Brian Crosby wrote about his classroom practice for publishing student writing, and he asked me to share how I handle blogging in my classroom. I enjoyed reading Brian’s post and the various comments left on it. My approach is a little different from what I see there and elsewhere that teachers have addressed the issue of pedagogy with student blogging.
It’s hard to make a general statement about how I manage the student weblogs because I don’t have a policy that applies the same to every situation. The policy statement the kids hear from me is that we’re writing for a school website, representing our school to the public, and just as if we were on a field trip, we’ll look our best. In fact, this is a fair representation of what’s spelled out in our school district’s web publishing guidelines. I do edit the students’ writing in order to help them look their best. And I do it in a variety of ways. Mostly, how I handle it depends on whose writing it is, and what I want to accomplish with the edit because all editing is not equal.
To begin with, the word ‘edit’ is problematic. I wondered as I read Brian’s post and the various responses to it, if everyone was talking about the same thing. I don’t know, for instance, if it means correcting spelling and typos, structure and paragraphing, sentence syntax, inclusion of specific details, author’s voice, or the topic the student has chosen to write about. There are issues at every level, and I focus on them selectively.
I see the spelling, typos and paragraphing as relatively trivial compared to the larger problems, but that doesn’t mean that I want them to ignore those things. If there are many of them, we have a conference and go through the piece together. They read it out loud to me, and usually that helps them catch a few they hadn’t seen. But that takes a lot of time that I don’t always have for every student who might need help there. Handing the paper back to them and telling them to “find their mistakes” usually ends up with them wasting a bunch of time looking through the dictionary or bothering someone else who knows how to spell better. So, if I don’t have the time to work on mechanics with a student, or if there are only a few of these things, I correct them myself. We work on sentence mechanics with exercises that are isolated from blogging, just as we work on math facts as exercises that are isolated from problem solving.
Sometimes, if I see a pattern among things that a few kids have written, I present it to the class as an “issue” and I take some time to go through the editing process in front of them using the LCD projector. I check with the student to see if this is OK with them, and then we do it as a group. I don’t normally go this route with kids who are insecure about their writing. But sometimes, I might. After all, they did push the ‘publish’ button. Mostly, this is how I teach about structural issues like paragraphing, topic sentences, the use of punctuation, and word choice. I try to show how those things help readers make sense of the writing. Everyone can work on that.
The other, topic-related issues are unique to each piece and each individual, and they require more individual attention. These are usually, in my experience, the most difficult to resolve because they require students to make choices they may not want to make. My editorial policy guides that discussion. One thing that has come up in the last year is that I don’t allow fiction writing. I can’t teach them to be better writers when I have no idea what they’re talking about. I don’t understand Pokemon fan fiction, for example. I apologize, and tell them that I’m good with essays and OK with poetry, but fantasy fiction is outside my area of expertise as a teacher. Reading through that stuff last year was a huge time sink for me.
The question of how much time it takes to do things this way is something that many teachers ask about. I spend a lot of time solving technical problems in class, and maybe a half hour a day monitoring the website. Maybe. Where it helps me, I think, is that at the end of the term there’s an archive of all the work a student has done. I have no papers to look at, and it’s easy to share with parents.
The kids understand that they don’t have individual blogs, and they aren’t writing on their own websites. I expect them to conform to certain constraints, just as a magazine or newspaper writer would. I think there’s an inherent contradiction between the concept of the blog as a personal website and its use in school as a writing platform. In school, there are institutional constraints that are not present for bloggers who are writing independently. How best to teach them to write is the main issue. My emphasis is on effective communication.