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Article of Interest - Education

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Blogging Classroom Connects to Parents
Emily Anthes, St. Petersburg Times, August 9, 2005
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Some parents struggle to get their children to surrender even a scrap of information about what they did in school.

But last year, Joyce Schubert didn't even have to ask. Each day, after her fifth-grade daughter, Kayla Vance, disappeared into a Pinellas Park Elementary School classroom, Schubert would log onto the Internet for a virtual peek inside.

On the class Web site, Schubert could see her daughter's spelling grades half an hour after she had taken a test or monitor deadlines for assignments. But the highlight, Schubert said, was the daily classroom blog written by the fifth-graders.

She checked it at least once a day, she said.

"I liked knowing what was going on in class, seeing what they were doing, what they were learning, just knowing my daughter was in a safe place," Schubert said.

Blogs have long been popular among teenagers and young adults, who often use them at home as virtual diaries and write about their personal lives. But a growing number of teachers like Fred Roemer, Kayla's teacher, are discovering that students are just as eager to blog about math and history.

Roemer's classroom Web journal is among a smattering nationwide. It serves as a model for other teachers who want to reclaim the technology from their students. And as school officials push for better parent-teacher communication, blogs and Web sites like Roemer's have begun to emerge as one possible solution.

Hillsborough County schools, for example, have introduced a new system this year that will help teachers set up their own class Web sites.

The number of teachers who have student-maintained blogs in their classrooms remains relatively small, but teachers are "finally starting to notice" that classroom blogs can benefit students, teachers and parents alike, said Will Richardson, an expert on educational blogs.

Roemer first created a class Web site in the mid '90s, and the daily log gradually evolved. He began by posting a few pictures, and he eventually had students post messages about classroom activities.

Now, students in Roemer's class update the blog daily. Some entries clearly bear the stamp of a fifth-grade imagination, describing giant snakes or evil chickens in the classroom.

But often, they are about the day's activities. One day last February, the class studied cells in science and the Civil War in social studies. They watched a Civil War movie, did math problems about money, and discussed a long-term writing assignment, according to a student's blog entry.

Such entries provide the classroom transparency some parents crave. Even Kayla, Schubert's daughter, said she liked that her mom knew what was going on at school.

"If I needed help on my homework, she could help me because the log would have what we did in class," Kayla said.

The Web site also enabled her to get help from her teacher, even if she was stumped at night. The blog means that Roemer often works long hours, responding to student questions and messages from home.

"But I think it's worth it," he said. "I can extend the teaching day, because it's not long enough."

Blogs can help parents stay involved, teachers be more responsive and students develop a sense of community, all while enhancing classroom lessons, Roemer said. But teacher-run blogs can also be instructive about the use of technology.

"Kids don't have any models for the appropriate use of Web logs," Richardson said. "They're kind of out there flailing away."

Instructional blogs are different than "navel-gazing" teen blogs, Richardson said, but teachers can use classroom blogs to provide examples of safe and appropriate Internet behavior.

Of course, teachers have to set up appropriate safeguards, Richardson said. Roemer identifies students only by their first and last initials. Though anyone can read the blog, only students and parents who register can post to it or access its other, private features, such as grade postings.

And Roemer acknowledges that not all of his students have computers or Internet access at home. Some parents access the blog from the public library, but others never see it at all, he said. All students, however, still get to participate in the blog, which is updated from the classroom.

It may take a while for teachers used to more traditional classroom methods to incorporate blogs into their lessons or feel comfortable with technology that some of their students have already mastered.

In many ways, the Internet is still the younger generation's domain. Eighty-seven percent of American teens, ages 12 through 17, use the Internet, compared to 66 percent of American adults, according to a report recently released by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. And 48 percent of bloggers are under the age of 30, another Pew survey found.

Some teacher training programs are trying to bridge the gap.

Students in Jim Olliver's educational technology class at St. Petersburg College learn how to create blogs for their future classrooms.

"I tell my students when we start the class to bolt themselves in," Olliver said. "When you're involved in technology in the classroom, it's like drinking from a fire hose. There's just so much coming at you."

In addition to learning the technical aspects of blogging, Olliver's students use a class blog of their own to debate the merits of teaching with blogs.

"Education," he said, "is no longer someone standing up in front of a class at a blackboard."
     

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