When sixth graders enter middle school, they are masters of some aspects of digital technology and lost when it comes to others. Despite their familiarity with some digital technology, they often lack specific skills needed for interacting with particular digital tools and interfaces. Many of them also lack the perseverance necessary for troubleshooting tech issues.
"Digital Resilience" and Other Goals for Blogging 6th Graders
Upon entering the sixth grade, each student at our school is issued his or her own tablet PC and blog. While the blogs are used across subjects, it is the language arts classes that take the primary responsibility for teaching students to use their blogs appropriately and responsibly. In addition to teaching responsible use, we want to encourage students to make the blogs their own. Students choose titles for their blogs, such as "My Home on the Web" and "Ninjas and Words." Finally, we want to help students learn to become digitally resilient -- able to find solutions to their technology problems and questions without immediately running to a teacher.
To encourage these dual goals of responsibility and creativity, a colleague and I created a project which served three purposes: teaching basic blogging skills, discussing responsible blogging practices, and offering the opportunity to customize content for their blogs. The project also connected to a student list of dystopian summer novels and prompted them to consider the kinds of things that might have gone wrong in the societies depicted.
Over the summer, students chose to read one of three books by Lois Lowry (The Giver, Gathering Blue, and Messenger). For their first blog project, students worked in groups to create their own utopias, represented by their choice of genres, including letters, recipes, photos, and songs. While students were confined to create societies that adhered to the bounds of reality, we gave them license to imagine scenarios that might result from future scientific discoveries.
Challenges of Creating Utopian Societies Emerge
Students initially imagined that creating their own society would be relatively simple. However, when we asked students to work in groups of three to construct their societies, they found that hammering out issues of governance, economics, basic needs, and social structure proved challenging.
To successfully complete the project, students had to draft, post, and properly tag posts. They also had to link to posts of others in their group and insert images into posts. Students who were more comfortable with these skills had the option of creating content on external sites and embedding it into their blog. Working in groups allowed students with varying levels of technical skill and comfort to support each other. Prior to the project, I supplied students with screenshots detailing common tasks, such as inserting a picture into a blog post and hyperlinking to another post. Creating these resources in advance allowed me to focus my energy on students who had more complicated questions or technical issues.
Learning Commenting Etiquette
After projects were posted, we taught students the etiquette of commenting. First, we brainstormed never useful, less useful, and more useful types of comments. It was easy for students to come up with a list of comments that would never be useful: name-calling, obscene language, etc. We also discussed how the difficulties of conveying tone on the Internet would necessitate blog comments that were more thoughtful than face-to-face communication.
Guideposts to Integrating Technology into the Classroom
While blogs were our primary means of publishing student work, a similar process or project could easily be adapted for wikis or other digital publishing environments. The following tenets have helped me think about how to structure a project that will be a gateway to a particular technology tool or platform:
Make it about more than the project. The project wasn't about blogging, but rather about teaching and honing skills that students would use throughout middle school. Once the project was over, we weren't "done" with blogging; we continued to use and build on those fundamental technology skills.
Provide a clear structure, but offer choices that matter. Some aspects of blogging literacy, such as tagging, titling, and linking, were highly structured because we wanted students to effectively use those skills throughout the year. In other areas, students had wide latitude; they determined the character of their utopias and how to represent them.
Explain why good digital etiquette is important. For example, during our discussion of tagging and commenting, we explained that tags help organize blog posts and showed how even one letter difference in this form of labeling would exclude it from the RSS feed my colleague and I use to see when assignments have been posted.