Teacher Experiments with Blogging to Improve Student Writing

It is to students’ advantage to become masters of two styles of writing, explains Michael Drennan in The Guardian — one style dense but dry, full of declarative sentences and most useful when writing an exam essay or finishing up a term paper; the other is more fluid, emotional, and expressive, to be used for communicating ideas to others. As an experiment, Drennan had his GCSSE and A-level students focus only on these two types of writing exclusively by taking sample tests when in class and writing blogs when at home.

A month into the experiment, Drennan’s students exceeded both his and their own expectations. The range of topics covered was immense: from local news to current affairs, to the most controversial issues of the day. Students used the blogging format to examine natural and man-made phenomena, analyze experimental data they sourced themselves and by their classmates. They engaged with each other by commenting on each other’s blogs and writing their own responses to posts written by their peers.

Because the students’ writing was always available online, there were no barriers like those imposed by traditionally written material on critiquing and reviewing other people’s work.

This is all massively more powerful, and infinitely easier, than collecting exercise books for monitoring and restricting peer-feedback within the classroom, and a source of far less hassle/conflict than fixed small-scale written homeworks with exact deadlines. Parents can be directed to helpful information, to the evidence of what their child has achieved, and to comparative students’ work from within the same class.

Some teachers are reluctant to make blogging a part of the academic experience because they are afraid that by doing so, they are opening themselves and their schools up to liability in cases when students post defamatory information or engage in internet harassment. But Drennan believes that the rare instances when such things occur is no reason to deprive students of what could be a powerful academic tool. Inappropriate posts are a behavioral problem, Drennan writes, and should be handled in a way a teacher handles a misbehaving student: which is not to punish all for the sins of the few or even just the one.

Use of strong language is moot. A2 sociologists this year persuaded me to allow them to use it in political/satirical posts; tellingly, they did so freely early on, but then it fell away – its casual use disempowers it and makes writing appear lazy. Students came to reflect that they should choose words more carefully. “You don’t hear Polly Toynbee saying ‘What a dick’ in her articles, even though she clearly thinks Cameron is one,” concluded one perceptive wit, to general agreement. Language is a thorny issue, so I share this story without imposition. Child protection issues are minimal. Teach e-safety once, well, and take firm action when needed – but don’t lock kids away from the world. My students were delightedly amazed to discover postgrads in Germany, travellers in South-East Asia and Occupy activists in the US liking, commenting on and following their blogs.