From the Other Side of the Desk: Extending the classroom

January 21, 2011 § 8 Comments

I’ve been asked a few times about an assignment that I’ve started to incorporate in my World Literature classes: blogging. The idea struck one day after Spring semester last year, sometime in May probably, late at night while Robert and I lay there drifting off. “Blogs,” I mumbled. “Huh?” Robert replied, not sure he heard me right or at all. “Blogs. My students should write blogs. Like movie reviews. They should write book reviews on blogs.” “Yeah,” he said, his voice soft and heavy. I fell asleep happy in my creative lesson-planning.

That sleepy conversation blossomed over the next few weeks while I researched blog hosting sites, FERPA requirements, and worked on developing an actual assignment sheet. Choosing WordPress.com because of its functionality (it’s super easy to create a private blogging network), I set up all my little blogs. I do recycle the blogs semester to semester because it’s easier than being the owner of fifty-thousand blogs. (I’m the owner for the simple fact that I want to recycle the blogs…and I also have access to tricky things like checking the word count box and the timestamp.) I’m a bit of a control freak, really.

WordPress.com allows you to add users of different administrative levels; at this point, I add a single student per blog as a fellow administrator (so they can change the appearance of the blog if they so choose). Also, if you choose to write a private blog, you are able to add up to 35 registered usernames (for free) as permitted readers to the blog. Fortunately for me, my classes are capped at 30 students, so that’s perfect. It takes some time to set up at the beginning of the semester–for thirty blogs, I have to add one new administrator as well as 30 permitted readers.

The assignment is fairly straightforward: my students have three blog posts due every week for a total of 900 words a week. They are due on a specific schedule:

Monday at midnight: an analytical blog post in response to the reading assigned for Tuesday’s class (250 words).
Wednesday at midnight: an analytical blog post in response to the reading assigned for Thursday’s class (250 words).
Sunday at midnight: a reflective blog post in response to a specific assignment I give in class on Thursday (400 words).

The blogs factor into their daily grade and weigh the same as reading quizzes. By the end of the semester, they have had the opportunity to accumulate up to 590 blog points (this is the equivalent of 5.9 quiz grades–fairly significant, I’d say, especially considering that on average I only give 10 quizzes a semester). The way students get the 590 points is by meeting very simple criteria for completion:

1. Blogs must be on the correct topic. Book reports or plot summaries are not accepted.
2. Blogs must be turned in on time. They cannot be made up and late blogs are not accepted.
3. Blogs must meet the minimum word count. Short blogs are not accepted.
4. Students must comment on each other’s blogs according to a comment schedule. Comments not made on schedule are not counted.
5. Comments must be meaningful (they must continue the conversation). Lame comments like “I agree” or “Lol” are not counted.

I had a real mean student last semester who really shook me up–I remember one of his blog posts criticized my grading criteria. He made some sort of remark about how the word count is obviously the only indicator for quality. Obviously, his impression is entirely incorrect. The blogs are meant to be an easy way to earn completion points while simultaneously extending the analytical conversation beyond the classroom. I grade it on completion rather than content for a couple of reasons. The first is that they already have argumentative papers they have to write during the semester that are graded on content. The second is that I want my students to practice analyzing literature in a low-stakes environment. It’s extremely nerve-racking for an insecure student of writing to have only one or two high-stake chances to write an analytical response to a text in the form of a long-ish paper. (Remember: to the undergraduate college student, a 4-6 page paper is considered long.) If they only get two shots at analyzing a text in writing, then we (their teachers) are essentially setting them up to fail. I don’t like that. I prefer to set my students up to succeed and then leave it up to them whether or not they do succeed.

When I get into my rhythm in the semester (not quite there just yet because I only just finished setting up blogs for new students), my normal practice with the blogs is to quickly peruse them before class to get a sense of what the students found compelling, intriguing, confusing, or interesting so that I can steer class discussion in that direction. I like to continually mention specific student blogs (never referring to the writer him- or herself, of course, for the sake of anonymity–but instead I’ll say something like, “one of you said…”)–I do this so that they know that I’m reading the blogs. They’re not just throwing words out into the ether for nothing.

Generally speaking, I think students find the blogs interesting. They’re better than other forms of writing responses because their classmates get the opportunity to read their thoughts and remark on them. This facilitates the learning environment and fosters a trusting community of students of literature. I know that as the teacher, I really enjoy having them blog–I don’t feel quite as burdened by having to force interpretation and analysis from my students. By the time we meet in person, they’ve already started to think analytically.

The blogs are now instrumental in my literature classroom. It’s safe to say that I’m securely addicted to them.

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§ 8 Responses to From the Other Side of the Desk: Extending the classroom

  • Tori Nelson says:

    I hope your students know that you are THE COOLEST PROFESSOR EVER! I would’ve loved to have creative assignments like that in my college courses!

    • Mrs. H. says:

      Oh my gosh, Tori, that’s really sweet of you to say. Thank you. I don’t often feel like the coolest professor ever, and lord knows the students often complain about having to do additional work (I think they’d just prefer for a literature class to have only reading assignments). So, thank you for the vote of confidence. πŸ™‚

  • AMo says:

    You know I totally stole your idea, but this semester, I’m letting go – students are responsible for locating a blog space, teaching themselves (via tutorials) how to set up a blog that reflects them, and then create 10 blog posts by the end of the semester of 500 words each min. relating to some issue in class or on their individual topics. I’ll spot check by mid-term, but the onus is on them to create the blog and solid, thoughtful posts. They have more, dare I say it, agency this way and I have less work, while still getting them to experience a new writing space. We’ll see how this looser approach works. We must compare notes later. πŸ™‚

    • Mrs. H. says:

      Absolutely! I’ve considered doing it that way, but I was so focused on wanting to create a blogging network that was entirely private. (FERPA got me skeered, lol.) But I think, too, that your blogs sound like they have a different purpose from mine. Yours are to keep them working on and thinking about their topics throughout the entire semester. That approach teaches them that topics don’t just exist on a unit-to-unit basis (if they change topics per paper) or that there’s a point where they are “finished” researching. It helps them understand the process of writing. I love that! For my blogs, it’s more about establishing a specific classroom environment online–like a single place where we all visit and check in on each other to keep talking about books.

      What I love about us both doing these blogs in our own way is that it shows just how wonderfully versatile an assignment like this is. I’m starting to think that there is no such thing as the wrong class for a blog or the wrong way to incorporate blogging assignments into a class. It’s such a fun thing to be part of! πŸ™‚

  • Tim says:

    I wish my professors had done something like this, especially first starting out. By the end of my degree at NGCSU, I didn’t skip readings, but for the first couple of years, there were assignments I’d just let slide and use a sparknote or something to try to BS my way through any class discussion/quiz. I’d always read them later, though, and then regret not reading them on time so that I could contribute more to the discussion.

    Awesome idea, and it sounds like an awesome implementation, too.

  • Robert says:

    I’ll be the first to admit it: I got a degree in English without reading. I was the worst at trying to complete ALL the reading material ahead of time. If there was an online review of a book, or a post on sparknotes or something, I would spend the time to go and track it down. Pretty ironic since I am now teaching English…but it wasn’t until, probably halfway through my Masters that I really decided to buckle down and actually READ the assigned material (and even then I was pretty good at skimming for the highlights, or reading the first few acts of a play and the conclusion to get enough information to breeze through class discussions.)

    Here is what I like about the blogging activity: it forces students to be accountable not only with the reading but with their classroom discussions. I had many professors try and do something like this with journals, and it never worked. If you had X amount of journal entries by the end of the semester, I would be the student writing them all in the last week–probably the last couple of days. Did this suck? Yes. Would I do it again? I’d like to say no, but I’m a pretty bad procrastinator when it comes to doing things that I don’t really see the purpose behind the implementation. To put it baldly, I had bad teachers using journaling as a crutch to fill up their class time/assignment sheet. Being on this side of the desk, I get that. And I can’t say that I’m not entirely guilt free when it comes to crafting some relatively BS assignments…but I always try to make them connect back to the class in some way.

    These blogs provide a set schedule for student reading. Have you had students that have posted that probably didn’t do the reading? There is no way to know for sure, but I would imagine (at least knowing the student that I was and the students that I’ve worked with) that there have been a few. And I think that is ok. Like you said, this is low-stakes writing to get students moving through the motions of published (albeit private Internet publication) criticism. That is good practice, and I think the students that “get it” understand that.

    Whenever I get to teach some literature (I’m looking at you this coming Summer semester), I want to steal this idea and attempt to use it my classroom. I have to figure out a way to accomplish a similar thing in an environment lacking all the accouterment that comes with a University and not a community college. Maybe I’ll retread some double-entry journal kind of stuff…I dunno.

    But I know this (and have told you this): you had a really great idea that I have continually been impressed with. And when you decide to stop teaching, future students will suffer the great loss of such an ingenuitive instructor.

    And I have every intention of stealing all of your lesson plans.

  • I love your decision to not grade the blogs on content–that students need practice analyzing and writing about literature in a low-stakes environment.

    I also appreciate your laying out in such detail HOW you’re doing it. This will be valuable if I every decide to do a similar assignment (when I someday decide to teach again).

    I’m with Tori–hope your students appreciate what they have in you!

  • […] I completed my students’ blog grades for the semester and had Excel do all the math for me. I utilized my Average and Sum formulas, and these are the […]

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