I wrote this piece for a third-party edtech site that ended up not using it. I’m happy to post it to my own blog!
A typical July morning for a school teacher might involve an early morning jog, some uninterrupted time with the newspaper, or packing the kids up for day camp. But this past summer I found myself gulping down a quick bowl of cereal each morning and then clicking through 140 student blogs written by rising tenth graders. Although my school year had blurred into my summer vacation, I wasn’t complaining. In truth, I was loving every minute of it.
The summer blogging assignment came together rather quickly once the idea was on the table, but its genesis was roughly three years in the making. It represented a watershed in my own ideas of teaching with technology that resulted from my involvement with the Connected Educators movement. At the TABS Summer Session at Boston University in 2011, I had been convinced that I needed to get on Twitter by independent-school-tech-evangelist Hans Mundahl. Hans predicted that our students would be using Twitter more actively than Facebook in the next year. When I got home to my apartment at George School, I went ahead and made a Twitter account (@EricAfterSchool), but two years went by before it began to pay dividends. Twitter has a steep learning curve, but when it clicks, it really makes sense. I was on duty in the Deans’ Office one Wednesday night in late 2013 when I noticed that some of the boarding school people whom I follow on Twitter were participating in something called #TABSchat. That was my first experience in the enormous world of Twitter chats for educators. #TABSchat led to #isedchat and #edtechchat and so forth.
Intent on learning as much as I could that was relevant to my work as an English teacher, I noticed that the other English teachers on Twitter were frequently promoting the importance of blogging. At first the thought of asking my students to create blogs and post their writing online made my skin crawl. Just think of the potential headaches! But these very passionate and clearly excellent teachers with whom I was conversing couldn’t all be crazy. And they had a strong case. I had been introduced the work of Grant Wiggins at the Klingenstein Summer Institute in 2004, and I knew how important authenticity is to successfully reaching students. Blogging allows student writers to build a real audience, read and comment on one another’s work, maintain a public portfolio, and take pride in their best work. Too often students labor over an essay for hours, hand it in to their teacher, and once it is returned to them they stick it in a binder where it never sees the light of day again. Is that all our students can aspire to?
I began to dream big dreams. As we approach the spring months each school year, my colleagues and I review the summer assignments that we give our students to keep their brains from suffering a summer slide. We had built an excellent assignment for our rising sophomores several years ago. It asked students to read a collection of poetry and a novel and then respond to a series of prompts. The responses to the prompts would come together to form something like a reflective journal. Students were putting dozens of hours of their time into this work, and they were expected to hand it in to their English teacher on the first day of their sophomore year. But then what?
I asked myself: What if I applied Ruben Puentedura’s SAMR model to this assignment? If we substitute the journal with a blog, then English teachers could read the students’ work in real time over the summer, not just in a big hurry in the first week of September. Better yet, students could read and respond to one another’s writing in real time. In short, we could take our school’s strong sense of community (an important value at a Friends school) and project it beyond our walls and beyond the school year. Perhaps the strongest writers would inspire their less confident peers to reach for new heights, and perhaps this flurry of literary discourse would bring positive attention to the incredible quality of readers and writers we have at George School.
I expected pushback from my colleagues, but instead I was surprised by the quick approval my plan received. Sure, I greased the wheels a bit by volunteering to monitor all of the blogs all summer, but several enthusiastic colleagues stepped up to share in that “chore.” I presented the plan to the heads of the academic departments, and I was surprised by how many saw possibilities in the project that I hadn’t anticipated. The beauty of the assignment for the larger educational program of the school was to be realized once this school year began. Every member of the sophomore class would have an academic blog designed specifically for schoolwork. The blog was intended for English work, but it could just as easily serve to promote a student’s work in Science or Art or Religion. Looking at the blogs today, I see many students who are posting work in three subjects with regularity.
Of course I was worried about potential pitfalls in an assignment of this nature. Would internet trolls spam the Comments section of the students’ blogs? Would parents rebel against technology encroaching on their children’s summers? As it came to pass, no. Our school is blessed with a very respectful and mindful sense of community and civil discourse, and I relied on that community to steer this project safely. When small breaches of web etiquette occurred, they provided opportunities to explicitly teach digital citizenship. I asked students to manage the Settings of their blogs so that comments would need their approval before appearing on their sites, and most of them complied. Most of the comments they received were from me, other English teachers, their academic advisors, and their family members. It takes time to build an audience online, but the blogs are growing their reach. My hope is that these students will have three years of their best work on display on their blogs by the time they set sail for college. The blogs are built on platforms such as WordPress and Blogger, and they are “owned” by the students, not our school. They can continue to live on long after the students have graduated from high school, and I imagine that a new benefit will then reveal itself: High school teachers will be able to follow their former students’ work through college and graduate school straight through to their adult careers.