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….
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?