Blogs in the Classroom: A Reading Report

October 9, 2007 at 1:05 am 2 comments

It seems only appropriate to write my Independent Professional Reading Assignment on my teaching blog, even though this particular blog isn’t intended to be read by my students.

I hate hearing students say that they can’t write, that they hate to read, that what they do in English class is pointless. To me, communication is the foundation of everything these students will do for the rest of their lives – and without a foundation of cultural literacy and a spirit of learning, what beauty and adventure will the world hold for them?

Then again, isn’t English class kind of pointless? We English teacher types are fond of pointing out how rarely we use calculus in our daily lives, but isn’t the five-paragraph essay every bit as irrelevant? In their adult lives, most students won’t analyze the books they read, and few of them will read things they don’t pick for pleasure.

I’m no advocate for doing away with literature and composition – I may dress like a progressive, but the heart of a traditionalist is still beating within me. On the other hand, busy work disgusts and disappoints me. The primary thing is that we actually teach students something, that we help them grow – and that, hopefully, what we teach is in some way relevant to their lives and their futures.

Technology has changed the way this world works. We don’t write letters anymore – we send emails, or we log into an instant messenger, or we type little words into our pocket-sized phones and beam them to one another. We don’t pick up a copy of the daily news, because we can read a thousand different newspapers online at the click of a button. Children’s lives are becoming increasingly net-centric, and if educators don’t adjust accordingly they’ll be left behind as surely as rotary dial phones and typewriters.

pointless2 An English class is the ideal place to incorporate the Internet – especially Web 2.0 – into the classroom. The Internet provides resources for research and excellent opportunities for lessons on ethics, society, validity of sources, etc.. It offers social networking tools that can help students connect with others across the globe. Remember writing letters to your Chinese penpal in second grade? This is the age of instant gratification, where your response can arrive as fast as your friend can type it. And, most exciting for me, the Internet is an exhilarating tool for publication and workshopping.

I’m excited about the idea of setting up a system of blogs within my classroom: a central site, where the teacher posts interesting finds, assignments, updates, and prompts, and individual blogs for each student where they can respond to the teacher and one another. Journal-writing is a key tool for writers, and an online journal appeals to those who prefer an audience

I expected that many people would be thinking the same way I was, but soon found that relatively few people were publishing on the subject. I came across a number of blog posts about integrating the technology into classrooms: Mrs. Pulley’s quick overview, Ms. Poulsen’s rationale, Podcast Blog’s call to arms. TeacherTube, a video-sharing website unknown to me before I Googled “blogs in classrooms,” had a boring but thought-provoking video on the subject. If you’ve got time, the 15-minute video “Blogging: In Their Own Words” shows what the students think of using blogs in the classroom.

Turning to text publications, I started with a 2006 book called Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms by Will Richardson (149 pages; Corwin Press, ISBN 1-4129-2767-3, $27.95). It’s a slim, approachable volume by the author of Weblogg-ed: Learning with the Read/Write Web. Although the book was written for someone much less familiar with the technology, I found that BWP was an interesting and informative overview of some of the best ways to use Web 2.0 in the classroom. It starts out with an introduction to the Read/Write Web (i.e., Web 2.0), including several pages on student online safety.

Next, the book introduces the idea of weblogging and how it can be an educational tool. I enjoyed reading Richardson’s analysis of the pedagogy of blogging. As he points out, online publication of this sort is not only an excellent practice for constructivist teaching, but also contributes to creating an atmosphere of democratic education a la Gutmann. Richardson also acknowledges that blogging is in fact a completely new genre of writing, and that the use of hypertext creates infinite new possibilities and challenges for students and teachers.

fortune_cookieThe bulk of the book gets down to specifics, starting with blogs and moving on to wikis, RSS feeds, social networks (MySpace, Facebook, etc.), Flickr (photo sharing), and podcasts. Richardson not only explains how these technologies work, but gives concrete examples and instructions for doing so. In fact, BWP is practically a how-to book for educators interested in hooking their classrooms up to the Web 2.0 train.

After reading BWP, I moved on to the journal databases in hopes that someone out there had published something interesting on the subject. The first article I found was “Blog On: Building Communication and Collaboration among Staff and Students,” by Catherine Poling (4 pages; Learning & Leading with Technology, Vol. 32 No. 6, March 2005). Poling, an assistant principal and former elementary school teacher, explores the different kinds of educational blogs and the uses and purposes thereof. As a (future) secondary teacher, I was particularly interested in the sections on using blogs to support learning and using individual blogs as a forum for writing workshop, journalling, and publication:

Educators want their students to be excited to learn and participate in class activities. Effective use of this technology, by bringing children and adults together in an online setting to build communication and deeper understanding, truly motivates children to learn and grow. Technology can help support and enhance the development of reading, writing, and the language arts, which are the foundation for success in school and in life. The use of blogging in a language arts program can be a wonderful way to enhance student understanding in a real-world application (12).

The next article I read was Jan Ray’s “Welcome to the Blogosphere: The Educational Use of Blogs (aka Edublogs)” (3 pages; Kappa Delta Pi Record, Summer 2005), an entry-level text for teachers new to the idea of using blogs in the classroom. This article caught my notice because it was one of the only ones to point out the accessibility issue: if any of your students don’t have access to a computer with an Internet connection, they won’t be able to participate in an online classroom community.

In the Summer 2007 issue of the same publication, I came across an article by our old friend Will Richardson. Titled “Teaching in a Web 2.0 World,” it is a frank and personal assessment of the way Web 2.0 is affecting youth and the educational process:

Concerning one topic, there is almost universal agreement among us: schools and classrooms as they are structured today will be hard-pressed to remain relevant in the future. When groups of learners coalesce around shared passions online, they experience something that is difficult to replicate in physical space. In my 18 years in the classroom, I can say that only one time do I ever remember having a class of students where the majority was truly passionate about the subject we were studying. It was a Web design class that, no surprise, ended up being one of the most satisfying teaching experiences in my career (1).

BlogCartoon In my teaching internship, I’ve learned that one of the best things a teacher can do is to keep in constant communication with parents. Informed parents are happy parents! A teacher who keeps a blog herself allows interested parents to log on any time and see what’s going on in the class; when that extends to the entire class, parents have the unique opportunity to see their child’s work in the context of the entire learning environment. In her article “Blog It: An Innovative Way to Improve Literacy” (1 page; Reading Today, August/September 2006), Linda Wells describes the positive effect this quiet parental involvement has on the entire process of cultivating literacy and learning. Her excitement at the results of bringing blogs into the classroom is palpable as she talks about how motivated her students are, how eager they are to write, revise, and publish, and how dramatically the quality – and quantity – of their writing has improved. “There is such pride in ownership,” she says. Wells’ class has blogged character sketches, book reports, student-made movies, weekly newsletters, and articles.

Linda Wells doesn’t teach high school, and her class isn’t accelerated. It’s a mixed group, from at-risk students to high achievers, of fifth graders. The tools of Web 2.0 aren’t limited to older students or honors students – they’re applicable and accessible to any student with a modem.

In fact, blogs are helping another group of students make great strides in literacy: ELL students. “Blogs in TEFL [Teaching English as a Foreign Language]: A New Promising Vehicle” (5 pages; US-China Education Review, Vol. 3 No. 5, May 2006) was written by Chengyi Wu of the Luoyang Foreign Languages University. It provides an explanation of blogging and how it can be used to help Chinese students in their pursuit of English fluency, as well as a breakdown of the potential positive and negative outcomes of the usage. Apparently American and Chinese teachers share similar concerns about web shorthand (BTW, LOL, etc.) and “netiquette” in addition to student security. Ultimately, however, Chengyi has an optimistic view of blogs in the classroom:

Fortunately, blogs are drawing more and more attention from EFL educators, though not originally intended for educational purposes. From the impact that the weblog has already had in the world of education, it might be argued that weblogs are not a fad but a glimpse of a brighter future. Today we seem to be stepping into an era in which “to blog or not to blog, that’s increasingly the question” (5).

You’re reading this “book report” online, so I don’t need to tell you that the Internet isn’t going anywhere. That “wave of the future” everyone always talks about is here now, and teachers can either let it knock them down or grab a board and ride it. Sure, the Internet has difficult and dangerous aspects, but what powerful tool doesn’t? Wielded properly, this tool can achieve much in our efforts to make reading and writing relevant, accessible, and fun.

Postscript: There are other books out there, some of which have not yet been released, on this subject. Some include Engaging the Online Learner: Activities and Resources for Creative Instruction by Rita-Marie Conrad, Making the Most of the Web in Your Classroom: A Teacher’s Guide to Blogs, Podcasts, Wikis, Pages, and Sites by Timothy Green, Abbie Brown, and LeAnne Robinson, and David Warlick’s Classroom Blogging: A Teacher’s Guide to the Blogosphere (a print-on-demand book available on Lulu). Warlick has published a number of other books that relate to this topic as well. I suspect that more and more will be published on this subject in the coming years.

One more addition… Naturally, as soon as I completed this review, I came across another terrific article about blogging in the English classroom. I haven’t had time to read it carefully yet, but Tiffany and Bud Hunts’ “Linkin’ (B)Logs: A New Literacy of Hyperlinks” (4 pages; NCTE English Journal, Vol. 97 No. 1, September 2007) seems to be an excellent look at the theory and pedagogy of blog-based writing. The second half deals with the idea of teaching blogging rather than simply writing on blogs, which I think is a crucial aspect of literacy for the 21st century. This article really takes a good look at how classroom blogs tie into student literacy, and I’m looking forward to reading it in more depth.


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The Bee’s Knees

This is the teaching journal of a student first-year second-year THIRD-YEAR (!!!) English teacher. I am writing this blog as a reflection for myself, a way to keep friends and family updated, and a sharing-ground between other educators online. I love comments!

I am striving to maintain anonymity on this blog so that I may more freely interact with my fellow edubloggers. If you know who I am, please help me protect my anonymity in your comments. I use pseudonyms or initials for everyone I write about to preserve their anonymity as well.

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