Adventures in blogging with students

This fall I’m leading a senior elective class on slavery in the Atlantic world. I drew heavily on (and greatly credit) Ben Wright’s class about this same topic that he taught at Rice University last semester and have found his structure, some of his assignments, and his readings to be an outstanding framework on which to build.

Thus far I’ve really enjoyed working with these students in this seminar format and getting to hear their reactions to the readings we’ve done thus far. Check out our class blog at the link above, and if you’re so inclined, feel free to offer some feedback and reactions to either my or my students’ posts.

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?

Academic Proposals

A flattering discovery…

In scanning through my blog’s statistics just now I noticed a huge (well, relative for a small-scale, infrequently updated blog on teaching, technology, and history) spike in traffic last week on Dec. 4. Not thinking that anything particularly eventful had occurred that day in terms of my writing, I checked the stats and found a link to a very nice, detailed write-up on the ASCD blog by David Snyder. Snyder does a nice job of recapping a few of my posts and offering some insight as to why I’ve structured it in the way that I have. In particular I found this observation astute:

In a way that shows—rather than tells—teachers how to use new online tools, he embeds the assignment document into his blog, using the versatile publishing tools of Scribd.

That (the showing, not telling) is certainly what I strive to do not only in my online writing, but also in my daily teaching, though it is a challenging task. So, thanks again, David, for the write-up! I’m glad to know that my musings are being received positively.

Oh, and on one other exciting note related to education and technology, I learned yesterday that the proposal Vanessa Scanfeld and I submitted for a session on MixedInk at ISTE 2010 in Denver, CO, was accepted! Moreover, it apparently was accepted in one of the more competitive categories of “Bring Your Own Laptop” — only a 29% acceptance rate. Perhaps this will also bear some future blog post.

Okay, now back to the final paper writing…really.


“And they’re off…”: Thoughts on the unveiling of the social media-based class

Well, I’ve successfully done it, (or at least started the ball rolling,) on implementing my social media-based class. Or from an entirely different perspective, I’ve opened a huge Pandora’s Box. But I’ll be optimistic and think its the former.

As I wrote about in my last post, I’m structuring my sophomore World History classes around Edmodo, blogging, Diigo, Twitter (soon enough,) and a centralized class wiki. Though some students seemed a bit taken aback by having the first two days of class deal almost exclusively with technological resources and the philosophical underpinnings of my desire to create transparency and extend the classroom through social media, they’ve all adapted very quickly and are now actively contributing to our digital community.

My first order of business involved having them create their own blogs and post those URLs to Edmodo. With all those RSS feeds I created groups for each class in my Google Reader account, and embedded those in the class wiki in the form of “bundles.” Today in class, I had students add the bundles to their Google Reader accounts, established the blogging groups (an idea for which Boone Gorges deserves much credit) for the first quarter, and had students begin reading and giving one another feedback via comments.

Once all the trouble-shooting had come to an end, and everyone had successfully managed to add one another’s blog and knew whose work they should be reading and commenting on, they quickly got to work and stayed productive throughout the whole class period. In fact, one class period worked uninterrupted until a minute before the ball rang. I managed to quickly call their attention to the night’s homework before they had to rush off to their next class. Though I’m rarely perceived as being a “glass half-full” type of person, I was really pleased to see this type of dedicated focus and self-directed work from a class. It seems that this type of social media structure really does engage students!

My current challenge now rests in building the Yahoo Pipes feed for all the class comments. I constructed one version that successfully pulls all the comment feeds and merges them into one RSS feed; however, the current set-up identifies the author of each comment, but does not distinguish on whose blog that comment was written. Any ideas how to pull that information out with filters or some other tool in Yahoo Pipes? Here’s the current set-up as I’ve designed it. I’d appreciate any insight.

The other challenge is non-technical, but is much more significant. One of my great frustrations in the past with peer editing is the way in which students seek to avoid what they perceive as “meanness” toward one another by writing very safe, heavily laudatory comments (even, or perhaps especially, in cases when it isn’t warranted.) I noticed this dynamic develop immediately during my first class as they wrote one another feedback, and was able to address this issue in the second class. While I haven’t scanned through the comments of the second class yet to see if my admonition made much of a difference, I see that I’ll have to spend a fair amount of time helping the students learn what constitutes meaningful critical feedback and what constitutes feel-good pablum.

Undoubtedly the students are capable of reading insightfully, thinking critically, and generating helpful feedback that both helps the commenter develop a constructively critical writing voice, and also helps those receiving the comments develop intellectually. However, I think the opaque nature of traditional peer editing in class reinforces the idea that one doesn’t want to risk social capital on providing an honest evaluation of a peer’s work as the only person seeing those comments (typically) is the author of the work. Now that the comments are visible to a broader audience, I hope that students begin to get a sense of participating in a broader dialogue and begin writing comments that address issues and ideas (and potentially other people and authors) beyond just the person who wrote the post.

Certainly my modeling of these types of comments will be important in conveying this shift, but I also think that discussing what constitutes “quality” in a blog post will also help solidify this understanding. To that end, I was impressed by Ryan Bretag‘s Blogging Rubric for a number of reasons. In particular, it does a nice job of addressing the ways in which blogging is an activity that goes beyond just writing,  but also encompasses citations (hyperlinks,) participation in a community (comments,) and the creative elements afforded by writing in a digital medium.

Undoubtedly more progress reports will follow, but now it’s off to immerse myself in the conceptual morass of distinguishing between the transnational vs. the transatlantic. Ah, grad school reading.

Pedagogy, Technology, Uncategorized

THATCamp “Social Media & Education” Panel Follow-up

John Jones has just posted the video he took  of last week’s session on social media and education at THATCamp Ausin. I’m looking forward to spending some time and refreshing my memory about the session, but will likely have to continue forging ahead with before-school preparations today. However, I’m most excited about the fact that the frozen image present before you start the video is a rather frightening visage of yours truly — hey, any press is good press, right?

Thanks again to John for putting this video up and making it widely accessible.


Effective Pitches for a Blog Salesman

With school starting a week from tomorrow, I’ve dusted off my old syllabi and have been busy updating them. While previous years syllabus revisions haven’t required many changes, this year’s edition is receiving a bigger make-over given my plans to structure my classes around social media. In addition to the standard policies, grading procedures, course outline, and contact information, my syllabus now features a section dedicated to “Technology and Social Media Resources.”

I view including this information in my syllabus as an important element in establishing my goals for incorporating social media and helping students develop a level of comfort with this new (or at least unusual in their experience) class structure. Moreover, given my experience earlier this summer when I suggested that my Breakthrough teachers create blogs for writing about their teaching, I thought I’d better refine my approach if I want to get successful (or even enthusiastic) buy-in. Therefore, before I post my syllabus to the class webpage (which students have already begun joining and posting messages on!) I thought I’d send it out to the wider universe in order to get some feedback on how I’ve gone about making the pitch for using social media.

So, here ’tis:

Technology and Social Media Resources:

As mentioned throughout this syllabus, we’ll be conducting much of our class work this year via electronic media such as blogs, RSS Readers, Edmodo, Diigo, Twitter, and various other social media websites (if you’re presently unfamiliar with those, don’t worry, you won’t be for long.) While the Whipple Hill Portal continues to exist and will include the link to access homework on Edmodo, the bulk of our class resources, a link to the assignments, and other work will be accessible through the class wiki, which can be found at http://fwcdwh2.wikispaces.com.

Additional websites that you’ll need to become acquainted with include:

A major part of the ethic of this social media-centric classroom centers on transparency, collaboration, media literacy, and understanding how to define oneself positively online. Therefore, much of the work and writing we’ll do this year will take place online; moreover, we’ll do a number of collaborative group assignments, and everyone will be expected to contribute to our rotating chapter assignments.

One of the unique features of this social media class structure, but one that applies to academic and intellectual growth in general, centers on the public nature of one’s work. By having our writing, comments, and other work publicly accessible on our blogs I hope to impress upon you the importance of self-presentation, understanding audience, and thorough preparation. As another benefit, the public nature of our blogging enables us to give feedback to our peers, learn from one another, and network with students in other places throughout the world and country. This feedback and constructive criticism helps us refine our thinking, improve our argumentation, and come to the realization that education is not merely about earning a grade, but about growing personally and intellectually.

Therefore, employing social media in class serves purposes beyond helping us study history and learning content. More importantly, literacy in social media will also help us gain experience in using technology for academic purposes—writing, research, information reorganization, and sharing our work with others. Ultimately, I hope this integration of social media into this course ultimately extends our classroom community and dialogue beyond the walls of Room 201.

So, how eager are you to invest in a blog now? (I do realize that many of you reading this may already have your very own blogs, but then again, this pitch isn’t really aimed at you. How about from the student perspective?) Any and all thoughts are welcome.