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.