Thursday, July 17, 2008

A Blogger on Blogs

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 Part I of a two-part interview with Phil about his blogging experiences in the classrooms.

NB: Why did you feel a need to create a blog for your class(es)? What did you hope to accomplish by creating a blog for your class(es)?
PS: Before answering this question, it will perhaps be helpful to explain briefly what led to my inspiration for creating a class blog. It came from several areas. First, prior to my decision to have a class blog, I had been following certain blogs for about 4 years, mostly related to research I was doing on postmodern religious groups in the U.S. Many of these folks communicate electronically, and so I began to see how powerfully blogs could communicate ideas. And I had started my own blog in 2005, mostly as a place to post about academic matters. Second, a history professor from Colorado I know, Paul Harvey, created a class blog I followed in the spring of 2007, and I was quite impressed with the consistently thoughtful student responses and the type of dialogue that took place. Here I began to imagine a blog in a classroom, and contemplate ways to use it. Third, for several years I had heard a few educators discuss blogs, and after I saw a presentation at the 2007 World History Association meeting in Milwaukee on blogs and teaching history and discovered the fascinating things one teacher was doing, I decided to create my own class blog (actually two blogs: one for my U.S. history class and one for my Advanced Placement European history class.

My reasoning behind the class blog was to communicate better with today’s wired generation on the one hand, and on the other to make my classroom global in a totally new and different way. Already familiar with the basics of technology in the classroom, I wanted to move beyond PowerPoint presentations, movie clips, and music; I wanted to facilitate conversation and critical analysis in a different setting, and in turn hopefully better address the multiple learning styles in my classroom. When I started I hoped that students would see history differently, enjoy learning about the past, take more ownership of their learning, and discover how to more critically navigate the infinite number of sites and (re)sources available on the Internet.

NB: How much time did you spend creating and designing the blog prior to posting for the first time?
PS: I was already familiar with Blogger, so honestly the morning before my first post (on both my U.S. history blog and AP European history blog) I probably spent about two hours deciding on the template, setting up the links, adjusting the comment settings, and other details. I probably spent more time thinking and pondering what I wanted to do with the blog, and really what subjects and topics I wanted to post about. I didn’t have an agenda of topics, per se, before I started, but wished to remain flexible in terms of posting on things students wanted to know more about as well as incorporating relevant current events that took place throughout the year. My first post on the U.S. history blog had to do with my global approach to teaching American history. The Thomas Bender quote on the blog is also the same quote I have on my syllabus, as is the W.E.B Du Bois prayer about the value of hard work in academics—so I saw these first few posts as a way to introduce the technology, communicate to parents, colleagues, and administrators what I was up to with the blog (I showed parents the blog during open house), and drive home how I structured my course and hopefully offer some historical inspiration for the beginning of the school year.

NB: What are some examples of the topics of your blog posts?
PS: First, another bit of prelim perspective may be helpful here.

I started out last August, posting on current events as well as creating links to primary documents I wanted students to read and analyze. Then, through the course of class discussions and simply asking students what they thought, the ideas began to flow and topics for posts came rushing like a thunderstorm on a hot, gulf coast afternoon. I also began to think more analytically about ways I could assess students (for more on this see the next question).

This led to the creation of an on-line Constitutional scavenger hunt, for instance, and a massive post about Alexis de Tocqueville that allowed students to travel virtually with him on his tour of the U.S. and read relevant diary entries to better understand his thoughts about the new nation.

If I showed a documentary (or parts of it) I would regularly post links to the documentary’s website which not only contained activities to do in class, but also primary documents—text—that usually fit beautifully with the audio and visual of the topic under discussion. (See, for example, the post on Lewis and Clark.) I would also occasionally post review terms and study items on the blog. The weekend before the final exam, I podcasted a 4-minute study skills message that offered tips on how to prepare for my final exam—something new and different yet it complimented the subject matter of the class review sessions.

Above all, though, I really strove to find as many primary documents as I could about the subject and topics we discussed. As you know, there is just tons of material on the Internet, and I was able to find some really interesting items. In addition to the Tocqueville post, during my unit on the progressive era I found a treasure of material related to Helen Keller, Upton Sinclair, and W.E.B. Du Bois and was able to incorporate it into class. I should also say that I was able to do a fair amount of art analysis and art criticism through the blog—posting links to artwork, for instance, have students pick a painting or image and study it for homework, and then call them up during class to come interpret and explain. This worked well using a SMARTboard, and gave students a chance to communicate visually, textually, and verbally. (See, for example, the posts on Gilded Age art as well as the artwork of the Great Depression.)

I also tried to give students a place where they could voice feedback on what I do in the classroom—a risk at being transparent for both parents and administrators that I think is necessary in a venture like this. So, for instance, I used a SMARTboard in class for the first time in January 2008, and created a post where students could leave their thoughts, and in May I posted again, asking students about their experiences with the class blog throughout the year. This is where the reflexivity that exists with this kind of technology can bear much fruit.

I would also try to post about unique topics, not necessarily related to the unit we were on in class, but relevant in terms of the aims of my class—to get students to think critically about their place in today’s global world. This led to a post, for instance, where students took a presidential candidate quiz and posted the results on-line—a post that generated wonderful class discussion. Another post on journalist A.J. Jacobs’ experiment about living the bible for a year provided a way to think about and discuss one of the most frequent phrases in my classroom: “to better understand the past we must walk in the shoes of those who preceded us.”

Since I grew up in the 1980s, and since I wanted students to really remember this period beyond the pop culture of this decade, I created another scavenger hunt that was just loads of fun putting together. Then I sent a questionnaire to some of my teaching colleagues who grew up in the 1980s, and asked them to share their memories. This post—in which I included pictures of me from the 1980s (let me tell you, it is quite interesting scanning those old Polaroid pictures into jpg files!)—while clearly the hit post of the year, also served as a lesson in oral history and historical memory. Students loved getting a different perspective on some of their teachers, but they also came away with more knowledge about the types of sources historians use to reconstruct the past.

NB: How do you incorporate the blog into your course(s)? What do you require of your students?
PB: I addressed this to some degree in the previous question in terms of content, but more specifically I use it for homework assignments, classroom discussion, student involvement, project announcements and resources, and general enrichment. Sometimes students would be required to post, other times I made it optional. I make it a habit to talk about the blog often, and so students incorporate it into the daily class rhythm. (For those who read through the U.S. history blog, I also used it for classes/electives I taught on religion and the Civil Rights Movement, Presidential Election 2008—those posts are in March—and a Communication Applications class I taught in June and early July.)

If a blogpost is a homework assignment, for example, students might have to read and answer questions on their own paper or leave comments on the blog. I created an assignment for the Vietnam War, for instance, and a free response exercise for Emmett Till and the Civil Rights Movement. In terms of classroom discussion, I created posts with links to documents, or photographs, or even sometimes links to YouTube segments that illustrated a point in class. Posts on the JFK assassination and the Great Depression allowed for this, as well as a post about shellshock. When I discussed the Jim Crow era in my U.S. history class, I found an on-line map that revealed lynching statistics—and here I’d have students come up to the SMARTboard screen, and find Tennessee or California, for example, and identify the numbers. This changed the dynamics of the classroom by getting students physically involved in class, even as it honed geography skills. In terms of project announcements and resources, I posted about a 1920s project and provided all the links students would need.

By far the neatest part of the class blog this year involved electronic conversations with authors, scholars, and colleagues. During the Age of Exploration unit in my AP European history class, I had students read a chapter from David Northrup’s Africa’s Discovery of Europe (Oxford University Press, 2002). They were required to answer a few question on their own, as well as leave thoughts about the chapter and questions for David on the blog since he agreed to respond to students’ questions. I met David through my involvement with the World History Association and simply emailed an invitation for him to join the conversation my class was having about the subject of his work—and he graciously agreed to respond. The student questions were very smart and engaging, and the conversation between all of us was informative and interesting. My students really enjoyed this. For my U.S. history classes and the unit on the Civil Rights Movement, I had students visit a website on Emmett Till created by historian Devery Anderson, and in conjunction with class discussion they were required to leave questions for Devery on the blog. Like David, Devery agreed to respond to students’ questions and I then turned that into another post. This was a big hit with students.


Jim Brown said...

This is a great interview. I've shared your blog with people in my Educational Leadership in Technology class that I am taking right now. This is right up their alley.

ecarson said...

I fear at times that academic blogs or blogs with substance and are informative still cannot compete with facebook or myspace. However, it is a good medium to pull students into a conversation about matters beyond Jessica Simpson.

AS Blog said...

When I had my students use more technology last year - including creating podcasts - I also experienced the lowest AP Euro scores in over a dozen years. What is your experience?