Every semester, in my grade ten and twelve classes, I start with non-fiction. Because of the nature of the genre, it’s easy to find short texts that are of high interest to the students; and if they find the texts interesting, they are far more likely to engage in the learning activities that I have for them. As always, I want to get them involved in class discussions where they think about their own beliefs but are also willing to consider and evaluate those of their classmates. However, not all teens are willing and able to express their ideas in an open forum; like anything else, it takes time, practice and confidence to allow someone who is not naturally expressive to speak out in class. So, I decided a few years ago to try blogging at the beginning of the semester, to create a place that feels a little safer for my students.
My mission with this activity is to get them to work on writing fully developed responses, using textual evidence from the source. One area of weakness in most of their writing is idea development–they just want to leave a quick response, without really thinking the issue through. So, I search for timely and controversial issues for them to respond to and attempt to get them to have authentic dialogue with each other. By debating the issue, they will have more to think about, and hopefully more to put in a response. I post the articles and/or videos on my class blog, divide them in groups and have them post individual responses on their group’s page. They must quote from the article and then respond to two of their classmate’s responses. I ask them to either agree or respectfully disagree with a point, and to back this up with a point that is new. In other words they should not say something like Yeah, Katie. I agree. The same thing happens to me. I also spend some time discussing the concept of disagreement– that it is ok to disagree with someone. It isn’t personal and if we all agreed with each other, what a boring place it would be! Good debate will only occur when we are willing to disagree–but we need to do so respectfully.
What happens, usually, is that the first round is less than stellar. However, I will “drop in” to the conversation and prod them a little. To a response like the one above, I might say Can you tell Katie a little more? What happened to you? How did you feel? Give her some more detail. Eventually, after a few tries, we get to the point where I see responses like this (it is a response to Dan Pink’s TedTalk on motivation):
I agree with your view of how people are motivated in today’s world, except for when you state that “[people] who are led by others throughout their lives will not be as motivated as those who have their personal interests, desires, and chosen purpose.” In the business world of our age, there is a hierarchical system ranging from those in high level positions to a standard employee or janitor, but your rank does not determine your level of motivation. Each part of the company functions when all pieces work together, but one important part is that they respect each other and what they do. Just because a manager’s responsibilities are to ensure that everyone else is doing what they need to, he can struggle with motivation just like one of the project designers or operators. Also, these “lower-ranking” workers do not necessarily have less motivation than their supervisors; they have their own interests and hobbies which give purpose to their life just like their superiors. So, your level and source of motivation are not merely defined by whether you lead or follow in your work environment.
By the time we have done a few of these blogging sessions, students are feeling more comfortable with each other and with their ability to respond with detail. They have the opportunity to practice in an environment where they feel most comfortable–online–and hopefully they can transfer that to more face-to-face discussions in the classroom. It’s wonderful to see a shy student find the confidence to join a group discussion, after they have seen their ideas validated on the screen!
Now, I must admit, there is a bit of work involved for me. It takes a while to set up the group pages on my website, and reading through all of the responses is time-consuming. But it’s worth it. The blogging exercise has probably been the most worthwhile one I have done in a very long time. Right now, I’m off to find some awesome articles to add to my arsenal.
If you’d like some more detail on this process, you can download my freebie, Blogging with Your Students.
Check out my other favourite ways to start the year here: Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.