Archive for Student Blogging

Student Publishing, Blogging and Online Portfolios

Charles Wright Academy 9th Grade Digital Citizenship


This week I did a training session on student blogging and our WordPress Multisite installation. I prepared these notes and background readings beforehand, although we spent most the time talking about projects that teachers were already envisioning and ready to rollout (which is always more fun!).

First, I highly recommend Jeff Utecht’s “Blogs as Web-Based Portfolios” (PDF article) as a place to start. With that in mind, here are four examples (from other schools) of student blogging that I think highlight some possibilities.

Avogadro Salad: A Chemistry Blog by Sarah Almeda

This is an example of one individual student’s blog. She’s included images and videos in her posts explaining her labs, experiments and concepts in Chemistry class. This site uses WordPress, which is a professional standard for building websites and blogs. Using WordPress has a lot of advantages, including a vast amount of control in the design and layout, plugins and themes which can expand the capacity of the site, and a global community of support and users. We host a WordPress server which can be used to build class or individual blogs using staff or student e-mail address and logins. Accounts are automatically synced with existing student accounts, so there’s no account generation to worry about.

Avogadro Salad - A Chemistry Blog by Sarah Almeda (10th Grade)

Avogadro Salad – A Chemistry Blog by Sarah Almeda (10th Grade)

This site shows a few different features of WordPress which you can use when you think about your own class:

  • Comments are turned on. This means that outside viewers can comment on posts. We can customize sites so that comments are on, off, moderated or school users only.
  • She has a page as well as posts. WordPress has two different types of content: posts, which are chronological and are the default type of content. In addition, pages are meant to be more permanent (they never get pushed down by newer content). Common examples are an “About Me” page, “Important Resources,” or anything else that you think will be useful at any time.
  • Her page shows protected posts. These are posts which are marked private and need a password to access. This is a good way to have some posts be just between the student and teacher. While you wouldn’t want to do this with every post, there might be certain elements of a portfolio or student-led conference which shouldn’t be public.

Sarah’s full name is on this website. This is a little unusual for a student website, and not what I’d recommend as best practice. My personal suggestion and a common practice is to have students use their first names only. We set this as a default in WordPress, although students uploading their work to a digital portfolio may run in to trouble if their full names are on the work.

These posts are public. How many people access this site (and from where) depends on how it is shared and publicized, but these sites are searchable and accessible globally. Again, commenting can be restricted and individual posts can be private, but students are publishing their site for a real audience. Because of the public nature of the site, parent communication in advance goes a long way. I recommend sending a note to parents explaining what the blog is, why students are doing it, what personally identifiable information will be posted, and how they can subscribe to it or follow their student’s work. I’ve found that parent enthusiasm for being able to see their students’s work far outweighs concerns over public publishing.

Charles Wright Academy Digital Citizenship

This is an example of a different style of blog where the class creates one as a group. In this model, you can designate students to all be authors, while you retain the editing capacity, or you can appoint one or many students to be editors as well.

Charles Wright Academy 9th Grade Digital Citizenship

Charles Wright Academy 9th Grade Digital Citizenship

Writing online has some specific skillsets that you can embed into their work. These posts do a great job of demonstrating proper use of hyperlinks, for example– picking specific words or phrases which are supported by another webpage or external reference (instead of dropping the entire address into the text of the piece or the common “click here:”, which distract the reader and disrupt the flow of the writing). These posts use images to support their topics. Also, the “Scales of Justice” image is sourced, and from a site that provides images for free use. Proper use and sourcing of media is an important element of online publishing. We have lots of material to support this if you need help here.

Comments and Responses at Charles Wright Academy Digital Citizenship

Comments and Responses at Charles Wright Academy Digital Citizenship

The “Lady Justice” article has 3 comments, all of which model good discussion by asking furthering questions and referencing specific points in the article. In each case, the author has responded to the comments showing more depth of thinking.

Commenting Expectations at Charles Wright Academy Digital Citizenship

Commenting Expectations at Charles Wright Academy Digital Citizenship

Notice that the footer outlines expectations for the comments, reinforcing that blogging and online discussion should have expectations for quality.


Current Events in American Studies

American Studies - Student Blog

American Studies – Student Blog

Like with most of these sites, this site has a counter which shows the amount of traffic that a site has earned. There are a variety of these kinds of widgets which can show total traffic, current views in real-time, a global map of where readers are located, or other similar data. Since part of the appeal of blogging is publishing for a global audience, it’s really powerful to be able to show the “real audience.” In addition, WordPress has some tracking built-in which can show traffic for specific posts to see which articles get the most attention. We can also set up Google Analytics, which provides an incredible range of data regarding visitors to a website.

Amoureux da la Nourriture and Soccer Reviews Today

Under WordPress, there are a wide range of plugins and themes available to change the look and features of the site. These two pages have the same content and are from the same class, but have two different themes applied. Any themes and plugins that you want to use on your site have to be installed by the site administrator (me), but a quick search for free WordPress themes shows the incredible range of styles and designs available for your or your students’ sites.

Shakespearean blogging assignment, Amoureux de la Nourriture

Shakespearean blogging assignment, “Amoureux de la Nourriture”

Shakespearean assignment, "Soccer Reviews Today"

Shakespearean assignment, “Soccer Reviews Today”

Especially if you have students set up individual sites, you’ll want an easy way to keep track of all posts and comments. One of the reasons that blogs are so appealing is that you as a reader can subscribe and have updates go to you automatically as they appear– you don’t have to actively look to see if there are updates. If you use an RSS reader such as Feedly (free account), you can subscribe to both posts and comments from each of your students’ blogs. This way, you can take a quick scan through all of the recent activity and see what’s happened on all of the blogs in one place.


Reflective Journaling in Schoology with Discussion Threads

Turning on the "Individually Assign" icon opens up the "Assign to:" box.

Reflection is a crucial element of many modern pedagogical systems. Whether explicitly stated, as by Dewey, or implicitly embedded as part of a process in systems such as Design Thinking and PBL, modern pedagogies place a high importance on the ability for students to self-assess and build metacognition through reflection. I use a variety of reflective activities in my classes, and often they are built-in to a project design cycle. Aside from these more task-oriented reflections, I have students run a reflective journal that is more free-form. I will often ask them prompts which I hope strike a balance between being guided towards critical thinking while being open-ended enough to encourage personal, not formulaic, response. My staple, borrowed from a mentor early in my career, is the every-Friday “What Did You Learn This Week?” (and added to by another, “…and How Did You Learn It?”).

When I started with weekly or daily reflections, I would have students write a couple of sentences on scraps of recycled paper and hand them in. This was relatively quick to set up, although reading those scraps was a) hard to manage and b) somewhat unsatisfying in its closed nature: I could not ask a student to expand an idea or give more context or information. Especially with Friday reflections, I would have to remember to circle back to a student on Monday to ask more, at which point we both may have lost the context or even the original idea.

I’ve developed some guidelines to use online tools for reflection, and now use the discussion threads in Schoology (our LMS) as my basic reflective tool, and am very happy with the system I’ve concocted. Here are my guidelines on the reflective writing setup that I use, and how to build it within Schoology.

Some Guidelines

While different situations may call for differing types of reflection, I default to some basic conditions. Standard reflective activities in my classes are:

  • Private between student and teacher. Reflection is primarily an introspective activity, and students should be able to critically discuss failures and “what went wrong” as well as what went right. Especially early-on as students are learning to reflect critically, this should be visible to the teacher, but not to other students.
  • Able to start conversation/prompt follow-ups. If reflection is a skill to be developed, then giving feedback and asking follow-up questions is an important component of the teacher’s role in reflection.
  • Not graded/assessed. Reflective writing is often free-form and encourages brainstorming. I don’t want these to be assessed activities (although there are cases where I will assess larger, more structured reflection/self-assessment).
  • Chronological/Archived. Students should be able to see past reflections to identify trends and common occurrences, or to remark upon growth.
  • Contextual. Students should be able to connect reflective writing directly to learning activities or resources.

Building the Reflective Journal in Schoology

Using the Discussion tool, we can build individual discussion threads for each student that accomplish these priorities. Since activities in Schoology can be individually assigned to groups or individuals, I can create a discussion thread for each student, which only they will see. I will be able to see all of them, and quickly flip through to look at each student’s work. In addition, since it’s a discussion thread, I can ask follow-up questions, post comments, or even ask students to go back and comment upon past reflections as part of portfolio-building or end-of-unit wrap-ups.

First, I create folder called “Your Reflective Journal” (since students will only end up seeing theirs, I keep it singular).


In the folder, I create discussion threads for each student and title them with the student’s name (e.g. “Journal: Jeff”). When creating the discussion, I choose the Individually Assign option to bring up the “Assign To:” box.

Turning on the "Individually Assign" icon opens up the "Assign to:" box.

Turning on the “Individually Assign” icon opens up the “Assign to:” box.

I can assign the discussion directly to that student. Since the discussions are hypertext, students can embed files or links directly into their reflections. Sometimes our prompts are specific enough to expect an attachment or link, and sometimes students will do that in response to a more general prompt.

When it’s time to read through and see what students have posted, it’s fairly easy and quick to scroll through many in sequence. I open up the first journal in my folder, and skim through. I won’t always post comments or questions (although I do try to comment more in the beginning as we’re learning the skills of reflective writing). To move to the next journal in the folder, I use the “Next” button in the upper-right. While many people miss this navigation button, it makes it very easy for me to flip through my class.

Many people miss this! Go to the next item in your folder, in this case, the next journal thread.

Many people miss this! Go to the next item in your folder, in this case, the next journal thread.

While I haven’t done this in the past, I could go into Course Analytics at the end of a defined period and look at the relative participation levels of each student within their journals by looking at the number of posts. While I don’t assess these outright, using that data could be part of an individual conversation with students who are not participating.

Why Not a Blog?

Students (and all users) can have a blog within Schoology as part of their user account, and blogging is a common platform for reflective writing. As I listed in my priorities, though, I want these activities to be primarily private at this point. Our school settings are such that a student’s user blog can be read by other internal users, and that’s consistent with how I envision the Schoology blog feature being used: to write (perhaps reflectively) for an audience. Blogging is part of our Digital Media course, and students will delve into Social Media as a publishing tool through other activities and structures. As I view the reflection as primarily for one’s self, though, I think that this model (private, embedded within the course) is more appropriate.

How About You?

How do you facilitate reflective journaling or writing in your courses? Do you use a different tool or structure? Would you change something about this model to make it fit your students and course? Please comment or question below!

Say That to My Face?



A common concern of Digital Citizenship and online bullying is that many people view the “culture of the Internet” as one riddled with negativity and behavior that’s anti-social (if not outright sociopathic). The trolls and “lowest-common-denominator” debates that run below your favorite news site or online magazine scare away many teachers from using online publishing, forums or discussion boards in class. Why is it that behavior norms are so different online? An interesting structure came through this morning from 99U: “Born Hatin': Why Some People Dislike Everything.”

Psychologist John Suler proposed what is perhaps the best known analysis of the phenomenon in the Online Disinhibition Effect. It lists six primary factors as to why we may treat others differently online than we do in person:

  1. You don’t know me. Anonymity protects the critics “real life” reputation and shields them from retaliation and owning their actions.
  2. You can’t see me. Face-to-face interactions tend to have more empathy because we can see the person we are engaging with. It’s hard to feel ashamed when you don’t even know who’s affected. You’re just a screen to me, not a person.
  3. See you later. I don’t have to deal with your instant response, or even wait for it! I can dump my thoughts on you and never return.
  4. It’s all in my head. Suler argues that online interactions can distort reality. I can make up whatever attributes about you that I want, justifying my actions.
  5. It’s just a game. The overused response of critics who do sometimes get called out: “It’s just the Internet, man!”
  6. Your rules don’t apply here. This is the internet, where closing out a live chat isn’t rude, despite the fact that leaving in the middle of a conversation would be rude in real life.

Being able to lay these out for students could open up lots of interesting ways to engage with the norms of digital culture– role-playing, for example, or acting out example comment threads could be a great way to confront the gap between online speaker and listener (albeit a bit dangerous– manage this activity carefully). Using imagery or posters to create responses or counter-arguments to these points could form the basis of a school digital citizenship campaign.

These rules aren’t just about being online, though– I see some of these in play on a regular basis in the interactions between bike commuters/cyclists and drivers, for example (which got a great treatment in this Norwegian public safety video). Furthermore, the article presents this theory in context of a larger finding: some people are inherently “likers,” who are more inclined to respond positively to new ideas, while some are inherently “haters” who will find a reason to rate things negatively. “It paints a very clear picture: no matter what you create, a small group of people will hate it, often without reason.” This is another, equally important lesson at the root of all culture and society, digital or face-to-face: You manage your own behavior, and accept that you can’t be responsible for how some people act. The balance is to accept meaningful, productive or informed critique while recognizing and discarding the trolls and haters.

Do Suler’s six factors translate to your observations or experience with online publishing and discussion? Can you see a way in which you might want to use these as a coaching tool with your students? How do you coach giving and receiving online feedback? Join in the comments below!

Breaking One-sided Conversations: Reflective Journals and Discussion Forums

Reflective writing (both long-form and informal) has always been a staple of my courses. From an early mentor, I appropriated a weekly “What Did You Learn This Week?” Friday prompt. A third teacher in the same school modified that to “What Did You Learn This Week, and How Did You Learn It?” This is the form that I’ve been using most recently, but with a discussion forum instead of the little scraps of paper I used to collect. The goal of using a discussion forum is to move from a “reporting tool” to one for conversation. That process isn’t natural for my students, though, so I’m taking a different approach tomorrow…

The How-To

I used to collect these brief reflections from students on the way out the door on Fridays. Collecting them on paper posed some advantages:

  • It was very easy to see that everyone was doing the same thing at the same time,
  • It was a quick transition from any activity into writing during the last five minutes of the period, and
  • It was easy for me to quickly rifle through and scan them (although was this really an advantage?).

Mindful of these advantages, I wanted to move it to an online discussion forum model to take advantage of some additional possibilities:

  • Using an online tool preserves a student’s weekly reflections so that they can zoom out and look back at several weeks at a time. I need to explore this capability more.
  • Using a discussion forum allows me to reply to a student’s reflection to ask follow-up questions or validate good points. This is what I’m currently tinkering with.
  • Students can attach links or files to share as part of their reflection. As of yet, I haven’t built this out in class.

We use Schoology as our LMS, which allows for discussion forums which can be individually assigned to students. I create a discussion forum for each student, title it with their name, and assign it to them only. This ensures that no one else can see the forum (or, obviously, what’s in it). The reflections are now between the student and myself. I put all of these discussions in a separate folder within the course to keep myself organized. This also lets me use the “next” button within the Schoology interface to quickly navigate through lots of them in order.

I originally did this within Moodle, and many other LMS’s have the same capability one way or another.

Is Anyone Listening?

I am pleased with the quality of reflection that I get from students initially. Their posts fulfill my initial goal of getting them to think about how they learn their material and what sources were useful for them, as well as having them identify and focus on some of their achievements throughout the week. But what I get is often something like this (fictionalized response):

Student: This week, I spent most of my time working on using Masks in Photoshop. I found some great tutorials online.

Me: I’m glad that you found some useful resources! Are there any that you think would be useful for the class? Can you post them in the Updates section for everyone? Tell me more about the Masks that you used this week– what did you use them for? What did they help you do?

The thread ends, and gets repeated next Friday. I am asking unanswered (and potentially unread) questions.

Is it Grading, or Conversing?

I was wondering why I never got any replies to these questions. It’s certainly not that my responses are invisible– Schoology includes them in the notifications feed, which students check fairly often. They’re also all displayed inline when a student submits their next submission. So why are students not answering the questions sent to them? I think the answer lies in what they think they’re receiving: I think that we’re having a conversation, and they think that it’s feedback. Before we, as adults and professionals, say that “They’re the same thing!,” think about how the feedback process traditionally runs:

30 GOTO 10

For this to be a meaningful conversation, we have to break the association with grading/feedback so that students internalize that it is a conversation. As all of the students in the class are starting to blog, we’ve been talking about what makes a good blog comment, so it’s time to drive home the importance of using commenting as a way to continue a conversation, not just let feedback die on the vine. As authors of a blog, students should respond to the people wishing to have a conversation with them about their ideas.

Conversation Fail

I’m going to open class tomorrow with a short and utterly ridiculous dramatic reading with a couple of volunteers from the class. After we have (hopefully!) a few laughs, I’ll ask them to take a minute and discuss why blogs have comments. We’ve talked about what kinds of comments they’re hoping for in their blogs, so I hope that conversation comes back and we can use it to tie back to the idea of the reflective journals as conversations like the blogs, and not just feedback to be tossed and ignored.

(Google Doc Link – Share per license at bottom of post)

Speaking of Comments…

Do you use discussion forums or anything similar for your students? Do you find a similar lack of threaded conversation? How do you address this? Comment below!

WordPress Multisite for Class Blogs – Why WordPress?



  • WordPress MultiSite is not the easiest blog tool for your class, but it offers a lot of advantages:
    • Professional standard web software (for free!)
    • Good opportunity to model with your own blog or site
    • Students have ownership of their own site to use as permanent digital portfolio


Any teacher who wants to set up a class blog for them and their students has a multitude of free and easy tools to use. I’ve seen teachers with absolutely minimal tech expertise set up whole class sites in KidBlog, for example, in less than an hour and with minimal coaching. You can find great tutorials on setting up an easy platform to get you and your students rolling immediately. This is not one of those tutorials. Given so many quick and easy options, this is the story of deliberately choosing an awkward and slow one. For my Intro to Digital Media class, I decided to take WordPress’ new Multisite mode out for a spin. Today, the first of a series in how it works for my students and I. First, though, why on Earth did I choose WordPress when there were so many easier options out there?

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