Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Blogging with students 4

One of the most useful aspects of blogging with EFL students is the interaction created through commenting. From previous experience in global collaborative projects, I know how hard it is for many students to get the hang of quality comments. Without careful guidance, they mostly use the colloquial, short social network-style (Facebook etc.) comments, such as 'wow', 'great job' or other similar exclamations, followed by a long line of smilies. To get a little bit more formal and deeper with comments, we discussed this in detail in class, and I also published specific guidelines in the class wiki, modified from the ones I used to use in international projects.

It seemed to work quite well for the first blog posts. I was glad to see clear exchange and development of ideas in the comments of this blog, for example. Some students still mistook commenting to mean the same as the peer feedback we did on the first drafts. My mistake for not keeping these two activities separate more clearly. So they would point out spelling errors, among other things, in their comments, which sounds a little bit funny when the idea was to try and build discussions on the content. I made sure that I left a comment for each student, modelling commenting for them at the same time.

  • Hopefully, students will learn the importance of a personal perspective in their blog posts, in order to initiate interesting conversations in the comments.
  • As the blog post assignments still come from me, the whole process seems a little bit false and fake. Nevertheless, I feel we need to start from somewhere, and students do need a guiding hand at the beginning, to find their own blogging voice, and the courage to be creative. Let's wait and see!

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Blogging with students 3

The first student blog posts are now up. After a few, unavoidable (perhaps?), hickups, each student succeeded in publishing their post. Eventually, I am aiming at a more self-directed approach to blogging, and I hope that they will come up with their own post ideas but, to make the beginning easier for them, I opted for the same assignment for everybody - their English learning history. I wanted the first assignment to be non-threatening enough, as 16-year-olds may feel rather self-conscious, and wouldn't probably want to reveal anything too personal about themselves. At the same time, this would give me interesting insights into the ways these students learn English. We talked about the assinment in class, and I published further ideas and instructions in our class blog, together with some examples I found online.

Also, to alleviate the fear of mistakes, which especially some girls suffer from, we followed a process writing routine for the first post. They wrote their first drafts either by hand or printed their typed versions. I then guided them to give positive but constructive peer feedback, and each student assessed one of their classmate's writing. After this, I gave further suggestions, after which the papers were returned to the students. They were then to improve on the first draft, to produce and publish their final version on their blog.

Here is a Wordle cloud of their posts. One important goal of blogging in English will be to widen the students' active vocabulary. Their passive understanding of English far outweighs the vocabulary they actually use when they speak or write English themselves.

  • Sticking to deadlines seems to be almost impossible for some teenagers. Should it be a requirement, or should we as teachers be more flexible? Then again, practising commenting afterwards would be difficult if everybody's work is not published first. I also feel that learning the importance of keeping deadlines will serve the students well later on in working life.
  • Students' typing skills seem remarkably lacking. Some didn't even know that you are supposed to leave a space after commas and full stops!
  • Typos were surprisingly common, even after corrections and reminders. Am I being pedantic in expecting almost 100% correct spelling? After all, they are learners of a foreign language. Still, I feel that it reflects negatively on me, as the teacher, if my students publish sloppy work. Should this matter?
  • Text speak - ie. no capital letters, no punctuation, needs to be addressed again and again. I do see a value in teaching them to write slightly more formal language in this type of context. Again, this will serve them well in their later studies.
  • Some students made a lot of effort to improve their first drafts based on the feedback given, while others didn't bother at all. I was hoping that publishing their work for peers to see and read would have resulted in more care and pride in their work, but apparently not for everybody. Maybe I need to work on positive incentives to solve this problem! Or is it that these particular students are not up to online blogging at all? Clearly, they are following the same old, least possible effort tactics of "this will do" that they have learned is enough at school. How to reach students who don't have a lot of inner motivation?
  • Starting student blogging for the first time is exciting but daunting at the same time. I have already had bad conscience about spending quite a bit of class time on guiding the students about some technical problems, the general guidelines of online behaviour, even simple typing advice. As essential as I find learning these skills as early as possible, to be active participants of the digital era, I can't help this nagging feeling whether I should be dedicating more class time on the traditional EFL work. After all, there are the demands of the traditional national final exams looming somewhere in the future! On second thoughts, I hope it will serve us well to take the beginning more slowly, and spend enough time to familiarise the students with the new environment and format. Surely, it will soon start running very smoothly, which will allow us to focus more on the language part. I can already see a lot of potential in blogging as a way to use the language for real communication, instead of having the students doing their writing in isolation, and for the teachers' eyes only.
  • All in all, I think my initial discomfort is down to stepping outside my comfort zone. All through my own schooling, university studies, and most of my working life I have formed a rather fixed idea of what foreign language teaching and learning should be. Suddenly widening that conventional language teacher role, to include some ICT coaching as well, gives me plenty to think about. But it's good to peep over the edges of your safe teaching habits, and try something new!

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Blogging with students 2

Two weeks into the new school year, and we have now managed to create individual blogs for each of the special EXE EFL-course participants. There are 13 Finnish students in the group, two all-year foreign exchange students, and 5 EU Comenius exchange students, who will only stay in our school for 3 months, ie. a total of 21 students at the moment.

I am very grateful for Norwegian colleague, Ann Michaelsen for her expert advice on starting student blogs. I approached her in the summer, and she kindly blogged her tips for everybody to benefit from. Following Ann's advice, I let students choose between Blogger and Wordpress. There are now links to 9 Wordpress blogs, and 12 Blogger ones in the sidebar of our joint assignment blog.

We spent one lesson on talking about writing in public, the history of it, and how today, anybody can get their message published for the whole world to read. Special thanks to Australian educator Tania Sheko for her slideshow! We also talked about online safety, netiquette, copyright and other important related issues to do with starting a blog for school work. I uploaded the main information in our class blog, too, and then sent students home for the weekend, with the assignment of setting up their blogs, and sending me the URL before the next class on Monday. I must say, I felt a little bit uncertain how they would manage but they did just fine! Some minor problems were addressed in class but otherwise, mission accomplished really smoothly. Only two of the students had any experience of blogging beforehand.