10 Easy Steps to Teach Writing through Blogging

I have been thinking of writing this post for the past six months. Blogging has done more for my students’ writing than anything I have ever tried. Students are writing so much that it is hard for me to keep up with them! Here is how I began:

1.  Students need to be able to critically read blogs and evaluate others’ writing before they can write themselves. I asked my students what they were interested in reading about. With the help of a couple of colleagues, we created a list of blogs that were safe for them to read using Mentor Mob. Feel free to use it yourself or create one in the same way! 

2.  We then had a discussion about why they liked or disliked particular blogs. Opportunities for digital and information literacy skills are endless! We discussed layout, graphics, advertisements vs. no advertisements, grammar and how it affected their understanding, safety (Some kids used their full names and we decided that was not a good idea.), content (Did the writer do a good job of explaining their topic-why or why not?), and also intended audience (Could they tell who this was intended for?), as well as information literacy skills (Would they consider this writer an expert on the topic? Would it be worthy of using as a resource for research purposes? Was it only intended for entertainment as an opinion piece?)

3.  We copied a style of another writer.  Students are allowed to copy the style of writing another person uses. It is very important to distinguish copying style to copying words. Copying the way a person writes is good practice. Eventually their own voice comes through and they develop their own style through practice. I am reminded of the book, Steal Like an Artist, which I am still thinking about reading to my students!

4.  We then participated in The Student Blogging Challenge through Edublogs. Although we started a little later than the official challenge began, I chose challenges for students to give them some focus. In the past, allowing students to freely write about anything they wanted right from the git-go did not provide the structure they needed. They needed to learn how to write. I was able to structure mini-lessons on opening/topic sentences, writing supporting sentences, and also lessons on specific grammar topics that came up in their own writing. I was able to differentiate instruction based on their own writing style. The challenges I chose also gave enough choice that they felt as though they had some say in what they were writing about! Students had choice and were able to direct their own learning in many ways.

5.  The most influential piece of blogging for my students has been having an authentic audience! I Tweeted their blogs out to my PLN (personal learning network) and they commented on my students’ writing. The creator of Edublogs Student Blogging Challenge, Miss W., commented on my students’ writing! Parents read their children’s writing, invited other family members and friends to comment on their child’s writing. Parents, family and friends began commenting on other student’s writing! This was also great because parents often want to know what their child’s work looks like in comparison to other kids their age. This is also a very difficult and sticky thing to show. As a teacher, you do not necessarily want parents to compare their kid to another, but being a parent, I get it. Blogging allows parents to see all different kinds of writing and how sometimes, topic and purpose affects how well a child writes. Sometimes it is better than others just like it is in real life!

6.  We talk about commenting throughout the whole process. Students critically read other comments and as a result, were able to write better comments themselves! They were so motivated to write because people were reading what they wrote about. Although they still write one-liner comments sometimes with way too many exclamation marks, most of the time, they are thoughtful about their comments. They are fifth graders…a million exclamation marks are fun sometimes!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

7.  Students edit and revise even after I published their work! After a few revisions, and I always struggle with not beating them to death with revising, I publish a student’s work. Because I use Kid Blog, I am the one who pushed the “Publish button.” This is a great feature! What I have found most amazing about using blogging to teach writing skills, is that many times, students go back in after it is published to revise again. What happens is that they read their friends’ work and realize they need to add more detail, or a picture, or a link that will make their piece even better. I think this is so incredible! What more could you ask for as a teacher?!

8.  Students finally move in and out of what we call “Free Blogging” between assigned blogging challenges. I didn’t allow students to begin free blogging about whatever they wanted until I felt they had a good handle on the purpose and intended audience of writing. I know this may sound awful, but I do not believe that all thoughts are worthy of publishing. Students have often asked me why teachers allow students to publish with so many mistakes. Now, of course sometimes it is because of the developmental stage and age of students, but other times, I believe it must be a difference in philosophy. Just like math, and foreign language, and music and sports, writing takes practice. I explained to students that because they began a new sport this year, should they play in a stadium and invite the world to watch them yet? No, of course not, they need practice. Writing is a muscle that also needs practice and it needs to be clear enough for others to read it.  

9.  Students become self-directed learners of writing through blogging. In allowing “free blogging,” students can explore different genres of writing through trying them out on their own. Although I am still struggling with keeping up because it takes me some time to read and then individually respond to students, I still feel that they are motivated to read other students’ writing and write their own posts. The 21st century learner isn’t so different from learners of the past. I think we all innately want to be self-directed learners. However, the 21st century learner has the unique opportunity of being provided the experience to self-direct their learning. They are all researchers of information. Technology has provided us with some really cool tools to help students become better readers, writers, and problem solvers. 

10.  Students are reminded that learning to write happens through making mistakes and most importantly, through reflection! Throughout the year, no matter what we learn about, students are reminded that perfection is not necessary and would make life boring. I would also be out of a job if everything they did and wrote about was perfect. Their uniqueness in all that they are and all that they do, including writing, is what makes our community so much fun and so interesting. The next step I will take with my students is to list ways in which students’ writing can improve…a sort of brainstorming list. We will then look at the writing of a peer and share three things that person has improved in with their writing since we first began to blog.  I hope to have students then evaluate their own progress and even blog about it if they are brave enough!

Lastly, I must add that students have been so excited to blog, that other fifth grade students who do not have me as a teacher, have come to me to ask if they too could learn how to blog. As a result, I created a blogging site for them to blog as well. Feel free to visit all three of our sites and comment! Friends of the Fifth Dimension , Ms. Hutch’s Marvelous Math Students , and Kids Who Just Wanna Blog.





Global EdCon Project Reflection and Launch!

Monday, November 18th at 8 pm EST, I will be doing a presentation on the global PBL I attempted with my students last year called The #Malala Project. I am so, so nervous to present! I decided, however, that I would ask myself to do the very thing I ask students to do everyday…take a risk, be a true learner! So here I am, procrastinating by blog going about it instead of making up notecards to go with my slides. Teaching seems so much easier than presenting. With presenting, you need to be able to tell a good story…it has to have an engaging beginning, building to an exciting middle, wrapped up by a clean, clear cut ending that leaves the audience feeling satisfied, but somehow wanting more. A tough job for sure, especially if done virtually! So perhaps what I will do this week is present to my students, give them a rubric and ask them to grade me! Ha!Ha! What an interesting concept! What if we had to regularly give students rubrics for them to grade our teaching? I shall try it this week and report back what I found…surely I am not the first to think of this.
At least I was able to finish my Haiku Deck slides in preparation for launching The One and Only Ivan Project as a part of The Global Classroom Projects 2013-2014 Launch on November 22, 6 am EST and then again November 23, 3 pm EST. scary and fun, all at the same time!


PBL-An Empathy Builder for Teachers… Who Knew?

I have to admit, when I considered using The One and Only Ivan as my first core novel in 5th grade, I was a little worried. I know that most kids love animals and I thought that would be motivating for students to launch into a PBL on some aspect of animals; however, I, myself, am not a huge animal lover. I mean, I have two cats, I had a cat growing up, my dad had dogs and I loved them, but I just was never one of those kids who wanted to be a veterinarian, nor was I a kid who had folders for school with little kittens on them. I am embarrassed to admit this actually because it makes me seem a little hard core, but so be it, “I yam what I yam!” as Popeye says.  After I had children of my own, my love for animals also decreased a bit. Not sure why, except to say that my primary love became all about my kids.

But, I decided I could fake it. Did I have to have this huge amount of empathy and compassion for animals to teach this unit? I hoped not. One thing I didn’t expect to happen, was the change that occurred and is occurring within me! The more I learn, the more empathy I have for animals, and animals of all kinds! It seems so silly when I look at it now. Of course the teacher also learns while teaching! I am not, nor have I ever considered myself, “Teacher: All Knowing and #1 Person in Charge!” I am co-learner, chief facilitator, but first and foremost, co-learner. Project based learning has been an incredible vehicle to teach my students, but most surprisingly, it has taught me more than just content. It has taught me about my own heart.

Why Blogging Needs to Be in My Curriculum and Why My Students Need It!

The day before yesterday, I brought my students to our computer lab to blog again. It was so wonderful to see them so excited about writing! 

It has taken me a few years to develop a system of how to teach students to blog. It has also taken me a few years to effectively incorporate writing skills I usually taught in other ways into a blogging curriculum. And, I hesitate to even use the word curriculum because I think it is only the beginnings of one. I have also not done this alone. With the help of fabulous technology teachers, Andy Hanes and Jennifer Robinson, we really are starting to make it come together for kids, and ourselves!

We began the year with showing students what blogs were: what was the difference between an article and a blog? I then asked my students to make a list of what they would like to read about. My colleagues and I responded by making a Mentor Mob list of blogs that fit their criteria and were safe for them to read. After giving students about two 1/2 hour periods in the computer lab to simply browse and read, we began to have discussions about questions they had regarding the blogs. Some questions were: How can we tell if the information is coming from a reputable source? What do we do when information is really mixed in with opinion? Can we use blogs as sources for research? Why do some blogs have pop up ads or ads on the screen and some don’t? What formats do we prefer…the writing on the right side of the page? The left? Do we like pictures on the page at the top? Is the page too busy for us or too boring? They commented on being annoyed when someone didn’t capitalize the word “I” or put too many exclamation points. They loved it when someone was able to tell a clear story and put lots of details in. 

We are taking part in the Student Blogging Challenge on Edublogs, but using KidBlog to blog. As a teacher, the ability to check my students’ writing before they post, as well as approve comments before they are posted, is extremely important to me. For the challenge, students needed to first write an introduction of themselves so we checked out a couple of examples and talked about which one we liked best and why.

This brings me to our class we had two days ago. Students were so excited to write and read other classmates’ blogs! During class, I was able to individually conference with students who had finished and submitted their blogs for review. It was differentiation at its’ best! I could help students with their specific writing difficulties and build on their strengths. Some students needed to understand how to appropriately use colons, some needed help with organization and learned how to cut sentences out and move them to a different place so that it made more sense, some students just wanted reassurance and praise. Yes, there was time to individually praise students! We are learning about compound subjects and predicates and next time we blog, I can have them copy and paste a favorite sentence into a Word Doc, or better yet, something collaborative, like Pirate Pad. We can then highlight subjects and predicates using their own writing. We can also take that opportunity to share why they love that particular sentence they wrote the best!
When my colleague, Jennifer, who was working with me at the time, asked students why they loved blogging, their responses said it all:

Because it’s fun!
Because real people are going to see it that aren’t us!
Because when I make mistakes, it makes more sense when I have to fix it!
Because we get to learn more about our classmates and people we
don’t know!
Because it isn’t made up, it’s real.

My students need this kind of writing. They need it because it means something to them, it motivates them to learn and be better readers and writers. They need it because it builds on their interests, taps into their creativity, invites them to be collaborative, and begs them to think critically. What more could you want as a teacher?

The One and Only Ivan Global PBL

I should have written this post a long time ago. Actually, I wrote a post and some how, the whole thing got erased! Anyway, I was inspired to write again, by someone on Twitter. So I must thank her.

The One and Only Ivan is a story based on the true story of the gorilla, Ivan, who lived in a circus-themed mall for 27 years alone in a cage without ever seeing another gorilla. After National Geographic featured Ivan in a story, “The Urban Gorilla,” there was public outcry to help save him and put Ivan in a better situation. Katherine Applegate learned about Ivan and wrote a beautiful, simple story about Ivan. This novel promotes empathy in a way that is simple yet poignant and also brings up many issues dealing with the capture and caging of animals.

I attended PBL World in Napa Valley this past June. As part of my attendance, I created this project based learning unit with the help of many incredibly talented teachers and also the help of the National Faculty of Bucks Institute of Education. Now, John Scott, my friend and librarian, is helping me teach this wonderful story.It is listed as a project on the Global Classroom Projects wiki. Here are the goals of this project:
Students will read the book, __The One and Only Ivan__by Katherine Applegate.
Students will engage in self directed learning by researching the question, “Do we have the right to capture and cage animals?”
Students will engage in a project that employs and builds their empathetic skills.
Students will collaborate and communicate with each other, and with students from cultures around the world.
Students will create one book together by answering the question, “Do we have the right to capture and cage animals?
Students will decide as a global community which wildlife organization they will donate all proceeds made by the sale of the book.

The beauty of this project also includes the opportunity for teachers who want to try PBL but do not know quite where to start and would like to support from others who are doing the same thing! We will all work on the same driving question and if teachers want or need the support of resources, they are right there on the project page to utilize. I also used 21st Century Fluency Project to plan the unit and those who join are also able to use it.

I believe in project based learning to teach students in a way that is meaningful and motivating, and the learning that happens is far reaching beyond what traditional teaching can accomplish many times. I believe in global collaboration as a means of teaching students empathy and not only tolerance, but a true understanding and appreciation of people that are different from them. Global project based learning has the potential for unbelievably, powerful learning! I hope other teachers and students will take the plunge with me!


Yesterday, we held the first ever Project Learning Swap Meet 2013 Baltimore! For the last month and a half, I planned and planned and with the help of Bianca and Lee Hewes, the originators of this beautiful unconference, my husband Andy Hanes, my two incredibly supportive colleagues, Frannie Morrissey and Jennifer Robinson, I wouldn’t have been able to pull it off! The day began with a video message from Bianca and Jim. Their enthusiasm about PBL and mission was inspiring to say the least. 

Although we had a small number of participants (only 12), we had a great conversation about what we thought PBL was and what we knew it wasn’t. Everyone at the Meet were pretty new to PBL, but enthusiastic to learn more about it. After a short break, we gathered in a classroom to Skype with Suzie Boss! Suzie had just returned from a trip to Turkey at 2 am in the morning, Portland time. She generously woke up early in the morning just to Skype with us. This was such an incredible part of the day! Participants were able to ask her questions and get ideas, a lot of ideas, to use directly in their own classrooms. It was like a personal tutoring session about PBL from an expert! So, so cool!

Although some participants weren’t able to stay, we gave resources and offered our Edmodo group again as a space to share our PBL journey and also, most importantly, get and offer support. After that, we ate lunch and chatted about what we thought we wanted out of the rest of our day. We then helped participants form driving questions for their projects and plan a bit. I loved watching new connections happen between people and also watching new enthusiasm about PBL grow. 

A few of us have talked about doing a second PLSM14 in February or March but holding it on a weekday so that more people can attend. I look forward to sharing and growing from our new PLSM13 Baltimore community on Edmodo and hope it continues to grow and grow!

Too Much to “Due”, So Little Time!

Well, the school year has begun and I am beginning to get panicked about how much I want to do. I certainly do not have to do all of the things on my list, but I really want to do them! #1 on my list right now (besides teaching my students, of course) is Project Learning Swap Meet 2013 Baltimore. I suppose I should explain how the whole thing came about.

After attending PBL World in Napa Valley, California this past June, I was completely inspired to spread the PBL love to everyone and anyone who was willing to learn and listen. I facilitated a little information session this summer I called “PBL and Summer Sangria” at my school and had a decent turnout. However, I really wanted to do something on a larger scale and perhaps connect with people on a regular basis who were into supporting each other through this PBL journey. I thought of doing an EdCamp but wasn’t excited about getting sponsors and quite frankly, didn’t know if I could do an EdCamp only about PBL. So, I was Tweeting away one night when I came upon Bianca Hewes Tweet which requested people to sign up for #PLSM2013. Lucky for me, I met Bianca in Napa at PBL World in June! I clicked the link, read about it and wanted to go right away. Bianca and her husband, Lee, also a teacher, described Project Learning Swap Meet as a DIY event to exchange ideas and resources about project based learning and the participants would then set the activities of the day based on what the participants wanted. Hopefully, there would be time to begin planning or revamping an existing PBL with help from the group! It was an unconference about PBL! So very cool! The problem was I lived in Baltimore and PLSM2013 was in Sydney, Australia. I decided to Tweet Bianca and Lee and ask them if I could borrow their idea and try it here in Baltimore. They said yes and the rest is history!

So, here I am, trying to get 40 participants for #PLSM2013Baltimore on October 5th. I asked Suzie Boss to speak to participants and she agreed. She spoke at Bianca and Lee’s first meet last January and they said she was incredible! Thank you Suzie Boss! I also need to finish my list of resources to send to participants prior to the event. This blog was on my list, so at least I am finishing this!! LOL

Now, I just need to finish planning two PBL units I begin in about a week and a half (one on Creativity and the other using the novel, The One and Only Ivan), finish my submission to present at Global EdCon in November, revamp my World Class 4 Kids project on Skype so that three classes will be able to choose and connect with each other on a spread sheet, finish signing my kids up for Kid Blog and Biblionasium, and figure out what and how I will teach my first Mathalicious unit! Piece of cake! Is it happy hour yet? Lol 

Project-Learning (aka PBL) for beginners #plsm13

Bianca Hewes

This blog post is probably not written for you, even though you may have stumbled across it accidentally thanks to your search engine. This blog post isn’t even written for the people who follow me on Twitter, although a few of those do just happen to be in the group for whom this post is being written. This blog post is being written for the eager, dedicated, risk-taking and generous educators who will be attending the inaugural Project Learning Swap Meet at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum on January, 19th 2013.

I’m getting very excited about the event because I know wonderful things will come of it. I know that you lovelies who are attending will be bringing your questions, your experiences, your ideas and your enthusiasm to the day because you want to do more than just listen to people talk about new pedagogies or new technologies or new designs for…

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Why Am I Struggling with Assessing Creativity?

Let me begin by emphatically stating that my last few days at PBL World 2013 were truly inspiring! All of it was inspiring, truly it was. However, I must admit that on the 4th day, I was confused, at some points irritated even, after Yong Zhao gave an incredibly thought-provoking keynote speech. I was not irritated at all with his keynote but what followed afterwards. I must first explain the two points of his keynote that stuck out in my mind the most. #1 Yong Zhao does not like the Common Core Standards. He went into great depth regarding why and it made sense. He began with the name itself, “Common Core.” Why do we basically want students to be common to their core? I am oversimplifying greatly here, but I am sure you get the gist. #2 What these standards do is to help produce more of the old factory-style students that lack creativity or more specifically, lack the opportunity to be creative. Zhao further explained that schools have been like meat grinders producing little sausages that are all the same, ‘common’, if you will, with the same ‘core.’ I agreed! I totally agreed and thought to myself, “No more! No more will I be a part of that process, on whatever level. My students will not be treated like little sausages.” His keynote speech ended and off I went to attend a session called “Creativity and Innovation.” I was pumped!

This next workshop was to teach us how to assess creativity and innovation. I was confused…wasn’t this in direct opposition to what Yong Zhao was talking about? Should we be assessing the only thing that young students had left that was all their own? Should we make a rubric to attribute value to that human spark that is so beautiful and unique to each individual? I was perplexed. As the workshop progressed, I realized that some of this was about figuring out what behaviors creative people have to help students become more creative. The “value” portion of the rubric was what I really took issue with. I began wondering about how to create a PBL that specifically targets creative thinking with significant content, and for some reason, something about it does not sit right with me at all. I wonder where early van Gogh and early Picasso would have been had we held their work up to a rubric. Would they have continued their creative pursuits? How would Frank Lloyd Wright have faired at age 11 or 12 with a creativity rubric? Would it have squashed his creative spirit? I hope not. Maybe it all would have gone well, maybe it would have even been better for them. I just think we need to be very, very careful with assessing creativity and innovation. I am young in my thoughts regarding many things and realize I learn by doing, so on with my next idea!

I began to think about creating a PBL to begin my year with my new 5th grade students. The driving question, which is still a work in progress so please do not judge, may be, “How do we decide what creativity is?” or “Should we decide what is creative?” or “How will we decide what creativity is?” It seems I am always drawn to the philosophical type PBL projects, but it is what it is. I teach at a Quaker school so it makes sense. I am so excited to embark on this new adventure and will be working on it all summer. Any thoughts or ideas would be greatly appreciated! I will be sure to keep you posted.

PBL World 2013…and It’s Only Day 1!

Wow. Wowee, really is all I can say. Today has ben an incredible ride. I began with being nervous about whether or not I would meet new people. I quickly decided to let that go and just allow the day to bring what it would bring because it always does regardless of my worries.

We started with listening to Steven Ritz, the founder of The Green Bronx Machine! I have seen his Ted Talk before and he was even more inspiring in person. There were so many take-aways, but my fav was, “It’s easier to fix unhealthy children than broken men,” and one I probably shouldn’t mention but I will, of course, which was something like, “Better to have kids pollinating plants than each other!” Great stuff! I live in Baltimore and my wonderful city known as “Charm City” could really benefit from doing this kind of PBL. We are the heroin capital of America, I believe, and I know we can take all of that great entrepreneurialism, albeit illegal entrepreneurialism, that is going on everyday and put it to much better use.

I attended PBL 101 with Gina Olabuenaga after our wonderful keynote speaker and was not disappointed. I love, love, love that finally, for once, we learned how to do something by doing it! YAY! Modeling does and can take place in teacher trainings! We actually learned how to plan a PBL through experiencing it. I loved being able to see what a smaller version of PBL was compared to a larger scale PBL. I loved learning more about driving questions and receiving a tool to help us create them–how to implement the “Tuberic!” I have been looking at it for the past year trying to figure out what it was and how in the heck I would actually be able to make it.

Next, I attended a Tech Bootcamp on blogging with Suzie Boss, Bianca Hewes and Andrew Miller! They discussed their experience with blogging and gave tips on how to write for particular audiences and how to get an audience. The greatest take away I received from that was to be provocative and unafraid, but also careful. Write to be true to yourself but be smart about it.

The day ended with me connecting with my two new friends, Jill Cohen from North Carolina and Tina Photakis from Australia! How great it is to learn about education issues in different parts of the world! We are explorers in a new land, really. We are educational explorers exploring in a new land of technology and global connections where the world is truly our classroom. I am excited, honored and humbled to be a part of it.