A Few Creative Ways to Use Student Blogs
Cult of Pedagogy 2020-07-19
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When you hear the word “blog,” what do you think of? When blogs first started showing up on the internet, most were basically diaries, individual people’s personal musings on life. Although this is a perfectly legitimate practice, these early prototypes made many of us equate the word “blog” with something self-indulgent, writing that shouldn’t be taken seriously.
Since those early days the blog has really evolved as a genre: People have taken the basic framework of the blog and used it to build all kinds of useful, interesting things online. This evolution has given the blog limitless potential as a form of writing, and that’s just as true for student writers as it is for everyone else. So if you’re looking for a nice, meaty assignment, one that in previous decades might have been a research paper or an oral presentation, consider assigning a blog instead. It’s not only a highly relevant form of writing, but because it’s done entirely online and worked on over time, it would also lend itself beautifully to remote or hybrid learning.
To support you on this mission, I’m going to share six different kinds of blogs students could create, each of which could be written on thousands of topics and fit into plenty of different content areas. I’ll also explore some of the nuts and bolts—tools and practices that will help you do this work well. And finally, I’ll talk about how you might go about assessing student blogs.
Before we get into all that, let’s make sure we all understand our terms.
What’s the difference between a blog and a regular website?
Let’s start by defining our terms. A website is basically any online “container” that houses at least a few pages of content. It’s possible to have a website that consists of nothing but a single page, but usually those exist simply because the people behind them opted not to use any additional features.
Your dentist, most likely, has a website. Most of the restaurants, mechanics, churches, and gyms in your town probably have websites. These sites typically consist of just a few pages: a home page that lists some general information, hours, the address, etc, and then a few more pages that provide more detail on the goods and services offered by the business, the staff, and maybe the history of the place. That’s basically it. All of those pages are more or less static, meaning the information doesn’t change regularly unless something about the organization changes (new staff members, new menu items or services, etc.).
A blog is part of a larger website, and what makes it unique is that it is dynamic. It changes. It’s regularly updated to provide new material. Some companies, like the kinds listed in the previous examples, might decide to add a blog to their regular website for the purposes of educating their clients or helping their customers get to know them. For example, a dentist’s website might put out regular blog posts offering tips on home dental care, reviewing toothbrushes, or sharing before-and-after stories of patients who received special services like laser teeth whitening. In most cases, though, these blogs aren’t chock-full of content because they’re just a supplement to the main thing, which is to give the reader information about the business.
Some websites, like my own, are more heavily focused on the blogging side of things. Yes, my site has a few static pages—like the one where I introduce myself and my staff—but the vast majority of the content on my site is blog posts. These blog posts are not just general musings about life, though. I made the decision when I started my site that it would be focused solely on education-related topics, with the main goal being to write posts that help teachers do their work better. Every other week I put out a new blog post—along with a podcast episode—on a different topic.
The internet is full of sites like mine, websites that use a blogging framework to regularly share content for an audience that will be interested in that specific topic. Most of them wouldn’t even call themselves “blogs.” Instead, they’d see themselves as websites that are content-heavy. Those are the types of blogs I’m focusing on here, the kind I think our students should be writing.
Ideas for Content
What follows are six different ways students could use a blogging platform to produce a collection of content. In many cases, that “content” is writing, but in some cases, it is another type of media. These blogs could be done just for school, but if they’re good, if the students want to, and if their parents give permission, they could ultimately reach a wider audience and might even end up turning into a career.
1. The Single Project Blog
This would be devoted to documenting a project from beginning to end. It would include a description of how the idea came about, any research and planning that happened, progress on the project at different stages along the way, the final result, and impacts or outcomes after the project was over. If your school does a lot of project-based learning or offers a genius hour program or an innovation class, this type of blog would be a natural fit.
- A community service project, where the student or a group of students is doing something to serve the community
- A learning blog, where the student sets a goal of learning something, like a language, or developing a particular skill, like juggling, and documents progress along the way
- A build of some kind, where the student is creating a specific end product, like a mural, a piece of furniture, an app, a painting, etc.
- Any kind of trip or journey taken by the student or a group of students
- A performance or event, like a play, talent show, ceremony, or celebration
2. The Special Interest Blog
What are your students passionate about? This type of blog features an ongoing series of posts around a single topic. Ideally, the topic will be broad enough so that it can include some sub-topics as well. This type of blog would be a good fit for a social studies or science class, if you wanted students to focus on a topic related to your content area.
- A hobby, like skateboarding, gaming, traveling, any kind of music (as a player or spectator), or any sport (as a player or spectator)
- A cause, like environmentalism, racial justice, or animal welfare
- A historical period, event, place, or person
- A country or culture
- A skill area like cooking, woodworking, gardening, or any type of craft
- A health-related topic like nutrition, exercise, sleep, or mental health
- A musical artist, celebrity, movie franchise, or TV show.
3. The Portfolio Blog
This is designed to showcase a collection of the student’s work in one particular area. Along with each artifact, the student could also write an introduction or reflection on the piece to give insights into the creation process or their inspiration for the piece.
- short stories, poetry, chapters of a novel or memoir
- art (either digital art or photographs of paintings, hand-drawings, sculptures, and other mixed media)
- comic strips or graphic novel-style stories
4. The Journalistic Blog
Like a magazine or newspaper, the goal of this type of blog would be to tell stories about things that are happening now. These stories can include photos or videos to supplement the writing, or they can be focused mainly on photos or videos with minimal text. Stories can be short and “newsy” or longer, magazine-style feature articles.
- school-related news, either general or narrowed down to a specific angle, like sports, the arts, or even specific clubs
- community news, either general or focused more narrowly on specific neighborhoods, interests, or businesses.
- family news: Ideal for students who belong to large families where keeping up with individual family members’ milestones and life changes would help the whole family stay connected
5. The Review Blog
This type of blog would be comprised solely of reviews, where the writer (or group of writers) review new or established offerings in a particular category.
- movies or TV shows
- video games
- videos on TikTok, YouTube, and other platforms
6. The Advice or How-to Blog
On this type of blog, the writer would simply give advice or instructions on how to do things. The topics could come from real readers, or the site creator could just make them up based on common problems they know people have.
- relationship or friendship advice or how-tos
- academic advice or how-tos
- hobby or sports-related advice or how-tos
- technology how-tos
Nuts and Bolts: Making it Work
Choose a platform where students can build their blogs.
- WordPress is my recommendation if students want to use a well-established platform for free.
- Google Sites and Blogger are also free and may be easier, but they don’t offer as many features as WordPress.
- Edublogs is a good option for younger students, because it gives teachers more control over student blogs, privacy, etc.
- Some sites have age restrictions that do not permit users under a certain age, so be sure to check the Terms and Conditions and consult with your district IT department before launching a blogging project.
Choosing a Focus
Just like with a research paper or a presentation, a good blog will have a clearly defined focus. Here are some considerations:
- Many of the types of blogs listed here can be combined. A special interest blog might regularly feature posts that give reviews of products, for example. A portfolio blog might occasionally feature a how-to post about the skills being showcased.
- When choosing a topic, consider the target audience. Who are students writing for? Even if the blogs will not actually be shared with the public due to student age or general privacy concerns, students could still write for a hypothetical audience.
- Any of these blog types can have a personal angle if the writer chooses. Letting an audience get to know you as a person can make your writing much more compelling, and this kind of writing not only helps the writer reflect and grow personally, it can also be helpful to readers who connect with those experiences.
- One good way to determine whether a chosen focus is a good fit is to create a list of blog post topics ahead of time. If a student can’t come up with more than a few ideas, the topic might need to be broader. For example, if a student wants to write about skateboarding gear and doesn’t have many ideas for posts, it might make more sense to write about skateboarding in general; this will allow for more diversity in topics under that larger umbrella.
- It is possible for a person to have more than one blog at a time or multiple blogs over time. Not that you’d assign more than one, but knowing this and letting students know might help when they’re trying to decide on a topic and can’t choose just one. (By the way, it would be better to have two separate blogs on two different topics than trying to force them together on one site.)
Taking it Further
Students who want to go beyond school with their blogs might consider these add-ons and tips:
- Most blogs have social media accounts associated with them. This helps writers advertise new posts and build an audience. Many blogging platforms have tools built-in to link the blog to social media accounts, so readers can find your Instagram or Twitter feed from your blog, and vice versa.
- It’s also a good idea to have a clearly defined brand—this includes things like the blog title and tagline, the colors and typefaces you use for your blog design, the artwork you add to supplement your posts, even the kind of language you use in your writing (Is it formal? Casual? Does it include a lot of slang from the audience you’re speaking to?) This branding should be consistent in your social media as well.
- It’s possible to monetize most blogs if students have the desire, the drive, and the permission to do so. This revenue can come from advertising, from selling products through other sites like Etsy, eBay, Amazon, and others, or from affiliate marketing, where the blogger receives a commission for recommending products sold by other people.
- For a blog to be successful, it’s important to maintain a consistent schedule of posting—even if that’s once a month. Your readers will come to expect whatever schedule you set for yourself, and if you’re all over the map in your posting, that will make it harder to grow an audience.
Assigning and Assessing Student Blogs
Ideally, a student blog would be a long-term assignment, where students must come up with an idea and develop it over time, “submitting” the final blog for a grade, but getting a lot of feedback from you along the way as different posts are published.
When assigning a blog it’s important to define the criteria by which you’ll assess it. I strongly recommend you use a single-point rubric for assessing blogs; share the criteria with students ahead of time or better yet, co-construct the criteria with them.
Below are some criteria I think would be important to include in a rubric for student blogs. I’m sure there are many excellent blogging rubrics out there that address some characteristics I haven’t thought of, but this is what I have so far:
- Purpose and Audience: The overall focus is clearly defined and consistent throughout the blog. Individual blog posts have a clear focus that is consistent with the larger theme. The writing is directed toward a targeted audience that is consistent across individual posts.
- Development: The overarching topic of the blog is developed with posts that address sub-categories. Each individual post addresses a clear, specific idea and develops that idea with sufficient details.
- Organization: Posts are organized effectively with categories and tags, making it easier for readers to find what they’re looking for.
- Style and Tone: All posts are written in a style and tone that is appropriate for the audience.
- Effective use of multimedia: The writing is enhanced with images or video that expand on the content or relate to it in some way.
- Ethical and appropriate use of multimedia: Images, video, or music use complies with copyright and fair use laws. Appropriate credit is given to creators of other works. (See this post for more information.)
- Writing mechanics: Errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, and usage are infrequent and do not distract from the overall experience of reading and understanding blog posts.
- Technical functionality: All features of the site operate correctly to create a seamless, pleasant reading experience for readers. Links work as expected, elements that appear “clickable” work properly, and nothing from the “back end” (such as HTML coding that should not be visible to the user) shows up on the site.
It’s often said that people don’t read and write anymore, that all we do is mess around on our devices. But I think we’re still reading and writing all the time; the delivery systems have just changed. And one of the most popular delivery systems in the 21st century is the blog. Regardless of what line of work our students go into later in life, there’s a high probability that they will be reading or writing blog posts as part of that work. Let’s embrace that: Instead of keeping it separate from school, let’s bring it in and give our students opportunities to get really good at it.