Putting Students at the Center of Learning: Student Blogs

“If students do not develop a valuable relationship to the things they study in school,
their relationship with their teacher will not have accomplished its full purpose.
This challenges (teachers) to resist the desire to be the center of the story….”
Doug Lemov in Teach Like a Champion 3.0 (Jossey-Bass, 2021, pp. 103-104)

How do you measure student success as a learner? The AASL Standards for Learners echo Doug Lemov’s comments: “Put the learner at the center, focus on growth…and enable learner voice, choice, and agency” (AASL, National School Library Standards for Learners, School Librarians, and School Libraries. ALA, 2018, p. 124). Educators provide a variety of learning experiences that offer opportunities for student inquiry, exploration, and growth as a communicator; however, student blogs have the potential to engage students with personal choice, critical and creative thinking, and decision-making skills through the creation and sharing of digital content for an authentic audience. In addition, student blogs offer librarians exciting ways to guide students in developing skills as ethical communicators and digital citizens.

Video Bloggers Characters Flat Set. Britannica ImageQuest, Encyclopædia Britannica, 2 Nov 2020.
quest.eb.com/search/186_3417278/1/186_3417278/cite. Accessed 28 Jul 2022.

Several years ago I challenged sixth graders to create their own mock-up of a blog. In this article I will share some details from that early exploration with student blogs, and then I will share additional ideas on how to expand the project, inspired by a summer conference presentation by educator Allyson Spires, Principia Middle School.

The Martha Payne Story and Digital Citizenship
Sixth graders were introduced to blogs through the story of nine-year-old blogger, Martha Payne, and her blog Never Seconds. This news show video and Guardian article provided the background story of Martha Payne’s blog. Students viewed the global response to Martha’s blog on this blog page, which shows photos of school lunches shared by students in Japan, Israel, Brazil, Spain, and Chicago. As students viewed the video and read the article, they were asked to think about the following:

  • How Martha identified her passion (Love for journalism and interest in writing about
    school lunches. She planned to post photos of her daily lunches and rate them.)
  • How Martha’s father helped her to ethically set up the blog (Discussed idea with the
    school for their permission before setting up the blog.)
  • How Martha safely set up the blog (Father set up the blog and she used the name VEG to protect her identity.)
  • How Martha reacted to public response (Excited response from community, even globally, as other students emailed Martha photos of their school lunches. Later, Martha’s school demanded that she shut down her blog because of critical reaction to the quality of the school lunches. After a strong reaction from the community in Martha’s defense, the school backed down and allowed Martha to continue her blog.)
  • How Martha used her “brand”–the popularity of her blog (Over 10 million “hits” to her blog website. Martha set up a “JustGiving” page for Mary’s Meals–a kitchen to serve free breakfast to students in Malawi. Donations raised £131,666.79.)

After reflecting on the success of Martha Payne’s blog and the charitable donations to provide nutritious meals to children, students also viewed the STEM Kids Rock website. These teen articles describe how members promote science discovery and outreach to the community. The mission of STEM Kids Rock: “We’re inspiring the next generation of STEM leaders through our Free Mobile Science Centre that is powered by kids.”

Creating Your Own Brand
Both Martha Payne and the teens of STEM Kids Rock created a memorable brand for themselves by following their passions and expanding outward in efforts to benefit others. For the blog project, students were asked to consider the following: What could be your brand? What passion could you share to engage the interest of an audience? Using Google Slides, students were challenged to create their own mock-up of a blog. (See slides for a template and a sample “Book Ends” blog–note that links are not active in this sample template mock-up.) The resulting student blogs reflected an array of interests: food recipes, sports highlights, car models, pet tips, superhero movie reviews (including an article “Most Anticipated Sequels that Never Came Out”), and art blogs (featuring an article “There’s No Such Thing as Too Much Art!”). These sixth grade students commented that creating a blog was one of their favorite projects. Because of a short time-frame (four class periods) for the project, a community outreach aspect of the blogs was not explored.

Re-Imagining Student Blogs: Choice and Voice
This summer I attended the STLinSTL summer conference, and a presentation by Allyson Spires, “Choice and Voice,” reawakened my interest in student blogs. Allyson Spires, a language arts teacher at Principia Middle School, developed a blog unit over a five-week period. She began the unit by challenging students to think about their knowledge and passion: What are your interests outside of the classroom? How would you share those with others? Students used Wix templates (wix.com) to create their blogs, and every aspect of the site was password protected (sites were shared through a link with the teacher and students could also choose to share the link with family and friends). Allyson Spires also used this Blog Evaluation so that peers could appraise the blogs and offer helpful comments for the bloggers. Students also considered how a blog could be a vehicle to spur positive action. View the Teen Activist resource list compiled by Allyson Spires (note that some titles are appropriate for high school readers).

Student Blogs: Next Steps
This Fall I plan to revive the student blog project with a seventh grade Creative Writing class. If possible, students will use Google Sites to create a private website for their blog and share the link with the teacher as well as family (if they wish). Students will have their choice of creating a blog that features an Indelible Moment or a blog that explores a Personal Passion. This criteria will be used to evaluate student blogs.  Beyond the creation of these blogs, students might choose to share their Indelible Moment or Passion article with the school community during their Language Arts class or during our weekly assemblies (each seventh and eighth grade student develops a personal essay that is shared during the assembly).

Final Thoughts on Blogs: Four Pitfalls to Avoid 

  1. Whose Blog is This? Student agency should drive the blog (not teacher-driven).
  2. Just Another Wiki? The blog should not be an info dump; instead, the blog reflects critical thinking and careful curation; the discussion of ideas shows new connections. 
  3. It’s All About Me? Blogs should illustrate (with a touch of humility) what has surprised the writer in the learning process AND what still needs to be explored or learned (new questions that arise). How has this experience or passion affected your life, your attitudes, and how have you grown as a learner? 
  4. You Said What? The blogger should be open to a lively exchange of ideas and allow the conversation to clarify ideas and enlarge perspectives. Remember that some commenters may criticize, but be thoughtful in your own responses. Dialog with ideas, don’t attack the person.

The goal of this re-envisioned blog project is to immerse students in a thoughtful use of digital tools to communicate to a wider audience. Empowering student choice and voice builds skills that will help students to become critical thinkers, creative problem solvers, engaging writers, and respectful, ethical communicators. And who knows, for some bloggers this experience may be the beginning of positive action in the community.

For further reading and viewing:
Melly, Christina. “Can We Blog about This? Amplifying Student Voice in Secondary
Language Arts.” English Journal, vol. 107, no. 3, 2018. Accessed 25 July 2022.

“Oversharing and Your Digital Footprint.” Common Sense Education,
Accessed 25 July 2022.

“Profiles of Generation M2.” YouTube, uploaded by Kaiser Family Foundation,
youtu.be/rUOOAbTu07A. Accessed 25 July 2022.

“What’s in Your Digital Footprint.” YouTube, uploaded by Common Sense Education,
youtu.be/4P_gj3oRn8s. Accessed 25 July 2022.

Leaving Digital Footprints…and other thoughts from 6th graders

I’m officially a librarian for students in grades 7-12 and I realize this is Upper Division week on the blog, but I can’t stop thinking about a lesson that I taught to 6th graders last week. I’m hoping you can offer advice or feedback based on your own experiences with middle and high school students. It’s important to know that our school has four divisions, so 6th graders are the oldest grade in our Intermediate School. (Middle school is 7-8, and high school is the traditional 9-12.) This has the effect of keeping the 6th graders younger a bit longer.

The Tech Department collectively teaches the 6th graders a technology class twice a week. It lets the students get to know us, and we can provide a variety of topics based on our areas of expertise that keep technology exciting for them. Sample topics include blogging, video creation, and advanced search techniques. I teach a one-week unit on digital citizenship. The students had already spoken with another teacher about digital footprints and online tracking, and they followed up to that teacher’s class activity by searching for themselves online. In reading their private kidblog posts to prepare for class, I found posts like the following three. (Remembering that they are 6th graders being asked to blog in the last five minutes of class, so spelling and grammar aren’t always perfect.)

 When I looked up my name in Google Images my Instagram profile picture came up and I thought,”well that’s a little weird.” So then I went to web and It came up with my Wildcats football team, my [name of local park] basketball team, where I live, and my school and I think that’s even weirder. I sorta liked it and sorta didn’t. I thought that it was weird that people were allowed to that and why? I just thought it was strange and unnecessary.

I am not quite sure how I feel about digital footprints. Someways it is good, but someways are bad. I think it is good in case you don’t know your phone number or address, you can just search up your own name, and it would show you all your information. But, I am not sure i feel all that comfortable with anyone who looks up my name to know my name, number and where i live. I don’t like to know that people know all my personal information and everything else about me.

I think my digital footprint would say that I play tennis and skiing and minecraft. I think that my digital footprint could be different though because there are other people with the same name as me! I feel good and bad because bad because people can find me and try to hurt me or something like that or they could hack my accounts! I feel good that I have a lot out there about tennis but I don’t like the fact that there is information out their that is not true about me! I feel like they should not be able to post things about people that may not be true! When I searched my name on the internet a there were a bunch of pictures of criminals and wanted people on there.

This is heavy stuff, and it contrasted with most of what adults are writing about digital natives: the erosion of privacy, the willingness to share, the comfort with constant connection, etc. These were kids who were anxious about technology’s presence in their lives and what it meant for their own safety. Beginning with an open-ended question, the kids jumped first to the fears of not getting into college because a friend might sabotage their chances by posting an inappropriate photo of them. They are also very concerned about being mistaken for other people who share their name and “why Google doesn’t care if what it is posting is true.” (Golden opportunity to talk about what Google does and does not do!) However, they soon turned to the fear that maniacs might start coming to their sports games with plans of kidnapping them. A new direction was clearly needed, so we transitioned to a conversation about cartoon profiles, acceptable image editing, and the best ways to email a teacher if you fall behind on your homework.

I entered their classroom with questions that were never fully answered. Most importantly, Are we using “scare tactics” in the younger grades to keep children from posting too much? Sixth grade is when many of our students start getting social media accounts, and I believe that it’s much more realistic to teach about privacy settings and empathy towards one’s peers. Even if they are currently uncomfortable with their own digital footprints that have been created for them by the profiles they have and the teams they are on, they will begin to post information about themselves over the next three years. In most cases, “stranger danger” from psychopaths is not the immediate concern; bullying, both actively and by exclusion, is a danger in far too many schools.

Like many adults, I will quickly say that I’m happy my teen years passed before technology was ever-present. I reinvented myself throughout my teen years, sometimes even with different groups of friends on the same day. Technology researcher dannah boyd has said that what teens most desire is connection with other teens and a chance to discover themselves, and this will occur with or without technology.

My questions to the group are two-fold.

How do you teach internet safety in your school in a way that promotes self expression, creativity, and safety?

How do you approach the subjects of parents who set vastly different rules and expectations for Internet use and social media presence, particularly in the middle grades when tweens are just starting out and need both safety guidelines and freedom?