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,
commonsense.org/education/videos/teen-voices-oversharing-and-your-digital-footprint.
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.

Student Voice and Preventing Plagiarism

An earlier AISL blog, “Engage to Prevent Plagiarism,” discussed resources and strategies to prevent plagiarism.  Encouraging students to engage with their topics and add their own voice was suggested by several authors as a method to prevent plagiarism (DeSena; Gilmore). One of my library objectives for this school year was to address the issue of plagiarism by guiding students to develop strategies and skills while also making the activities engaging for students and relevant to the curriculum. The following Preventing Plagiarism activity was a first step in helping students to make connections with ideas of others and to allow their own voices to be heard.

Engage with a Controversial News Story

Rather than confront students with a lecture on plagiarism, I collaborated with classroom teachers to connect a topical news story to their curriculum so that students could practice effective note taking and paraphrasing and be challenged to put their own spin on controversial topics.  Eighth graders in US History explored the Harriet Tubman $20 bill controversy.

Seventh grade ELA students examined an article on cloning (“Barbra Streisand Explains Why I Cloned My Dogs”) and compared motivations with ethical issues in their class novel The House of the Scorpion. (Streisand used a Texas company for the cloning procedure, so this made the news story more pertinent with our Texas students.)

Reasons and Examples of Plagiarism

After explaining that students would use the news story to practice paraphrasing to glean important ideas, we discussed the definition of plagiarism and the importance of respecting the words and ideas of others. In groups, students used “Think — Pair — Share” to identify the top three reasons students plagiarize.

Reasons most frequently identified included laziness, procrastination, concern over grades, and confusion about how to paraphrase and how to cite. This student brainstormed list was compared with a “Top Ten” list from Barry Gilmore’s book, Plagiarism: A How-Not-To Guide for Students (Heinemann 2009). Two items on Gilmore’s list that were missing in our students’ brainstorming were noteworthy: Student Culture and School Culture. We discussed the importance of creating a culture of learning in which ethical behavior is promoted and valued (both by students and educators/administrators) and the importance of students adding their own voices to the scholarly dialogue.

In order to show how the consequences of plagiarism and unethical behavior can escalate, we discussed that cases of plagiarism result in 1) teacher/parent conferencing and re-doing a project in the middle school; 2) impacting grades in high school; and 3) possible expulsion in college if a student is found to have plagiarized. In the business world, plagiarism could mean the loss of career. An example of a college student accused of plagiarizing is Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan, whose novel was accused of having plagiarized passages from another YA author’s novel; Kaavya lost a $500,000.00 two-book contract and movie deal. Jayson Blair is an example of a plagiarist in the business world; this New York Times journalist resigned after being accused of inventing interviews and posting over 37 plagiarized stories. (One of Blair’s fabricated interviews concerned a Texas family grieving their soldier son, so this struck a chord with our Texas students.)

To transition to the Preventing Plagiarism activity, students viewed the video Citation: A Very Brief Introduction (Library of North Carolina State University). The video animation illustrates how ideas build upon multiple sources: entering into a dialogue with multiple ideas allows students to make their own connections.


Make Connections with Multiple Viewpoints

The Preventing Plagiarism activity to evaluate the controversial news stories was adapted from a “Paraphrase Practice” activity in Barry Gilmore’s book, Plagiarism: A How-Not-To Guide for Students. During this activity, students

  • used the first two paragraphs of the new story to write a general summary
  • looked closely to identify an important sentence;
  • circled three to four important words to write a paraphrased sentence
  • and located one more important quote in the article to practice introducing a direct quote and citing with an in-text citation.

As eighth grade students read the NYT article to select their quote, they weighed multiple viewpoints. Was the decision to delay the Tubman $20 bill driven by 1) anti-counterfeiting safeguards (viewpoint of treasury secretary); 2) race and culture (viewpoint of Democratic Senator); or political correctness (viewpoint of President Donald Trump)? Students worked in groups of two so that they could talk aloud and tweak their paraphrased sentences (making sure the sentences were in their own words).  Eighth graders shared their sentences aloud, and we noted how individual student voices were evident in the results.

Seventh grade students followed the same paraphrase activity as eighth grade, but they used the NYT article about Streisand’s decision to clone her dog. Students then were challenged to look closely at quotes from a chapter in The House of the Scorpion to write a comparison/contrast paragraph discussing motivations of the character El Patron for cloning the boy, Matt.  Sentence stems were provided to aid students’ discussion:

Reflection on the Preventing Plagiarism Activity

As a short introduction to strategies for paraphrasing and citing sources, this lesson was successful.  This forty-five minute class did not allow for additional activities, but eighth graders could be challenged to research further the historical background of Harriet Tubman and Andrew Jackson as they weigh the question of “What do we value as we decide who is featured on U.S. currency?”  The seventh grade teacher suggested a Socratic discussion could be a follow-up activity as students discuss further the character motivations and ethics of cloning. This Preventing Plagiarism activity promoted interesting insights from students and provided an opportunity for students to listen to their peers and appreciate how each used a similar source of information and added their own voice.

Bibliography

Barry, Dan, et al. “Correcting the Record: Times Reporter Who Resigned Leaves Long Trail of Deception.” New York Times, 11 May 2003, www.nytimes.com/2003/05/11/us/correcting-the-record-times-reporter-who-resigned-leaves-long-trail-of-deception.html. Accessed 26 Aug. 2019.

“Citation: A Very Brief Introduction.” YouTube, uploaded by Libncsu, North Carolina State University, 23 July 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=IMhMuVvXCVw. Accessed 25 Aug. 2019.

DeSena, Laura Hennessey. Preventing Plagiarism. National Council of Teachers of English, 2007.

Farmer, Nancy. The House of the Scorpion. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2004.

Gilmore, Barry. Preventing Plagiarism: A How-Not-To Guide for Students. Heinemann, 2009.

Holt, Karen. “‘How Opal Mehta Got Kissed,’ Then Got Pulled.” Interview by Melissa Block. NPR, 28 Apr. 2006, www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5369768. Accessed 6 Oct. 2019.

Streisand, Barbra. “Barbra Streisand Explains: Why I Cloned My Dog.” New York Times, 2 Mar. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/03/02/style/barbra-streisand-cloned-her-dog.html. Accessed 26 Aug. 2019.

Zhou, David. “Student’s Novel Faces Plagiarism Controversy.” The Harvard Crimson, 23 Apr. 2006, www.thecrimson.com/article/2006/4/23/students-novel-faces-plagiarism-controversy-beditors/. Accessed 26 Aug. 2019.