Running a blog with your students is about as far from a traditional teaching method as you can get, and chances are nobody taught you how to do it. That’s why teachers who blog with students are usually those nonconformists types, radicals, free spirits, taking paths less traveled…well, not so much anymore. It’s actually become quite popular, but it certainly hasn’t hit mainstream levels, partly because it’s not as simple as using a chalkboard and textbook.
It doesn’t have to be so hard. After several years of blogging with students (mostly using PikiFriends), I’ve come up with a successful method which I hope others will find helpful.
What you do before you start blogging is arguably the most important time of all.
1) Choose an appropriate blogging platform for your situation. It must be safe for your students (Many are not. For a detailed explanation of safe blogging with minors, please watch this video.), have a simple learning curve (the fewer features the better in most cases), and allow you to assess your students easily according to your syllabus expectations. Do the right thing and don’t use Facebook just because students are already using it. There are much better platforms built for education purposes.
2) Understand why and how you’ll use it in your class. This may sound obvious, but poor lesson planning will result in problems including misbehavior, technological breakdowns, and angry administrators and parents. My advice for beginners is to look at blogging as 10% of your syllabus – use a blended learning approach which incorporates blogging as a minor supplement. As you progress, you’ll get more comfortable to change the ratio as you see fit.
3) Understand the features you and your students will need to use. Get to know the blogging platform features as well as you can, and make sure there are help files which your students can look up themselves. Can you teach your co-teachers to use it as well? Tutorial videos are a HUGE help. Once again, the fewer features the better. Contrary to popular belief there are many young people who can’t find their way around computers very well, and everyone knows there are a lot of teachers who struggle. You’re probably not one of them since you’re reading this blog however.
4) Set up your student accounts. Learn how to add, delete and edit them because you’ll have to do it many times. If it’s complicated then you’ve chosen the wrong platform. And please, if your students are minors, avoid sites which require them to give email addresses or other contact information.
5) Clear all of this with your boss and the tech guy. You will need their support, so keep them completely in the loop. Administrators will be concerned about liability (student safety & what parents will think) and the pedagogy behind your idea, and you will need lots of help from tech support for sure. For example, you want to use a certain platform that requires a computer update but you don’t have admin access, or the entire platform you want to use is blocked in your school district. Sometimes these problems are deal breakers, so figure it out early. TIP: Log on as a student on a student computer and try to use your chosen blogging program.
6) Know what to do when students forget their login information, and keep that info safe!
7) Make sure that all of your students will have fair and equal access to computers to get the job done, whether at home or school.
8) Let Parents & Guardians know what you’re doing. Imagine your child comes home from school, jumps on the computer and starts clicking away. You’ve been trying to get him off the computer lately and he says, “But I have to blog for school!”
Not good. Parents shouldn’t be surprised like this. I always send notes home (in Japanese since I’m in Tokyo) with a brief explanation, and every parent has come on board so far. Click here and here to see how 2 American schools designed their own permission slips and rules for using PikiFriends. Come up with your own to fit your circumstances, and definitely run it by your boss first!
I heard from a head of school which uses PikiFriends that a few parents were adamantly against computer use for their children, but the school stuck by their guns (kindly explained the educational benefits) and won them over. Expect the unexpected.
9) Set the rules for students. A HUGE step! What do you have to worry about? Identity theft, copyright infringement, bullying and various inappropriate behaviors. Yuck. Makes you want to go back to the old pen-and-paper, doesn’t it?
Don’t worry. It can be avoided with proper preparation on your part. Explain and practice your expectations clearly before logging in.
First of all, identity theft can be avoided by 1) choosing the right platform and 2) urging students to minimize their digital footprints. For example, on PikiFriends we’ve made it a rule that students are not allowed to write any contact info or their last name on any profile page, and we test them by using a few exercises like this one. I also take time in my classrooms to explain the importance of minimizing digital footprints, and I’ve found that students appreciate it and are very careful.
Third, the main causes of bullying and other unwanted behaviors are 1) poor lesson planning, 2) too many features and distractions, and 3) using blog platforms not meant for education. Take care of those three, then there’s only one thing left:
10) Create a code of ethics. Let students know that you expect them to be responsible and respectful, with consequences for misbehavior (just as you expect at all other times, but specific to your online adventure). We have written our own code of conduct in the PikiFriends textbook: #1: BE SAFE and #2: BE KIND, BE FRIENDLY. What will you do with troublemakers? On PikiFriends you can put accounts on ‘hold,’ which means they can no longer log in. I’ve never had to use this feature but I know a few teachers in America who have.
A classroom blog is an opportunity to teach students how to be good people, online (Down with trolls!). Global empathy, constructive criticism, avoidance of stereotypes, how to deal with bullying…if you have time you can address so many important topics.
Take my advice: give your students their login info after you’ve completely thought through all 10 steps. All of the above requires teacher prep time for sure, and at least 1 class period to set things up with students. But the more you do it, the easier it’ll get and you and your students will love it!
What do you think? I’d love to hear your feedback.