Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Making Chocolate Box Comments

It seems almost every day I find another reason to be delighted with our blogs. Today, my delight is in easy connections made between students who are 9000 miles apart and have only met via blogs.

Our student guests from the USA and from other classes in our school have left another spate of comments and all of us at this end are savoring them. Popping open each comment box is much like biting into a bon bon from a box of mixed chocolate; we aren't sure what's going to be in there, but chances are we'll like it. (Thank you, Forrest Gump.)

Some of what we are liking includes...
  • Kids finding common ground discussing topics such as what to do during a power outage, the experience of learning to ride a bike, or the problem of siblings who are bullies.
  • A fifth grader in the USA who played the part of Prospero last year in his class production of The Tempest connecting with the two student bloggers who are sharing the part in their class production this spring.
  • Other students with 6-trait writing experience making comments about the bloggers' word choice or lead sentences.
What strikes me about this list, is how often the word or idea of experiences is mentioned. I can't think of another place in our curriculum where student's ideas and experiences are so central to the action. That realization is both exciting and worrying.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Another Fine Resource: Responsible Blogging Lesson Plan

Ownership and commitment. Every year as a classroom teacher I struggled to find a way for students to develop the class rules and to have ownership in them. I have many colleagues who succeeded at this, but I have never gotten it right. Some years the process dragged on forever with the kids wanting to prescribe specific punishments for each type of infraction. Other years, they wanted to have 15 rules which were too many to keep track of. Other years, they went through the motions but never bought into the process or the rules.

Therefore, I was interested to find Steve's blog. He uses a class blog and now group blogs as part of his grade 9 World History course. As a late-comer to his blog, I finally took the time to read the earlier posts and came across this gem of a lesson in which the class develops their Acceptable Blog Use policy.

I hope he publishes a later post reflecting on how the process worked. Even more, I wish I could observe the process in action, see how he balances the need to have certain guidelines in the policy, with the need for students to feel ownership. How long does he let the conversation continue? How much of the synthesizing is done by him?

I suspect the process will go very well for a number of reasons. Rather than starting from scratch, he has presented his students with a packet of readings, including the Blog Policy and Student Blogging Handbook from Bud's wiki. Another reason for potential success is his use of the fishbowl or Socratic Seminar technique. Students keep changing roles so I suspect they remain actively engaged for a longer period of time.

I'd like to adapt his lesson plan. Or maybe it doesn't need adapting-- the readings are at a reasonable level for grade 5 students. Add this to my growing list of resources I plan to use next year when I'm blogging in a different country with different students.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Wiki's to the Rescue!

I originally started this blog to learn how to blog so I could use the skill with my students. However, as I moved deeper into figuring out the nuts and bolts of blogging with elementary children, I grew frustrated that I had so little access to the wisdom and files of other teachers who are blogging with children.

To that end, I decided to blog the experience of blogging with children in hopes that someone else who is trying to get started can learn from my successes and struggles rather than creating everything themselves from scratch. As such, it has only been partially successful. I have been able to share what we are learning, and the tools we are using, but not the documents we have created -- until now.

Bud has created a Blogging Policies and Resources Wiki that provides a repository for blog policy documents such as AUPs, student guidelines and other useful materials. However, since this is a wiki, it is more than just a storage place. It is also allowing us to tap the collective wisdom of other teachers. Anyone who drops by is able to comment and edit the documents online. I invite and encourage you to stop by and use your wisdom to help us craft useful resources.

The Challenge of Parent Comments

Tammy sent home a note telling families how to access the blogs. Now a few of the moms have visited and left comments for their children. Some comments are supportive. Some are less so.

I have worried that our children might receive inappropriate comments from a child in the class writing anonymously, or from someone outside of our community. Anne dealt with this issue elegantly in March. Her discussion with her bloggers puts action to Will's convictions about the need to teach our students how to use these technologies appropriately rather than just blocking their access to technologies that they are already using. .

Now I'm realizing that either of those culprits would be easier to deal with than inappropriate comments from a parent or sibling. We didn't give our families any comment guidelines; we need a letter that shows families constructive ways to respond to their child's blog. It's difficult for parents to act as partners when we don't bring them along with us.

I don't think we should send out a letter now with so little time left in the year. Hopefully we get through this blog project without problem, and we can create the letter for next year.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Blog Envy

Blog envy has struck!
Today I shared the blogs with one of our fifth grade classes. As they perused the blogs and left comments, their desire to have blogs of their own was palpable.

Before they visited the blogs, I explained that this was a trial program. I was only working with one class because I needed to figure out how to make it work with a small group before I could try it with an entire grade level. They seemed to accept that, until they started reading the blogs. The usually noisy room was silent as kids immersed themselves in the blogs. Then numerous kids asked me, "Why can't WE do this?"

I almost laughed out loud when the first one asked. The instant response in my head was, "Because there are only 14 days left of school and it took us that long to get all the permission forms back from the first class." Fortunately, none of those words came out of my mouth. Instead I hope I was sympathetic.

I had been debating whether or not to share the blogs with the other fifth grade classes. On one hand, I wanted them to see our type of blogs before they stumbled upon the Xanga type -- good for them to have a broader blog scheme. I also thought our bloggers would enjoy having kids here at school leave them comments.

On the other hand, I didn't want to encourage unsupervised comments, since we've had problems with inappropriate chat room behavior carrying over into school. Supervised comment sessions would have given us a place to teach appropriate use, but with the classes so busy with end of the year projects, I was afraid we'd be opening a door and then sending them through to wander around unsupervised. I hope my lesson was enough to keep them from the dark side.

Before they started reading the blogs, I discussed the types of comments we were looking to have posted. I also strongly suggested they let me help them edit it since there was no spell checker and what they wrote would be on the internet where anyone could read it.

I don't know if they put more thought into their comments since they knew there was a real audience, or if this group is skilled at making connections to texts as a result of their book clubs. Whatever the reason, their comments sounded genuine. They connected easily with the blogs and I had to all but drag them out of the lab at the end of class. The next class was waiting outside but these kids wouldn't log out. Maybe it was part of the blog envy-- leaving comments was the next best thing to having a blog of their own.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Still Climbing the Steep Learning Curve

Last night, yet another learning experience arose in which the adults learned far more than the children are probably learning from this experience. At some point, that will alarm me, but not yet.

It all began so simply. Our administrator was kind enough to drop into the blogs and leave lengthy, humorous comments. The problem arose when she signed it only as "a faculty member at ___" and listed the name of our school.

She was having a great time, and knew the children would have fun trying to figure out who had left the messages. Because we are all so new to blogging, we did not immediately spot two potential problems that Tammy and I eventually identified.
  1. She had listed the name of our school, which is something we had taught our students that they may not do for safety reasons.
  2. She had posted anonymously from within the school.
Our guests will need to use the anonymous option to leave their comments, since they do not have Blogger accounts, but we have asked them to sign their first names and the country they are writing from. We have asked our students to sign in before leaving comments because they should proudly own their words and be identified as the authors of them. We do not want them leaving unsigned comments for each other-- we've all had too much experience over the years of note passing gone bad and damaging the community rather than building it. We had no desire to replicate those problems here.

Once Tammy spoke with her, our administrator was worried about her comments. At that point we discovered that if you leave an anonymous comment, you cannot go back in and edit or delete it. Fortunately, since we have the students' passwords, we are able to go, copy the comment, publish it as new comment sans the troublesome moniker, and delete the original. Luckily, our administrator only had time to leave 5 comments, and our students won't be blogging again until tomorrow.

We've further learned that we need to go in and set all the blogs to e-mail the comments to Tammy as they are posted. She won't get them first and be able to prevent them from being posted, as she could with BlogMeister, but at least she will have a quick heads up in case any other problem comments are posted. -- We'd planned on doing that we when set them up, but somehow it didn't happen. As I said at the start, it was yet another learning experience for us.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

The Guests Have Arrived

A few guests have visited the student blogs.

Our first guest was Ms. Rosa, our school librarian. She has gone in and left a few comments. She plans to add more as time permits. Her comments have a special richness because she knows the authors and is able to make personal comments. I suspect the students will be surprised and honored to discover that other people in our school are reading their blogs.

Our second guests are bloggers themselves. Mr. Gordon Brune's fourth grade students have NewsBlogs. They dropped in and left a few comments. I was touched by how many of them asked if we were affected by the tsunami. I guess one moderately good thing to come out of the tsunami is that now when people here about this part of the world, they think tsunami rather than "breeding ground for terrorists" which was the focus of so many western news stories in the past.

I have added the NewsBlogs link to our Schoolnotes page so our students can go in and leave comments for those bloggers. I hope we don't run into technical difficulties. So many blog sites require the person leaving the comment to include an email address. Our students don't have school email addresses, and when they tried to all use mine, the blog system caught on and after a few minutes, did not allow any more comments to be posted. It must be an anti-spam system, which I can understand. However, it is getting in the way of legitimate comments.

I think a better option is those codes that appear on the page that must be typed into a special box. I wonder how those are added to a page. I can see a real need for them. Thus far we have been lucky and no spammers have infected our blogs, but it is probably just a matter of time.

For now, rather than anticipating that problem, I will anticipate the delight of our bloggers when they log in Wednesday and see comments from the outside world. A big thanks to all our legitimate guests for giving our students a real audience. We appreciate your time and your thoughts.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

A Potential Spell Checker for Comment Boxes

One of the reasons we chose to use Blogger for our blogs is its toolbar. The toolbar is very similar to the toolbar on the word processor we use in class. As a result, our students needed very little assistance to use the formatting tools to format their blogs, as their multi-colored posts so clearly demonstrate.

Another reason we chose Blogger was for its spell checker. Most of our students have spelling that is standard enough that the spell checker is able to identify the word they are trying to spell. Unfortunately, the spell checker is only available when drafting posts; it is not available when composing comments, as our students' comments so clearly show.

Today I learned about Spellbound, an open source spell checker for Firefox that allows you to spell check forms such as message board posts, blog entries and other web page text boxes. I downloaded the extension and installed it. However, when I tried to use it to check a blog comment, it gave me an error message about not being able to find it's dictionary. I was unable to resolve the problem, but I suspect the cause was that I had just downloaded the newest version of Firefox (v 1.0.4) and Spellbound has not yet been updated to be compatible. We have not yet updated Firefox at school, so I'll give Spellbound a try there.

A Few Settings Changes

Just made a few changes to the students' blog settings. One change was to allow the comments to appear in a pop up window. Sometimes our connection gets slow in the afternoon. This should make for faster browsing. Hopefully our guests' pop-up blockers won't interfere.

Another change was to change the Blogger comment setting for showing profile images on comments. I turned that feature off since only I have an image on my profile and we don't need the images taking up viewing space.

We'll monitor these changes for a few days to see if they bring about the desired improvements without creating new problems.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

New Languages for Digital Natives

Yesterday I wrote about the students' first comments on each others' blogs. What I didn't mention was that many of the comments were written following the conventions commonly used in chat rooms, text messages and instant messages, full of abbreviations and slang.

My first reaction was a desire to stamp it out. One of our intended purposes of this blogging project is to help the students improve their writing. We already hear the middle school teachers bemoaning the fact that they receive research reports that read like a chat message (e.g. Did u know tigers are *really* kool?)

My second reaction was an attempt to be more broad-minded. The intended audience of their comments uses and appreciates IM English-- some of them seem more comfortable reading it than reading standard English. Therefore, wasn't it most appropriate for them to use it when writing to that particular audience?

This morning, I spoke with Tammy about it this dilemma. She'd already had the same two reactions when she read their comments, and she'd already arrived at a decision. She told her class there was to be no more chat language-- standard English was expected in their posts and their comments.

The students were outraged! These were their comments! That was how they wrote! It was their language, their right to comment in that way!

Nope. Many of these kids are already multi-lingual, speaking one language at home, English at school, this other form of English when online. It is time to further broaden their skills and insist that in these blogs, whether they are posting or commenting, they are to craft their writing using the conventions of standard English.

Recognizing when to use the different forms of English, and being able to move smoothly between the different forms is all part of becoming an effective communicator. It will be interesting to see if they accept the challenge of developing this new voice, or if it diminishes their delight in commenting on blogs.

Initial signs are positive; the bloggers returned to the computer lab this afternoon and their work on their new posts was more intense than ever. I am amazed at what they are accomplishing each session. And we have signs that numerous kids are logging in from home to continue working on their drafts. A few have even gone in to better edit their already published posts. Voluntary editing in grade five? Amazing!

Answers from Experts

Will Richardson responded to my RSS reader woes and suggested I check out Bloglines. I'd visited it before when following links at his Weblogg-ed site but hadn't spent time figuring out how it works. It is a great tool for teachers who need to track student blogs. What I like most about it is...
  1. I can share my feeds, so the entire class can use my Blogline as the access point to each other's blogs, saving me from having to set up a Schoolnotes page or some other portal.
  2. It will import OPML files.
  3. It displays the student text in the colors they wrote it.
  4. It has a clip feature that allows you to clip and store parts of the blogs you are reading.
  5. Being online, the unread posts markings should be accurate even if I sometimes access it from home and other times access it from school.
I haven't played around much with the other features, but a quick look has me thinking it can also be a blog hosting site, but I might be wrong about that.

I only see two drawback to using Bloglines to track student blogs. One was that I couldn't find a way to export the feeds as an OPML file, so if Bloglines should lose my feeds, I'd need to re-enter all my subscriptions. The other is that I didn't see a way to leave comments in students' blogs from within Bloglines or to see which blogs have had comments left on them.

I sent the info to Tammy and Jabiz so that they can give it a try in anticipation of next year's blogs.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Comments on Comments

The students began commenting on each other's blogs today, and it was a joyful experience.

They poured over them and our usually quiet blog session was suddenly punctuated with shouts of, "Hey! I'm reading your blog right now," or "This is so cool!" Their comments spilled out into the pages.

We'd set the guidelines that comments should focus on what was written or how it was written. As we explained it, they had worked hard on these posts and deserved thoughtful comments.

For the comments regarding what was written, we likened it to their book club strategy of making text-to-self, text-to-text, or text-to-world connections. A number of students followed through on this. For example, when responding to one student's post about how much she disliked wearing a school uniform, another student wrote...
I agree that it's not that maybe it's alittle boring to wear that same kind of cloth every day! But it's good, too. because in Sweden, where I come from, people got teased because they wore something ugly, etc. But of course I agree to you!

Another student responding to a post on go-carts, commented that...
I need those tips so thanks! I thought it was a real awesome blog! What are apexes? And although it rocked mabey you could tell people where you can go to go - kart. Other wise it was awesome!

Another student took literally the idea of commenting on how the blog was written. She made the accurate observation that...
...maybe you should change the yellow writing into a different color because it really hard to read.

Another type of comment that appeared quite frequently made reference to their personal connections outside of the blog. For example, the class is preparing to perform an adaptation of Shakespeare's MidSummer Night's Dream. When responding to a post about the blogger's dog, one student wrote...
... it must be very sad losing your dogs, but you are always happy. Good job being Prospero!!

A final type of comments made by the students really has me thinking. One of the quieter students went in and left friendly little comments in many of the blogs. Here is an example...
I can't help commenting your blog!!!! Happy B-day!!!! I love chocolates too!
I'm going to watch to see if she gets responses. I wonder if they will go to her blog to comment, or leave a message in their own blog, or if the messages will go unremarked upon. I'm willing them to respond to her.

Overall, the students were very equitable in their commenting. Many of them started at the top and responded to every child's blog, even if they had nothing to say about it. At first this distressed me a bit, but as I read on, I realized that what the "say nothing" posts were really saying was...
I heard you! You sent your ideas out into the world, and I heard them. You are part of our blogging community.

Wow! How could I have thought they weren't saying anything when they were really saying something as powerful, as validating as that?

[Correction: Kent's class is performing "MidSummer Night's Dream". Prospero is from "The Tempest" which is the play Tammy's class is performing.]

Monday, May 09, 2005

RSS Feed Frustrations

I'm struggling to find the best solution for reading and keeping track of student blog posts. What are other teachers using? Are they using an RSS reader? Which one?

I wrote earlier about my research and test runs of different RSS readers for Mac OS 10.3. I had settled on Ensemble, but then it quit working, always crashing as it would load the feeds. I did all sorts of make fixes, such as dumping preferences, repairing permissions, validating the feeds, deleting and reinstalling the program. Nothing fixed it.

Next I tried RSS Owl. I was very impressed with it. I liked its built in browser that let me see the actual post with its colorful template and comments link. The former lets me see how students are using color, better communicating their message to me. The later would make it easier for me to keep track of comments the students received. Unfortunately, when I updated to 10.3.9 it quit working. There is no mention at the Sourceforge website of other people having this problem, so maybe it is just my computer. I contacted the help forum and kind techies replied, but I am not adept enough at using the terminal to understand the suggestions they gave.

With the owl's demise, I imported all the feeds into my NetNewsWire Lite. It is handling them just fine, but doesn't let me see if anyone has commented, unless I double click and actually open the blog in my web browser.

I have just installed RSS Menu. It is a little RSS reader that sits up in the menu bar. One nifty feature is that if I hover over a particular post tile, a small window, similar to balloon help, pops up to show me the text of the actual post.

I'll play around with both and see which ends up being the most useful for tracking student blogs and comments.

The Students Find Their Groove-- and the teachers lose theirs

Friday was a day of intense blog activity. As is typical with any class, the longer an activity runs, the more spread out the students become in terms of project completion. We now have some students publishing their third post and some students who are not yet done with their first. They all want to conference, are all in our faces saying, "Please check mine so I can publish." Tammy and I met after school to discuss this frustration.

To resolve this bottleneck, we are going to establish the following flow chart.
  1. Write this week's blog posting.
  2. Make revisions.
  3. Run spell check and edit your posting
  4. Have someone else read it. Make needed changes.
  5. Conference with a teacher. Make needed changes.
  6. Final conference with teacher. Publish.
  7. Spend time reading and commenting on other students' blogs.
  8. Start your next posting. Teachers will not conference with you until everyone has posted this week's blog (unless the teacher has free time).
We will start our next session with a discussion about comments. They may give two types of comments. One type is to respond to what the person wrote. For example, one student wrote about go-carts. That is a topic I don't know much about, so I had real questions to ask him. Another type of feedback is about how they wrote it. The J.H.H. Bloggers are skilled at this, and some of the comments our students left for them were genuine and constructive. We'd like to build on that. I'll try to pull some of their examples to have on hand.

Hopefully, the comments will be motivating and helpful to the bloggers, and they should buy the teachers a bit of breathing space to meet with the students who most need to conference.

We're Baaaack!

What bad timing! We invite two classrooms and 50 teachers to view and comment on our blogs, and then, at least from here in S.E. Asia, Blogger and Google were unreachable all weekend. Maybe our guests from other countries weren't experiencing those problems. We can only hope...

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Next on the List

Despite our progress on this blogging project, our to-do list is still growing...

  • Ensemble is being quirky. It opens and starts its downloads, and then crashes. I'll try dumping the preferences and repairing permissions on this computer AGAIN.
  • Jabiz still needs to insert the sidebar of blog addresses into each blog's template. This will make it easy for our bloggers and our visitors to navigate between the blogs.
  • I need to invite our student and teacher guests to start visiting our blogs.
  • I want to research Trackback. I'm not certain how it works and if it would be of value in this exercise.
  • We need to give the students time and guidelines for comment on each other's blogs. We also need to share that information with our student guests.
We'll get there. I just hope we arrive before the end of the year.

Signs of Progress

Signs of progress are springing up everywhere...

1. We now have a Schoolnotes page set up as a front page to our blogs. We can send that address to our student participants and to the group of teachers who have volunteered to spend 15 minutes per month responding to student blogs.

2. Tammy and I are almost done with the blog rubric. We are drawing heavily on the 6-Traits indicators.

3. Ms. Su has gone in and changed the settings on each blog so that they will accept comments from anyone -- this is a necessary setting to permit our unregistered but invited guests to leave comments.

4. Most of our students are close to publishing their first post. A handful have already posted, and a couple are almost ready to publish their second post.

5. Most important of all, when I walked into Tammy's room yesterday to set up an RSS reader on her computer and import the students' site feeds, a number of her students cheered and said, "We get to go blog today!"

These definite signs are progress are bringing me some peace of mind as I try to juggle school responsibilities with planning an intercontinental, 9000 mile move. Seeing the students' excitement is giving all three of us ideas for how to use blogs with our new classes next year.