Education, Technology

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 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 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 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 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 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 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.

Killing Me Softly

“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.


Is it hiatuses or hiatii?

I seem to make a habit of taking unexpected time off from blogging and then apologizing when I return.  Every six months or so, I get busy or lose focus or just get tired.  Weeks later I crawl back to this page with my hat in my hand.  I plan to break that habit right here and now.

I have come to realize that blogging is a selfish activity–I blog to develop my writing skills, to learn from others, to explore current issues in education, and (occasionally) to vent frustration.  I do it because it feels good and, to be honest, it feeds my ego a bit.

Of course, I hope that others benefit from my writing.  I hope that Scripted Spontaneity provides a forum for discussing matters of interest to educators, parents, and others.  I try to respect all opinions and ask interesting questions.  But, in the end, it’s all about me.

And, for that reason, I am just going to get back to blogging without any fanfare… because I need it now and I haven’t needed it over the past couple of months.


Looking into the crystal ball

from Flickr user just.Luc

This time of year, the blog posts practically write themselves.  Next week, I’ll have to put together a Top Ten list or two, but this week will be all about the future.  I’m not, by my nature, a retrospective person.  I don’t enjoy reading history books much and I rarely even glance in my rearview mirror while driving.  I’m a guy who likes Mondays more than Fridays because of the limitless opportunities that lie in the week ahead.  Call it blind optimism or just a sunny outlook, but I am the ultimate morning person.  The day always looks best by the light of dawn, and that’s how I prefer to view the world.  I know… it’s sick.

And so, in this spirit of forward-thinking and optimism, here are the Future Five that I plan to do in 2011.

#1: Implement WordPress ePortfolios

The incredibly awesome Sam Morris introduced me to the idea (while he helped me install WP as our school’s web platform last summer) of students blogs as electronic portfolios, showcasing their work and creating conversations leading to reflection and growth.  With his school’s Discovery Blogs as a model, I plan to roll out blogs for every student on my hallway as they arrive in July.  Staff members will teach students how to use them (working in some Internet safety lessons along the way) and will use them for assessment and student-led conferences.  Within five years, I hope to make this a school-wide initiative.  The potential is amazing!

#2: Improve traffic to Scripted Spontaneity

I’ve already seen a jump in visitors since I adopted the soon-to-be-patented Bill Ferriter method.  More visitors means my voice is heard by more and I get more push-back from commenters.  It helps me to better express myself and craft new ideas for self-improvement and professional development.  This is why I love my PLN!  How do I get there?  By posting regularly (twice weekly) and varying the length, format, and topic of my posts.

#3: Interact with Other Blogs More

This is one that I’ve already begun to work toward.  It is so important to engage the blogosphere, both personally and professionally.  I find that the conversations that arise from blog comments on various education blogs can have as powerful an effect on me as item #2 above.  By setting aside a few minutes twice a week, I can become a more generous member of my PLN and return the favor that so many Scripted Spontaneity readers have made to me.

#4: Get Published in a Professional Journal

I’ve spent several months mulling over the publication requirements for the professional magazines of several organizations to which I belong.  I have come to realize that no matter how successful #1 is, I will do much more to heighten my professional reputation and broaden my horizons by having my writing and ideas appear in print.  To this end, I plan to submit several manuscripts over the first half of the year.  I won’t give up until my name appears on a glossy page.

#5: Fully Adopt the 5E Model for my Science Lessons

The 5E model has been around for many years, and doesn’t really represent anything earth-shattering.  But, its constructivist structure is powerful and engaging for students.  I have made use of it sporadically in the past, but I plan to build every unit around this cycle that includes Exploration, Explanation, and Evaluation.  It doesn’t just teach science content, but also models the scientific method for students, which is a critical piece of 21st century instruction.

So, there it is: my plan for 2011.  Think I’m crazy?  Have some better ideas?  Feel free to share.


Less is more

Those of you who have read Scripted Spontaneity for more than a few months probably know already that I struggle to keep up a regular posting schedule.  It’s not that I don’t like writing, or that I don’t have things to write about, but rather that I tend to put other responsibilities above the call to blog.

Then, my good friend and edublogger extraordinaire, Bill Ferriter, posted the third in a series of really helpful pieces on building a strong education blog.  His most recent piece really hit home for me, and has pushed my thinking toward setting up a schedule for regular posting here at SS.

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Top Nine Education Posts of 2009

It’s that time of the year when we all look to the future to try to make our selves better, and the past to reflect on our accomplishments.  It’s also that annoying time when everyone writes about their top 10 something or another.

So, I figured “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”.  I looked through my Instapaper archive, my Evernote saves, and my Google Reader shared items to find the blog posts that inspired me this past this year.  I settled on nine because… well, it takes less time than ten.  Oh, and because it’s the end of 2009.
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Extended Absences

image from flickr user COG LOG LAB

Four months without a post.  Even writing it pains me.  Several authors (whose opinions matter to me) have suggested that “real bloggers” must post on a weekly to daily schedule.  Once, that may have been feasible for me, but the demands of my full-time teaching, my writing over at TeachHUB, and my family now make it impossible.  It seems ridiculous to me that as recently as six weeks ago I was making plans to start up a new website.

In the last few months, many aspects of my professional life have changed–mostly for the better.  In the space of two weeks, I met Alan Alda (at an exclusive press event for his upcoming PBS documentary “The Human Spark”) and was invited to join a district advisory council of teachers.  Later, I found myself in the office of my principal pitching a new position for next year that would focus on integrating technology into lesson plans all over the school.

My stock was soaring, and it still is.  But, the catch is that all of this has left me with some very big decisions to make:

  • Do I stay in the science classroom and work on improving my practice (differentiation, formative assessment, building a functional PLC) or do I push hard for this Technology Facilitator position with fewer headaches and smaller paychecks?
  • Should I use the occasion of a departing principal to jump ship and try out a new school or stay and reboot my reputation with a new school leader?
  • Is it better for me to stay in the classroom or to actively pursue a district-level position that extends my influence?

I have never been comfortable with change in my personal life.  Eleven years ago, I turned down a Fulbright fellowship to start graduate school mainly because I was scared of traveling away from the things that I knew.  I have stayed at my school (where my career began) through some pretty dark times because it’s still safer than the unknown.

But, on the other hand, who can say whether my career (and my life) will benefit more from building a legacy at one school, teaching siblings and developing relationships with community leaders, than taking my skills and personality to a new place and exploring the natural diversity of a huge school system?  In conversations with several more seasoned educators, the suggestions were split, leaving me to seek out my answers in my own way.

Suffice it to say, however, that Scripted Spontaneity will live on.  I hope to post more regularly about less serious topics and rebuild the community that once was.  Because everyone needs a place for their voice to be heard.