This is my ninth year of having students create their own blogs. Initially, the student blogs were nothing more than a class journal posted online. They were digital notebooks. However, over time, they became a place for student voice. They evolved as my thinking about blogging evolved. So, here is what I've learned along the way:
1. Encourage discourse.
It may feel a little contrived, but I've found that providing discourse stems and sample questions helps students figure out how to leave and respond to comments.
2. Consider the platform.
Some teachers prefer Kidblog or Edublogs. As a co-founder of Write About, I'm obviously partial to a publishing platform that incorporates visual writing ideas and customized user groups.
3. Communicate with parents.
Explain to parents what a blog is and why it can be a powerful tool. Ask for their feedback on safety issues and let them choose layers of safety (name only, first name only, pictures/no pictures, etc.) based upon their own beliefs about what's necessary.
4. Switch from prompts to ideas.
I've found a lot of success in letting students choose from the ideas I've created along with those of Luke Neff. Although I used to call these "photo prompts," the truth is that they are ideas. Prompts are mandatory, but ideas are a source of inspiration for students. Allowing students to choose from hundreds of ideas expands their options and helps them find figure out what they want to write.
5. Think about audience and privacy.
I've had years when students created private and public blogs. I've had years when students created blogs that were viewable only by the students in the classroom. This year, all blogs are public, because I want students to get a chance to speak to a larger audience.
6. Treat blogging as a format and as a genre.
William Chamberlain encouraged me to think about blogging as more than simply a medium where people post their writing. It has become its own genre, limited and enhanced by the features of the medium. It's why I will show students sentence stems such as "Seven Reasons ___________." It's why I encourage them to come up with catchy titles. It's also why I encourage students to look at blogs that exist outside of school.
7. Teach kids how blogs work.
Let them understand how blog feeds, comments and embedded media work. I've learned that students won't add labels, pictures or links unless they see it modeled. For all the talk of Digital Natives, students don't initially get blogging and they aren't quick to go explore it themselves.
8. Teach copyright.
Typically, I teach copyright with a concept of intellectual property and why one would want to protect their work. We then get into Creative Commons and I tell students to check out sites like PhotoPin (a phenomenal site). I later show them the Creative Commons options on Flickr and Google Images.
9. Make it authentic.
It makes me sad to see how student blogs are often nothing like real blogs. I try and avoid having students reflect on assignments or answer very direct prompts on their blogs. I'd rather use Google Forms, e-mail or Google Plus for that. Blogs are a place where they write their stories and persuasive pieces. In other words, I want students to write something that someone would actually find interesting.
10. Push for autonomy.
I realize that we are limited by the subject standards. However, blogs can be a place where students have a little more agency in their learning. So, in social studies, it becomes a place where students write about current events or get a little more philosophical with history. It becomes a place where they post community needs assessments or living history interviews they conduct. In writing, the blog becomes a place to write about any topic they want. In math, it becomes a place where they can show the real context of applied mathematics.
11. Let it evolve.
It takes time to figure out how to blog. In my own experience, it took me awhile to let things sink in. It's why I tell students that they should have one person in mind when they write. This helps them find a voice and eventually reach an audience.
12. Collaborate with other teachers.
Partner with another class in the building or another class around the world. This is one of the features we have included in Write About. We want to give teachers the chance to do cross-class blogging cadres.
13. Use scaffolding.
Sometimes students need sentence stems or graphic organizers. Just because they are blogging doesn't mean they won't need some extra help. When I taught ELL, I would start with a verb tense study that would eventually lead to student-centered blogging.