Classroom Blogs Teach Others

Just because I teach students in a classroom in metro Atlanta doesn’t mean I can’t also provide a service to students worldwide. The following comment warmed my heart when it showed up on CEA Physics, the classroom blog I run:

I have no idea who you are, but i am in eighth grade in Texas and i am studying what you are studying and i have a big test i need to study for, but i lost my notes your website helped a lot. Thanks

That blog is a year old this week, so it’s cool that this comment came in at this time. While this is the first comment I’ve gotten from someone outside our class community, it’s not the first time an outsider has visited the blog. I follow the logs to see what kind of search queries land people at my front door. Plenty of them include the phrase “study guide” or “practice problems”. My guess is that students looking for material before a test hit up Google.

Regular readers from my classroom are expected. Readers from the outside are nice surprises. For my own blog improvement, two questions come to mind: how can I change the blog so an independent learner could take the course on their own? and How can I better engage these visitors? I’m glad it’s spring break now so that I can mull on these!

Oh, and by the way: If you wound up on this post because you Googled “physics study guide” and you don’t care a whit about teaching, here are my favorite physics resources on the web:

Blogging for the Classroom

My conceptual physics class blog is a huge help, both with lesson planning and keeping the students connected. I consider my class blog a huge success. The following are concrete tips I’ve learned in the last year as a classroom blogger.

Visual Interest is Key

No one wants to read page after page of text, especially high school students. Every blog post should include a photo or a video. The best blog posts I’ve written (based on the number of my students who read it without my prompting) include embedded video from YouTube.

I usually find YouTubes by searching for key words from the topic at hand. Recently, “roller coaster” yielded me great videos taken first person from the first seat on a coaster. These films helped me discuss Conservation of Energy with the students.

While I generally find my videos on YouTube, I’ve had better luck searching Google Videos to find them. Both Google Videos and YouTube are indexed there.

Of course, a ready-made video may not be viable in all circumstances. That’s when I look for a picture of whatever personality is up for discussion. Isaac Newton is a perennial favorite in my physics class. I always look for an interesting picture rather than the cliche portrait. For example, I chose the Newton portrait because he looked like a regular guy. Most portraits I’ve seen of Sir Isaac have him in a powdered wig, looking regal.

Separate the Classes

No, this isn’t a comment on castes. It’s about making life easy for your readers. As a teacher of two, three, or five different classes, it’s tempting to lump everything into a single blog. Don’t.

Make separate blogs, or separate categories, for each class. That way, your American History students aren’t stuck wading through information about the World History project to find their class notes.

If you use Blogger, as I do, create a labeling convention for each class. Something like “AmLit”, “BritLit”, and “WorldLit” will do. Then, write separate posts for each class, applying the appropriate label. The Google Tutor then explains how to show labels on your sidebar.

Format Consistently

I expect my students to read the blog at least once a week. Well-organized information makes their visits shorter and more productive. Over time, I’ve evolved the following class blog entry format:

  1. Title the entry with a descriptive word or two and the relevant dates. In Blogger, the titles show up under Previous Entries. There’s no room for longer descriptions, so don’t use more than two words. Also, my students often recall information based on when it was presented in class — hence the “Week of…” titles. A complete title for my blog could read “Machines (Week of Jan. 29 – Feb. 2)”.
  2. Lead off with an overview of the week. Keep this short and engaging. Too long and you’ll lose kids by the end. Connecting the lead to your class helps your students see themselves in your class — “remember when Johnny balanced the basketball on his finger while spinning it?”
  3. Visual interest in the form of a picture or video should go just after your lead.
  4. Notes or sample problems should also be included. Sometimes, this info is ready before class meets, so I’ll include it. Other times, I add it during the week as an update (and marked as such). All of my students know the notes are always available online, which reduces notetaking stress.
  5. Homework assignments go in the last section. I like to section homework away from the other stuff so that students can pull this info off the blog quickly. Use bold or colored text so it stands out.

Make it a Converstaion

I sometimes to engage my students directly on the blog, using the comments section. I’ve made it a homework assignment to post a comment to a specific question.

Structuring questions for commenting can be a challenge. A question with only one right answer doesn’t work well in this format because the first correct commenter effectively shuts down converstaion.

Be forewarned that the technical side of commenting isn’t always straightforward, so demonstrate the process during class.

Lesson Plans

My class blog is my lesson plan for a week at a time. Every week, I plan for the blog, then the blog provides a plan for me.

When I merged lesson planning and blogging I discovered that the blog entries got better and my lesson plans got more thorough. I think it’s because the information my students read is exactly what I’m working from. No information is lost because I said it just once in class.

Go For It!

Choose your blogging site and get publishing! I use and highly recommend Blogger for first time bloggers because it’s easy and free. Other teachers like Classblogmeister. This site uses the free, hosted WordPress.com.

Share with your students, with their parents, and with the world — blog.

Why I Now Leave Web Design to Others

On the EDTECH mailing list, I recently offered the following advice to someone asking for a free hosting service for teachers:

Any chance wikispaces or any of the free blogging sites would work? Unless the point is learning HTML, I find that either of these free options are excellent choices. They let the site builder focus on getting a product done rather than the process of producing a site.

That’s because I don’t think you should have to speak HTML to publish to the web.

Not that I always felt this way

I distinctly remember my first website, written about the time inline graphics were all the rage and Mosaic was the web browser. Websites were something for people who wanted to share information. There wasn’t a lot to HTML in those days, so putting a page up was fairly simple. You mostly could create paragraphs, headings, and links.

The early 90s were a lot like today — the learning curve to publishing on the web was relatively flat. I thought you needed to speak HTML, but — and this is important — there was far less to learn.

Somewhere in the late 90s, coding HTML became difficult. CSS styling is way cool, but it makes publishing a nice looking web page something a relative few people can do.

I continued to run my own web server at home and write all my HTML by hand in a text editor. I spent way too much time making the site look nice instead of publishing.

That’s when I gave it up and learned to love the hosted blog.

I realized recently that the point was what I was publishing, not how it was done. (And chances were that someone else could do a better looking job than me, anyhow.)

The problem now is that…

I merely fiddle with different technologies

Technorati tags, RSS readers, and blogrolls are my new HTML, CSS, and div.

So it seems I’ve come full circle, only the acronyms have changed 🙂

Plugging my nephew’s blog

Baby Eli, my nephew, is the subject of a great blog. And hey — I saw you comparing Nicole’s paragraphs to my measly sentences. No fair! Her kid isn’t even a year old yet. She’s still in the picture taking, write-it-all-down mode. Which is exactly why I love reading Nicole’s stuff.

ELE5, Confessions of Eli’s Mom

At right is a June 06 picture of Eli, playing the cowboy.

I visited them recently and got to watch Eli eat an avocado. Eat isn’t really the right word. Eli mashed the avocado slices, slid them around his high chair plate, then rubbed it around his mouth. Nicole assured me he usually ate it up happily. Right, Nicole, we believe you.

“I read your website about Rachel”

My email signature includes a link to this site. Plenty of folks I correspond with tell me they’ve checked out the site and really like it. Thanks!

I started Life with Rachel to share news of our lives with family dispersed all over the Eastern US. It’s my way of updating everyone on all those cute daily life moments. Moments that often don’t get shared unless we talk daily.

If you want to start a blog about you or your child’s life, here are some tips:
1. Think about privacy. This is your kid we’re talking about.
2. Consider a free blogging service. Blogger is free and quite useful.
3. Sign up for a free photo account like Flickr so you can share images with your readers.
4. Stick to your pre-established update schedule. People get out of the habit of visiting your site when you skip too many cycles. A post a week seems to work.
5. Use dialogue to put readers in the moment you and your child shared.

Have fun and let me know how it works out if you decide to try blogging!