Go Big or Go Home: Blogging with high school students on Medium

Brock: How can I make an iPhone game?
Huan: Do I have the guts to perform a dramatic monologue in front of my classmates?
Marissa: What makes people racist?

These were among the diverse questions my English 9 students explored last fall. Not your typical research topics. But they represent a range of what freshman minds ponder.

Over the years, I have modified this student-driven, camouflaged research activity I’ve come to call Exploration. Others might call it Genius Hour or 20% Time, concepts I completely embrace. No matter the name, it’s all about giving students the autonomy they crave and finding ways to support — and to challenge — them along the paths they choose.

As students explore these topics, I ask them to figure out how they will share their learning with their classmates. Brock created a simple iPhone game and demonstrated it in class; some students even downloaded it to their phones. Huan came close to her goal; she video recorded herself performing a scene from Sybil and played it for the class. Marissa struggled coming up with concrete answers about racism, but in a presentation she led the class through a few role-play activities that left the entire class solemn and reflective.

This “end product,” while keeping the students focused in their efforts, isn’t really the point. What matters is how they handle the learning process and all the hurdles that come with it. In order to capture that and to better support students along the way, I began asking students to blog about their learning. About questions that arose. About their frustrations in trying to find the right information. Not only did this give me a view into their progress and help me help them, it also created a class community where students helped each other.

I remember the exhaustive searching and vetting of blogging platforms the summer before I launched this component of Exploration. I chose Edublogger, which has worked well for the last few years. It’s easy to manage as a teacher and convenient for students to find each other’s blogs. And it did help generate that sense of community all teachers covet. But while Edublogger posts are visible to others outside our classroom, it didn’t seem like it. Perhaps it’s more difficult for others to notice posts on that platform; perhaps I should have set them up differently. Whatever the case, my students — who have grown up in a world of Likes and Retweets — quickly observed a limited audience. It didn’t feel like a real blog to them.

An inspirational quote on one of my classroom walls.

I hope Medium will give them the larger audience they seek. It’s a risk. What if their blogs don’t get that outside traffic after I get their hopes up? What if this year’s group of students struggles to post interesting thoughts and discoveries? What if they hate blogging? What if I set it up incorrectly? What if it makes me look like a bad teacher?

So much of how I teach encourages students to learn from their failures, to develop resiliency. Truth is, I spend so much time trying to make sure everything is perfect for my classes — to avoid failing in front of my students — that I don’t model enough how I learn from my mistakes and what it means to truly take a risk.

So we’re going big. I will introduce Explore to my new group of freshmen next week, and few weeks after that, you should start seeing their posts appear in this publication. Please feel free to reply, to clap (by clicking the clap icon) and to share with others.

If it turns out we don’t expand our audience, it will be disappointing, but we will be no worse off than before. As hockey great, Wayne Gretzky said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” We’re taking a shot.

Originally published at medium.com on August 29, 2017.