This is the next video I created to reflect my findings on the digital and collaborative strand in Mindlab, where we had to implement, document and critique a learning innovation applied to a specific area of practice. I looked at the research that suggests that having a personal blog can improve writing. I looked at the work done by David Mitchell (@DeputyMitchell) and his ideas on @QuadBlogging. I also looked at the merits of ‘blogging’ on Facebook as opposed to a dedicated blog site like WordPress.
Mark Twain said that “Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.” He may have been a novelist, a journalist and even an adventurer. But never a teacher. As a teacher he would know that even getting words on the page for many teenagers is a struggle. Ask students and they would likely tell you that “writing sucks.” So the problem I would like to address is literacy in the form of creative and formal writing for the average teenager. The innovation is weblogs, or more commonly known as blogs. 15 years ago the word blog did not exist and now an estimated 150 million blogs exist.
In our cluster of schools, 16% of students are below or well below the expected writing standard. 19% of our Maori students are below or well below the standard. And 23% of our boys are below or well below the standard. Our schools have identified trends that indicate that there is less success for Maori boys in writing. The aim is that the secondary schools will raise the overall core writing skills for year 9 and 10 in preparation for success at NCEA level 1, 2 and 3. But how? My solution is through social media, in particular a personal blog.
So what makes a blog different and therefore a tool for improving writing? Most of my hesitant writers are not hesitant talkers. And if writing is communicating, as is talking, nothing stops them recording their thoughts in a podcast and popping that onto their blogs. This is the first step to getting students to capture their quality thoughts and convey them to an audience. Obviously we don’t stop there, but you often do need to build trust and confidence initially before you start to make progress. The beauty of a blog is that you can easily add text, photos, video and audio to a post. So if we get our students thinking and reflecting in the form of a video to start off with, then build on that, we are going to make progress with the goal of improving the standard of writing. The next step to building confidence is to comment on their unique ideas and the way they structured their thoughts. Then start talking about how these ideas could form a paragraph of writing.
John Hattie said that “feedback is one of the top 10 influences on student achievement.” In addition, he said that “interventions that aim to foster correct peer feedback are needed.”
So feedback, in the ‘comments’ section of their blog, is vital. This includes peer reviews. But first we have conversations about the importance of good digital citizenship and give “comment guidelines.” Peer feedback needs to be both constructive and relevant. Students need to understand the marking criteria in order to give informed feedback. This in itself will raise awareness of good writing practice. What a powerful tool when we get students giving their peers, people of the same age group, feedforward and feedback.
So in theory, maintaining a good blog site should raise the level of writing. Again I ask, how? If this was the case, and given that the majority of students have Facebook which is, after all, a form of a blog, why hasn’t this raised writing skills?
The reason is simple. Facebook pages are owned, run and edited by teenagers. And so they should be. But when blogging is brought into the classroom, the teacher, and later peers, can fill the role of the critic. It means that we can have conversations about content and style. A good blog post has a magnetic headline, like all good media. The post opens with a bang in order to hook the reader in. Persuasive words and good sentences abound. And finally, no one wants to read a post that is simply made up of text. So engaging and authentic images and videos should be encouraged. We don’t have these conversations about Facebook, but maybe we should. And just because we’ve brought blogging into the classroom, it doesn’t mean that fun goes out the window. Part of the beauty of blogging is the audience. There are interactive widgets like “Revolvermap” which tracks your audience. When someone reads your blog, a little flag pops up on the revolving globe and tells you which city they are from. Students get quite excited when they recognise the fact that people, other than their teacher, is reading their work. This is also key to understanding the global audience.
So not only are we raising awareness of good writing, we are discussing what good digital citizenship looks like. In addition, it reminds students that “the internet is a big place. Everyone can see it.” Kate Friedwald from Wairakei School made a good point: “Writing is no longer just on the classroom wall, it’s not just in their books. It’s out there for the world to see.” Students say that, once they start receiving comments, they feel like people are waiting for them to post more of their writing. This encourages them to write regularly. The global audience can include parents and family, even those that are half way across the world. Instead of the stereotypically mono-syllabic conversations parents have with their teenagers, they could actually be reading about what their children did at school that day.
Audience is key to the success of the writing. It’s one thing to hand a half-baked piece of writing in when only your teacher will see it. But quite different when you realise that you could potentially have a global following. So with all this in mind, the skill of commenting and posting increases the awareness of good writing. Correct punctuation becomes more meaningful. Teenagers become empowered to write. For my generation, you studied journalism, you worked for an editor, you begged a publisher to look at your work. For this generation, they are journalist, editor and publisher rolled into one. My generation knows the silence of censorship. Letters to the editor that contained controversial ideas got ‘lost in the mail.’ Talk back radio hosts simply put the phone down on troublesome callers. But for this generation, their voice can be heard. They are shaping what we read. With social media, we own the printing press. Besides which, it’s free and therefore accessible to all.
So why not allow them to post their writing onto Facebook as opposed to a blog site like WordPress? The reason, just because I deal with teenagers all day doesn’t mean I want to hang out with them at the skate park. Which is what I’d feel like if I was commenting on their Facebook posts. Their personal Facebook page is their domain and I simply don’t belong there. But their WordPress blog is a place where we can hang out together, where we can encourage good writing, which will no doubt have an impact on their other social media activity. At the very least it means that we can have meaningful discussions about what they post on social media.
A prolific blogger, danah boyd (she spells her name in lower case) said that blogging is “a place where my voice sat.” So we need to harness our students’ writing and give them a platform “to think, to process, to understand” and in the process improve their writing. And if they come to a better understanding of the online world in which they are growing up, then they would have received an effective 21st century education.
Writing online makes copyright authentic. At the back of their mind, the blogger is always asking the question: Who will read this post? If we encourage good reflective practice, the teenage voice establishes itself. And that authentic voice is what sets excellent writing apart from mediocre writing.
The impact goes beyond improving writing. The skills my students have acquired is that they can set up a website with categories for a variety of subjects. They can embed videos and understand the rudiments of HTML coding. They are developing the skill of critiquing each other’s work through feedforward and feedback. And we are constantly discussing what a good digital citizen looks like. UK teacher David Mitchell founded QuadBlogging which has now seen over 500,000 students from 55 countries take part. As a group of four schools, each week a different class will be the ‘focus class’ allowing the other three classes to visit and comment on the focus class blog. That’s got to have a positive spin off for writing. In his school he saw that blogging had a dramatic impact on writing standards. Writing scores “rose from 9% to 60% in just 12 months with each child in year 6 making on average double the expected progress for the last three years.” Why would our kiwi kids be any different?
Data suggests that they’re no different. Take my year 10 English class. Looking at a comparison between their English GPA from last year to this year, there has been a general increase for most students, particularly the boys. One boy went from an English GPA of 45% to a whopping 75%. Another went from 37% to 50%, a third climbed from 21% to 50%. That’s overall for English, not just writing. But if we are looking at the impact of tools like blogging, ideas like collaboration and put them together in a positive learning environment, the outcome for the student can be very pleasing indeed. In addition, this GPA is based on a creative writing project which consisted of a number of tasks and culminated in a story written for a teenage audience. So writing made up a huge component of the marks.
Anecdotally I can add that I don’t have the problem from years back when students simply did not submit work. In part I think, because I encourage collaboration and sharing of ideas, it means all get involved. But I do believe that writing on-line beats handwriting for most students. Having poor handwriting or being weak at spelling is no longer a hurdle for students, and is no longer a block for generating a writing piece. It has even been a while since I heard a student say that they didn’t know what to write about. Sites like “Instagrok” are there to counteract writer’s block.
I looked at student feedback where they suggested that posting onto blogs can be challenging if the network slows down. And we all know that if you get a class full of students hitting the same website, it does slow things down. So as a school we have decided to self-host WordPress. At $30 a month, it’s a bargain, given that speed is remarkably improved.
As with most websites, rather than a finished product, the blog can be constantly updated and refined. Meaningful feedforward results in improved writing, which is the intended goal.
“I reflect and share publicly to engage others and build understanding. This is my blogging practice. What is yours?”