Monday, October 27, 2014

Can a Classroom Blog Save Your Sanity?

students in the lab photo
When I landed my first LINC position just a few years ago, I learned that most instructors took their students to the computer lab once a week. My morning class was a special demographic--all over the age of fifty. They wanted to gain computer skills, too! They told me of their desire to see grandchildren's pictures on Facebook, set up email accounts so they could send and receive pictures, and even look for volunteer or paying jobs.

In my early capacity as teaching assistant, I had the opportunity to see how other instructors used the lab. One teacher would hand out a piece of paper with the URLs of sites her students were to visit during the class period. Each URL looked to be about a mile long with lots of dots, dashes, slashes and non-words. There was no way my seniors were going to be able to type those in without making errors. I knew I would spend the whole period responding to their pleas for help, hurrying from one station to the next, barely getting one person on the right website before another was once again staring at a flashing advertisement luring him to come play a free round of Slay the Dragon. Then it hit me. Why not use a blog? I could post a little message for them on the evening before lab day along with clickable links of quizzes, pages from talking picture dictionaries, and videos tied to the week's learning. It would be a buffet system whereby students would decide which activities they felt would be most helpful to them.

Well, it worked! A few had to learn to use a mouse, but after that, the only web navigation skills they needed were: clicking hyperlinks and using the back arrow to return to the list of links. With just a little time invested in familiarizing themselves with this routine, they were soon self-sufficient in the lab. No more running around for me! Not only that, but the blog has proven to be a place to showcase our achievements.

Not long after this, I happily inherited a LINC literacy class in the afternoon. These students had never visited the computer lab. Would a blogging platform also work to enable them to enjoy self-paced, self-directed learning? There was one way to find out. First, though, I had to create another web log just for them. There was no way that they could have made heads or tails of my other classroom blog. It was far too cluttered, the font too small.

Following "best practices" guidelines for creating literacy materials (no font smaller than 18 point, lots of white space, few choices), I created Kelly's Literacy Class. I replicated a practice that works very well for me in the literacy classroom: by establishing a somewhat predictable weekly routine, I enable learners' entire cognitive burden to be dedicated to the content to be learned while the directions for the task can go on autopilot. Thus students choose between Starfall and SpellingCity. Within SpellingCity, a student might opt to spend the entire hour trying to ace the spelling test on our week's words (which I loaded the night before). Or she might choose to explore a few of the games, such as hangman or Sentence Unscramble. I will have edited the sentences so that they are ones we have been working with all week.

I'm happy to report that this way of using a blogging platform to make computer lab day stress-free for the instructor has been so successful that my colleagues have almost all followed suit. The one teacher who used to avoid the lab at all cost now takes her class to the lab and has her own blog that is cleaner, more beautiful, and better organized than mine.

In spring of 2013, I was invited by TESL Windsor to present "A Classroom Blog for Beginners." Even though technology failed us that day when we overwhelmed the server, many participants have since approached me to let me know they are using their new blogs in the lab or classroom. I really appreciate that feedback! I also shared this idea during a literacy webinar and was thrilled to learn that one fellow ESL literacy educator was inspired to create her own literacy blog--and has since won an award, I might add!

This May I will facilitate a webinar on the same topic, this time aimed specifically at teachers of ESL literacy learners. I'll be sure to announce it on my website under WORKSHOPS as soon as the publicity comes out.

 Do you use a blog with students? If so, how? If not, why not?