Some people fear that new technology will seduce kids away from books: Why bother with old-fashioned reading when you can surf the Web or play your iPod? But for one eighth-grade history class at South Valley Junior High School, in Liberty, Missouri, technology -- specifically, a blog and a podcast -- made a book come alive.
In fall 2006, South Valley history teacher Eric Langhorst asked his American history class to read Guerrilla Season, a historical novel by Pat Hughes about two boys growing up in Missouri on the brink of the Civil War. He set up a blog to use as an online book group -- a place where all of his 300-odd students could join in the discussion 24/7. He invited parents and teachers to join in, too, as well as a middle school history class in California.
Each week, Langhorst posted several questions for discussion. Students posted their thoughts using the Comment function, and in turn responded to each others' comments. If they wanted to direct a question to the entire group, they emailed it to Langhorst to post as a blog entry. (As a safety precaution, students commented anonymously or used only first or pen names.) Acting as moderator, Langhorst omitted any comment that included identifying information or inappropriate material.
Educator and blogger Will Richardson pioneered the book-discussion blog in 2002, when his students read The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd. Langhorst says Richardson's book blog inspired him, but he took his Guerrilla Season blog one step further, convincing the author to participate.
Langhorst's students posed questions to Hughes, who responded using the Comment function, threw back her own questions, and posted a weekly podcast, in which she addressed queries such as "How do you research a historical novel?" (Her answer included that she trawled eBay for period items and took horseback-riding lessons.) Students listened to the podcast through the Internet, or on portable mp3 players; most of his students own some form of mp3 device, Langhorst says.
The teacher adds that his students enjoyed having direct access to the author: In a survey Langhorst conducted after the class was over, 93 percent of the students said Hughes's involvement greatly enhanced the experience. "In the old days," says Langhorst, "I could have sent students' questions to her in a letter or email, but I wouldn't have gotten the immediate feedback."
Not all authors will participate in a book blog as enthusiastically as Hughes did, but, Langhorst says, it's a great tool even without author involvement. He required each student to post at least one comment during the four weeks of online discussion, yet the blog was so stimulating that many exceeded the minimum requirement, and anonymity made shy young teens bolder about plunging in. "Students who might not comment in class feel freer to comment on a blog," he says. The kids relished the fact that they could participate on their own schedule, Langhorst adds, and knowing that anybody could see and respond to their comments also fueled their enthusiasm.
Langhorst asked each student to turn in a final project, promising to publish the best projects on the blog, and students worked extra hard for the reward of showcasing their work on this online update of the classroom bulletin board. "If they know it's not just for me, but family members and other students can see it," Langhorst says, "it makes them more conscientious."
Langhorst offered traditional options such as "Write an alternate ending for the story," but he gave students the chance to exploit new technologies as well. For instance, students could record an "interview" with one of the book characters, using Audacity, a free audio-editing software program. "New technology allows kids to create something with what they've learned, which is one of the highest levels of Bloom's taxonomy of learning," he says.
Another major advantage of the blog/podcast, he adds, is that it's "free or virtually free." Langhorst says he set up the blog for nothing at Google's Blogger.com and recorded the podcasts using Audacity and "a $10 mike you can buy at Wal-Mart or Target." Of course, even though the software costs nothing, he notes, students must have computer access. "If you had a serious digital divide, it wouldn't be such a great tool," Langhorst admits.
Next year, the educator, who also has a blog about his efforts to use technology to enhance the curriculum, plans to get more schools to participate -- maybe even ones outside the United States -- and intends to exploit technology even further by incorporating videoconferencing. This strategy may sound a bit high tech for eighth graders, but Langhorst insists that teaching kids how to do this stuff is easy: "It took ten minutes to show them how to use Audacity.
"People think that kids today somehow grow up magically knowing how to use new technologies," he adds. "They don't. The difference with this generation is that if students don't know how to use a technology, they aren't afraid of learning."
Helena Echlin is a freelance writer in San Francisco.