Getting connected: online & with community members
What if there was a way to spend less time grading your students’ writing, while also providing a valuable writing experience for them?
What if there was a way to bring interested, wise community members into your classroom on a regular basis? I think I discovered a way: student blogs with readers from the local community.
Allow me to back up.
This year, I had planned to teach The Great Gatsby to a small group of 9th and 10th graders.
However, given the political climate we’re living in, I shifted.
Instead, I chose to teach the new young adult novel by Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give, which provides a rich platform to discuss issues around race and injustice. The protagonist is an African-American teenager who experiences her (black) male (unarmed) friend killed by a white cop, so the novel’s themes include racism, identity/code-switching, female friendship, and sustaining community, among others.
Moving beyond the “Page on a Passage”
As I planned the unit, I decided I wanted something other than the usual brief reading response assignment that I call, “Page on a Passage.” I wanted a writing task that would be authentic, that would still be rooted in textual response, and that would allow for rich discussions. I decided to ask students to create individual blogs that would be read by community members. It turned out to be a wonderful opportunity for students to practice tech skills, writing, and best of all, communicate with a more authentic audience.
Here are the steps I took to get this project underway:
- Contact adults who like to read and who might enjoy reading student writing.
- Send a mass email to all of these adults (bcc works best). Give them a sense of the time commitment, the novel’s content, and general expectations as a reader. I call their role: “an engaged consumer.”
- As you get responses from community members, make a chart to make a list of readers, then assign a student to each adult.
- Alert your students and give them clear guidelines for blogs.
- Help students create their blogs (I used Blogger).
- Then write an introductory email to all readers once you have them on board; share the chart with student blog links.
- Write prompts for the students’ blog entries.
- Once you’ve assigned a blog post, send email reminders to the community readers.
- Thank the community readers (repeatedly).
In the four-week unit, I assigned four blog posts.
Each one asked students to use the recently assigned chapters to comment on a theme or a concept we’d learned (like double consciousness) and often to take it further and connect it to their own lives.
Here’s one blog post prompt:
“One recurring theme in The Hate U Give is the power of the voice.
In this blog post, you will be asked to find a passage from the reading that you completed for Friday (2/2) or Monday (2/5) that exemplifies this theme. Be sure to quote a section from the book (remember to include the page number) and clearly explain what this has to do with the power of voice.
- What is the message that we are being told about the voice?
- Why is it important?
- Do you agree?
Next, connect this theme with your life.
- What is one time that you have spoken up against something that you felt was wrong, or for something that you believed in?
- Have you ever stayed silent when you wish you could have spoken up?”
In general, I was very pleased with this project, and I would definitely do it again.
At first, I had some concerns that the community readers weren’t familiar with The Hate U Give, but this proved to not matter so much. In some cases, the students’ responses even inspired the adults to read the book.
For instance, this communication between one student blogger and his adult reader was honest and fruitful.
I was also concerned that the adult readers wouldn’t have too much to say, especially if a student didn’t give them too much to go on. But this fear proved to be inconsequential as well, as I was thrilled that the readers gave all kinds of responses — from simple encouragement to relevant quotes from their own reading.
I loved that my students were hearing from new people, with their own fresh perspectives and questions:
Even with the authentic audience, I decided to assess the students’ blog posts, just to keep them accountable.
I used a simple 3-column rubric to quickly assess substance of their reflection, connective thinking, and timeliness of their blog posts.
Finally, this blogging led to an efficient, comfortable process for sharing each other’s responses to the novel. Especially with a group of introverted students who tended to get quiet in class discussions, it was helpful to use some class time to read and comment on each other’s blogs.
So, sometimes (just sometimes) it helps to figure out how you can step out of the role of reader, and find others who have a fresh perspective.
If I did this again, I would expand the blog sharing to another classroom — ideally African Americans students — in order to deepen the perspective building and empathy that this novel so powerfully encourages.
At the end of the unit, students created collages or other visuals that illustrated an important theme or passage from the novel, and I asked them to include those as a final blog post.
Here are a couple of those visuals: