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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Blogging Is History: Taking Classroom Discussions Online

A blog is a tool for getting kids to think -- and type -- about what they're learning.
By Helena Echlin

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.

Comments (9)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

John Maklary's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I've been looking for innovative ways to incorporate web 2.0 tools into curriculum. This blog is a great conversation starter. I can see using a wiki as a medium for an extension project where the students can collaborate and create a base of knowledge about the particular subject. Take a look at the Horizon project (flat classroom). It is a model for this type of project.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My concern is with spammers and the amount of work this could potentially throw back on the teacher while he/she attempts to keep the blog safe. Why not use discussion groups for the same effect? With discussion groups you can restrict participation to members only. Discussion groups are also readily available for free through Yahoo, Google, etc.

Lona's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This past year I co-taught a US History and Government class and a Global History and Geography 9 class (co-taught in words only...it's difficult to get NYS High School teachers to relinquish control in the classroom due to end-of-the-year high stakes Regents exams). As a Special Education Teacher with an MS in Computer Ed., I'd intended to set up blogs for the classified students in both classes. The idea was given credence by our beginning-of-the-year Superintendent's Day conference with Will Richardson, mentioned in the article. Because Will talked about the benefits of blogging and because our administration is very pro-technology, I thought we'd be successful in the blogging activities. Not so. The students were blocked from accessing any blogging sites at school and didn't have universal access at home. My intentions were put on hold. Maybe this year!?

nancy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In response to the post about spammers---we've been running a classroom blog since November and have had no problem. The parent that developed the blog used Drupel but I've got several other blogs using Blogger and I have had no trouble. There are protections that can be set on most blogs to prevent unwanted visitors. Just try it. You can see our classroom blog at http://areallydifferentplace.org and my blogs at http://anotsodifferentplace.blogspot.com and http://averyoldplace.blogspot.com

Kyle Mathews's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We've set up a Drupal site at isyscore.byu.edu/drupal for several classes at Brigham Young University. Drupal is nice because it very quickly and simply provides a blog for each student. I'd highly recommend Drupal to any teacher wanting to try blogging in their classroom.

A group of educators have taken the basic Drupal software and customized it for education. It's worth your time to see what they've come up with:
http://www.drupaled.org/

ldtchr's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I work with students with learning disabilities and/or ADHD and have been using a wikispaces to spark discussion. This year, book discussions really took off and we managed some math discussions also. Also, this year, we added podcasts and I have been using Audacity as well. Loved it! We use the wikipages to collaboratively share information and the discussion tabs on those pages for discussion (example: http://lmaconnections.wikispaces.com/Language+Labs) and have added links for the podcasts which have included news reports on what we were reading or character interviews. Most of my students have been reluctant readers at one point or another and this year EVERYONE was excited about reading and their accomplishments. Can't wait to see what next year brings!

Blanca Garza's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This idea of using blog for students to exchange thoughts and comments sounds great. I have never utilized blog and I may do so in the future.

John Dietz's picture

I am new to blogging as well. I am in an online graduate program through Walden University titled - Integrating Technology in the Classroom. It would be great to set up a blogging site, online reading site, related question site, etc. There is so much information out there that it's not a matter of finding "a needle in a haystack" it's a matter of finding a "needle in a stack of needles". I teach ninth grade American/World History in Ohio (We cover from 1800-1945). I have college prep classes (B-track) and general history classes (C-track). The C-track classes have a lot of special ed. students in them (inclusion). Some have reading levels as low as 2nd and 3rd grade. Relating to Lona's blog - we have one technology person for are whole school district (8 schools from the elementary level to the high school). He is very apprehensive to give any of the staff or faculty any freedom to use or view sites online - so many things are blocked that could be useful in the classroom. That being said, if anyone could give me specific guidance as where to look and what I can resource out there I would greatly appreciate it. I looked at the Audacity web site - not sure where to go with it. Would Drupal be a good place to search. Any info would be greatly appreciated.

John Dietz's picture

Lona, I am in a similar situation. I teach ninth grade American/World History (1800-1945) in Ohio. Our in-service day meetings throughout the year are filled with educating us on using new technology in the classroom. However, we have one Tech person for 8 schools (elementary through High School). The problem is that so many sites are blocked for one reason or another that could be beneficial in the classroom. They call the Tech Coordinator the "Emperor" because he is the only one who has control to fix or access anything. Not even the principals have access. We were told to keep complaining to the board and eventually our voices and concerns will be heard. It's been said that people are afraid of him because if you threaten his power then when you have a problem with your computers you'll suffer the consequences and be sent to the back of the line (maybe he'll get to you in 2 or 3 months). So much for the wheels of progress!!

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