[This article appeared first in The Journal of the Virginia Writing Project‘s spring 2008 issue.  I have made a few minor changes to it for publication here.  My thanks to the Project for permission to republish.]

Good courses teach me stuff I don’t know, but great courses are more like revelations of things I didn’t know that I didn’t know.  Last year’s summer institute was a great course!  I discovered that I am permitted to use my writing instincts in teaching writing.  That may seem obvious, but it was a revelation to me. I love to write and to self-publish, but I never honestly thought these loves would also interest my students or affect my teaching.  Instead, before this past summer, my main means of motivating students to write well had been to instill the fear of my red pen.  But this year I’ve been selling my ninth graders on what has always sold me: writing for an audience.

So far, my classes are using three ways to discover audiences outside of the classroom: web logs (otherwise known as blogs), a class literary anthology, and submissions to print publications.  This article presents what my students and I did this year with the first of these efforts.  Through a lot of trial and error, I figured out one way of including blogging in a writers’ workshop classroom model.

Authentic Audiences

Before this year, I was already discovering that students usually put more effort into their writing when they know other students will read their work than when they know that only I will read it.  Also, when I tell students that their peers will be reading their papers in the next class, I find that all but one or two of them get their papers in on time.  Real-world deadlines involving real audiences seem to work better than my artificial deadlines, even though I enforce my artificial deadlines with real penalties.

This past summer’s institute opened my eyes to my hypocrisy concerning audiences – a hypocrisy that should have turned my writing focus around years before.  Before this past summer, I had made my students pretend that they were writing for real audiences, even though they were writing for only me.  Indeed, the audience in a typical student paper is not a teacher but a construct, a kind of dramatic convention the student and the teacher pull off to make the paper assignment work.  Since the teacher usually knows more about the paper’s subject than the student, the student is conscious of telling her one-man audience something he often already knows.  Despite this, students and teachers pretend that someone besides the teacher will eventually read the paper to be informed or entertained.  It’s a fake audience, and the cost is often a paper with a strained, pretentious, and fake voice.  The long-term cost may be a student with a learned loathing of writing.  So why just pretend?

Why Blogs?

Blogs, the popular, shorthand name for web logs, give students an authentic audience in a twenty-first-century medium with which they are comfortable. Blogging also helps students associate good writing with their increasingly technological future.  Blogging may not be the latest online phenomenon, but its current growth is still phenomenal.   As of this past September, a recognized tracking service counted over a hundred six million blogs worldwide, up from seventy-five million this past April. Over fifty-seven million Americans read blogs. The number of readers worldwide, of course, is far higher.  Blogs are a recognized medium with an authentic audience.

Blogs are the most writing-oriented of Web 2.0 type web sites. (Web 2.0 is shorthand for web sites with visitor-generated content, such as blogs, social networks, and photo- and video-sharing sites.)  Blogs, after all, evolved from online diaries. Despite their technical evolution and subject-matter expansion over the past ten years, good blogs still require good writing.

Blogging demonstrates that a popular online medium can honor good writing. My survey results indicate that most of my students either blog or participate on social networks. By incorporating good writing in a popular teen genre, teens are more likely to write and are more likely to discover more sophisticated possibilities for their existing online spaces and, more importantly, for their future online endeavors in whatever form they may take years from now.

Ensuring a Positive Online Experience

Around the beginning of November, I launched our multi-user blogging network.  Each student had her own blog site and was free to choose from a number of skins for her readers’ interface.  When she posted on her blog site, she came up with her own topic, title, and genre listings for the post.

I was blogging on our site along with them.  Like many of my students, I took on a blogging alias, and we kept a running list of who was who to make it fair.  Ostensibly, I was modeling blogging for my students, but the main reason for my participation was that I just didn’t want to be left out.  They were having too much fun. (I must not have been getting enough attention on my adult-world blog site because, after our site got going, I started checking my site on it for comments after I published something halfway decent more often than I checked my adult-world blog for comments.)

I required that students leave eight comments per blogging check (usually, every two or three weeks) on other students’ posts.  I didn’t comment on my students’ blogs because my students may not have been ready for their teacher as a subjective reader.  It also sounds potentially creepy: “I heard this teacher was leaving comments on his students’ blog posts!”

My students and I deliberately kept our comments positive.  In the classroom, we have writer support groups where the students and I can receive all the constructive criticism we want.  Online, though, I wanted my guys to experience what I struggled to accept during the first three years of my own blogging: specific, unmitigated praise.  This past summer, I was fuming in a post that my blog readers weren’t leaving any constructive criticism of my writing in their comments.  One comment a reader (another writing teacher) left me in response to my post helped me see things differently:

As a teacher and reader of your blog, I’d much rather enjoy what you write and respond to what inspires and excites me–as this piece has–than edit and critique your work. I trust that as you write more, you’ll find your way to more and more clarity about how to polish your writing to a shine. I think celebrating what’s working in a piece has far greater value in keeping us inspired to write and improve than anything else.

Her comment led me to understand that purely positive comments on blog posts were more important in the long run to me as a writer than critical comments.  I also began to see how my own writing had improved over the three years I had been blogging despite the lack of criticism.

I emphasized to my students that praising doesn’t mean faking it.  Blog commenters maintain their integrity (and credibility) by selecting an aspect of a post on which to lavish praise.  Of course, a comment can be effective even if it involves no praise, so long as the commenter expresses some connection with even just part of the post.  This specificity is what gives a comment its worth.  When someone picks something in one of my posts to either compliment or to expand on, I feel read.  After blogging for three years, I know that some stuff just isn’t getting read much.  Some of the other un-commented-upon material was probably read or appreciated, but readers just don’t have much to say about it.  (I’ve learned also that longer pieces don’t usually get read very often unless they’re personal or funny or both.)

Student commenters were also free to politely disagree with the substance of any post.  The disagreement could be strong, I told them, but they were not to criticize or even to point out perceived mistakes in other students’ writing (grammar, syntax, etc.).  I found that it was important to drill students on the art of good commenting.  I warmed to my task; I think students need to learn how to be both honest and positive with each other and with each other’s writing.  Despite my drills and my entreaties, I still had to ask a student to modify a comment every now and then.  Sometimes I redacted a comment as soon as I read it, fearing that the comment might hurt relationships or tear down the encouraging atmosphere the students and I had worked to inculcate on the site.

Feeling Read All Over the World

Comments make students feel read, and feeling read is one of the best things about writing.  If you ask a writer how she came to see herself as a writer, she will probably tell you a story or two about some of the first times her words got to other people.  Maybe she published a poem in an elementary school anthology.  Maybe a class put on a play she wrote.  One way or another, she felt read.

Site stats also confirm to my students that their blogs command a higher readership than they could probably expect from taping their work onto our classroom walls.  I reminded students that anyone on the planet with Internet access could read our posts – a potential audience of millions.  I did get practical when I explained the site statistics, which amounted to hundreds of visitors instead of millions, but they were pretty impressed with the few hundred unique visitors over the life of their blogs.  I also explained search engine dynamics.  I told them how more words and the passage of time means more hits and more links and maybe more readers.  Many of them quickly grasped another rule I never taught them: the more regular the posts, the more regular the readership.

I hope that other readers outside of our class members have been (and will be) drawn to something fairly unique: a self-contained community of online writers.  I hope also that readers will be drawn to the writing itself.  Of course, there’s no hiding that it’s ninth grade writing.  I didn’t advertise the writers’ age or make the site look like a school site, though.

A Gated Community

More words on our site may have meant more readers, but not more commenters.  We blog in a kind of gated community.  Everyone can see us, but only my seventy honors students can comment on posts there.  The site’s gate keeps out possible predators as well as commenters who may not wish to play by our rules.  But the site’s exclusivity also gives the students another way to experience the writing community that they’ve begun face to face in class in writers’ support groups and other activities.  Internet safety, then, dovetails with my vision of augmenting our experience as a writers’ community by bringing it online.

I also described this fishbowl feature in an email introducing our site to my students’ parents.  I invited the parents to enjoy their students’ posts and comments.  I employed my reverse-psychology, parental-relations strategy here: I find that the more I tell my parents, the less they think there’s anything to be concerned about.  Each month of the school year, I send them long, colorful ezines of what we’re doing in class.  Most parents delete them without reading them, saying to themselves, “This guy must have it together.”  So, predictably, I didn’t get any emails, positive or negative, about any online content during the four and a half months our site was up and running.

I instituted some other policies to maintain online safety.  I told the students that I would read every post and comment, and I followed through with that.  I did not allow any music, pictures, or videos: I had enough to keep track of just with the writing!  I disabled trackbacks and pingbacks to insure that no spam reached our sites.  I made students sign a code of conduct that referenced the school’s online acceptable use policy the students signed at the beginning of the year.  The code of conduct also contained specific and dire consequences for code infractions.  I assured parents that the sites were in compliance with our school system’s policies and regulations manual.

Not a “School Site”

I have discovered that high school students don’t go out of their way to write on “school” sites.  According to the results of my written survey, a majority of my current students have a social network page (e.g., My Space or Facebook), a YouTube account, or a blog.  Moving from such user-centered environments to an institution-centered one is comparable to returning to dial-up after a few months of high-speed Internet.  I’m not trying to compete with Facebook, of course, but I’m not going to needlessly repel students, either.

Besides, how could my students feel like real writers if they were writing on a school site?  They’d probably feel like they were on training wheels as the “real” Internet writers streaked by them on motorcycles.

I did a great deal of research to find out what multi-user blogs and private social network sites are available.  All of them that I found last year were either too “educational,” too inflexible, or too easy for students to bring objectionable material into.  Others did not have the right combination of universal viewing with membership-only interaction.  Some services may be right for you, such as Blackboard (if your school system subscribes to their blogging services), Edublogs.org, and Ning.com.  This last is a social networking site that is working hard at meeting teachers’ needs, but it didn’t offer enough teacher control when I was researching sites.  Besides, my school system’s Internet filter began blocking Ning around the beginning of this school year.

I gained a lot of flexibility by building the site on WordPress MU. I had my Internet server download the MU (“multi-user” blog) software from MU.WordPress.org, and then my server followed that site’s instructions to install and configure it.  MU has a sensible interface that all of my students understood almost at once.  It comes with several “skins,” or blog-page looks, for students to choose from.  I also installed simple plug-ins that enhanced the sites’ capabilities.

I have no training in computer technology (though I admit that I enjoy technology), so I needed lots of help customizing the site to fit my purpose.  I found MU’s online forums to be helpful, though many of the old pros helping out the rest of us were often cranky.  (Well, how pleasant would I be if I were giving away my time and being asked the same question three times a day – questions that could be answered by digging a little in the forum’s back pages?)

How Blogging Fit into My New Writers’ Workshop Model

Around the same time we started blogging, I started to use the writers’ workshop model I had discovered at the Summer Institute through the writings of Nancie Atwell and Lucy McCormick Calkins.  About a month into the blogging, I began to see how the blogging and the writers’ workshop could complement each other.

I showed students how their writing might progress from their English class sketchbooks through very polished pieces for print publications, and I described blogging as falling in the middle of this continuum. I taught students to take material out of their writer’s sketchbook (free-writes, reader responses, and poetry “messes,” for instance) and to develop them into blog posts.  I also asked the students to choose some of their blog post writing, in turn, to revise for more polished writing.  By making the blog posts a kind of middle step between sketchbook writing and more formal pieces, I was able to claim that blogging wasn’t really all that much extra writing.  These writing “steps” also got students practicing revision without my having to force them.

I also let students post any writing they wished to (school appropriate, of course).  Most students published a mix of sketchbook work that they developed for their blogs, work they wrote for other assignments and classes, and work they wrote specifically for their blog sites.  I introduced a few genres in writers’ workshop mini-lessons, and students often experimented with these genres on their blogs.

I required my students to publish at least 300 words in blog posts per blog-check period, which became about every two weeks.  Four of the eight comments each student had to leave on others’ posts had to be either the first or second comment to a post.  This latter requirement assured that everyone got some of these valuable comments and that early postings did not attract all the comments just because they were at the top of the list.  I was afraid also that kids would get cliquish and that less popular kids wouldn’t get as many comments as the others.

At first, I made the posts and comments due every two weeks, but when we had to focus on other parts of the curriculum, I stretched it to every three weeks.  I was glad to stretch it out because it took me about eight hours to read and tabulate all of the posts and comments for a given blog-check period.  I have seventy-five honors students, so every third weekend was pretty much shot.

In keeping with the positive spirit with which I wanted my students to approach their blogging, I never formally assessed the quality of their online work.  I had enough assessments of their writing from the more formal pieces that the county curriculum guide requires and from the few blog posts the students developed into more polished pieces.  Besides, any kind of assessment of this material on top of the time I was already spending reading all of it would have done me in.

Despite the lack of formal assessment, I found that the writing quality overall on our site was pretty good.  Five or six of my writers occasionally amazed me, writing poetry or stories at a level most college students probably haven’t reached.

With all of the reading I had to do to adequately oversee the material, I was delighted to find that, for the first time in my career, I was beginning to know my students as writers.   As a result, I have been able to encourage my students to write in certain directions based on how effectively they’ve used their blog space.  I now have a few budding poets, fiction writers, and personal essayists!

Student Feedback

My students gave our blogging positive marks in a survey I gave them about a month after we began blogging.  Over ninety percent of them rated it either “It’s okay” (Hey, that’s effusive for ninth graders!), “I like it,” or “I love it.”   When I modified the question somewhat to ask if they would prefer to write the same amount but in more traditional assignments handed in to the teacher, only two students in the fifty-nine who responded to the survey indicated their preference for traditional assignments.

The survey also brought me some good news related to whether students were “feeling read.”   In response to a question about how much they liked reading their fellow students’ blog posts, only six percent of my students expressed any distaste for it.  Also, all but three of the fifty-nine responding students enjoyed reading the better comments to their own posts. 

Here are a couple of the more positive student comments:

I love how I can see what other people like about my writing without being in class. It is a way to encourage other’s writing and to grow in my own writing. I have found that I have a nice poetry voice through the blogging. I HATED writing before this year, but now that I get positive feedback, I am liking it more and more. THANK YOU [our site]!

I really like using [blogging]. I really enjoy reading some of my class mates work that I wouldn’t have gotten to read without our blogs. I also really like that we can post whatever we want (we don’t have specific papers we have to post or pieces on certain topics). I like that we have so much freedom with our blogs.

One of my biggest success stories involves a young man whose parents introduced me to him just before the school year began.  He and his parents told me that he loves reading (he had read most of Shakespeare’s plays, for instance), but that he has always hated writing.  They were concerned about his being in honors English because English class had not been his strong suit.  Some of his other, current teachers have since told me that he has been writing for our site just about every chance he has gotten.  He has written a wonderful science fiction serial that developed quite an online readership.  He’ll be submitting the serial for print publication in the next couple of weeks.  His expression and punctuation have improved in the process, too.

More critical comments from my survey responses involved the site’s navigation, my refusal to allow pictures and music, and the amount of writing I required.  Many students didn’t like my rule that four of the eight comments had to be one of the first two comments to posts.  In response to their concerns, I added a Google reader in order for students to find new posts quickly to meet their “four comments must be one of the first two comments to a post” requirement.

For an experiment, I also threw out the “first two comments” requirement for the last blog-check period.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that the comments were as evenly divided as they had been before.  Next year, I’ll still keep the rule for the first couple of months, but then I think I’ll drop it once I feel like students have broadened their blog-reading horizons sufficiently.  From what I could gather, about two-thirds of my students were sorry to see us stop blogging in mid-March, but the rest of the students were somewhat tired of it.  Next year, I need to figure out a way to have more frequent checks, which makes students focus on the site more.  I think the blogging will be more integrated into the students’ writing plans as I increase the use of the writers’ workshop model next year.

Blogging for Academic Students

I wouldn’t try this broad form of blogging with my academic students.  They just don’t have the interest in writing that my honors students have, and many of them wouldn’t take the assignment seriously.  Besides, seventy students turns out to be enough for this exercise.  It would have drained the life out of me to have had my other fifty-four students blogging, too, considering that I was responsible for reading everything that goes up on the site.

I have a more focused blogging lesson plan that I’ve been using over the past few years for both my academic and honors students.  I’ll use it again this spring to teach all of my students Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men, a play about jury deliberations after a murder trial.  I assign each student a juror number and split each class into two jury rooms (i.e., two multiple-user blogs).  The students spend two days in the computer lab interacting with their fellow jurors and discussing the play’s evidence.  That’s more of the assignment size and time span I need effectively to get my academic students involved with blogging.

Please feel free to visit our site anytime to see for yourself the good and bad aspects of my approach to student blogging.