This was my first weblog project with students. I worked with a group of fourth & fifth grade elementary students from J.H. House Elementary School in Conyers, GA. It was the 2002-2003 school year. I had a class blog, NewsQuest, & individual student blogs.
I used current events with a group of fourth and fifth graders as a springboard to teach critical thinking skills and media awareness, and to make connections with the school’s curriculum objectives. We met two to three hours a week to work on this project. NewsQuest was the weblog I used to keep a record of our learning journey, both student and teacher. This was our class weblog. The software I used was Manila. After I posted for a short time, students began posting on the class blog. They were contributing editors. Manila software lets you read the contributing editors posts and then “release” them to the blog. This software had different editor roles that you can choose for participants. The person in charge is called the managing editor. After another short time of the students posting on the class blog, they each created their own personal blog. Links to these student blogs are on the NewsQuest blog. Students got to choose the template and do other management tasks. For a time I asked them to let me see their posts before they actually released it themselves but we progressed to peers checking their work to times when there was no checking, except for their own proofreading. The goal was to get the students writing and thinking. They discussed the news, wrote about their heroes, wrote poetry, expressed their opinions, stated what they liked about using weblogs, and wrote about a variety of topics. They had choices within these perimeters. Sometimes I made the writing choices for them. Students made connections to what they were studying in class as they practiced their writing skills.
Then one day I received an email from Will Richardson, a fellow blogger who said, “This is good stuff, Anne. Don’t you think it’s time my journalism students got together with your journalism students?” That led to an exciting collaboration between his class in New Jersey and mine in Georgia. This was the beginning of the Georgia-New Jersey Connection. The high school students mentored the elementary students. They corresponded back and forth on the elementary student weblogs. Dialogue flowed between the teachers, the students, and the classes.
This kind of dialogue gave the students a voice they had not had before and led to learning discoveries. Meredith and Kristen, two resourceful high school students, on their own, color-coded the different elements of a news article, thus providing a visual tool to help the younger students clearly see the different parts of a news article.
The climate we build around the use of weblogs in our classrooms is so very important. We have to create an atmosphere that promotes a give-and-take between student and teacher, student and student, and also a give-and-take between the student, teacher and those responding outside of the classroom. Students need to feel free to write what they’re really thinking. Then we can enter the process and counsel students how to write responsibly while they still can maintain their unique voice. I do think we have to be overseeing the process. I don’t view that as vetoing what they write. I view it as responsible teaching and a way to empower students to make their voice count. (Remember these are elementary students!)
Manila has a comment feature that is helpful for teachers. All comments come to your email. So the students had blogs but I was the managing editor. I didn’t write on their blogs but I had access to them. The students knew this. It is important to spend time talking with them about your decisions, what you want to achieve as a group, and how weblogs can be beneficial in education.
Students loved getting comments from the high school students as well as random comments from others outside our classroom. I would ask for volunteers as I was out and about. For example, I had a friend from Paris post a comment. The students were amazed someone from Paris was interested in their writing. Think friends, school board members, senior citizens, family, etc. Other bloggers or teachers aren’t always the best candidates. They’re too busy looking for the same volunteers.
The blog provided parents with a window into their child’s school world that coud be easily accessed from the web. My online record of the journey through the class weblog documented the process.