Riding the Blogging Trail

Leah Stilman sees blogging as the logical development of creative writing

What is the worst part about being a teacher who’s assigned writing homework to students? The fact that you have to read through 175 papers and correct each and every one on your own time? Carrying around that stack of 175 papers? Writing detailed corrections to help your class for their future writing, while knowing full well many students will check to see the grade, and never look at it again? All of those concerns are realistic and troubling, and they provide sufficient grounds to make us think twice about giving these writing assignments. So what do we do? Just have students fill in the blanks for homework or choose the correct bubble? Or do we have them write and only grade their papers based on completion? Sure, either one of these would make our lives easier, but would it better the education of our students? Probably not. Giving them the easy way out would not result in the kind of learning we want to take place in our classrooms. Aren’t they the reason we went into this profession anyway? Personally, I don’t think we can let our students avoid practicing writing in the target language, but I also don’t think we should have to go through all the previously listed tasks. The way I have found to get around these issues, while still having my students complete quality writing, is through blogging. Blogging will make your life easier and will better the education of your students.

Blogging lets the students be the creators. The monotony of writing papers with indented paragraphs written in pen or pencil on lined, plain white paper, with their name and date at the top right corner, will disappear. This thought might be a little scary: we’re so comfortable with this routine we don’t realize how stifling it is to students. I’ve seen them fail time and time again on Scantron exams, and double-spaced, twelve-point-Times-New-Roman-font essays. Until those same students have a colored pencil, an instrument, a poem, or screenplay for motivation, they will continue to fail. When they are allowed and encouraged to pursue their own interests, though, and to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding on their own terms, they shine brighter than the 100% on a Scantron sheet.

A blog gives the students a new platform. They have choice in how they portray themselves and their writing. One student could make the background of his blog a picture of him playing soccer, and another could make it of a beach in California. Students are free to showcase what is important to them, and what they want their readers to know about them. This carries a two-fold benefit: students are able to freely and creatively express themselves, which they are so often not allowed to do, and teachers and other students have a way outside to learn about them. Through my teaching, I have often found that the more students believe you want to know and learn about them, the more they will share with you. Students will still have to adhere to the guidelines you set for them, but they are the artistic creators of their products.

With blogging, students take ownership over their work. A paper is no longer a secret conversation between the student and teacher, where the student hands it in amidst a pile of others, and receives it back folded in half with a secret note and grade on the last page. Now, the student is posting it to the world. Normally when students hand in a paper, they had it in and it vanishes. Here, it sticks around forever. Students are putting their name on their work and sending it off into cyberspace. There is a chance someone aside from the teacher will read it and make judgment on it. A word about privacy: Yes, there are privacy settings, and you can definitely alter who can view and comment on blogs. You can also change what the name associated with the blog is, so you know who the student is but anyone outside of your classroom wouldn’t. However, there are some people, aside from you, who would benefit from seeing their work. The fact that someone else will read their blog puts more pressure on students to create high-quality products. This doesn’t mean we are expecting more work, just better work.

One example of someone who would benefit from seeing your students’ work is your other students. Sharing URLs makes it easy for students to view one another’s blogs and give feedback via comments. Students can also build off of one another’s thoughts: if one student is struggling with a certain concept, she can view other students’ blogs to get ideas, and even ask for help. However, students will learn so much more than just the target language by looking at each other’s blogs. Students will learn about their colleagues. They may discover they have more in common with some classmates than they previously thought, just by viewing their pages. The ability to build classroom community even outside of the classroom walls is unique. The knowledge they gain about their classmates, paired with the give-and-take of writing feedback, can help to cultivate a community of professional learning and help make your students responsible for one another’s success.

Of course, your students’ blogs are readily accessible, which also benefits you as a teacher. For you, this means no papers to carry around and no frantically running around trying to decide if you actually lost a student’s paper or if he didn’t turn it in. No coming home to grade the papers and realizing you left them all on your desk at school. These writing samples are available everywhere you are, and they always will be. They are a great way to document student progress. If a student completes multiple blog posts throughout the year, her entire portfolio is available at one link. This portfolio documents growth and can be shown to students and their parents to show how they have improved throughout the year. On the flipside, this is an easy way to visually show parents if their student is falling behind. You can pull up a blog page at conferences and show the parents the sad, white page labeled “no posts” by the web host. You can also pull up another student’s colorful blog with multiple postings ranging from September to June and show what was been accomplished by classmates. Blogs are your documentation and your defense.

The last reason I’ll give you for integrating blogging into your world language classroom is to connect the language to the lives of the students. Our students have cell phones glued to their palms. Our students have forgotten what “playing” means if it doesn’t involve an app. Our students no longer learn how to tell time on a clock that isn’t digital. Our students’ lives revolve around technology. Don’t get me wrong: integrating technology should not be the sole way to connect with students, and connecting with students should not be the only reason we use technology. However, I think it would benefit everyone if our students’ use of language transcended the boundaries of the classroom walls. Students with blogs can integrate language into their lives the same way they integrate fun into their lives. It is accessible via an app, it’s available online, and it is a way to connect to the pages of their friends who are doing the same thing. Not to mention, if your students continue in the language, it is likely they will have to produce typed work in the target area. This is the perfect way to teach them how to type with accents and how to make typing in any language seem just as easy as typing in their native language.

Maybe I’ve convinced you that it is a good idea, but it seems too complicated to do in your classroom. Well, I’m here to tell you, it’s actually pretty easy. It will definitely take some time to perfect your routine for teaching students how to blog, but the benefits are so great that they outweigh these difficulties. There are many sites you can use to blog, but I will share my two favorites with you.

Pen.io is extremely easy. All you have to do is go to the website, choose a website URL and password, and you’re ready to begin. The only problem is that this site is SO basic that sometimes it is too simplistic. On this site, everyone’s page is white, and unless you know how to write HTML codes, you are stuck with the default font, size, and color. You can insert pictures, but you can’t link, highlight, page break, quote, spell-check, create bulleted or numbered lists, strikethrough… the list goes on. Additionally, pen.io doesn’t split up posts into dates. It is simply one big text box that you can keep adding on top of to. Lastly, you can’t make comments on others’ pen.io blogs, you can only view them. However, if you are looking into blogging mostly for practicing typing in the target language, using technology, and creating a portfolio that is easily accessible, pen.io is for you.
If you are reading all of these downsides and your heart is breaking, allow me to share my other favorite site, Blogger, with you. With Blogger, you can have all of the features you couldn’t have on pen.io and more, but the set up is more complicated. Blogger accounts require a Gmail account, which your students will need to setup if they don’t already have one. This also happens to be good sometimes, as it serves as a way to contact students when they are not in the classroom. Students also have many more options in terms of how their blogs appear. This freedom of choice is what offers many of the positive qualities of blogging we’ve previously discussed, but it does take more time to perfect. Students and teachers have more options with privacy, account settings, and comment functions on Blogger. Students can also take advantage of the “Save Now” button and save a draft to come back to later, without publishing it in the meantime. Lastly, Blogger has a free app, accessible froom all smartphones and tablets, where students can utilize all of the features available on the site.

From that point forward, I would suggest offering very direct, explicit prompts to focus on whatever you would like students to improve on. For example, my first blog post asked students to use the passé composé in French to write five sentences, using five different pronouns and five different verbs, about what they did over their two snow days that week. Students knew exactly how much they were expected to write, and it seemed that this level of specificity made them less scared to try something new. Secondly, if you want students to comment on each other’s blogs, I would suggest making yourself a blog page. Through this blog page, you can list prompts, and assignments, and compile a class list of blog links for your students to find each other. This way, once on your blog, they can simply click on their partners’ link and be taken to their blogs, instead of writing down the URLs of multiple partners and typing them in.

Blogging is a great way to decrease your stress as a teacher and increase the education of your students. Blogs can be integrated into the classroom in so many different ways and function as bellwork, classwork, or homework. Blogging brings together your students and allows them to get constructive criticism from someone other than the teacher. I have created documents with detailed instructions on how to create a Blogger account for your students, which I would be happy to share if you are interested. Feel free to contact me personally if you have any questions or concerns. I hope you’re ready to integrate blogging into your classroom. I would love to hear your success stories. Happy blogging!

Leah Cameron Stilman (stilmanl@umich.edu) is an MA student in educational studies with teaching certificates in French and psychology at the University of Michigan.