[CROSS-POST] How I Turned Independent Reading Into Interactive Blogging

My friend and colleague, Erica Speaks (@TeachingSpeaks) has published a fantastic post about the goals and outcomes that come out of our “book reviews to blogs” system.  She’s graciously allowed me to cross-post it here.

Blogging – writing with a real-world audience – has become an important staple in my reflective practice as an educator, but also in my instruction.  Besides authoring this professional blog about teaching, my students blog about the books they choose to read independently. Reading and writing for real purpose with an open reflection and engagement of ideas with an audience of peers is as powerful for students as it is for professionals.

My students write reviews of books they chose to read on the class Reading Blog. I’d tried many different approaches to independent reading over the years, from traditional book reports and presentations, to book talks and reading logs.  These are very typical of any English Language Arts (ELA) classroom, though I’d always designed my own reading logs, project menus and rubrics. However, for the last several school years my students’ blogging has had a powerful impact for my classroom independent reading.

Publishing independent reading reviews has made my students’ analysis of their reading interactive and authentic in several ways. First, when written on paper as a reading log or project and submitted only to me, spelling and punctuation sometimes seemed an afterthought. However, when published in front of their peers and the world, most students make a genuine and concerted effort to apply conventional spelling and grammatical rules, showing their best work. This has changed the dynamic of my students as viewing themselves as “published writers”. 

The “search” option allows visitors to the Blog to search titles, authors, topics, and even friends’ names to see what they are reading. (Students often post comments to each other about the reviews, although this is optional.) Because middle schoolers are social by nature, the ability to see what their friends are reading and reviewing is a powerful motivating force to read.

Several authors have contacted my students about the reviews about their novels by posting a comment directly to the students on the blog. For example, the 2014 Newbery Award winner Kate DiCamillo responded this past November to one of my very own students!  No doubt googling their own book title, authors arrived at my students’ reviews and felt compelled to reach out to the young adults who reviewed their works. For all these reasons, this Independent Reading Blog is the very definition of interactive and authentic work by a middle schooler.Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 11.43.01 AM

To reap these benefits and make the switch to paperless book reviews shared to the world, I used the free and open source blogging tool “Wordpress” and I created a blog for my students. The structure of the submission form creates the post. Drop-down menu choices become where each review appears in the blog’s menu. (image) Anyone visiting the site can search all “fantasy” reviews or all “five star” reviews written by my students. The same book may appear in the five star reviews for one student, but another student’s review of the same book might appear with the three-star reviews, if that is how each child rated the book.Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 1.17.42 PM

Students can easily research what their peers are reading, and even use that information as a point of inspiration for what to read next. All of the reasons stated make reading interactive with their peers and this social aspect is very important to young adolescents. By designing this blog for my students “from the ground up”, creating a product similar to Shelfari or Goodreads but with my students’ specific needs in mind, it has revolutionized my instruction.

Turning Independent Reading into Interactive Blogging

The following post is part of a collaborative effort with Erica Speaks (@TeachingSpeaks), and you can find her discussion of the benefits of this activity for student learning on her blog, Teaching Speaks Volumes.

As Will Richardson pointed out in the original edition of “Blogs, Wikis, and Podcasts“, student work benefits from the presence of a real audience.  Students are motivated to work harder and gain meaningful feedback from others when they publish their ideas and efforts in an online forum.

But, the technical barriers to setting up a blogging experience for students can be daunting.  Even educators with experience themselves blogging, or publishing other online work, may struggle to find an effective and streamlined way for students to put their writing on the web.  But, the advent of turnkey blogging platforms for education (like Edublogs) and simple tools for collecting student writing (like Google Forms) has made this task much simpler.  I present here a four-step method that any teacher can use to turn old-fashioned book reports into online book reviews that encourage authors to interact with their adolescent readers.

1. Create a blog: The video below illustrates the simplest method (in my opinion) using the free WordPress.com service.  Edublogs is a hosted version of WordPress that is specifically designed for classrooms, but you need their “Pro” level paid service to activate the “post by email” feature that makes this process much simpler.  So, I recommend going to WordPress.com as a free alternative.  After creating the blog, you can customize the site to include a school or district logo, or just tweak the colors to make it more appealing.  Note: Any blogging platform that supports the “post by email” feature will work for this purpose.

2. Create a form: The video below demonstrates how to use Google Docs to create a form that collects the information that you find important.  Keep in mind that some of the collected information will be used to generate the blog post, but other information (e.g., student identifying details) can be kept off the blog and only viewable by the teacher for the purposes of assessment.  Feel free to start with my template, but be sure to go to the File menu and Save a Copy before editing it.

3. Use a plugin to convert the submitted form into an email message: Here I explain how I used formMule to perform this function, including the important step of matching the format that WordPress.com accepts in their Post by Email feature.

4. Create a submission page on the blog: The final step is to embed the Google Form on a page of the WordPress.com site that is password protected so that only your students can submit blog entries.  You can moderate all entries so that no unauthorized submissions get published as blog posts.

Tips and Troubleshooting

  • If the blog posts are not showing up on your blog, start by checking that the form is saving information.  Do this by looking at your Responses spreadsheet in Google Docs.  If entries are found there that are not posted on the blog, move on to the next bullet.
  • Next, go to the Dashboard for your WordPress.com blog and go to the All Posts area.  Check to see if the posts are sitting in Draft form or otherwise waiting to be published.  You may need to tweak the language in the formMule template to get the blog posts to be published automatically.
  • Be aware that the author of the post will be you.  The blog post author’s name will match the name of the WordPress.com account that activated Post by Email.  You may want to adjust the official name on that account to look more like “Student Blogger” or something similar.

My First Month With My Apple Watch

IMG_0806As an Apple Store employee, I was fortunate enough to purchase one of the new Apple Watches and receive it about a month after it first started shipping.  Over the past four weeks, I have tried to observe closely the benefits and disadvantages of the new device.  Here are my top five takeaways:

    1. As Matthew Inman (of The Oatmeal) pointed out in his much more entertaining piece about his Apple Watch, it is a passive device that is not designed for creating content.  In fact, the spectrum from most creative (but least portable/convenient) Apple device to least creative (and thereby most portable/convenient) would have the iMac or Macbook on one end and the Apple Watch on the other.  But that tradeoff doesn’t make one device better than the other, only better suited to certain purposes.
    2. It is unnecessary gadget for almost everyone.  No one needs an  Apple Watch.  Let’s just get that out of the way.  But, as a timepiece and a tool for making my iPhone more useful, it is really handy.  As a teacher, I don’t like to pull out my phone even to perform professional duties, like adding Experience Points in Classcraft or sending an email to a student.  In truth, I want to model for my students how to engage with other people despite my own unhealthy obsession with electronics.  The Watch lets me feed my desire to stay connected without drawing my attention for long periods of time.
    3. The Taptic Engine that provides Apple’s brand of haptic feedback is amazing.  Until you actually wear an Apple Watch, it is difficult to understand how subtle and effective the notifications are.  No one around me knows that I have received one and it doesn’t interrupt nearby conversations.  This has led to the odd (for me) experience that many of my close friends and co-workers don’t even know that I own the Watch.  It’s not something that asks for attention.
    4. Digital Touch is a fun and interesting way to interact with others.  Unlike text messages (and much more like Snapchat) the taps, sketches, and heartbeats don’t remain on the watch after they are viewed.  It is an ephemeral yet personal way to communicate and I see a lot of potential as more people purchase Apple Watches, in the same way that AirDrop and iMessage became killer tools once iPhone adoption reached a certain level.
    5. I am a lazy dude.  That is a fact.  I have tried using a Fitbit to track and thereby encourage more physical activity, but it didn’t work for long.  For me, the tradeoff between getting exercise feedback and having other benefits of a true watch was a difficult one.  Now that I can get all of that on one device, I find myself sticking with it a little bit more…. for now.

That’s right, I went to bed like this. #selfcontrol #littlejoys #365project

A photo posted by Paul Cancellieri (@mrscienceteach) on


Do you have an Apple Watch?  Share what you’ve learned from it.  Have another wearable and want to share your opinion? Use the comments.

“Technology is a tool, which when used correctly, can assist a teacher in transforming instruction. However, technology will not transform instruction without a teacher creating engaging, interesting activities for students.”

-Mark Samberg in his recent piece “Why I’m Done With SAMR”

Speaking of guys (sorta) returning to blogging.  I am 90% in agreement with Mark here.  It’s not SAMR that is the problem, but rather the way that BIG ED steals good ideas and turns them into bad ones using testing.

BTW, I’m linking to my Instapaper version of the post because I keep getting a malicious code warning when trying to visit it on marksamberg.com.

“That makes blogging a fundamentally selfish act. The real value of the hundreds of hours that I spend behind the keyboard every year isn’t the content that I’ve shared with you. Instead, it’s who I’ve become as both a teacher and a thinker as a result of the effort that I put into every post.”

-Bill Ferriter in his blog post entitled “Why Blog?”

I hate it when it feels like he’s writing to me about what’s already in my head.

It’s creepy.

Not Talking About It

67865829_18e7655583I could use this space to comment on the almost-six-month absence of blog posts here on Scripted Spontaneity.  I could apologize to the few loyal readers that this blog has left.  I could promise to be more consistent in the future.  I could even try to explain away all of that time with stories of second jobs and new priorities.

I won’t.

Instead, I’ll just get back to the work of sharing and reflecting here as if nothing has happened and no time has passed since the last post.

Sound good?

photo credit: Talk Shows On Mute via photopin (license)

Diagnosing Gerrymandering

The_Gerry-Mander_EditThis one is a bit off-topic for this space, but it is an issue that I care about deeply.  A recent piece by my local NPR station (WUNC) drew my attention.

Researchers in the Math Department at Duke University used a computer simulation to draw congressional districts in North Carolina and compare the outcomes to what actually happened in 2012 with the districts that were gerrymandered carefully drawn by the General Assembly following the 2010 Census.

The results are not really surprising.  The majority of state voters selected Democratic candidates for seats in the legislature, but the outcomes actually favored Republicans with more than twice as many of them winning their elections.  The research showed that this does not match the “desires of the voters”.

It certainly seems like this tool can be useful for diagnosing the effects of gerrymandering.  Maybe someday we’ll have a bipartisan commission to decide district boundaries.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia