Social Media, teaching, Technology

The #Comments4Sophs Dilemma

Reading Russ Goerend‘s recent post about his many projects for the year got me thinking about my integration of social media into my classroom this year. One of the major areas that Russ discussed, and which he credited with making his classroom blog successful, is his participation in the #Comments4Kids project, which he succinctly described as a system where “students write blog posts and teachers tweet out links to the posts and tag those tweets with the hashtag  #comments4kids. The hashtag makes it easier to search for all links about a specific topic.”

Reading Russ’s laudatory comments about the positive effects that #Comment4Kids had on his students got me thinking about the success (or relative lack thereof) that I’ve experienced this year with my students and their blogging.

My arrangement is a bit different from Russ’s. While Russ has a centralized blog for his class where each student has author privileges and can post their work, I created a hub-and-spoke system (well, in retrospect, it’s really more a bunch of disconnected spokes, with the only thing resembling a hub being the RSS packet that I created through Google Reader). My intention in establishing a system where each student curated his or her own blog was to establish a sense of personal investment on the part of the students. Ideally, students would design their pages, themes, and images in accordance with their own vision of what they wanted to project. However, (and perhaps because of the RSS readers that we’re all using) the particular design of each students blog hasn’t proven that appealing a lure for the students.

The other, and perhaps more important, rationale for why I wanted each student to have individual blogs was so that students would have a deeper investment over their own writing. Moreover, each student would theoretically be able to look back at their posts from the beginning of the year and trace a trajectory of improved thinking, writing, use of citations, analysis, hyperlinking, and the like. While I still think this change-over-time dynamic will play out (if students willingly, and self-critically, look back at their earlier writings) the blogs have effectively served as digital notebooks. Students write an entry, hand it in to me at a given deadline, I then grade the work, and then typically return it with feedback and a grade via Edmodo.

In essence, the way my students’ blogs have developed into digital notebooks means that the social element of “social media” has gone almost totally unharnessed. Students hand in homework and I grade it as I have in my previous years of teaching — except now, there’s no paper for me to carry home; just a queue of unread posts in my RSS reader. Unfortunately, the students don’t seem to be terribly interested in their classmates’ posts as reflected by the dearth of comments that they write to each other. The M.O. seems to be: “get the post up (e.g. homework done) and move on” — an entirely understandable and rational choice given their other academic and extra-curricular obligations.

Now, that’s not to say that the blogs have been a waste. In fact, I think they’ve been quite good at having students write a larger volume and become more comfortable with the idea of how to cite sources and connect one’s own assertions to their place of origin. I also see that some students are interested in tracking their stats and realizing that their work has in fact been read (though not commented on) by a broader audience than just me or their classmates.

The Initial Comments Flop

Early in the year I specifically assigned students to comment on one another’s posts. As a form of guidance (which I now recognize as too nebulous to be very helpful) I gave the students vauge, principles-based guidelines for their comments, such as “be specific and thorough,” “offer commentary and honest feedback on specific things the authors has said,” and “remember, these comments aren’t a reflection on the quality of your soul, but are intended to help you become a better writer.”

In spite of these admonitions I generally saw feedback akin to the generic spam comments that Clay Burrell alludes to in his recent post. For instance, here’s a good example that I received last October and continues to live in my Spam queue:

I don’t know If I said it already but …Excellent site, keep up the good work. I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks, :)

A definite great read….

Pablum, right?

Anyhow, I found that these vague, life-affirming comments not only did not meet the guidelines and expectations I had set out, but that they also didn’t seem particularly helpful to the students receiving them. This lukewarm reception to the comments combined with a variety of other factors led me to move away from my social media rotation and my plans to have students comment on one another’s posts with frequency.

The New Comments Challenge

Now I’m trying to rethink my plans and work more strenuously to have the blogs serve as a way to get students to interact with one another and with a genuine audience. I’d like to have my students’s writing read–and especially commented on–by a wider audience, as I hope this will give them feedback and constructive critique from voices other than my own. However, I see some potential areas of challenge — both philosophical and pragmatic.

Starting with the philosophical:

  • I wonder how fifteen and sixteen year-old students will react differently to outsiders’ comments than the sixth graders that Russ Goerend teaches? Will they perceive these outside commenters as  (to borrow the popular parlance I’ve observed) “creepsters” who are somehow invading their privacy and their private thoughts?
  • Will the students be thankful and interested in the reactions from people beyond our classroom and willingly engage them in a dialogue about their critique?
  • In the process of this dialogue (assuming it does develop) will students learn both how to improve their writing and thinking and also learn how to participate in a constructive intellectual discourse?

Now the pragmatic:

  • Is the best way to solicit feedback through Twitter and a unique #Comments4Sophs hashtag? (I think the answer to this is most likely “yes”).
  • What type of online repository would be the easiest for people to access and use for feedback? Should I create a Google Reader bundle of the feeds and have them accessible?
  • Should I point people toward a Wiki page listing the various feeds, which then provides commenters with a centralized place to go to find the postings that they can then comment on?
  • Should I create (a la Russ Goerend) a dedicated class blog where students can select particular posts to share and to which I can then point commenters? This solution offers the most convenience for those willing to provide comments. It seems vital for this project’s to work that it not be an onerous task on those willing to offer feedback and commentary.

What other solutions might I be missing? What techniques have other people used to foster genuine, thorough, constructive, and meaningful feedback for their students?


6 thoughts on “The #Comments4Sophs Dilemma

  1. Something I think that is missing is having your students comment on blogs outside of your school. This does two things, it helps the students to realize there are other students/teachers throughout the world that have similar thoughts/goals/curriculum and when they leave a comment it often is reciprocated by the original poster which helps to create a loose personal learning network for the students.

    The second thing I would like to address is your perception of the comments being left. I have read comments left by fifth grade student to adult college students that all say something similar to “Great post, keep up the good work!” While this is not satisfying to us, you must remember we have become accustomed to giving critical feedback while they have not. Think about how much trust has to be involved for one of your students to be critical of a post someone they know wrote and that post is online for the world to see. When I see negative comments left on anyone’s post I still cringe.

    I have my students comment on #comments4kids blog posts so my students can make connections to students around the world and for them to practice their typing. The comments left by them do have a positive effect on the students that write the posts as well. Isn’t that enough?

    Mr. C
    Noel Elementary School

  2. Hey, Nate,
    I’ll echo what Bill said about the “Great post!” style comments. I have a teacher in my building who advised me not to “allow” (in the moderation sense) those types of comments. I smiled and moved the conversation along, knowing that I want my students communicating with each other, not leaving NYT-worthy commentary. Sure, if a student leaves a few too many “Great post!” comments (whatever that number may be) I pull the student aside and ask her to “step it up” but I don’t discourage back-patting comments from the start.

    I’ve found that not putting points on comments was the smartest thing I could do. It took a lot of unlearning for my kids plus one come-to-Jesus class discussion, but they now fully believe me when I say that the conversations they have on our blog are for their learning, and that’s it. “What do I get for commenting?” Learning. “What happens if I don’t leave any comments?” You don’t get to learn as much as you would have. Basically, my advice is not to steal the authenticity.

    To attempt an analogy, I can’t imagine I’d be as active on Twitter and commenting/sharing blogs if I had a quota I had to hit. Or possibly a better way to think about it: if I had a quota of sites to share on Twitter every day, I would bet that my sharing would be right around that number, rarely much more.

    The other place I’ll give a big “Heck yeah!” to Bill is in “giving to receive.” We have access to computers once a week or so. The only requirements I have at that time is that they leave more comments on other blogs than on our own blog (for each other.) No set numbers, just more for others than for ourselves.

    Without turning this comment into a blog post, what I’ve attempted to do with our class blog is give the kids their own blogs inside our blog. On the far right sidebar of our blog you’ll the kids names listed. Those are links to their labels. Click on a student’s name and you’re at “her blog.” We use the labels extensively to keep things organized. Next year, I plan on expanding on that even further. We just don’t write enough for kids to have their own blogs. At this point in the year, each student would have only 4 posts. Personally, I don’t do well following blogs that post once every other month. If your kids are posting more often, their own blogs should work fine.

    Something else I’ll say is to get them involved with getting readers. My kids have an easy-to-remember URL for our “student writing” label. I’ve preached to them on Fridays and before holidays to tell their friends and families about their blogs.

    I agree that making it easy for commenters is key. You’re on the right track. Can’t wait to see what you come up with!

    (Special thanks to Bill @wmchamberlain for being the catalyst behind #comments4kids. My kids are eternally grateful.)


  3. I teach fifth graders. I’ve used our class blog as a way to do almost everything our kids are asked to do in reading, writing, and science. Yes, I am ashamed that so much of our 25 minute science class happens on the blog. We’ve gained an audience for our students’ work. We’ve made tons of mistakes.

    At any rate, I’ve learned tons from Russ and Bill.

    As far as comments go for us, there are some ground rules, but the main idea is this: to get readers for yourself, you go out and comment to others. You write things that are positive. If our students have something critical to say – which is a good thing if you can do it without being rude – we ask them to do it by asking a question.

    We also work hard on pushing our thinking. In our fifth grade classes, we use sentence startes. For example, “I used to think_____, but now I realize _____.”

    Now that we’ve started an after-school blog club, about 12 kids have their own blogs. They are listed on the class blog sidebar. They are all trying to write posts, make comments, and build their audience. It’s a work in progress.

    I’ve learned that in order to get specific feedback, I have to ask specific questions. If I tweet and ask people what they think of our class blog, I get nothing back. If I tweet and say that I’ve changed the layout of my blog and I’d like some feedback regarding the placement of my links section, I get some responses with nice feedback. SO I model this for my students. If they want good comments, they have to ask good questions. Do they do it yet? No. Do I still model it and teach it every single day? You bet.

    For us, it’s all about audience and purpose. Our kids know that they have an audience, and that alone is a huge motivator for most of them. The audience creates the purpose. The kids care about their writing because they see that others care about their writing. I know this may not be the case for H.S. students, but for our fifth graders it makes all the difference in the world.

    It’s just like anything else we teach: model, model, model. I do, we do, you do.

    As far as the answers to all your questions in the philosophical category – yes. If you model it.

    And as far as the pragmatic questions – have you asked your students these questions? They probably have some good answers. In my experience, it is best to model learning. Try something. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, then your kids get to see you learn. Even better.

    Chris Moore

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