In Gillian Ryan's classroom, students have a good reason to put thought into the answers they share. Their audience is not only comprised of classmates; it is as a broad as the "blogosphere." The constant online "banter" between the students and their teacher steps up the level of interest students have in their learning, and provides their teacher with a glimpse of what is going on in their heads in "real time."
"Blogging is not only a means for students to show what they know, but it also brings motivation and purpose to student learning," Gillian Ryan told Education World. "Blogging is purposeful to students because it is part of their world; it's a means for students to use a communication tool that's relevant. I'm not simply asking them to write a response to me on a piece of paper, I'm asking them to share what they learn with the world. It makes what I ask them to do a real-world task."
In Ryan's fifth-grade classroom at PRIDE Academy at Prospect Avenue School in Santee, California, blogging has been integrated throughout the curriculum. Ryan had encountered blogging and participated in a few blogs (online journals with comments) as part of an educational community, but was inspired to use blogging with her students while updating her classroom Web site.
"I was exploring the different possibilities of pages that could be added to the site. One of those possibilities was a blog page, so I clicked on it. Up came the page, and I followed the prompts to name the page and begin a discussion," recalled Ryan. "We were studying explorers at the time, and I could immediately see blogging as another way for students to share what they were learning. That one little blog soon grew like wildfire."
The most compelling aspect of blogging for Ryan is the level of engagement that it elicits from her students. The fifth-graders are seeing the power of writing as it is displayed on a blog. Even when she asks the students to create a "rough draft" on paper before going to the computer, they do not complain because they know the ultimate purpose for that task is to post their ideas on a blog.
"If I asked the same questions, and asked the students to record their answer on paper, most would grumble and moan and see that task as simply a school assignment," Ryan observed. "But putting those same questions in the form of a blog, they are not only motivated to learn the information, but they are motivated to write."
Ryan uses a blog page for math discussions. She posts questions that encourage students to seek answers and then checks their responses for comprehension. As they study social studies and science topics, Ryan creates discussions that provide a purpose for learning.
"For example, we are currently studying Jamestown, and I posted a question asking about the challenges settlers faced," Ryan explained. "That question motivated students to search for the information. They were excited to find the information because they knew that they would be able to share what they learned with a much greater audience than simply their teacher. In addition, as I read the blog entries, I get an understanding of what my students are thinking."
In their study of Jamestown, each student drew a role or the name of a settler -- council members, gentlemen, servants, skilled workers, and more. As Ryan has posted queries relating to historical events that occurred in the settling of Jamestown, the students have responded from the perspective of those characters. Her questions have included "What should we do about the Indian attacks?" and "What should we do about President Wingfield now that it has been discovered that he has been hoarding food while the rest of the colony has been literally starving to death?" The students have answered in their historical "voices" and enthusiastically responded to others' posts. History has come alive and become relevant in the classroom through the Jamestown Blog.
Language arts is another area that Ryan bolsters by blogging. To reinforce grammar skills such as proper placement of commas, use of prepositions, or possessive nouns, she posts a question and asks students to utilize a specific skill in their responses. At times, students examine their own posts and use the material to practice editing and revision strategies. Because it serves as a window into students' minds, Ryan also finds blogging especially helpful as the entire class reads a novel.
"When there's a topic students are interested in, but we don't have time for a full discussion, I'll post a question," she adds. "For those who still have questions -- or more to say on a topic -- the blog provides an opportunity for the discussion to continue without the constraints of time."
At the start of school last year, one student in Ryan's room did no work in class. He was present, but not involved. She consulted his teachers from years before and learned that the boy would become frustrated and bang his head on the table when asked to do his work. He had slept through much of his third-grade year.
"This student seemed accustomed to the feeling that writing was too hard for him," Ryan reported. "Blogging, however, was not a formal writing assignment. He understood the purpose for expressing himself through blogging. I watched him go from totally tuned out, not caring, to actually seeking information so he could write his response on a blog."
At times, Ryan uses blogging as a formal assignment with a grade attached. In those instances, she provides clear expectations and models what she is looking for, just as she would in a traditional assignment. However, blogging typically serves as a motivational tool that prompts students to obtain information, practice writing, and demonstrate understanding.
Students rotate at the helm of computers in Ryan's classroom as they blog. They can complete blogging assignments from home if they have Internet access. At her Title I school, most students do have that convenience in their homes. Parents expressed initial concerns about blogging, but because Ryan monitors every comment, they were quickly put at ease. To protect their privacy, students post only their first names, and parents now appreciate that the blogs allow them to keep a close eye on what their children are learning in class.
"Blogging has made an incredible difference in my classroom," says Ryan. "It has been engaging and motivational. Managing the blog has been very simple. It has been easy to incorporate blog questions into everyday teaching, so blogging has been seamlessly integrated into our weekly schedule."
Article by Cara Bafile
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