New Jersey High School Learns the ABCs of Blogging

Weblogs can create online forums for classroom discussion, and build student skills.

The Secret Life of BeesFor a group of my English literature students at Hunterdon Central Regional High School (HCRHS) in New Jersey, the latest buzz in educational technology began with bees. I had my class read The Secret Life of Bees (Penguin, 2003), then offered a new way to create dialog around the book with literary Weblogs.

The “blogs” are gaining traction in education as an online forum for classroom discussion, and to develop students’ critical thinking, writing, and reading comprehension skills. Here at HCRHS, they have even more reach. For instance, my lit students created an online reader study guide for Bees, using the Weblog format. In two years, the site (Weblogs.hcrhs.k12.nj.us/bees) has had more than 2 million hits, including a 2,300-word response from the book’s author, Sue Monk Kidd.

The Weblog traffic has since grown to encompass different students and schools, making it clear to our students that others are reading and learning from their work. This “sense of audience” gets students excited, and helps to facilitate discussion, debate, and participation, even among reticent students. Blogs also motivate students to become more engaged in reading, think more deeply about the meaning of their writing, and submit higher quality work.

Versatile Technology Tool

In the last three years, I’ve used my own blog (www.Weblogg-ed.com) to collect Web links, best practices, and information about using Weblogs and related technologies in the K-12 classroom. It’s now clear that the value of a Weblog can be measured by three C’s: how they help you communicate, collaborate, and construct in new ways.

The flexibility of this online tool makes it well suited for K-12 implementations. Teachers can use blogs to post homework assignments, create links, pose questions, and generate discussion. Students can post homework, create a portfolio, and archive peer feedback, enabling a virtually paperless classroom.

But collaboration is the most compelling aspect of blogs, which allow teachers to expand classroom walls by inviting outside experts, mentors, and observers to participate. One HCRHS class studies the Holocaust by working with students in Poland via Weblogs. A group of my former students taught journalism to a group of elementary school students in Georgia, using blogs to bridge 800 miles and five grade levels. And, as part of the Bees project, I created blog space for parents to discuss the book and to help them gain insight into their child’s learning process.

Fast, Easy, Affordable

Schools already have much of the technology needed to implement Weblogs: a computer, Web browser, and an Internet connection. But they’ll also need blogging software. Many free Weblog sites (e.g., Blogger.com) offer varying degrees of capabilities. In about five minutes, teachers and students can begin posting to a Weblog hosted on the sponsoring site’s servers.

At HCRHS, we host Weblogs locally. While we needed to buy blogging software, we now have advantages in control, security, and functionality. We license Manila,

a content management system from Userland.com (manila.userland.com). A $499 annual license lets us build as many blogs as our server can hold (up to 2,000), and we can navigate between an open audience (a blogging benefit), versus security and privacy (to keep our students safe).

Manila runs on a dedicated server configured with an Intel Xeon processor, Windows 2000, and 260 GB of hard drive space. A second, similarly configured server stores static files (digital images and PowerPoint presentations) incorporated in our Weblogs. HCRHS students and teachers with a login account and password can access the blogs from any Internet-connected computer.

Educators can also harness RSS technology to make Weblog content easier to read and manage. RSS has two components: an XML-based RSS feed and an RSS aggregator, which reads the feed and consolidates new data in one place. Almost all Weblog software generates an RSS feed automatically, and many major media outlets (e.g., The New York Times) create feeds for their content. Schools can purchase aggregator software for installation on a local server/desktop, or get free Web-based aggregator software; try the Bloglines online aggregator (bloglines.com) to access content from any online computer.

RSS lets me collect and consume content without visiting many individual Web sites. I use Bloglines to track over 150 news feed and educator blogger sites, and more. Teachers can also use RSS to aggregate student Weblog feeds, making it easier and faster to track and monitor students’online activities.

Will Richardson is supervisor of communications & instructional technology, Hunterdon Central Regional High School, Flemington, NJ.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.

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