Blogging & Personalized Learning

The following are notes from a presentation I made on May 16, at Wayne-Finger Lakes BOCES during a conference on Personalized Learning. The notes have been revised into their current form and to be read. 


Introduction

What I’d like to propose today that all teachers and students should begin to blog. Blogging, in all its forms, varieties, and definitions, its glorious uncertain malleability, is the perfect vehicle for personalized learning. 

While I’m doing this, I’ll also take a look at the teacher considerations for blogging with students, including a look at the platforms available for blogging [However, for the purposes of this post, I do not go into that part of my presentation]

I’ll talk about the how I blog as a educator, the roll blogging plays in the work of teachers and students, some look at various platforms and how I use blogs in several of my English classes. The talk will move every so slightly beyond blogging to look at how I use a variety of tools in working with students to teach writing and communication skills.

Using these apps–like those in G-suite or Flipgrid–in concert together allows me to create a classroom space where students have a high degree of choice over the topics that they learn about, are able to move at their own pace.

As I work to talk about my beliefs and practices around blogging, I want to begin with several disclaimers:

First, I have great reservations about speaking at a personalized learning confernece, because I don’t really know what it is, and if what I do with some of my students reflects what this is.

After the conference proposal for this talk was accepted, I went out onto the web, to see if I could figure out what personalized learning was. According to Sean Cavanaugh, associate editor as Education Week, personalized learning is teaching that meets students needs, there are competency-based progression, flexible learning environments, high expectations but choice in paths to follow, and works in conjunction with a learner profile that records student strengths, needs, motivations, and goals. And, while this was a jumping off point to me, I myself see personalized learning as a teacher creating an environment where students are able to learn and to explore what they want to learn about, while engaging in learning behaviors that enable them to become life-long learners, and autodidact in nature.

Second, I make no claims about the value or worth of my blog or my blogging or of the blogging that I ask my students to do. You might have your device in hand currently, and are looking to find my wordpress blog, read it, and say, there’s some real crap there. That’s true. And, what I would argue, is that this is good thing. Blogging isn’t about the perfect end, the finely editing, perfected piece. It’s about learning in all it’s glory. And, this is why we should do it.

What is a blog? 

There are 2 answers to this question. 

So, a blog is essentially a website which you have complete control over in terms of form and content. Its appearance, design, and layout are largely determined by you. In this context, there are blog posts and blog pages. Blog posts are generally more dynamic because they grow and scroll depending on how much content you put into them. Pages are static, and contain information about specific topics: for example, I have a page that I update on what I’m doing, a page about running in the Fingerlakes, and about lessons and projects that I do. Depending on the platform you are blogging on, you will have more control and options, and if you start to invest money, the possibilities of what you can do on your blog increase.

I think the best introduction to blogging either for yourself or to show to other people, I would recommend this video:

Second, there is the blog, or blog-post, this is a piece of writing that shows up on your blog, and that has some kind of message. A reflection on your day, on a lesson that you taught, an argument for an educational practice, a list of the best books for the first ½ of the 2018 year. While blogs share rhetorical characteristics of their analog counterparts–they are written for a range of purposes, such as informative, argumentative, analytical or evaluative–they are a communicative genre in their own right. The structure of the blog post is different from an essay, there is the ability to create posts that are multi-modal in nature and include video, audio, image, and because they are written for the web, they can be hyperlinked, include embedded documents, and provide an experience which allows for the readers to interact with the writing itself by access the media, but also, commenting and adding to what is written.

The Value & Importance of the Teacher-Blogger

But, one of the best ways we create pathways for personalized learning is through blogging as teachers. By creating a blog, we give ourselves a place to write down our thoughts, to reflect on what we are learning in our classrooms, to record lessons. But we also have a space where we can connect with others and follow and read their blogs.

As George Couros, author of the Innovator’s Mindset, writes that the value in blogging is “To share, to develop and to archive. “Couros goes so far to say that it’s the job of educators to blog. To quickly summarize his argument, he claims that if reflection is a key part of our practice, a required part of our practice, then blogging is a way to reflect, sharing our voice, and being accountable to others.

In a post from Couros’ “The Principal of Change” blog published in November of 2014, he says that blogs can:

  1. Focus on growth and showcase
  2. Opportunity to focus on literacy
  3. Use wide array of literacy
  4. Develop and auidence.
  5. Develop and nurture voice.

As teacher-bloggers, we are modeling an important process for our students, we are modeling the process of life-long learning and being auto-didactic, if personalized learning is the act of becoming auto-didactic.

Our blogs can act as models for student about the learning process. How we research and collect sources, how we curate these resources, the development of the products that we make for our classes. We can model for them how we ourselves create products.

So, a blog, the writing we put there is important in nurturing our own personalized learning, and to show students that we our learners ourselves.

Of course, this opens us to the exact kinds of scrutiny that we as educators don’t like. Many of us are private about what goes on in the classroom, we fear others coming to observe us because we fear the criticism and evaluation that can come from this.

There are other problems. If I’m reflecting on a lesson that goes badly on my blog, does this reflection include lack of participation from my students or their lack of engagement. As teacher-bloggers, we need to consider our content and its connection to our audience in ways that we might never have before. 

The Value of Blogging with Students

What can we do with blogs with our students? And, how does blogging help us to develop more personalized learning?

As with educator blogging I discussed above, blogs offer an opportunity to record their thinking, and gives them a reflection space.

Blogs offer students a research space as they might be exploring ideas for a project, they can write about what they spent their time reading, and what questions they have and what questions they found answers to.

Blogs offer students authenticity. They are written for a community or public (more on this in a minute) and they are going to be read. If you are not going to let students publish their blogs to be read by at least other students, they should write in a different format and venue. At least let other students read, but perhaps consider finding avenues for other teachers, parents, and other students in the building read. Edublogs makes this possible in the sharing settings of the classes you create.

Blogs can also be a portfolio space. Students can create project pages, these pages can contain picture of process, final products, a reflect that is either text-based, or in some other mode like audio or video.

Blogs with students become an important artifact.  Couros writes that all students leaving high school should have the following: a personal learning network, an about me page and x…We can help students cultivate their online presences and develop a digital footprint that represents the best about their academic selves.

Blogs offer a chance to write real-world texts for current trends in media. They are not essays. They are unique, and if students are going to be competitive in 21st century economies, they have to know how to produce real-world texts.

These elements are all possible by using a blog.

Things to Consider

When we are deciding to work with blogging with our students, here are the things we have to decide.

The following image sums up these considerations nicely:

Personalized Learning_ Blogging

Duration–for one unit or for whole year?

Privacy–Who will have access to reading posts? Commenting…required or suggested/asked.

Content–Does the teacher provide topics or do students find their own?

Reflection–How and when do students learn from the experience? 

Quality–Finely polished summative pieces, or works in progress as part of students process?

Control–Who maintains and supervises? Of course the teacher, but to what degree? 

What is the value in a student blog? Certainly, the value and the dangers and pitfalls are the same. When students are “naughty” we have problems with codes of conduct, there can be threats to security and to privacy. At the same time, we have the ability to raise these conversations with students within the context of them become makers for the web. We turn them from consumers of YouTube videos, and empower them by giving them a space where they can make and create.

 We need to look at the kinds of blogging we can do.

Are we going to create a class blog, one in which the teachers control all aspects. A teacher posts an assignment or question, and students post comments or responses to this. The teacher can moderate these posts, and as the posts go up, others in the class can view and comment.

Another way to blog with students is to create an actual blog for each student, where the student has control over the format, appearance, layout and content. What the blog gets filled with is up to the teacher, beause of assignments, but in open-ended assignments, we have the opportunity.

 

 

 

 

 

George Couros at Marcus Whitman

Last Friday, I had the pleasure of listening to George Couros’ keynote address at this year’s Connecting for Kids conference held at Marcus Whitman. I’ve been a fan for several years, and it felt like I was checking-off an item from my educator bucket-list.

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Couros’ talk came at a great time. The mid-March doldrums are in full swing, and his words inspired me out of the blahs and reminded me to get to work.

Below are my notes coming out of his talk:

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Reflection & Resources

With less than two weeks to go until my presentation on “Media Maker” at the New York State Second English Council conference (@nysec_tweets; #nysec), I’m in full revision and presentation making mode. This work has forced me back into the reading, research and inspiration that I drew on when first making the course two years ago.

This reflection and walking back through the history of my own thinking has been really powerful in reconnecting me to the core of what I hoped, and still hope, to accomplish. Mainly, student blogging provides a powerful tool for students to write to real-world audiences, and a student blog is a powerful tool for showcasing student-centered learning.

Since that time, Jennifer Casa-Todd’s (@JCasaToddSociaLeadia has made concrete for me the need to have students create positive digital identities.

As I’m rereading and surfing my digital, cyber ripcurl, several great resources have emerged:

The good folks at Edublogs, namely Ronnie Burt, Sue Waters and Kathleen Morris, put together a great post “100+ Ideas and Prompts for Student Blogging”. I’ve now got this bookmarked and will use it as a reference for when I’m looking for something fresh to throw to my students. It’s also got great tips for educators who are considering starting blogging in the classroom or creating their own blogs.

Another Edublog’s resource comes from Sue Waters, and it’s part of this year’s Student Blogging Challenge. Her post, “Let’s Learn to Comment,” helps students to have the knowledge of the form and the tools to make substantive comments on other’s writing. It got me thinking about the value in blogging for students as a means to teach how to participate in conversations, both on and off-line.

Through reexamining Troy Hick’s wikispace, I came across Bud Hunt’s “Teaching Blogging Not Blogs,” published on October 19, 2010 and found here. Go deep into his article and read the original post from 2005. Doing so will connect you with Will Richard’s comments on the value of blogs for both student and teacher.

Looking forward to sharing this thinking, and discussing these resources further at NYSEC.

Getting Smore from Your Schoology Pages

The other day I was working with a colleague who was getting Schoology courses setup for the start of the year. At Canandaigua, we’ve done away with teacher webpages, so all teachers are using the LMS as their web presence for students and parents.

In our old system, Schoolworld, my colleague had a notable website. Particularly because it was a clear reflection of her personality–lots of pictures to share  her passion for video games, like the Zelda franchise, classic rock and Harry Potter. Students and parents who went to the site not only knew the course, its materials, but also were instantly connected to this dynamic teacher.

As we were working to create a page in Schoology for parents, she lamented that the pages in Schoology were, well, boring, with little ability to liven them up with colored backgrounds, or other design features that students and parents might find visually appealing. Below you’ll see what I mean. It’s my “Parent Page” in each of my Schoology courses.


Screenshot 2017-08-30 at 8.26.08 AM

My Schoology Parent Page–Lots of Text and Not Much Else


There wasn’t much I could tell her.

Then, light blub!

At home later in the day, I started playing with Smore–a web-based flyer and newsletter designer–as part of a project to aggregate blog posts from our student and teacher bloggers into a weekly newsletter to help them build their audiences.

I happened to notice that one of the sharing tools was an embed link. I quickly copied it off the flyer I was working on, went into my Schoology resources, opened a practice page, and embedded the link.

It worked, and the Smore flyer was there on the page.

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A Smore Embedded into a Schoology Page

There are some advantages to this approach as I see it.

First, there are a lot of design and layout features available in Smore that are eye-catching and visually appealing. Second, these modifications could be furthered to use Smore for personalized student playlists or assignments with lots of links. Already looking around Smore’s “Educator Hive” you can find example of teachers who have used this approach. While I’m fully committed to using Schoology as my content delivery system, I’m thinking of using Smore to help give me another option in my playbook.

While these advantages exist, there are some drawbacks. Smore is another tool to learn. Teachers who may already be overwhelmed with trying to learn a new LMS, coupled with a smattering of apps, could easily throw their hands-up at you.

Still, for tech-savy teachers looking to keep their parents and students in Schoology, and looking to spice up the look of their pages, embedding Smores into the pages provides an interesting option.

 

 

Combining Launch Cycle with the Writing Process

The writing process has always been one of the core elements of my classroom instruction. Whether teaching Regents-level classes or International Baccalaureate, Advanced Placement or other college-level courses, using the ideas of Peter Elbow, Lucy Calkins and the writers the the Bard Institute of Writing and Thinking.

In the past year I’ve read A.J. Juliani’s Launch and Empower. Both books have pushed me to consider the connections between the design-thinking cycle and the writing process.

Both have much in common. They each begin in generating ideas, then developing drafts or prototypes, and moving through revision, before ultimately sharing that work with the public.

As contemporary composition research suggests that we should spend more time with students working with real-world audiences, the design thinking process puts an important focus into its process. It asks us to consider what problems we’ll attempt to solve, who we’re solving them for, and how what is being created will address the needs of that group. It’s for this reason that looking at ways we can bring this into the writing process can ultimately benefit students.

Every year, I start my English 101 class with an introductory lesson on the Writing Process. This lesson will get some tweaks by incorporating design-thinking vocabulary that my students and I will use throughout the year.

Below is my preliminary thinking about where the two processes overlap and what writing activities might be part of each part of these processes.