Friday, June 26, 2009

And now for a little perspective...

In the midst of all the hoohaa about swine flu, it's worth keeping in mind some of the world's other problems...

(Image credit:

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Building Planes in the Air

I love this. I believe this is such a great metaphor for what we are trying to achieve as teachers. As tempting as it may be to try to keep the plane on the ground until it's perfect, we need to get our kids flying, and do the rest while we're up there.

Hat tip: Peggy Lee

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Getting started with Classblogmeister

Before we went ahead with the set up of the students' own blogs, we had a good discussion about what blogs were and how they were used, as well as addressing some issues of internet safety.    

To see how much they already knew I elicited from them the features of a blog that might distinguish it from other kinds of websites: 


The ideas in green are those they came up with at first. Those in purple are what they added after watching the following short video from CommonCraft, 'Blogs in Plain English'.

To introduce the class to the set-up process I demonstrated this using a data projector. Firstly I showed them the main class blog and where they could find posts, comments, links, and importantly, the link to their own blog (as yet unactivated). I set up a dummy student blog that I could use as an example, called C3B4Me, and used this to show them what to do.

In order to make the steps really clear, I gave them a hard copy of a document that I adapted from the Commlab wiki, which takes students through the process step by step with screen shots along the way.

Students also had to choose a name for their blog. I showed them my blogroll on this blog, to give them an idea of the kinds of names they could choose (eg play on words, focus on particular interest etc.). We also discussed the kind of things they could and could not write in the 'About Me' section. All of them seemed to have got the message in our Internet Safety discussion, as they talked about not giving any identifying information, but including some interests. Some even put fake locations (eg Brunei) here, although when we put on a ClustrMap that may blow their cover!

One concern I had here was being unsure whether the 'About Me' section also came to me for approval, along with blog posts and comments. Blogmeister have set up a Ning for educators who are blogging with Blogmeister, and this has a forum (along with some other very useful things like video tutorials). I posted this question on the forum and received a reply within ten minutes, which informed me that this information does indeed come to the teacher for approval and is very easy to approve using the New Approval Tool on the main blog.

This is a key advantage of Classblogmeister for learner bloggers - EVERYTHING comes past the teacher first, yet it is possible to relax this later on when students demonstrate their competence. Perhaps student bloggers could work towards a solo 'blogging license'!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Classblogmeister, Parental Consent and Internet Safety

When setting up our Classblogmeister project, one of my initial considerations was the importance of getting parents onboard with this project. Parents often have reservations about their children having an online presence, due to fears about cyber-bullying and predators.

Here are some of the websites I found that had good resources and example letters for informing parents of the intention of the project and how internet safety concerns could be addressed:

1. Bud's Blogging Parent Letter - a useful starting point, easily adapted. He also has this letter, which I largely based my letter on.
2. Beyond School has a great letter and rationale, giving parents options for privacy settings.
3. This one from Ed Warkentin specifically addresses Classblogmeister.
4. Andrew Churches published this excellent Acceptable Use Agreement on his blog that he developed for his school, which is based on the concept of digital citizenship: protect and respect yourself and others, and do not steal (E.g. plagiarise). Unfortunately, I had already gained parental consent when this was published, so I was unable to use it this time.

I found that there are many resources, blog posts, wikis, articles about internet safety in regard to blogging as well as more generally.

When discussing these issues with the class I found the following two short videos very effective.



We followed this viewing with a discussion about 'digital footprints', and how once you put something online you lose control over it. Many of the students had conceived of the Internet as a private space, rather than a public space in which the notions they hold of privacy may not apply. Prior to watching, several had expressed regret at the fact that we were to have rules about what we could and could not post online. Afterwards, they all understood the necessity of this.

These videos made a strong impression on the class. Several of those who have social networking sites said they wanted to get home as quickly as possible to change their security settings, delete information and photographs, or in one case, delete their account altogether! My basic advice was this: do not put anything on the internet that you would not want your parents, teacher or future employer (etc.) to see.

Once the point had been made, a lot of the students wanted to share their stories about people they knew who had had bad experiences as a result of inappropriate things being posted online. As a teacher I needed to acknowledge the real dangers that exist, without scaremongering. The key point is that learners need to have awareness in order to make safe decisions.

As a result of this conversation we developed some rules for blogging. I had previously found a number of good websites with suggested blogging rules, and had harvested the relevant ones, so I was able to guide the conversation in this direction.

Websites I found particularly useful were:
1. This page by Ann Davis outlining their elementary safe-blogging policy.
2. Arapahoe High School Safe Blogging Policy

One observation I had when I introduced the way Classblogmeister worked was that I met with some resistance from several students to the idea of me moderating their blog posts/comments. Examples of such comments are:
"But I don't want to you to see my post."
"Why do we have to send it to you first?"
"I can do whatever I like on my page!"

To each of these comments I explained the nature of the blogs we were using. That is, that the blogs are a classroom space and should be treated as such. They are not private Bebo or Facebook pages, which they might also use. In the same way as I collect their exercise books and give feedback, I will look at their blogs and show them how to improve them.

It may be the case that these learners consider their online experience to be something completely within their control, out-of-school, and without relation to what is done at school, and therefore have difficulty conceiving of an online experience like blogging that is an integral part of a classroom programme. I have never seen a student as defensive over an exercise book as some were over their blog!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Deciding on Classblogmeister

One of my first decisions with my class blogging project was which blogging platform to use.

My first choice was Blogger, because I have seen it used successfully for student blogs in NZ and overseas, and it is the blogging platform that I use for this blog. Because of this I am confident with its features and how to use it effectively and so wouldn't be starting as a beginner. I also found a number of useful resources on the internet about how to set up blogging with students using Blogger, such as this set-up guide from Rachel Boyd.

My reasons for deciding against it were primarily because as a teacher starting out with class blogging, and with students unfamiliar with the blogging process, I wanted maximum control over what ended up online. I also wanted an option that reassured parents of their children's safety and which allowed me to give effective feedback.  Using Classblogmeister is like blogging with training wheels on at first, which is exactly what I wanted for my class. 

There are a number of blogging platforms specifically designed for educational use, including:
1. Edublogs
2. 21Classes
3. Gaggle
4. Classblogmeister

This blog post by Mark Ahlness was pivotal in winning me over to classblogmeister. As he says in his post,

First, it's not blocked. Next, it offers TOTAL teacher approval before any student post or comment on a student post (take that, MySpace fear mongers). Teachers can leave online feedback for students to improve their writing (like if they want to get it published) that is hidden from public view. Next, it's free (thanks to David W's generosity). It also has a very active list on Yahoo! Groups for sharing and problem solving. Last, I have never, in 25 years of teaching, seen a more powerful classroom tool for motivating students to write. Nothing else even comes close. It is the perfect blogging tool for teachers.

Despite this glowing endorsement, I had reservations, mostly revolving around my first impressions of the visual appeal of the website (as shallow as that may seem!). It seemed to lack the clean, user-friendly look of 21classes and Edublogs. Nevertheless, from what I'd read I believed it was definitely worth my best shot.

Because a school code is needed before establishing a blog I had to email the creator, David Warlick, and request a code. This arrived in two days and I was then able to set up the main class blog, as well as each student's blog, assigning them a password which only they and I would know.

As it says on the Classblogmeister homepage, there are over 700,000 blogmeister blogs, and so it's unsurprising that there is a considerable amount of information and support available out there.  I spent a fair bit of time searching for this, and was able to find a number of useful links that helped me in my planning, which I have bookmarked on Delicious. There is also a Classblogmeister Ning, with a lot of video tutorials, links and forums. Throughout the project if ever I had a question or problem, I found that it was answered on this Ning within a few hours. That level of support has got to be a key factor in deciding on Classblogmeister.

I see it as a clear advantage to use a platform that is purpose built, has a feedback tool built in to the process, and has a large edublogging community around it already.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Blogging with Classblogmeister - Part One

While this blog has been somewhat dormant of late, I have nevertheless been active in the blogosphere, introducing my class to Classblogmeister. This has been part of an action research project for my MEd, in which I set out to determine whether using blogs brought about an increase in the motivation of my Year 7 & 8s to write. Here is a link to the blog, Bouncy Castle 29. From there you can also access the students' blogs as well (feel free to leave comments on their blogs!)

It's been a great experience so far and I have really enjoyed introducing my class to the sense of connection and audience that blogging brings. I learned a lot along the way (still learning!) and found some great links and resources that others might find useful, so I intend to share some of that here over the next week or so.

So here was my situation: 
The students in this class are provided with opportunities to write daily. Some of this is guided formal writing, such as recounts, arguments, letters and so forth, while some is free writing. The students follow a writing process which takes them from the ideas stage, through drafting and in some cases, publishing.

Generally, this writing is not shared with anyone beyond myself as teacher and their immediate peers in the class. Some in the class enjoy writing and are naturally motivated to put their thoughts into writing, but many are not motivated and produce very little.

My action research project sought to investigate whether or not the use of weblogs has an effect on learners' motivation to write. The key affordances of a blog that might generate this motivation are:
1. The prospect of an audience.
2. Receiving feedback from others, including friends, family and the teacher.
3. The digital medium itself, as opposed to pen and paper, which allows the multimodal presentation of ideas.

I was also investigating the usefulness of Classblogmeister as a platform to achieve this, in terms of ease of use for teacher and students, teacher control and internet safety.

Rather than give the learners complete freedom to blog about anything, I felt it was necessary to provide a particular context for their writing, one which would lend itself well to teaching, modelling and practising the conventions of blogging, including such skills as the appropriate use of someone else's material.

To do this I decided to make the blogging part of our class Current Events programme. The structure I gave the students is based on one of the key tasks of this Webquest about blogging by Anne Davis, called 'Blogging: It's Elementary!'. The instructions/steps/process were a large part of the content of my first blog post on the class blog, Bouncy Castle 29. 

Essentially the students needed to:

1. Choose a news story that interested them from the categories discussed in class, making sure it is something they are interested in so they feel motivated to find more about it.

2. Choose three questions that they would like to investigate. Choose at least one from each stage (questions given were presented in three stages, stage one being lower order thinking, stage three higher order thinking).

3. Try to find out more about their topic so they could answer their questions. They needed to watch TV news, read the newspaper, look on the internet (using links provided on the class blog) and ask their parents and friends what they think about it. As they read/listened, they needed to start to form opinions of their own about the topic. I encouraged them to take a few notes so they could use them when they started writing.

3. Write a blog post a couple of paragraphs long, summarising the story/topic and what they found out about it, and giving their opinion about it. I stressed that their writing MUST be original! They should not cut and paste from other people’s work, but could link to it from their blog.

4. End with a thought-provoking Stage 3 (high order) question that will encourage other people to leave a comment on their blog.

So that sets the stage! Next post I'll look at issues to do with internet safety and parental consent.