Monday, August 29, 2011

Creating a community and individualised learning through class-blogs

This post is a summary of my sessions at the OUP conference - Making digital sense that took place last week during one of the hottest days in Budapest ever.
For these sessions I did not prepare a handout as it would have been full of long links not very accessible from a piece of paper, but instead from this post anybody is free to click on the links and enjoy the content of the posts instantly.
I had prepared the workshop with two types of audiences in mind:
one where teachers would already have a blog, maybe a class-blog even, so they would be fairly familiar with the way it works and the values that it can bring to the classroom. The second type of audience I was thinking of was of a curious type, teachers who would like to know what a class-blog is, how it works, what they and the learners can do with them, but had never seen one or used one before.
As it turned out the majority of teachers belonged to the second group, and I'm hoping that most of them left feeling a bit more comfortable with the idea of class-blogs through the links I used in the sessions listed below, or that they will even follow up their curiosity by setting up one and testing it with their own classes.

In opening the session we collected briefly a few typical comments and fears from fellow teachers and parents in Hungary re class-blogs that I feel needed to be addressed such as:
  • "I don't want kids to spend even more time in front of the computer."
  • "Being on the internet is very dangerous, so it's best not to allow them to use it."
  • "I have enough admin jobs to do at school and I don't need another one." (by a teacher)
These are all very natural fears. Fears that occurred at any time in the the history of education when something new was introduced, something unknown. So this lead me to looking at some other types of tools used for communication in education and their effect on how we learn going
back as far as the 12th century, when Alexander de Villedieu - see an article from BBC's History magazine here on him too - put Latin grammar into verses. These verses spread through word of mouth and therefore people started to learn how to read in Latin. This is how literacy became more and more widespread, especially when two centuries later (!) his verses were printed.

The influence of his works on literacy and therefore education is pretty amazing - as we all agreed during the sessions too. A journalist went even as far as linking him to "videoliteracy" too.

Then we moved onto other types of communication that occur in a traditional educational systems: noticeboards, which are still very much the way to communicate with students in schools here in Hungary. At this point, after looking at some typical information put on noticeboards, the audience and its (nonexistent) motivational power on learning we realised how it was time for us to find a 21st century way of communication, which is not only one-way, from teachers to learners, but much more open serving everybody's needs and interests: those of the learners, the teachers, the parents, the fellow learners from any corner of the world.

A wonderful example of how this can turn into a real learning community in a whole school is George Couros': Forest Green School in Canada, where all classes have their blogs through which they communicate what they wish, with everyone engaged and motivated, from children to parents, educators, secretaries, basically every single member of the community.

Looking more closely at different types of class-blogs that are used for learning English as Second/Foreign language - first we read a wonderful post from Greta Sandler's class blog, Sharing Good News, where only the children contribute posts and virtually a whole world comments on their lovely pieces of writing and the videos they decide to put up. One post we looked at, written by a child called Vickucha, clearly exemplified the powerful educational value added to the useful language practice.

We also watched part of an interview with Greta where she gave very useful advice to teachers who wanted to start blogging with their classes. She pointed out a few things to remember with class-blogs:
  • not to grade the posts students write, as it would destroy the whole motivation
  • not to use it as a platform to give them homework, for the same reason as above.

She mentioned that she uses as it is a very safe and very user-friendly platform for children with no extra widgets and gadgets, so children focus only on writing their posts.

You can watch the full interview as well as some very useful links and tips for teachers who would like to start class-blogs here.

Then we also looked at my class-blog, which I started last year with my beginner class where children are of different ages from 6 to 9. As they have just started to learn EFL the posts are written by me, the teacher, and parents comment, or very often the parents write the comments their children dictate them. Here we looked at different ways of using such a class-blog with different aims:
  • to post their pieces of work and make recordings that allow parents to follow their progress as well as motivate kids to speak to an audience even after two lessons only. (See example here.)
  • to engage parents in their learning process as well (See example here.)
  • to provide them with extra links that take them to safe sites they can use for self-study (See example here.)
  • to provide them with a visual dictionary to find the words they are interested in (See example here.)
  • to provide them with a "talking dictionary" for the pronunciation of the words they are interested in (See example here.)
The examples above have helped us all - children, their parents and me - become a great learning community and it has also given kids plenty of fun self-study activities 24/7 whenever they feel like it. We are also able to return to any of the material we have on our class-blog to use it for revision in different ways, or just to make another comment on how wonderful the kids from our class are!
If you are Hungarian and would like to start your own blog, check out this post on how to start off a class blog with a training video in English as well as a sample letter I wrote to parents to inform them about it.

Happy blogging!

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