About a year and a half ago, a few of my colleagues and I had our students begin blogging about their independent reading. Some students finished four posts a year. Some students finished ten. Some more. Below are my top ten takeaways from our students’ blogging experience.
1. Authentic audience
Students rarely write for an audience other than the teacher or themselves (social media excluded). Not to say that writing for a teacher contains no value, it does, but when a student writes for an audience of 100 or 1,000, neat things start to happen. The ownership they feel over their words increases. The precision of their diction sharpens. Their text becomes immediately meaningful and relevant to them. Students tend to err on the side of caution when writing for an online audience, which is a valuable experience (I know that I am more careful in composing an email to the entire staff as opposed to a single teacher in my department). As teachers, we always try to emphasize the importance and the power of words, and by students actively crafting their ideas in an open forum, they begin to understand the authority of their opinions. They become empowered.
Thanks to the influx of the YA genre, reading among teenagers is cooler now than ever. By having students blog, you are giving them a place to share their love of reading. Students are free to read each other’s blogs, comment on each other’s posts, and create a dialogue that may not have happened inside the traditional classroom. Here is an example from one of my students when I asked them about their blogging experience and interacting with other student bloggers:
“I like the community aspect of it. I can comment on others’ [blogs], and they can comment on my blogs. I love sharing my writing and speaking about what I feel is important. I feel heard.” – Lauren
If I can do something to make a student feel heard, I’ll do it.
3. Students find their voices
This pairs with #1, authentic audience. When students write deeply, about ideas they care about (in this case, books and reading), their voices organically begin to take shape. Their words start to sound like them and represent them as readers, but more importantly, as people. The focus is not on impressing the teacher by sounding “smart” but rather on communicating honest and meaningful thoughts to dozens of people who value what they think. Writing about and reviewing literature requires as much voice as creating literature. The more they can write about their reading experiences, the more they understand what they really sound like.
4. Students read more
Helping students find reading they are interested in is no small feat. It can easily turn into a back-and-forth because, hey, what does the teacher know about what teenagers like? A recommendation from me is often received with a reluctant grin. A recommendation from one student to another, however, is internalized. Word of mouth (or in a blogger’s case, word of word?) is so influential, and I want to encourage that discovery for my readers. I can’t tell you how many blogs start out with, “My friend told me about this book, and . . .” The transition from one book to the next is fluid. They even create a reading queue, something that took me 27 years to do.
5. Students read better
If a student knows that she will be writing on her reading experience, her focus now is not only on enjoying the text but on finding things to write about: how this book compares to others she has read, how she feels about the main characters, the author’s word choice, tone, if she would recommend it, etc. She is becoming a closer reader.
6. Communicating with authors
Thanks to the wonderful world of social media, students have a closer connection than ever to their literary celebrities. Many authors are on Twitter, including almost every YA author. Knowing that social media is a fantastic way to establish and build a fan base, authors are more than willing to communicate with their readers and check out reviews on blogs. John Green, Ellen Hopkins, and Simone Elkeles are among the authors who have responded to my students’ blogs. Having a teacher say, “Your blog is great!” is one thing. Having THE AUTHOR say, “Your blog is great!” is in another world all together. For a student, what is more validating than that?
7. Teachers learning from examples
Once I lay the foundation for my students, they go in directions I couldn’t have imagined. They make me a better writer and a better reader. The connections they make, the technology they include, the books they read, the way they organize their ideas, I have no problem admitting that they “school me” on a weekly basis. Because of student blogs that I’ve seen, I know how cool it is to include a Spotify playlist in a post, so the reader has music to listen to that sets the mood during his/her reading of the blog. I know that including a book trailer from YouTube is neat, but creating your own non-text element (through Animoto, Xtranormal, or another storytelling website) is more impressive and leads to . . .
8. Technological literacy
Online writing is a 21st-century skill. Whatever digital footprint our students leave (and they are leaving them as we speak), we want it to be positive. We want future employers to be able to find all the creative and insightful products our students can produce. We want all our students to be “Googled Well.” When they graduate, we want them to have the skills necessary to be successful, to use technology to their advantage, and not just as a way to post pictures of themselves.
9. Because this is what the students say . . .
“It was nice seeing friends who didn’t seem very passionate about reading post passionate blogs.” – Eric
“I think that writing a blog is a lot better and fun than writing an essay. I like it because I could be myself.” – Sarah
“It’s cool to be able to talk about books with other book lovers. That’s something very lacking. Reading is great, but having someone to talk to about books is better than reading alone.” – Ellen
“I’m actually looking forward to the next topic I want to write about on the blog.” – Courtney
“I found that I really like just being able to write about whatever I’ve been reading without it being an essay.” – Katherine
“I really like blogging because it’s a really open-ended way to talk about books you’ve read or current events. I think blogging is better than the traditional ‘book report’ or speech because you can focus on whatever parts stood out to you.” – Jenna
10. Oh the thinks you can think . . .
Eventually, blogging in class can lead to blogging outside of it. They may not make their blog during the school year or the year after they leave your class (although I have seen this happen). It might be much later, when they develop a love for the culinary arts and want to blog about their recipes. Or when they don’t have the physical excellence to play organized sports anymore but stay involved by writing about it. Or take a three-week backpacking trip through Europe and record every detail of their visit. There are innumerable topics that people can and will write about, and hopefully they will have the benefit of this positive experience to encourage them.
Ultimately, when all is said and done, my main goal as an English teacher is to develop lifelong readers and writers. Many of our students are already unofficial members of the Nerdy Book Club. Hopefully one day soon, they will make it official.
Russ Anderson is a high school English and Reading teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He blogs about his teaching journey at http://imteachingenglish.wordpress.com. He is incredibly proud of his students who blog at http://fremdeng.ning.com. You can find him on Twitter as @RAndersonFHS.