Teaching Notes: Using a Class Blog

This semester for the second time I’m having my students keep a class blog for their “informal” writing. I put informal in quotation marks, because as I explain in my assignment sheet to them, the mere possibility that someone out there in the world could be reading their stuff tends to make them write more carefully and beautifully than if they think they’re just writing for me.

For the most part, assigning student blogging has been very successful for me, so the primary point of this post is to share my assignment. As you can see below, I give my students quite a bit of info upfront on how to do it and what I’m looking for and why I’m asking them to do such a thing. I had wanted to do something like this assignment for a few semesters before I actually did it, and the main thing that held me back was feeling like there were a lot of logistics to figure out and planning to do upfront. So I offer the fruits of my labor to you, other teachers on the internet, to poach as you see fit. Both semesters I’ve used this assignment I have also had students write papers that emerge out of blog posts. The first time around, on the whole those papers were excellent; I have no reason to think this semester will be any different.

The one big drawback to student blogging that I have encountered: it takes a ton of time to maintain and grade. In the first week or two of class I have to add all students to our blog, and I set it so that the first time you comment you have to be approved by me, but that initial setup work is not even the huge time expenditure. It’s really that I find myself wanting to respond to every post twice, on the blog itself as a participant in the conversation, and then privately with an assessment and grade. The first semester I assigned blogging I felt like I was writing on the blog every week and sending feedback to students every weekend. It was a lot. This semester I’ve been reading the blog every week (when I do lesson planning, to bring students’ ideas and resources into the classroom), but only writing every three weeks, at the end of each cycle of our schedule (see below). My comments on the blog itself are not as immediately relevant, but I’m happier with how much time and effort I’m putting into this thing, which is, after all, my students’ project.

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ASSIGNMENT SHEET: BLOG POSTS AND RESPONSES

Purpose

For your minor, less formal writing this semester, you’ll be keeping a class blog. There are several reasons behind writing in this form for this class:

  • Blogging makes you write more often, and in shorter, faster bursts than if you were only writing papers. I want to foster an environment in which you can use writing to think instead of feeling pressured to have all your thinking done before you sit down to write, and short, frequent writing gets that done.
  • You will have an audience besides me. Audience is really important to writing for a number of reasons, but what I’m most interested in here is that when students only write for their teachers they can begin to think of their writing as transactional—you give me writing and I give you a grade—which can make your writing boring and rigid, and the process of composing it stressful. If you’re writing for the whole class (and potentially even strangers who find our blog), your purpose can be to convince, to entertain, to wonder, to try out new thoughts, to ask for help, or to show off the cool things you noticed in our reading. It also tends to make your writing stronger if you think more people are potentially reading it!
  • You will write and/or read what others think about our class material before class, which will jumpstart our class discussions. I’ll know what issues interest you most, and we’ll come to our time together ready to continue an ongoing conversation rather than starting from scratch.

Logistics

I’ve set up a WordPress blog for our class. You should sign up for a WordPress account as soon as possible. (Go to WordPress.com, click on “Get Started,” and then select “signup for just a username.” Then email me your username so I can add you to our blog.) Feel free to use a pseudonym if you want—I need to know who is who, and people in the class will probably figure out who you are eventually, but the blog will be public and if you don’t want the Whole Wide Internet knowing who you are, I completely understand.

There are two kinds of posts you will make: some weeks you will be a Curator, some weeks you will be a Responder, and some weeks you will simply be a Reader (no writing). I will divide the class into three groups. Follow the schedule below to know when to Curate, when to Respond, and when just to Read.

Details

When your group is Curating, consider yourself partially responsible for that week’s discussions. Obviously I will bring to class my own thoughts about the readings, discussion questions, background material, and class activities, but you have the opportunity to do the same through these posts. What’s going on in the readings that you want to make sure we talk about, whether because it’s confusing, frustrating, exciting, or relevant to current events or your interests? What ongoing class conversations does the reading participate in—what prior assignments does this new material remind you of and how? What else is out there on the Internet that you want to link to and have us check out alongside our readings? Use the blog as a place where you can work through your own reactions to the readings as well as guiding ours. Venture some theories, raise some possibilities, pose some questions, give us some food for thought.

  • Use one of the prompts below to guide your post. Note: your group can coordinate your responses if you want, so you each take on a different aspect of the reading, but you don’t have to.
  • Make your post by Sunday at 11:59 PM, so we all have a day and a half to read and react before Tuesday’s class.

When your group is Responding, respond! See what the Curators have come up with this week and chime in. Answer questions, add on to comparisons, further develop theories, and talk back to the Curators.

  • We’re going for quality over quantity here, so I’m not setting a minimum number of posts/comments beyond saying you have to post something. Keep in mind that you will want feedback when you’re a Curator, though—no one likes to write the post that gets zero responses.
  • Make your responses by Wednesday at 11:59 PM, so we have half a day to read and respond before Thursday’s class. Feel free to continue the conversation beyond that cutoff point, but post something before then.

When your group is Reading, make sure you follow the conversations happening on the blog. Chime in if you want to, but you can take a break from writing if you want to.

  • Because of necessities of scheduling, at certain points in the semester you might find yourself responsible for a blog post the same week a larger assignment is due. I’ve tried to balance the schedule so this happens to no group more than once. You should also plan ahead whenever possible, so you don’t end up frantically writing two things the same night.

Prompts for Posts

All of your posts should start with a passage from the week’s reading. Quote something that grabbed you from the text, whether a few sentences or a few paragraphs. Then unpack that passage a bit: what do you think it means? Why does it speak to you? What would you say back to this author or character? What do you think we should know or notice about this spot? Then, do one of the following:

  • Compare/contrast the passage to something else we’ve read, something else you’ve read, an outside text from popular culture, or an item in the news or current events. (If the text or item in question is not something we’ve read in class, please link to it.) The second text you bring in for comparison can be an example or illustration of an idea in the original passage, a different take on the same issue, a different use of the same writing form or convention, etc.
  • Bring in some background material that enhances or changes our interpretation or understanding of the text (again, linking to it). This material could be: biography, history, info about the reception of the text, info about the cultural moment or movement the text belongs to, an allusion within the text, an author interview or reading, or an adaptation of the text. You should explain what’s going on in the additional material, how it connects to the passage you’ve highlighted, and what it adds to or changes about our reading of the primary text.
  • Bring in a study, learning, teaching, or reading aid on this text (again, linking to it). These kinds of materials include entires on Wikipedia, SparkNotes, CliffNotes, Shmoop, Clusterflunk, etc. They also include discussion questions and reading guides created by teachers, publishers, libraries, etc. For this option, your response should be a bit deconstructive: study aids often present themselves as objective and complete, but you shouldn’t take their word for it—show us what these authors get right and wrong, leave out, prioritize, etc.

As you can see, all three options involve bringing in outside material to supplement our discussion of one of our texts. In all cases, you should explain and connect the two texts. It should be clear why we’re looking at these two texts together and what the comparison gets us.

That said, blogging is a different animal from paper writing. Feel free to be more casual and conversational in your tone and to try out ideas you’re not totally sure of. Blog posts can feel more exploratory, more tentative, more stream-of-consciousness than formal papers—or alternatively, bolder, more shocking, and more personal than formal papers. Keep in mind that the point of this exercise is to use writing to think, rather than to present your fully finished thoughts in writing.

Assessment

Because I want your blog posts to be exploratory, to spur conversation, and to be comparatively quick to write, I will not hold them to strict standards of argumentation, organization, and mechanics. As I read, I’ll be asking myself:

  • how well your post follows the instructions in one of the three prompts;
  • how well your post synthesizes multiple ideas, placing into conversation ideas from your texts and from our class, and making important, well-articulated connections;
  • how much your post adds to our class discussion, how much of what you’re doing goes beyond the reading and beyond what we’ve already done in class, what you’re contributing that’s new and interesting, and the depth and breadth of your ideas.

As with other graded assignments, an unsatisfactory, below-average post gets a D; a competent, successful post gets a C; a strong, above-average post gets a B; and an exceptional, blows-me-away post gets an A. (To get an F you either have to post nothing or post something truly horrible.)

Your overall blogging grade is worth 20% of your final grade, and I will split that 20% as evenly as possible across your work, with your first, second, and third posts worth the same amount. This distribution does not mean that posts and responses are worth the same amount, however, since posts require much more substantial work than responses. You can more accurately think of your responses as opportunities to nudge your post grades upward or downward.

Schedule

Week 2           Sun 1/26 & Wed 1/29              group 1 posts, group 2 responds, group 3 reads

Week 3           Sun 2/2 & Wed 2/5                  group 2 posts, group 3 responds, group 1 reads

Week 4           Sun 2/9 & Wed 2/12                group 3 posts, group 1 responds, group 2 reads

Week 5           Sun 2/16 & Wed 2/19              blogging break (paper draft due)

Week 6           Sun 2/23 & Wed 2/26              group 1 posts, group 3 responds, group 2 reads

Week 7           Sun 3/2 & Wed 3/5                  group 3 posts, group 2 responds, group 1 reads

Week 8           Sun 3/9 & Wed 3/12                group 2 posts, group 1 responds, group 3 reads

Week 9           Sun 3/16 & Wed 3/19              blogging break (spring break!)

Week 10         Sun 3/23 & Wed 3/26              group 3 posts, group 1 responds, group 2 reads

Week 11          Sun 3/30 & Wed 4/2                group 1 posts, group 2 responds, group 3 reads

Week 12          Sun 4/6 & Wed 4/9                  group 2 posts, group 3 responds, group 1 reads

Week 13          Sun 4/13 & Wed 4/16              blogging break (work on your second paper)

Week 14          Sun 4/20 & Wed 4/23              optional additional post/response

Week 15          Sun 4/27 & Wed 4/30              optional additional post/response

Week 16          Sun 5/4 & Wed 5/7                  optional additional post/response