My October Surprise

Starting up student blogs is the best and worst thing I’ve done in a long time.

In late October I had my 7th grade Spanish students set up private blogs.  According to the ACTFL (Amer. Council for the Teaching of For. Lang.) oral proficiency standards suggest that students at this level should be able to mimic sentences and alter them to a minimal degree.  By the end of the year they should be able to manipulate the present and simple past, the future, and the present progressive tense.  They should be able to speak in basic terms utilizing a variety of vocabulary, and they should be able to handle (in the second half of the year) to create basic compound tenses.

This group of kids are in our “Intro” level, which indicates that the child has had minimal exposure to languages in elementary school.  A cynic would call it the remedial track.  This being a performance-based assessment, the goal of the activity is to achieve meaningful language, NOT grammatical purity.  At first, I wondered how I, a blue-blooded grammarian and devotee of massaged language, would handle being OK with grammatical faux pas.

So when, for the first assigned blog post, I asked my classes to describe their favorite restaurant, I’m wasn’t sure what to expect.  Actually, I did.  I expected my 2nd period to put in the minimal amount required and I expected my 4th period to put in a valiant effort that would not earn them the Medal of Cervantes.

I was stunned at the kind of entries I was reading!!  Long descriptions of food, service, ambience, etc.  They took the exercise seriously, and they were much more bold with a qwerty keyboard than they would have been with pencil and paper.  After the second blog post (this time describing what they give their family as gifts and what stores they frequent), I realized that this is a trend.  The kids write more expressively when they’re doing so on the computer.

In addition to posting entries (much like we do here at Dobbs), they are required to comment on one anothers’ blogs.  Here we see the “minimalist approach” come out, but I’m hopeful that this will pass when they are talking about authentic topics.  Admittedly, these first two are somewhat contrived, and I can see them not thinking “why are we responding to what so-and-so buys his dad for Christmas??”  I told them that these entries were meant merely to “prime the pump” for when they really get into debateable topics.

Here’s the nightmare side to this scenario.  Can you guess what I’m about to say?

I’M BURIED IN POSTS AND COMMENTS!!  I’ve given up recreational reading for the foreseeable future since Dobbs, Language Lab, and blog posts/comments have given me the equivalent of Corominas’ Etymological Dictionary to read.  However, since I’m not grading them, rather reading and responding when appropriate, I am TRULY ENJOYING engaging in the work of my students!!  This is TERRIFIC and I HATE IT!

I’m very glad that I took this step.  I just hope that I can carve it into manageable chunks of work.

Any ideas on how to give better prompts to get them to write more thoughtful comments?

5 thoughts on “My October Surprise

  1. I’m smiling so broadly right now! Your post literally made my day, and made me laugh. The bane of moving into this blog post/comment world is all the reading and commenting!

    A couple of thoughts:

    Will Richardson used to blog with his students, and he said he decided not to read each and every post, each and every comment. Now these were high school students, so I can see how if this is really deeply implemented then there might be too much and high school English/journalism class is a little different than beginner Spanish. However, I wonder if you might consider this step: Why not have a rotating role of “class editor” who reads each class periods post that week, comments on all, and then writes a blog post summarizing where they thought the best work was, what could be improved, etc?

    As to better prompts: Get out of the way. Have them start digging for topics to write on using the vocabulary and contexts they are learning. Have them ‘create.’ This can be done individually, or you could have the editor design the week’s prompts.

    Just a few thoughts…still smiling…thanks 😉

  2. Ted – I’m a friend of Laura’s, a former 6th grade teacher at Trinity, and I’m living vicariously through your classroom blogging experience…both the excitement to the chaos!

    I spent a fair amount of time talking to my students about power of comments on blog posts. In addition to highlighting the powerful posts in the classroom (often on a rotating powerpoint when the students were getting settled in), I began to highlight comments to posts as well. Students began to see (through examples and conversations with me) that writing thoughtful, focused comments was equally as important as the writing of the posts. They were proud of both their comments and their posts – and would often engage in f2f conversations about the posts as a result. It was also a great way to highlight the students who don’t always get recognized for writing original, creative posts.

    I focused on a number of questions that I wanted my students to consider concerning comments:

    What is your reaction to the CONTENT of the post?
    On what might your COMPLIMENT the writer?
    What QUESTIONS would you ask the writer?
    What INSPIRED you in the post? or
    How did you CONNECT to the post personally?

    A couple of thoughts about managing your workload – I agree with Laura, you don’t need to be reading every post. I would even think about having a couple of students adopt the role of class editor from each class. One student could focus on the posts from the second period class and the other from the fourth period class. If you’re asking them to think critically and write a comprehensive assessment, I assume that the posts would need to be in English. But, it could be a great way to get them to think deeply and grow as writers (both English and Spanish) during this experience.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences – I’m excited to follow your work as the year progresses.

  3. Laura and Mary Megan,
    Thanks for your very valuable input! I like the idea of assigned editors, (I question the appropriateness of the task given their level of proficiency, I but I’m going to shelve my doom-and-gloom tendencies for a moment). Perhaps even reporting back on what the students say (e.g., “Marie says that Willy’s is her favorite restaurante because the burritos are delicious”). However, Moving fluidly from speaking in the first person to speaking in the third person is scraping the tippy-top of their competency right now. I’ll think about that.

    Mary Megan, thank you for the prompts. Particularly asking about compliments and/or questions. Those are two wonderful variations on the comment assignment. Thank you both!

  4. The two comments (other than your own) that precede mine come from individuals with much more wisdom than myself. Yet again, I feel like I am letting you down as your commenting partner by not having an answer to your question. As I continue to explore, however, I will keep an eye out for successful classroom blogging communities (specifically ones with quality commenting) and any feedback on what made these ventures successful. I find it encouraging that you are observing your students take greater risks in blogging than they would with a writing utensil. Also, the fact that your students are writing more than you can read seems like one of those good problems.

  5. Matthew,
    I don’t expect an answer to half of my questions–just feedback and reflection. No worries. I was of minimal help to you in my comment on your last TED post, and I’m just fine with being useless. I think comments can be one-way or two-way streets.

    You’re right, though. Having the kids write too much is definitely a problem about which to be joyful.

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