Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Class blogs: the flies in the ointment

I’ve done a good deal of thinking recently about the practical uses of blogs as a teaching tool in the English classroom, and a summary of this will be appearing shortly in Coming of Age #2. But having arrived at the stage of seeing so clearly how such a tool could save hours of repetitive note-making for formative assessment, I began to look at why it doesn’t seem to be taking off. After all, it’s not exactly rocket science (no pun intended, but I quite like it)

Let’s postulate an English teacher, with a pretty academic S4 class. She sets up a class blog for working, say, on a Critical Essay. (During the S4 course, she may set five such essays) The pupils use the blog to assemble their ideas, collaboratively at first, but gradually moving towards the point where each individual is working on his/her own essay. And gradually the teacher’s comments will become the kind of thing that in the past she will have been writing on the pupils’ scripts as they submitted them – formative assessment.

Now, as I see it, part of the joy of this is that the comments will be available for others in the class to see and benefit from; in fact the teacher could highlight points which were more widely beneficial by putting them in a post instead of a comment, with indication, perhaps, of exactly which pupils need to heed this post. But there’s the rub – maybe. For the comments are there for not just the class to see, but the teacher’s line manager, the headteacher, the parents, other teachers ….. and so on.

If a teacher doesn’t really go in for helpful comments on a pupil’s work, if she merely ticks and grades and throws it back for the hapless pupil to make it better all on his own, then that kind of teacher isn’t going to want to blog. If a teacher is uncertain actually of how to tell a pupil to improve their writing and prefers to leave a vague comment rather than expose her own uncertainty, then that teacher isn’t going to want to blog. Most principal teachers in fact have little time to inspect the ongoing assessment within their department, and laying down ground rules about how teachers actually assess individual pieces is all very well but hard to enforce. But if each teacher in a department had their assessment in the public domain – indeed, their whole year’s work in literature and writing on record for all to see – who is the winner there?

The answer has to be the pupil. Not just because of the benefits I’ve already discussed elsewhere – the permanent record, the sense of audience – but also because their teacher will be equally aware of audience. There will be no chance to shut the classroom door and hide the evidence in the cupboard. And it may be that this is the big fly in the ointment for the teacher unwilling to go public. Maybe blogs are just too open – not for the pupils we spend so much energy “protecting” from the big bad cyber-public, but for the majority of teachers who prefer to keep their work within the four walls of their classroom.

And now I’ll go nail this to the edublog door …….

9 comments:

  1. Hi Chris,
    Great post. I completely agree with you. One of the things I've encountered is the sense of fear that teachers have at the thought of posting their work online. Yet I see it, in some ways, as strangely liberating... in essence, the teacher is posting their record of work online and to my way of thinking, that should remove the need to keep a separate paper copy... less paperwork = a happier English teacher.
    What I would say is that the biggest obstacle I am encountering at the moment is really from my pupils. My S1 class have started (albeit small steps) but I am having real problems persuading my other classes to bite the bullet. I think they are nervous about being thought foolish or uncool or… whatever!
    Maybe this is something that is going to take me a few years to implement, gradually rolling it out every year until it is accepted. Once I do have it going, I hope to use my classes as practical examples to encourage others in my department/school.
    I must also admit to feeling nervous about the whole idea though, and partly for some of the reasons you mention. It's not always fun being the one to stand up and say "This is what I'm doing, come and have a look..." --- but someone has to do it.
    I wonder if the American 'open day' idea, where parents are free to walk in and see what is happening in their children’s schools makes it easier for our American colleagues. Here in Scotland, we have the whole history of 'teacher as unquestionable authority' and I think this has allowed too much bad practice to go unchallenged. Blogging pupils' work is one small step on the road to fuller accountability and ‘open, inclusive’ education and should be encouraged.

    Anyway, I’ve prattled on far too long… I look forward to reading what you have to say in Coming of Age #2

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  2. Liz O'Neill7:45 PM

    Chris,
    I found this really interesting. I am an English teacher who is very interested in using blogs in the classroom. And, as Neil said, fear is an obstacle! However I am made nervous not so much by the idea that others could read my comments -but that I might not be able to handle the technology properly. I am not naturally 'good with computers' despite being willing to learn.
    I took my first steps today by starting my own blog. I thought that getting used to writing in it might be good preparation for running a class blog. I'm not sure when I will be ready to actually use it- still at the re-drafting and running back to delete things stage.
    (Should I mention in my profile that my favourite film is 'So I married an axe murderer'?)
    I found what you said very thought provoking. I've been trying to use formative assessment too -specifically 'comment only' marking. I think it is paying off, but it's taking a lot of time and is often repeated in one form or other, pupil after pupil.

    I returned to the profession three years ago, after training in the 80's, so I'm a forty something new teacher. The learning curve has been pretty steep, but I feel since I'm just trying to get up to speed anyway I've got nothing to lose!

    I'd welcome any advice you might have about starting out on a blogging project. I've got an academic S3 - just embarking on Intermediate 2. I would love to attempt something of the sort you mentioned.
    Looking forward to reading you again!

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  3. Neil: You're dead right about doing away with the paper record of work. I used to find myself asking the pupils to help me write mine up weeks in arrears - I tended to be too busy doing stuff to get it written up.

    Liz : I returned to teaching at 36 after 8 years out having the infants that turned out to be Completetosh and Edublogger and found myself struggling with GRC and Standard Grade. It took a while to be the confident teacher I had been before - but I got there!
    I think you're right to practise blogging for yourself first, so that the process of publishing, using photos etc becomes familiar. Then you can talk a class through the stages of setting one up for themselves (I'd write it down in the right order for myself)
    You can follow the links on this blog to look at Progress Report (the Creative Writing blog I used with S4 students last year) and Wildbank - which should be showing progress on a single student's critical essay if she'd get going on it instead of hanging about waiting for me to push her. Good luck - keep in touch.

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  4. Liz O'Neill7:48 PM

    Chris,

    Thanks for this, especially your encouragement about building confidence. I took time out to do a variety of things too, including having oldest son, who is now at uni, and adopting second son - aged 10 and loving his (rural) primary school.

    I will head off now and check out your links. My S3 have a visiting writer coming in tomorrow to talk about creative writing. I’ll be interested to see how they react!

    PS Talented family!

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  5. I was thinking of ways I could use blogs to teach the Higher Drama course, at Secondary level. When I was a pupil and studying the course, our teacher told us what each text meant, how to write about it, what quotes were useful in correspondance with the question etc etc. I always hated that way of learning, purely because I waasn't getting my own thought and opinion into most of it. No disrespect to the teacher, right enough, but I always wanted other views, new ways of interpreting a play and I think this can be done through using blogs in and outwith the classroom. What do you think?

    I thought about giving a title say, for arguments sake, "King Lear". My students would go away, read the text, I would give a question on a particular part of the play, then students would post their views and ideas etc for debate. This way it would create more time for actually teaching the proper and most effective way of constructing their ideas into a critcal and analytical analysis of the texts studied.

    Is that a bit ambitious?

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  6. Duffy - I don't think this would be too ambitious, but you'd need to try it and tell me! It seems to me to be the perfect use of blogging; I always felt that time spent in the classroom needed to make use of the fact that I was there - not in doing work that could be done without me. This way you could have the best of both worlds.

    Let me know if you do it - I'd like a look!

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  7. Anonymous10:07 AM

    Parent's point of view,
    What a great idea, I'd be able to get a glimpse of what my uncommunicative teenager is doing in 'real time' and I might even learn something too...But I won't be holding my breath.

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  8. Anonymous10:11 AM

    Parent's View
    What a great idea, I'd be able to see what my uncommunicative teenager is doing in 'real time' and I may learn something too. But I won't be holding my breath!
    Jane
    (apologies if you get this twice, I'm new to this blogging thing)

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  9. Jane - you're just what we need! A new-to-blogs parent ... in my experience, the people running schools pay more attention to parents than to teachers. Get in there and nag!

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