology) as something of an experiment, a new exercise in learning—and so keep in mind the reflexive nature of such technology.

Eighth, try to think of catchy, thoughtful, and perhaps humorous titles for you blogposts, as this helps to draw students in. (I regularly use puns in class, and so tried to have puns in the titles of my posts.)

Ninth, on a related note, use pictures or images in your posts—this is a communication device for your visually-oriented learners, but it is also a creative way to communicate ideas, trends, etc. relative to your subject matter.

Tenth, spend some time finding useful and relevant links for your blog (in my case, on-line primary document repositories for example, or news organizations representing multiple perspectives).

Eleventh, this almost goes without saying, but use it regularly, and bring student perspectives into the classroom—for instance I found that the proverbial quiet students were some of the more verbose and articulate in writing and if you engage their writing in class is it a very effective way to get them talking.

Twelfth, most blogging services have “save as draft” functions, so you can take your time writing up thoughtful posts—I did not write a post all in one sitting. Take your time, it is worth it and helps to insure clear communication from the educator’s end and elicit genuine and serious engagement from students.

Thirteenth, remember your audience, and remember that students, parents, colleagues, and administrators (and indeed visitors from the entire globe) read your blog. I’m an ardent supporter and vigorous advocate for academic freedom and scholarly rigor—and I’m convinced that we shortchange students by not investing time to talk through and understand the complexities and contradictions of contemporary affairs and world events—so I’m certainly not saying to tiptoe around controversial subjects (or what some deem to be controversial).

While there is of course always a risk of being misunderstood in terms of the aims of a lesson at communicated through a blogpost, and certainly a blogpost does not capture the content of conversations that take place in the classroom, this last point is simply a reminder that the tone of a blogpost can set the mood for conversations about particular topics even as it can be a powerful way to consider the complexity of opinions and the plurality of ideas. And one more point: while the conversations on my blogs this past academic year has been limited to my students and I, and those scholars and authors I’ve invited to participate—according to the clustrmap site traffic monitor people from the world over visited the blog. So I’m going to create a post inviting those visitors to provide feedback, comments, and criticism—so you may want to check the blogs to see if they offer some feedback and advice as well, hence potentially advice and recommendations as you consider starting (or revising or refining your own blog). This is the beauty (and risk) of what journalist Jeff Howe calls crowdsourcing (and check out his blog, too).

1 comment:

Jim Brown said...

Well, of course both of you have inspired me to start my own blog that I hope will be useful in my classes this year. I just finished my grad school class on educational leadership in technology and it was all about how much time students spend on line, interacting with each other over the internet and gathering information there. Lots of good stuff and kind of scary too. It really make you want to reevaluate some of the stuff we as teachers have been doing.