Classroom Blogging

nIMK48mI’m having my students keep blogs again.  I’m both excited and wary.

Student blogs are a lot more fun to read than papers, but they’re also more difficult to evaluate.  The setup process has gone fairly smoothly so far, but it’s still been a lot of work.  Reading a ton of blog posts every week can be really inspiring, but can also be draining.

The setup for my class is this: Each student will keep a blog.  They’ve been assigned to “blog teams” and are required to comment on others’ blogs as well.  There are minimum requirements they must meet to pass, but if they want to do well, they will have to post more regularly and engage more actively in their blog networks.

I’ve done a few things to ease the burden of reading, commenting on and grading 82 student blogs.

  • I’m requiring students to post only 3 times a month.  However, this is a MINIMUM requirement; a student who wants 100% on this assignment will need to do more than that.
  • I’ve created very detailed written guidelines on possible blog topics, protocols for commenting, and evaluation criteria.  Some students seem overwhelmed by this flood of information at the moment, but I hope they will find it useful as they get into the blogs.
  • Rather than receiving a grade for each post (impossible!) or a single grade at the end of the term (as I did last time; totally overwhelming), students will receive a grade for February (and a face-to-face meeting for feedback), a grade for March, and a grade for April.
  • I’ve decided to set aside a few minutes at the beginning of each class for blog concerns.  Today we’ll go over the mechanics of putting up their first post and making their first comments; next week we will talk about the ins and outs of using images (including copyright issues.)

Their first posts are due on Friday.  Do you have any advice?  I love student blogs, but last time I used them, I thought the workload might put me in an early grave.  What tips do you have for streamlining, responding, tackling problems, and otherwise making this assignment as effective as possible?

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Top 10 Posts of 2010

For  your reading and catch-up pleasure, I have once again compiled a “year’s top posts” list.  These posts are “top” in that they got the most hits; in some cases this may have been because of timing, a well-chosen keyword, or fluke, but in some cases I think it’s because they truly were the best posts I wrote this year.  If you missed out on these, check them out – they all said something to someone!

1. Encountering the Other: How Literature Will Save the World

I was glad this post got so much traffic, because I really like it.  I return to it from time to time when I’m wondering what the hell I’m doing with my life.  In it, I ask myself once again why reading matters, and come to the conclusion – with the help of some of my students – that “literature is the best, and perhaps the only, way to understand what it is like to be someone other than myself.”

2. What an “8th Grade Education” Used to Mean

The text of this post – purported to be an 8th-grade final exam from 1895 – has been making the rounds of the internet for a couple of years now, and, as I note in the update to the post, it’s been more or less determined that it is an authentic test, but not for 8th-graders.  The most interesting part of the post may be the comments section, in which readers once again wax in all different directions about what “education” really means.

3. Why Study Literature?

The central question of this post is an extension of that of #1 above.  Reading books is all very well, but why should the study and analysis of literature be core curriculum in college?  (Spoiler for those who want to read my further posts on this subject: I’m not certain it should.)

4. What I’m Learning From What I’m Reading: Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind

Zadie Smith + David Foster Wallace = post that gets tons of hits.  Guaranteed formula.  The post itself is really just a DFW quote, but it’s a good one.

5. I Am Disappointment With You’re English Teaching

The story of Khawar, a difficult student who was probably suffering from an undiagnosed learning disability, got a lot of response.  Another post about him also ended up high in the rankings.  (Khawar ended up passing my course, which once again had me asking myself what I’m doing wrong in my grading schemes.)

6. Ten Wonderful Things, Part Four: Harry Potter

Another way to get lots of hits: put the words “Harry Potter” in your title.  Nevertheless, the “Ten Wonderful Things” posts in general pulled in a few new readers, and it felt good to write them.  If you’ve ever wondered whether it’s cool to put a children’s bestseller on a college course, this post will give you an emphatic “yes.”

7. It’s Funny Because It’s True

It doesn’t hurt to include a funny animated video in your post, especially if your audience is mostly teachers and the video is an enactment of everything you ever wanted to say to the boneheaded student spouting excuses across your desk.  Throw in a real-life story of infuriating misspelled emails and it’ll be a winner.

8. Ten Wonderful Things, Part Six: Rereading

I’m not sure why this post got so much attention, but one thing I’ve noticed is that writing about books usually gives the stat meter a little bump.  I’m glad this post got read, because it’s a concept that means a lot to me – one of the joys of teaching literature, I need to keep reminding myself, is getting to read my favourite books over and over.

9. Why Children Shouldn’t Read

No doubt the provocative title is what gave this post its currency.  Like #4 above, the post is composed mostly of one long quote, this one from Susan Juby’s memoir of teenage alcoholism, Nice Recovery.  The quote is great, and even those of us who didn’t start binge drinking at thirteen can probably relate to its description of what too much reading can do to one’s perception of oneself and the world.

10.  A World Without People

This was my favourite post of the year, so if it hadn’t made it into the top 10, I probably would have found a way to squeeze it in here somewhere.  In this story, I have a very, very bad day that ends up being one of the best days ever, and, along the way, I stop hating everyone.

There you have it, folks.  If you need to catch up on your Siobhan Curious reading, start here.  And have a super happy new year full of stories, questions, and challenges bravely met!

Ten Wonderful Things, Part Eight: Blogging

The eighth of ten things I loved about this past term.

#8: Blogging

Some days, I teach because I blog.

When I began this blog in 2007, I was seriously considering giving up teaching.  It was just too hard.  Then Vila H. convinced me that I needed to start blogging about something.  Teaching is the only thing I know much about, so it seemed a natural fit.

It’s a bit odd that I didn’t realize, at the time, the potential blogging had for saving my sanity.  I kept compulsive handwritten journals from the age of nine until the age of twenty-five or so.  I stopped because all that writing gave me a repetitive stress injury in my writing arm, shoulder and neck that continues to plague me (it makes marking papers even more of a nightmare.) During that time, though, writing stuff down was my main method of dealing with the world.

Keeping a journal on the computer never felt the same to me, and although I took a couple of stabs at it, it never stuck.  This makes sense to me now.  The computer feels like a tool for communication; a notebook feels like a private box for private thoughts.

Although, for most of my writing career, I thought of myself as a fiction writer, my greatest writing joy came through writing letters.  And later, emails.  Long, rambling, cathartic emails.  At around the same time I was questioning my choice of a teaching career, I was also questioning my choice of genre as a writer.  Did I really care about fiction that much?  I didn’t even read a lot of novels any more.  (This is changing, but slowly.)

So I started blogging, and it made teaching so much better.

First off, when you’re a writer of any sort, everything becomes material.  No matter how impossible/irritating/terrifying the situation I’m dealing with, it’s something to write about.  I’m grateful for problems because they make good posts.   My struggles with Khawar and  the very bad day that turned unexpectedly good were not, on the whole, pleasant experiences, but writing about them was extremely enjoyable.

Secondly, blogging – unlike, say, working on a novel manuscript – comes with an audience.  Not only am I writing, but people are reading what I write, in some cases immediately after it’s written.  Ask anyone who’s been working on a book for a long time how valuable this is.

And not only do people read, they make comments!  Sometimes these comments come in the form of colleagues stopping me in the hall or friends messaging me on Facebook.  This is great.  But often, people leave comments right on the writing!  People read what I write, and then they want to talk about it.  They have things to say about my difficult experiences – sometimes very encouraging things, and almost always helpful things.  (Sometimes not. But hey, if people get mad, at least you’ve got their attention.)

This combination of writing and interaction is the sweet spot for me.  If I had to give it up, I’m not sure I’d have the mojo to keep teaching any more.  There’s no question: I take my bad teaching days to heart.  The blog turns them into something I can use, and share, and then they’re not so bad.  In fact, they’re precious.

*

Things that are also wonderful:

#7: Looking Problems in the Eye

#6: Rereading

#5: Exceptions

#4: Harry Potter

#3: Early Mornings

#2: Incorrect First Impressions

#1: My IB Students

Image by Martin Boose

Joanne Jacobs’ New Blog: Community College Spotlight

The always enlightening Joanne Jacobs has started a new blog, Community College Spotlight. Here’s a little info that she passed on to me earlier today:

Nearly half of college-goers go to a community college. And when people talk about educating our way to prosperity, that will happen at community colleges — or not at all….Community College Spotlight will take a closer look at the colleges that “educate the top 100 percent of Americans.”  The blog is part of The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit source of national education news and analysis published by the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, Teacher’s College at Columbia University.

I’ve already subscribed, and I hope you will too – Jacobs’ original blog is a font of useful education information, and I have no doubt that Community College Spotlight will be as well.

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