Authentic writing – keeping a class blog on Twiducate

8 Apr
Twiducate, blog

An upper intermediate class’ first posts

Here is the problem: when people write, the purpose of writing heavily affects the way that they write.  Adverts use short, punchy sentences littered with attractive adjectives and bold, simple verbs. Broadsheet newspapers use complex sentence structures to discuss issues and inform readers about complicated topics.

In the classroom, this teachers often respond to this by  ‘creating a realistic purpose for writing’. For example, they tell students to write as if they were writing a letter to a new penfriend. But there’s an issue here, because when the student writes, more often than not the real purpose of writing is to impress the teacher and/or get a good grade.  The ‘realistic purpose’ is make believe, and in the end, it simply isn’t the reason that the student is actually writing for.

There are a few ways round this.  I’ve had learners post their work on the wall and then had other learners view it and ‘vote’ for the best one, but this in many ways trivializes the whole writing process, especially if it becomes a routine. ‘Vote for the craziest story’ might seem fun, but it hardly encourages careful reflection or quality work.

For the last year I have worked on solving this problem by keeping a class blog.  The premise is simple: every written homework goes up on the blog.  Students can also post extra things or talk to each other there.  The benefits are that students are then writing for each other as well as you.  As soon as I started, I found a massive improvement in the amount of effort students were putting in to their writing.  I found their ability to choose interesting topics, write imaginative stories and think of decent anecdotes dramatically improved as soon as they knew that their work would be up there for the whole class to see.

Keeping a class blog – the basics

I haven’t yet perfected the system, but over the course of trying it out I’ve made some considerable improvements.  Here is my ‘one off guide’ for how to start up a class blog with your students.

Firstly, I use Twiducate. Twiducate is perfect for keeping and managing a class blog because its designed for schools: you can set up the blog for the class and choose your level of editing rights as well as choose some of the rights for students (such as whether they can edit their own posts or not).  There’s no need to give you a tutorial here on how to set it up: its super easy and fully explained on the twiducate website: http://www.twiducate.com/ .  One imprtant note: Twiducate blogs are only open to view by people in the class, they are not public.  See the final note in ‘issues’ for more discussion.

Once the blog is set up, I give students a handout explaining where the blog is and how to use it.  I also dedicate 30 minutes

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or so of class time to letting them sign in, set their profile picture and post anything they like as their first post. During this stage, I help out any students who seem less competent technically. For classes with rolling enrollment  I ask all new students in the future to post something on their first day of class, so that they are aware of the blog.

 

From then, a lot of the time I let things evolve naturally  I found a lot of students relish the opportunity to write to each other and post about all manner of things.  However, I do also use it for classroom homework tasks. I set tasks and deadlines.  When students have completed tasks, I use the integrated ‘feedback’ button to reply to their posts and correct their work.  This sends the message straight to their inbox so is not visible to other students.

Sample tasks

Here are some examples of tasks I’ve set over the last year which have been successful:

– After a lesson on story writing in which we talked about establishing a setting and characters and a problem, developing a story line and then finally solving the problem, students wrote on the blog the first paragraph of a story (setting, characters, a problem) AND   students had to chose someone else’s story starts and write the rest of the story as a comment.  They could chose any of the stories, even if someone else had already written an ending. The process went on over a week with a half week deadline for achieving the first part.  This task produced some fantastic story starts and endings as students really challenged themselves to come up with interesting ideas for others to build on.

– After a lesson on reported speech, in which we looked at an interview from the Metro, I asked students to find an interview of someone famous in their own country that most people wouldn’t have heard of.  They wrote a short article on the blog in which they introduced the person then explained what they said.  I didn’t tell them to use reported speech, but obviously given the task most of them had to!  (as always, whenever you set a productive task, some of them managed to wriggle out of using it entirely in the most imaginative ways!).

– I posted a link to an article about the future of the world’s water supplies: a topic which came up in class and produced an almighty row between several of the students.  I posted the article and invited them to comment, and the almighty row turned into an online comment battle, which produced a fascinating discussion and referenced many more articles, wikipedia pages and hastily googled facts.

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Issues

Over the year, I have admittedly found a few flaws in the class blog system.  Three stand out:

1. Lack of variety of task types

One problem is that its very difficult to get a good range of task types, especially different registers.  For example, to set them the task of submitting a formal letter to the blog would defeat the whole purpose, as the register and format would be contrived.  This means that occasionally, I have to get them to do traditional written work too.

2.  Lack of comments

I’ve found that some classes don’t seem comfortable (interested in?) commenting on each others work.  This can erode the purpose of the blog over time as it means students go back to thinking of it as a means of writing to the teacher.  One solution I’ve found is to build the commenting into the task (as in the first task above), but it does detract form the naturalism a bit.

3. Closed vs Open blogs

One thing that I always let my students decide is whether they want to set up a blog that anyone can read, or just them.  They have always chosen the latter (I would not go for the former unless every student was keen on the idea).  I think it would be swell if they chose the former, but they never do.  So they are still just writing for the rest of the class, not for a wider audience.  However, I think that it is fair to ask students to produce something for the class to see, but unfair to force them to write something that anyone might see.  This is also the reason that this post, regrettably, does not contain many exerts of my student’s work: I have promised them that what they write will only be viewed by our class.

I think that class blogging is already becoming more common, but I hope that more teachers can start using it!

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