Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Blogging with Middle Schoolers: Frontloading and First Steps

By on September 8, 2010

So I just finished introducing blogging to my middle school classes. They are hooked, as each year before them was hooked. I use it as a substitute for Reading Logs, that dreaded love-of-reading killer which causes eye rolls in many a Language Arts class. Rather than simply log the quantity of books, perhaps embellishing with a short summary or bibliographical entry, I have them discuss quality.

The discussions are rich, organic, and run themselves. All I needed to do was have the patience to set it up right. So I’ve pulled together some steps that I’ve been working on for the past couple of years that help introduce students to the art of blogging without neglecting the science of building community and collaboration.

1. First give them a technology survey. After all, you need to know who has access and who does not. That way, you can strategize options for students who are not online at home. I do not believe that we can hold classes or schools back, creating an ever-widening gap, by holding out for students who do not yet have access. It is our responsibility, however, to provide options. I offer lunchtime or after school computer use in my classroom. The local library is willing to reserve computers at certain times. And our school media center has a couple that are available as well.

2. Show them what a blog is. I first show them the little video by Commoncraft.com, “Blogging in Plain English.
Then I show them examples of other blogs. I might show them one of my own book reviews or an author’s blog or even look at the give and take in some Amazon book discussions. (I, of course, scout ahead for appropriateness. I never assume the link or the content from one year is able to be used again the next year without previewing it first.)

3. Hand out a simple list of the basic rules of Netiquette for How to Comment on a Blog. I use the ones for a middle school workbook I wrote for Teacher Created Resources. I have them here with their permission. Even just going over rules helps to set a tone of expectations.

4. We do offline blogging first. I think offline blogging is an important step because it demystifies the process and breaks it down into a more tactile activity. Basically, I print out 4 different online book reviews (one for each kid at a table group to read.) I attach a template that includes user name, subject line, and comment field to the end of the review. It’s just three boxes of differing sizes to mimic what they will see online. (I actually attach multiple templates so that multiple students can comment.) The students read the review, then fill in their user name (their first name + last initial), the subject line (which is the main idea of their upcoming comment), and their comment. Then they rotate their review to the next person in their group for that person to comment on. After the first student, the kids have the option to comment on the initial review or comment on another student’s comment. By the time a few students have rotated their reviews around, the list of comments has noticeably grown, and the students get the idea of blogging by creating the visual themselves. Here’s also a hint: use books from your own classroom library and they’ll be checked out by the middle of first period. This year I used Uglies, Shiver, The Hunger Games, and Everlost.

5. Have the students choose their own book club groups. I say no more than 5 kids in a group, and I believe that student choice, whenever possible, is key to middle school buy-in. These students won’t be working together face to face, only online, so it won’t be a classroom management issue to allow them this treat.

6. Hand out Guidelines on How to Write a Discussion Post. You can get a copy of mine here that is based on a version first designed by my awesome colleague and fellow Writing Project mentor, Liz Harrington. This gives students a sense of your expectations regardless of the book they are currently reading or where they are in their book. Incidentally, if you teach a subject other than Language Arts, it’s a good idea to hand out guidelines about what you want them to be posting about: what to base their topics on, where to find concepts, etc…just to get them started. They can blog about how they discovered the solution to an equation or predict the outcome of an upcoming experiment. Anything with guidelines can be used to begin an online conversation.

7. Still working offline, I have them turn in a final draft of their first discussion post on paper before we go to the computer lab. This will be the only time they turn this in to me other than as an online post. It’s just a format they are used to and it allows me an easy way to make sure everyone’s prepared before going up to the lab for the first time. Everyone needs to be on the same page to learn the skill.

8. Once in the lab, introduce them to your blogging program. I use www.kidblog.org. It can be a little buggy, but it’s safe, fantastically user friendly, and forgiving. It takes 5 minutes to learn, and 5 minutes to set up. Show them a post that you’ve created already on the same subject that follows their same guidelines. Model, model, model. Have the students log on and comment on your post. This way, you can give quick feedback on their commenting quality before they comment on each others’ posts.

9. Have them type their discussion post into a new post entry and teach them to link a piece of their text to a website or image as a further resource for their readers. I think linking is a vital skill that students in this digital age should learn. It’s an added layer of comprehension that the author shares with you and an added dimension of information to which a reader has access. Once their post is typed and a piece of text is linked to an online resource, the students can click to publish (which actually goes to you for approval first on many programs.)

10. Skim for appropriateness and publish their first discussion post. Then spend some time privately commenting on each of their posts, give them a score, whatever, while the kids begin publicly commenting on the published posts from the members of their book club group. Eventually, however, you’ll notice that students will start commenting on everyone’s posts. They can’t help it. Blogging’s addictive.

I have no doubt that there is a more efficient way to frontload blogging in your classroom. But this is what’s worked for me, especially with kids who have no freaking clue what I’m talking about when I first approach them the the “b” word.

Middle schoolers love to talk, so give middle schoolers the opportunity to talk using technology. Blogging gives them the chance to exchange ideas and discuss, but with eloquence, guidance, and the rules of netiquette. It taps into their chatty tendencies, creating greater buy-in, and it gives them a 21st Century skill that will move with them beyond their year with you.

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