Blogging 101--Web logs go to school

As a middle-school teacher, Clarence Fisher is used to spending time grading papers and reviewing lesson plans. But this year he's got an additional task: updating student blogs.

Alorie Gilbert Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Alorie Gilbert
writes about software, spy chips and the high-tech workplace.
Alorie Gilbert
6 min read
As a middle-school teacher, Clarence Fisher is used to spending some time each evening grading papers and reviewing lesson plans. But this year he's got an additional after-school task: updating his students' blogs.

Fisher set up online personal journals--Web logs or blogs--this fall for each of his students at Joseph H. Kerr School in the Canadian town of Snow Lake, Manitoba. His combined seventh- and eighth-grade class generates about a dozen entries a day on topics ranging from classroom assignments to weekend plans, which Fisher reviews before posting online.

Schoolhouse blogs

As blogging enters the classroom and takes its place alongside reading, writing and 'rithmetic, adult Web surfers have the chance to relive the trials and tribulations of the wonder years.

Students in Clarence Fisher's combined seventh- and eighth-grade class at Joseph H. Kerr School in Snow Lake, Manitoba, and in Hillary Meeler's fifth grade class at J.H. House Elementary in the Atlanta suburb of Conyers serve up entries that can amuse, charm and captivate with their simplicity and candidness. Click here to read some excerpts.

He's more than glad to do it. Like other teachers bringing blogging into the classroom, he thinks the online journals will spark students' enthusiasm for computers, writing and opining.

"They're learning the technical skills, but they're also learning that they have a voice online," he said. "They may be from a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, but they're writing online, people are commenting on it, and they're learning that they have a voice."

Fisher is among a small but growing number of teachers and professors experimenting with classroom blogs. The exact number is hard to pin down but it's well into the thousands, said Will Richardson, author of "An Educator's Guide to Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts and Other Cool New Web Tools that are Transforming the Classroom," which is set for publication next year.

Richardson is also supervisor of instructional technology and communications at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington, N.J., where at least 10 percent of the teachers have worked blogging into their lesson plan. It's taken a while for the concept to catch on, though. Hunterdon began its first classroom blog about four years ago.

"I think that blogs have a bad reputation," Richardson said. "People think of them as online journals or diaries, but they are much more than that. They are learning tools."

Take Hillary Meeler's group of fifth-graders at J.H. House Elementary in the Atlanta suburb of Conyers. Every Thursday morning, the students spend two hours writing about current events on their blogs. Meeler, an instructional technology specialist, asks them to choose topics from CNN's student news program and use writing skills they're learning in English class.

The kids love having an audience, she said. Parents, teachers, students and sometimes complete strangers from as far away as Brazil will respond to the blogs with comments. And depending on the tools they're using, student bloggers can track how many times people have clicked on their entries. In an effort to build a following, they often clean up their grammar, stretch their vocabulary and generally write more creatively, Meeler said. "They take a lot of pride in it," she said. "They have to write a title that gets attention, or people won't leave comments or come back."

The students seem to have no shortage of material for their blogs, tapping their daily lives, the news and the blogosphere for inspiration. Some, including Jay Nieves, even write poetry.

The sophomore at East Side Community High School in New York City began blogging last year and now does it almost every day in his New Journalism class. He said he's hooked and will probably keep blogging after he graduates. "It's part of my life," Nieves said.

Jose Bernal, a senior at Galileo Academy of Science and Technology in San Francisco, blogs for his American Democracy class. He's one of about 60 students participating in a blog with a neighboring high school. Bernal is especially keen on reading and commenting on other

students' entries about topics like racism and abortion. "I have a lot of strong views on a lot of things," he said. "This gives you a chance to share your views with everyone."

But blogging can also have some negative effects on student prose. An overabundance of acronyms and abbreviations--a kind of Internet shorthand that Fisher calls "MSNisms"--can creep into students' blogs, Fisher said.

While teachers applaud the use of blogs to develop writing skills, they're using them in other areas as well, launching blogs in topics ranging from advanced placement calculus to music theory to Mandarin in an effort to engage and educate.

And just as these blogs run the gamut in terms of subject matter, the way schools handle them, and the degree of teacher control, varies widely. For instance, Meeler lets anyone from the Web surfing public read and comment on her students' blogs. Others, like Fisher, more actively manage them, reviewing all posts and comments before publication. There's also software, including a program called Moodle, for creating password-protected blogs that are walled off from the world beyond the school or classroom.

Protecting children
Concerned about child predators, many teachers require students to use their initials or first names only to identify themselves in their online journals.

Meeler, whose students go by their first names online, has had to remove the occasional mean remark from her class's blog. But she views such incidents as an opportunity to teach the students not to get discouraged. "I can't guarantee they won't see it, but I like to keep it open because that's what blogging is," Meeler said.

Student blogs can also give rise to questions of control. A few weeks ago, one of Fisher's middle school students submitted a blog entry that ranted about a tough night of babysitting. Another wrote about personal troubles with his parents. Fisher didn't publish either one, but discussed the issues openly with his class. Still, he worried about the kids' reaction.

"Will this experience harm the openness and the flow that is developing in their spaces?" he wrote in his own blog. "A fine balancing act will follow in the next few days. I am encouraged tonight after returning from open house at the school to find five new blog posts needing approval; a positive sign that this did not scare them off from writing."

That's why some schools, like Mabry Middle School in Marietta, Ga., view blogs primarily as a tool for teachers to relay information--study guides, handouts and assignments--to students. The exception is the eighth-graders' Sixceed blog, where students collectively post advice for incoming sixth-graders on surviving middle school. Teachers are grappling with how to make the blog, which recently replaced a static Web site, more interactive.

"We plan to add a part to the blog this year where fifth-graders and parents can post their questions and concerns," said Carmen Hartnett, an eighth-grade language arts teacher at Mabry. "But we're trying to deal with how to control it, since we're dealing with schoolchildren."

As more teachers face such questions, technology companies are hoping to step in. ePals Classroom Exchange, which specializes in "school-safe" e-mail and Web browsing, is one of them. The company recently announced plans to develop a student blogging tool, which, among other things, is designed to filter out inappropriate postings.

But if you listen to the pundits, blogs are just the beginning of a bigger push toward more interactive Internet use in schools. Educators are already starting to experiment with podcasting, a technology for creating and distributing free audio programs online, as well as wikis, a type of collaborative online workspace. For some, staying on top of it all while focusing on basic curriculum can be a chore.

"There's a learning curve to all of it," said Romaine Collins, another eighth-grade language arts teacher at Mabry. "It does become overwhelming."