Starting a Class Blog in 5 Minutes

Starting a Class Blog

Why is starting a class blog important?

Starting a class blog is one of the most effective ways to engage students in and beyond your lessons. I’ve been using them for years and my students absolutely love them. Recently, my Year 10 class asked me to create one just for them. They’d heard from some older students how much they enjoyed learning in this way and why blogging beats using “traditional” methods hands down. I would agree for the most part with their assessment. However, when blogs are used effectively, they do not replace “traditional” methods. They simply present traditional methods in a modern way.

For example, in my both my Law and Religious Studies lessons, at all Key Stages, the most important part of my planning is “Questioning“. My students love to go deep into a topic during debates, looking at concepts from a broad range of perspectives. They love it even more when I drill down into what they mean by the words they’ve used, or what assumptions are built into their reasoning and beliefs. This is as traditional as teaching gets, just take a look at the dialogues in Plato’s works.

Blogging simply allows that dialogue to take place in an environment more familiar to today’s students, the digital natives. And we all know that when students are in comfortable surroundings, their fight or flight system switches off and they become more naturally inclined to engage with the lesson. The depth I’ve seen in some of the comments sections of my class blogs has been phenomenal.

When blogging is done well, it takes the topic away from the teacher and gives ownership and independence of learning over to the students. The teacher can still moderate the debate, but they become a moderator rather than the centre of the discussion. Not only that, but your entire debate is recorded. This means that your students can revisit it when planning an essay or revising for a test. How many of your verbal debates in class were recorded accurately and in detail in the past year?

Why aren’t more teachers starting a class blog?

Trying something new is always a challenge. Below I’ve listed some of my colleagues’ responses when I’ve asked them about blogging. Some of these may sound familiar…

  • The teacher is not familiar with blogging, so they worry about doing a bad job, or that it will take up a disproportionate amount of time for very little gain. (Below I’ll show you my foolproof 5-minute process to set up your blog. It takes me longer to create a decent worksheet!)
  • The teacher feels they are “not good with computers”. (Sorry you aren’t allowed to use this one, it’s not 1998 anymore.)
  • The teacher feels that their methods are perfectly fine, so they don’t need to change anything.
  • The teacher sees blogging as a fad, that will soon go the way of Brain Gym and Learning Styles.
  • The teacher is worried about how students may abuse the blog, bully other students on there, or somehow get the teacher into trouble.

Whilst all of these problems are valid to some degree, they all boil down to one thing. Fear. Fear that we as teachers aren’t good enough, or that we will try something that doesn’t pay off. Personally, I don’t think that as teachers we can afford to think in these terms, even if we try to rebrand the Fear as “just being practical” or muttering to like-minded colleagues “I’ve seen this before”. Apart from anything, we are supposed to inspire our students and give them the sense that it doesn’t matter if you fail. You just learn from it and do things differently next time, without judging yourself or worrying about being judged.

Not only that but as I mentioned in a previous post on Flipped Learning, students should be encouraged to engage with materials before the lesson in which they are studied. This allows the teacher to focus more on higher-order tasks regarding analysis, evaluation and problem-solving, rather than basic content delivery and comprehension. Blogging allows this to happen but also introduces the depth of analysis via peer-led discussions of the content.

Top tips for creating your ‘beginner blogger’s mindset’

  1. Don’t judge yourself before starting a class blog.
  2. If it ‘fails’ first time around, don’t judge yourself then either.
  3. Stop thinking that others are judging you. They aren’t. In fact, they’re probably jealous of your guts to try it in the first place.
  4. Now try it again, but tweak it a little.
  5. Repeat until you succeed. (It really won’t take you long – you’re probably overestimating how hard it really is!!)
  6. Tell others what made it work and what the benefits of blogging vs other methods are.

How do I set up my first class blog?

Blogger

Firstly, you will need to decide on a blogging platform. There are many out there and for the most part, there is little between them in terms of how you would use them in the classroom. However, I’m going to show you step-by-step how to use WordPress.com to set up your blog. I use WordPress for all of my classroom blogs and even this blog you’re reading right now! It’s very easy to set up and to customise as you see fit.

All you need to do now is to follow each step and you will have your very own blog to use within five minutes!

  1. Go to www.wordpress.com and click on “Get Started” in the top-right corner of the screen.
  2. Select an initial layout for your blog from the basic templates. (You can change this later.) For ease of use, I would pick the “A list of my latest posts” option as it offers the simplest layouts.
  3. Choose a theme. A theme is a detailed template which you can customise or leave as it is. Any theme will do for now, as again, you can change this later if you like.
  4. Choose your domain (the web address of your blog). Type into the box a word or phrase you would like to appear in your blog’s web address and a list of FREE and PAID options will appear. Choose the FREE option. WARNING: You cannot change your domain once you have registered, so try out a few names to see which ones work for you.
  5.  Pick a Plan. Again just select the FREE option, unless you are familiar with blogging and web design and want more features. Personally, I think this is completely unnecessary for classroom blogging, but once you catch the blogging bug you might consider this in the future. With the exception of this website, I’ve always used the FREE options and been completely satisfied with what they have to offer for my students.
  6. Create your account. Type in your email address and select a username and password in order to log in to your blog in future.
  7. You will be sent a confirmation email to the email address you registered with in the previous step. Go into your email and click “Confirm”. You will be redirected to a login page where you need to enter your username and password that you picked in the previous step.
  8. You will now be directed to your “Dashboard” where you can create your own content or link to content that exists elsewhere on the web.

Publishing your first post

Now that you’ve set up your blog, play around with the different features in the dashboard to familiarise yourself with them. Don’t worry about clicking on the wrong thing, you can’t break your blog! As with any new technology, the more you play around with it, the quicker you will learn about it. The Dashboard is designed to be as user-friendly as possible. However, if you are having any issues understanding how things work then there are a tonne of tutorials on WordPress, aimed at beginners. I’ve found that YouTube is also a brilliant resource for blogging tutorials too, with the added benefit of you being able to see what you are supposed to type or click on.

Keep your first post simple.

I tend to make my first post about “House Rules” for students using the blog. It really helps if from the outset students know exactly what they are and aren’t allowed to do on the blog. Set out your high expectations and (hopefully) the students will meet them.

To create a new blog post, go to the Dashboard and click the “Add” button next to where is says “Blog Posts” (I told you it was user-friendly!). Type in your title, then add your text beneath. You can add images if you like, or you could even add a link to another website. Once you are finished, it’s time to “Publish” by clicking on the “Publish button on the left-hand side.

Congratulations, you are now a blogger!

Final thoughts…

I would love to hear about your classroom blogging experiences and would be happy to answer any questions you have about starting a class blog. Just leave a comment on this post or send me a tweet (@guruteaching) and I’ll get right back to you.

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Asking Students the Right Questions

Questions

The importance of asking the right questions

Asking the right questions, in the right way, at the right time, is the single most important thing you can do in a lesson.

The right questions engage your students, identify their reasoning and challenge their viewpoints. Great questions enable students to analyse and evaluate their own and other students’ positions. Perceptive questions drive self-improvement and improvement in others.

High-quality questioning significantly improves student progress over time. This week I explore how we can all use high-quality questioning to drive student progress to raise achievement and to promote a love of learning.

What questions should we ask?

There are two types of questions that we ask: closed questions and open questions. Closed questions are ones where there is a predefined response. For example, if I asked “Is London the capital city of England?” your answer would be either “yes” or “no”. My question doesn’t require you to go beyond that short response, so the information I can gather from closed questions is very limited.

Open questions allow for more extended answers. For example, if I asked, “What do you think of London?” the person answering could go in an infinite number of directions, explaining their answer at great length and in whatever way they wanted. Open questioning is very useful for finding out great breadth and depth of information, that you may not even have known to look for.

What does “open questioning” look like?

In lessons, I always begin with an open question. I teach Religious Studies and Law. Open questions are plentiful when it comes to morality, justice, and belief! Last week I asked this question to a group of 16 to17-year-old Law students: “How fair is the law on murder?” I expected some fairly short responses, as we’d only been studying the topic for a few lessons and so hadn’t delved very deeply into an evaluation of the topic. How wrong I was.

Their responses were fantastic! Students took the basic legal rules that I had taught them and began to create thought-experiments where the current laws would lead to absurd court decisions. They egged each other on, over and over, asking each other “What if…?”, “Yeah, but what if…?”, “No, but what if…?” It was magical. Once I took the students over to the Law Blog I had set up for their homework, they took the debate even further once they had left the classroom! You can read more on how to use WordPress blogs to teach in this post.

One simple question about fairness had led to twenty minutes of sophisticated thought, critical analysis, argument, counter-argument and eventually to the beginnings of an evaluative conclusion. They had explored, by questioning each other, every nook and cranny. They began with a naive and basic response to the question and by the end had arrived at complex and thought-provoking conclusions. I had given no direction and I introduced no further content to stimulate the discussion. Everything they came up with had originated in their own minds. Powerful stuff!

Question Thought Bubble

Here are some question styles to encourage depth in debates

Use them in starter activities, or during feedback sessions, to keep students thinking and to encourage them to go into greater depth. Design your questions so that they can’t give a superficial response!

  1. What do you think of…?
  2. How far would you agree that…?
  3. To what extent is…?
  4. How similar is…?
  5. What do you think caused…?
  6. Why do you think [name] is correct/incorrect?
  7. Why are you persuaded by…?
  8. Why are they wrong to say…?

Enhanced questioning techniques…

Don’t worry, this isn’t a CIA interrogation manual! However, the word ‘interrogation’ does make me reflect on some students who see questioning, especially in whole-class feedback sessions, as intimidating. Questioning doesn’t have to intimidate. Many students fear questions because they don’t want to give the wrong answer. You can address this in a number of ways.

  1.  Ask students who are particularly quiet open-ended questions that don’t require a ‘right’ answer. By getting them to engage just once or twice, even with a basic response, they will begin to lose the anxiety which many of our students face.
  2. Ask a variety of questions and then allow the students to choose the one they would prefer to answer. By allowing them to take ownership over their learning, their engagement (see the common theme here?) will increase over time. They won’t be able to hide behind the myth that they are ‘forced’ to learn in a particular way. They are choosing the way themselves!
  3. Try questions like “Why might some people agree with…?”. That way, the student doesn’t have to give their personal view, which they may be terrified to reveal! There are likely to be several different ways they can give a good answer, thus reducing their fear of failure.

Over time, keep going back to the “quiet” students, asking progressively more challenging questions. Once they begin to realise that they have nothing to fear, they will open up more and give deeper and more sophisticated responses, which is more likely to lead to a rise in attainment when it comes to exam time.

Tips on getting students to ask high-quality questions

There are a number of resources that you can use with your students to create high-quality questions. I know a lot of people use question-dice, where each side contains a question or even just the starter to a question, much like the list above. There is also the question matrix, which is excellent for demonstrating the different levels of questions that students can ask. They range from “What is..”, to “Who would…”, to “How might…?”. Students can choose a level of questioning they are comfortable with and gradually move from one side of the grid to the other as they challenge themselves over time.

Question Dice

In order for students to begin to create more sophisticated questions, they must have a good level of subject knowledge. A simple way to add depth to students’ knowledge of a topic, even early on in the topic, is to encourage independent learning beyond the classroom. Independent learning, as I’ve written about a number of times, is absolutely crucial for deepening the understanding of all students. Not only that, but it stretches the ‘most able’ (I have mixed feelings about this label) students to ‘go beyond the exam’ and to see the importance of the topics they study. When this becomes a regular feature of the students’ experience of a subject, they will naturally begin to ask a wider variety of questions. In turn, the whole class will be exposed to a much broader and deeper curriculum than if they had relied simply on teacher-directed learning.

Final thoughts…

From my own experience, students who ask sophisticated questions are more likely to give sophisticated answers. If you want more sophisticated answers, then you should model more sophisticated questions in your teaching. The students learn from us first!

 

I’d love to hear about how you use questioning techniques in your class. Please leave a reply below.

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