13 July 2014

Student Blogs as Published Work: I - Accountability

I: Accountability

I know, another teacher writing about student blogs?

It’s true that edtech folks have been praising the power of blogs for students for several years,  Michael Drennan’s excellent work and  Susan Davis’s justifications not least among them. Many colleges now require their students to keep blogs of their coursework or experiences and have so for years.  It’s easy enough to find tools for creating them, like KidBlog or EduBlogs, planning for them, or even assessing them: Tim Horgan’s rubric is excellent and Mark Sample’s simple approach is effective. More, there are plenty of contests and scholarships available for students who blog well.

So why write more?  A few reasons:  I want to offer my reflection on student writing and accountability; I want to emphasize the fifth stage of the writing process and its implications; I wish to explore the neglected topic of blog promotion; and I want to relate some of my experiences with writing transformations through blog writing.

In brief, though, I see no reason to ever abandon the process of student blogs (though I will explore vlogging in the future!).


As blogs are publicly published works by students, the stakes for everyone involved in the writing process (instructor included) go up.  Gone are the days when a paper was quietly turned in at a desk and just as quietly returned privately several periods later.  The teacher and student shared a powerful or shameful or forgettable experience of writing and no one ever knew more; and this happened throughout the year with hundreds of students. 

Now, however, the student knows that her writing will be read by people more important to her than a mere teacher: family and friends and, worse, strangers will see her words and ideas and even have the chance to comment or rate the work!  As a consequence, the writing itself becomes more focused and thoughtful.  Ever have those papers where you think, “Gosh, if he had just spent one more round of revision and proofreading, this could be solid work?” 90% of them?  Me, too.  While that will never go away entirely, the student blogs I read seldom are fraught with simple errors. 

A Process Note:  I should mention here that my student blogs are always the final stage of the writing process. Students have already taken their work through 2-3 drafts through online peer review and classroom workshops. Once the students have scored their peer’s work as 80% or better, we call the paper “Publishable” and therefore ready to be posted. If it scores lower, they continue to revise until it reaches that stage.

As important, the student blog is a measure of accountability for the instructor, as well.  What is the quality of work being produced in our classrooms?  The blog demands that we are seen by other students, by our colleagues, by our administrators, by the parents, and even by a broader sometimes-critical public as credible producers of literacy. (Equally, parents can see clearly when/what their child is not producing!) This level of transparency was never before available (or even desirable) in earlier generations of my teaching career.

This implies too, then, that teachers have demonstrable evidence for administrative evaluations of their work as producers of authentic learning.  In my own case, I am measuring student growth across a year of blog posts. (Do Selma’s March posts show marked improvement over those from October? I have all of them before me to see.)  Am I seeing a collective class-wide improvement in rubric scores across time?  Do I have evidence of student composition literacy?  Do I have evidence of students employing technology?  Of course.

A Process Note:  As students employ the same writing rubrics across the year and are using the same rubric as I am for peer evaluation, quantifying these changes is easier.  I can keep track of these scores through a gradebook, but students can also track their own progress by graphing their scores. 

Additionally, I should point out that one of the four blogs I maintain is purely of teacher-written models of writing for each assignment.  Therefore I model appropriate blog etiquette for students, that the process is real, that the assignments are credible, and (often enough) what a solid piece of writing looks like.  I also post links to other student-written works which are solid.

Accountability or transparency in our work is a worthy goal, and one teachers need not fear if we see it as a process towards improving our craft and student literacy and not merely a place of judgment or criticism.  But it’s also notable—for me, anyway—that any trepidation we might feel in engaging public projects like these is similar to (but probably more limited than) the anxiety felt by students in doing so. 

And empathy is a quality of good teaching.

- - -

A few sample student blog entries from this year’s junior classes:

My further reflections on the writing process, blog promotion, and digital transformation of writing will follow.

02 October 2011

StudyWikis: Hard-Earned Lessons

Okay, I admit: I rushed into the Wiki business perhaps a little late for the rush of –pedia followers and a little early for my technical skills. Nevertheless, techno-literacy aside, I’ve learned a few things about my classroom forays into Wiki-work, and I thought I would post them here for the unwary.

Why Wiki?

To me, that question was easy.  After moving most of my worksheets and quizzes to online discussion forums in the late 1990s, I recognized that the last decade of teaching has been wholly different from anything before it. Critical class minutes of interactions with students—class discussions, working with special needs students, peer reviews, group collaboration, one-on-one intervention and tutorial, grade reviews, etc.—could now be fit into 57 minute class periods that were free of the infernal “quiet work.”  Why, I asked myself, were we working quietly alone when we had so little time together? Online forums cleared my teaching space for . . . teaching.

So as 2.0 tech began to sweep the web, I upgraded (I now work on Microsoft’s Sharepoint ASP programming) and started exploring other ways to enhance—not replace—my practice. Wikis were an obvious choice.

In essence, I reasoned, I could make study collaborative while students were apart.  I could compel the best of group work (peer teaching/mentoring, editorial review, checks for understanding, and enhanced discovery/solution-making) to happen outside of the classroom, as well.  What’s more it would free the classroom space for even more of the interactions which might only be accomplished when we were together.

Wiki What?

For myself, a teacher of composition and literature, content is relatively unobtrusive in contrast to skills instruction.  Nevertheless, why couldn’t students collaborate to build a Study Notes Wiki for my classroom? They could add our notes and discussions on novels, on writing techniques, etc. If a student missed class, they could always find what we had done on our wiki. More, once one semester had compiled notes, later semesters might add and enhance—I might accomplish far more in my curriculum when students were building a massive “cheat sheet” library of my classroom. 

This is quite a different pedagogy from the infamous days when teachers would root out rogue notebooks sold on student black markets of “AP World History” or “Advanced Biology.” Rather than attempt to quash information about our classrooms, we do better to expose it all, for parents, students, and the broader community. After all, if my tests were merely factual recall, didn’t I want the students to know what they had to learn? If they were process or skills tests, then the factual background hurt nothing.
And so I began three key StudyWiki projects at first, with more planned:
  • A Literary Theory Wiki for my AP Literature students:  They would compile notes on the various literary theories (Neo-Marxism, feminism, New Criticism, etc.) and then write short interpretations of poems they chose using each theory.  Eventually, we would have an extensive library of complex ideas with student-authored applications.
  • An Argumentation Strategy Wiki for my Argumentation students: They would compile strategies from our class notes (keeping control, establishing criteria, forming defenses against dilemmas, etc.) and then follow up with examples from their own lives or the media where these worked or failed. They would add hyperlinks or videos of the examples to view.
  • A GroupProject Wiki for my Language Arts classroom where students would work on ideas across different class hours to design a media project. Each group would have a wiki page to add notes and reflections, plan, and implement their project. Once completed, each student could present their work in their respective classes. 
             There are many more uses for classroom wikis, of course (see below), but this is where I began.


The first two wikis are currently active in my classrooms. The GroupProject Wiki was a short-term project last spring. The literary theory wiki works well because students in multiple sections/class periods are working together, and they can revise or comment on each other’s theory applications.  The argumentation wiki continue to compile notes as we move through our current semester. 

First, participating students learn more than from my traditional classroom presentation of ideas alone. We all know students whose motivations to study outside of the classroom (truly study) are low, and we all know students who scarcely give the class a second thought after 3:00.  By assigning the online wiki (as opposed to any assignment which would be brought to school the next day but more likely thoughtlessly copied the last minute), students take notes in my classroom and then transfer these notes online, re-encapsulating them in a new format.  More, since they must work with and around their peers (I tell them they may not repeat an old idea), they are more attentive to capture details that others did not. In adding examples (their own or around the web), they apply the lessons or research more around what we discuss in class. 

Second, they receive some validation for their learning which isn’t from me. If their entries stand and grow, students become co-authors of ideas of which they are proud. When their entries are challenged or edited, they go back to re-examine where the conflicts occurred. 

Also, they produce a genuinely valuable product, for themselves and for the class as a whole.  The class has a built-in study guide, and I get to see what ideas need reinforcing when I recognize that the ten minutes we spent talking about Greek ethos still hasn’t appeared on the website—a sure sign that the class did not value it!  

An unexpected bonus is that I can design later assessments around the wiki they have produced, especially where their own examples and applications go in other directions. I may not have expected arguments around babysitting wages or college choices to appear as applications for negotiations, but they become pools for potential exam questions or later applications. 

Of course, too, I find myself reviewing and repeating notes far less.  Combined with the idea that their own learning grows, this makes for a more effective classroom.

But Some Cautions

If I had stopped with the above, doubtless the intrepid educator might leap to begin wikis, but I admit that all was not utopia in my classroom. Because of several aborted starts, technological snafus, and additional instruction I had not anticipated, I have here a short list of strong recommendations for implementing these.  Save yourself a headache large enough to drive you back to slate and chalk by considering them!
1.      Plan to spend time teaching the wiki.  Tech is a skill and learning how to create and navigate pages, format consistently, and write content absent of “rofl” or terms from urban dictionary requires time and lesson-planning. While I teach other content, I usually have a week of just getting students situated with passwords, another week of free experimentation, and another week of format/presentation discussion before I actually begin calling for weekly or bi-weekly contributions that I assess.

2.      Plan to spend time teaching presentation. Many students have almost no sense of the aesthetics of web design (a failing which should have been obvious to me considering that most of their digital life is spent merely texting).  I spend a day or two showing images of websites with poor and good design and we assemble criteria from these for our own wikis (and classroom blogs).  Even then, I am amazed at the carelessness—it’s almost as if these students would turn in sloppy essays on paper or without names, if given the chance.

3.      Assign one or two wiki editors. Whether as extra credit, volunteer hours, or as a round-robin responsibility within the classroom, having a couple of students whose sole job is cleaning up the wiki for font, color, and tab consistency, grammar and spelling, etc. will be worth it!  Have them build templates for new pages so students can spend more time with content creation than worrying about building a page.

4.      Talk about the wiki in class, often. This is critical. Otherwise, students begin to separate their online work from the physical class and the online work inevitably begins to sour. There is nothing worse than onerous or futile online work, but if students see that their examples are used in class lessons, that clarifications of poorly-authored entries, and the like are becoming part of the daily discussion, they know that the classroom (and the teacher) are really part of a community. I often begin my Mondays with a review of ideas written that are laudable and touch-up on those which miss critical points.  By mid-week, I will have used a few examples/applications in class, and I end Fridays with a small parade of “favorite tweets” from that class week (I’ll discuss those another time).

5.      Build simple policies for the techno-barbarians and students without tech. Many students are faster than we older adults, but I occasionally find students without any access to computers (build class-time for them to work on school equipment, partner with another student, work with the local public library, or even set up coffee shop meetings between groups) or students who never go online (my after school tutorials and interventions have taken on a new character).  What’s important here is not merely that they learn how to work a wiki page, but that they begin to engage digital literacy as an imperative to success.  (This has been written about so often that I need not re-emphasize it here.)

6.      Assess clearly. This is always a challenge, but assessment of student work is necessary, both to motivate students to shift their online thinking to classroom approaches and to maintain the momentum of online work. (I evaluate based upon a review of the page histories, changed by each user.) I spend a fair amount of time helping students understand that this assignment is open 24/7, a flexibility no other school assignment can boast, but that I will check their weekly work on a Sunday afternoon to see that they are being consistent.  Assessment rubrics are a must: items like accuracy of content; coherence; depth of detail; researched hyperlinks; use of image; format and consistency; mechanics; or revision improvements are all valid for points/scores. I have emailed students their scores or delivered them from an Excel sheet I have open while I read. My rubrics often add up to more than 100 percent: not every contribution requires all of these elements, but motivated students can enhance the wiki’s quality by adding images and hyperlinks and the like. (I haven’t put percentages for each category here, because this changes periodically depending on what I’m teaching or what the blog does.)   

7.      Expect slow progress. It takes weeks, sometimes, before a wiki begins to “live” on its own and students master the style of writing to it. This means that my class time and assessment time are spent differently from how they might be if my students were writing class notes and I was moving through the room checking them or collecting notebooks.  
The idea of a successful wiki is to move the onus of authority off of the teacher and onto the students. Let them wrestle with the ideas of authority, of fact-checking, or verifying the reliability of sites they find, of co-authorship, because these are all issues of digital literacy which we must engage in our classrooms.  With my students online doing the work, I have the class time to do so.

Undoubtedly I have omitted a few other essential ideas or points, but here is where I start.  (I didn’t, for instance, write about the student who folded her arms and refused to participate in the GroupProject Wiki, but what I remind myself is that this kind of behavior is typical for all teachers and not particular to the technology.)   I will revise or update as more occurs.  I am also happy to respond to questions and comments! 

In the meantime, a few additional resources:

Free Classroom and Teacher Wiki Sites:
·         Wikispaces for Teachers
·         PBWorks in Education
·         Google Wiki

Other Ways to Use Wikis in the Classroom:
·         SmartTeaching.org’s 50 Ways
·         TeachersFirst Ideas
·         Educational Wikis (examples)

27 July 2007

To Our Contract Negotiators:

The impasse between the Royal Oak Educational Association and the school district has gone on long enough. One of the most recent splits in more than seventeen months of negotiations centers around the issue of class size.

The ROEA proposes the status quo of smaller class sizes for writing courses, 20 students; the district has proposed increasing class size to 30, ostensibly to save needed funds. I feel it is time I entered the fray to settle the matter.

I propose, with appropriate modesty, that the teachers union counter the district proposal with a new class size limit for all classes of 50 students.

The advantages of my proposal are almost too numerous to mention. First, the district’s temerity in suggesting a mere 50% increase in class size might well garner some savings as it releases young and recently-educated teachers, those with energy and training in the latest methods to motivate students, to more needy districts than Royal Oak. However, my proposal, a 250% increase, will save Royal Oak far more money while simultaneously providing low-cost non-tenured staff to even more districts.

The senior staff who remain, in my proposal, could now be entitled to far richer benefits in terms of salary, health care, and retirement. Let’s call this a “shared benefit” for both the administration and its teachers. This is, of course, not collusion, but collaboration, if only the administration would accept the new counterproposal.

I would be remiss if I did not mention a concern from a colleague who mumbled something about NCLB, meeting state benchmarks, and studies connecting small class size to improved academic success.

But I believe I may dismiss these concerns simply: the district remains in a time of fiscal crisis, and niceties must be sacrificed for the greater good.

As I enter my 21st year teaching and my 15th in Royal Oak, I can only assure readers that I have no conflict of interest, and that by “greater good” I do not refer to my “shared benefit.” Toss me accolades and wreaths as my proposal brings the stagnant negotiations to a satisfying conclusion, but I, too, am interested in seeing a valued, salable, and even profitable district.

I end assured that readers will call the district immediately to support a more provocative class size increase than the modest one proposed by administration, and I close convinced that we may bring the contract talks to a swift end.

So Long Ago, But Still True

Statement to Representatives of the Michigan State Board of Education
Presented at Public Hearing
Oakland Community College, Royal Oak Campus
November 17, 1994

I arrived at my school at 7:00 am this morning and left around 5:00, a briefcase full of ungraded papers dangling unceremoniously from my callused and beleaguered hands. I am an educator. I have been an educator for only nine years, but have taught in public schools, private schools, and universities. It is my hope to continue for another twenty-nine or so. And it is my hope to be as active a member in the dialogue on educational reform as I might in the time my career permits. Yet with every fifteen minutes that passes tonight another of the essays written by nearly 120 writing students goes ungraded. A phone call to a parent is not made. A progress report is not filled out. The duties of a curriculum committee, a school club, an administrative edict, a student-intervention report, or a letter of recommendation are left undone. Somewhere in our accelerating culture my Grail is time to consider my profession and its mission thoughtfully, to reflect.

I would like to thank the state for this opportunity to speak for five minutes on how it will mandate change in my life.

Perhaps I have started on a sarcastic note. Yet I think first and most important the state must recognize and prepare for the dynamic initiated between it and its educators, a dynamic thats breadth stretches far wider than a mere core curriculum. I recognized at this week’s staff meeting --and my life is replete with such epiphany these days--that I and our guest speaker, a guru of North Central assessment techniques, were not speaking the same language. As an educator I felt I spoke the language of human learning, what my colleague described as the attitude of the shepherd, while the guru spoke of random samples and the assembly language of Demming, a quality control expert of the 1960s who taught the Japanese how to beat the U.S. in efficiency modeling. The pendulum of curriculum reform swings again, and the State of Michigan has found its new Sputnik to rally its troops.

Again, however, I fear I am taking on the role of the curmudgeon. I have spoken for two minutes, and my point is hardly lucid.

Let me say, then, that I am largely a supporter of the new core curriculum standards as they are written here. I am impressed with their effort to be inclusive of differing belief systems, to encourage the kind of teaching innovations practiced now only at the university level, and with the boldest of good intentions, to demand true critical thinking in all of our students. I hope that, as I continue, my support for this work is not lost as my briefcase spills its papers, as Sputnik at last falls from orbit into a nostalgic pastiche, and as my overwhelming concerns about mandated change absorb my remaining two and one-half minutes.

Our lives, Thoreau said, are “like a German Confederacy, made up of petty states, with [a] boundary forever fluctuating, so that even a German cannot tell you how it is bounded at any moment.” The dynamic of any system is in constant flux, there are no constants, no matter how we may cling to them; no truth can stand overlong. This makes standing still an extraordinarily dangerous pastime; it makes moving backwards fatal; and it means that if we are to respond to change effectively, reflectively, we must be given the time and resources to do so. And I now have about two minutes.

With this in mind, I will say that I agree with most of the concerns already stated tonight. They are indicative of the citizen who feels she has a voice unheeded and ideas undervalued. They are indicative of the classroom educator, the questing shepherd, who held a revealing minority voice in the drafting of this document. They are indicative of a history of public education where local knowledge and the needs of the student are second to the political aims of a state which insists upon a particular path for socialization: national and economic development, vocational development and, of course, patriotism. I would be curious to know how many of the designers of this curriculum have read both Demming’s work and those of Dewey and Whitehead.

And now I add my own concern in most plain terms. We cannot, must not, pretend for a moment that any educational system comes without values or is somehow accepting of all values. There is a moral mission to our state’s mandate for change. In all of our dialogue thus far, at every meeting I have attended, I have yet to hear this discussion. But it must take place. For without it, there are two key dangers:

1) The resistance and frustration that the state will encounter as the new system is finally enforced will be misread by them. It will not come primarily from a resistance to change, but from what educators will consciously or unconsciously perceive as an attack on their humanity, their identity in this democracy. Misread, the state will likely (if it has not already) devise another hard-nosed policy to punish those who seek the same Grail of quality schools;

2) The language of the standards and benchmarks, as accepting as it is of differing belief systems, is also extremely vulnerable to appropriation by agendas different from those of its designers and ultimate implementors. To make this language more concrete is, perhaps, to exclude possibilities meaningful for learning and incite a fiery revolt. Yet to leave it as it stands without a continuing and significant dialogue by educators and legislators and citizens is to render it one of the most dangerous weapons in this state’s history pointed directly at the students of an essential public education system.

As an educator and shepherd, as an active researcher and theorist in composition, as a citizen who will one day place my own children in the public schools, I demand that this dialogue continue longer than the thirty seconds I have remaining or the meager minutes allowed Michigan citizens tonight. I demand that it continue for the life of my career and beyond. I have listed numerous ways to contact me so that I may be included in such a dialogue. Even so, I have found that listing my address on every survey and response sheet I could find has, in the past, brought me too little satisfaction.

And what happens to those who feel excluded? In my last few seconds, I wish to recall Thoreau’s essay on Civil Disobedience. “What I have to do,” he said, “is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn. . . . I have other affairs to attend to. . . . A man has not everything to do, but something . . . and if they do not hear my petition, what should I do then?” It is my sincerest hope that my career as an educator will continue and that I will not meet a core curriculum changed at the last moment by an ignorant legislature nor one tagged with penalties for my gradual, resource-famished efforts to meet change effectively.

Thank you for granting me these seven minutes of reflection.

Steven R. Chisnell
Postscript: As of July 2007, 13 years later, the MDE has still not contacted me for further dialogue.