Students Must be Blogging

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In the Seth Godin video I embedded in my last post, at the 4:00 minute mark he asks the audience to raise their right hands as high as possible.  Then, he asks them to raise their hands even higher, and they do!  Why?  Because people always hold back a little when asked to do something.  Ask students to write an essay or paper for the teacher.  Chances are, the teacher will get something pretty good from the student.  But, are students holding back a little because they have an audience of one? Are students writing just well enough for a good grade, or to check boxes on a rubric?

What if students have an audience of 20, or 120, or 2020?  What if students were given a platform on which they could write for people other than their teacher?  Well, I would argue that they should be given such an opportunity through blogging, and it should be a large part of their school experience.  I am not talking about middle or high school students.  I believe students starting as young as kindergarten should start blogging.  

I will present three reasons why students should be blogging, and I will share what we are doing at our school to get started with student blogging.

Provide Students with an Authentic Audience

The first reason for students to blog is to provide them with an authentic audience to share their thoughts and to engage in online conversations about their thoughts.  Do not underestimate younger children.  Kids as young as 5 years old (and younger!) have opinions.  They may not care about immigration or health care, but ask a child who is the strongest superhero in the world or what the prettiest color is in the rainbow, and you will definitely get an opinion.  

Ask a 4th grader why we need to clean up the environment, and I guarantee you will get a strong opinion.  

So, instead of having kids tell their opinions to their teachers, have them write a blog post and share it with others in their class, in other classes, in other schools, in other states, and in other countries.  Establish a process for students to comment on other kids’ blog posts and engage in meaningful conversation.  When students know that other people in their world, or others far from their world will be reading their thoughts, and possibly commenting, they will “raise their hands” even higher and put forth their very best effort.

I would go as far as to say that many kids will get so jazzed up about writing for others that we will find many of them writing on their own time, outside of school, and not because they are doing homework.  Hey, I am sitting at my computer writing this blog post on a sunny Saturday afternoon because of the thrill that someone may read it and maybe even write a comment.  The same certainly would be true for lots of children.  Give kids a platform to share their opinions, and let them take off.  Expect to see kids choosing to write posts and comments on their own time, outside of school, once they get the “blogging bug.”

You may be asking yourself, “How can a kindergartener or a first grader write a blog post?  That is a fair question. But the answer is simple.  Give students an iPad or tablet, show them how to record their voice, and let them talk about their topic.  Then, show them how to add a picture, or how to take a picture of their artwork and upload it, and off they go with a blog post.  This is very doable for a young child growing up with a bevy of devices in 2015.

Digital Citizenship

This is a very important topic in schools today, regardless of whether the school has a 1:1 program or not.  As educators, we are responsible for teaching children how to behave appropriately on their devices, on the Internet, and on social media.  We should be teaching good digital citizenship to children starting as early as kindergarten.  So, let’s use blogging as one important vehicle for this.  

When students are blogging, they are putting themselves out there onto the Internet.  Because blogging provides students with the opportunity to do write for an authentic audience (maybe even Grandma!), they need to be careful to write using appropriate language (especially if Grandma is reading it!).  Blogging also provides an easy means to include photographs and graphics, so we can use this platform to teach students to be appropriate and to follow copyright laws.  Blogging allows students to accept and write comments which makes it a form of social media.  Teachers can use blogging to teach young children how to behave online, a skill they most definitely need as they move into junior and senior high school.

Digital Portfolios

Picture a first grade student using a blog to start talking about or writing a narrative piece about her favorite topic, Disney Princesses.  She can add pictures and links to the blog post, and she can accept comments from others.  Then, she goes to art class and takes a picture of her latest masterpiece.  She starts a new blog post and speaks into the iPad’s microphone to explain how she incorporated the use of lines and secondary colors in her work (concepts taught by her art teacher).  Next, she goes to music class and creates a blog post with a 30 second video of her playing a simple rhythm on a drum.  Back in her classroom, she write a new post where she explains how she “Solves a word problem that calls for addition of three whole numbers whose sum is less than or equal to 20” (CCSS 1.OA.A.2).  (Don’t even think about saying “1st graders don’t know the CCSS” because they are learning them everyday in classrooms all over the country!)  

Fast forward to the same student in fifth grade writing much more sophisticated blog posts for all school subjects on the same blog she started in kindergarten or first grade.  How much fun has that student had over the years seeing how her work has improved as the blog posts have become so much more involved and detailed?  How amazing and powerful is this kind of a portfolio for students and their parents?  The blog has followed this student through all of her elementary grades, and she has used it to create a huge digital portfolio, in chronological order, with tags to organize everything, making her posts easy to find and sort.

So where to start?  

I started the process by purchasing a Kidblog Admin-Pro account which gives every student and staff member his or her blog with unlimited posting and commenting abilities. The total cost for my school, at $1.50 per student was $630 for the entire school year.  Pretty good bang for our buck considering the potential usage we will get from these blogs.  I choose Kidblog based on the low price, but there are a number of other blogging sites schools and teacher can use.  Wesley Fryer has a great post here where he shares other blog sites for students.

We have just started getting our students up and running on their blogs.  Some classes are moving a little faster, some are not quite there yet.  But, as we talk more about the power of students blogging, and as we teachers and principals model the use of blogs in our professional lives, more students will join the fun and excitement of writing a post and having someone other than a teacher write a comment.  They will truly start raising their hands as high as they possible can when they write.

What is School For? I Dare You to Answer

Watch this video.  I dare you.  It will take 17 minutes of your day, but it will change the way you look at school in 2015.  

Why the dare?  Well, when someone challenges our thinking, better yet our entire way of life (professionally speaking), we often want to avoid looking the devil in the eye and admitting that he may be right.  Did I just call Seth Godin the devil?  Yes, but I really don’t mean it.  However, he sure does present some devilish thoughts about the current state of American education and why it is failing.  

For those of us who are deep into our careers as educators, listening to Godin speak is uncomfortable.  He challenges us with this simple question – What is School For?

How do you answer that question?  How might you answer that question after watching the video?

As Godin states, school was about teaching obedience and the #2 pencil.  The first American public schools were designed by Horace Mann to prepare workers for the industrial age.  Public education’s sole intent was to train people to work in a factory, to be obedient, to fit in, to become “interchangeable people” like assembly line parts.  Schools were the factories to build workers for the factories.  Is that the case today?

Think about what we ask kids to do in school on a daily basis:  Stand, face the flag, and state the Pledge of Allegiance in unison.  Talk about teaching obedience!  I am all for patriotism, and I love my country as much as the next principal, but maybe it is time to give kids a choice as to how they show their feelings about America.

And this is just the start to my thinking on this topic.  How many teachers are requiring kids to memorize facts that they can easily look up on any Internet-connected device?  BTW – what is the capital of Vermont?

Picture this  scenario – It is Tuesday morning, Period 2 English class. 27 high school freshman sitting in rows facing the teacher who is up at the front of the class.

Teacher:  Take out your #2 pencils, please.  You have exactly 30 minutes to complete this grammar test.  When you are finished, start reading chapter 11 of The Catcher in the Rye.  Remember, the test on the first 12 chapters is this Thursday.

Student:  Do we need to annotate this chapter?

When we associate reading a book with taking a test, we take all of the joy out of reading.  Is that what school is for?

According to Godin, when we have put kids in schools-like-factories we encourage work, not art.  I am starting to agree.  When our goal is to train people to become productive workers we are squashing their passion for learning, investigating, trying and failing.  The previous conversation from that high school English class, and thousands like it, are taking place in schools all over the country under the guise of good teaching.

Now that I have seen this video a few times, I have started reading Godin’s “Manifesto” Stop Stealing Dreams (What is School For?).  After the first few sections, I have a feeling I may be blogging about this topic some more in the near future.

Welcome New Staff!

I am proud to introduce these fine new educators who will be starting at South Park this year.  Actually, they wanted to introduce themselves!!  Please join me in welcoming them to South Park.

Kori Kelly – Kindergarten

Hi there! I’m Kori Kelly, and I am a new kindergarten teacher at South Park. Upon graduating from Indiana University in 2013, I had the privilege of working as a paraprofessional and then as a 4th grade teacher. I am beyond excited to teach kindergarten in this incredible district and can not wait to meet my new class! When I’m not at school, you can find me teaching dance to children of all ages. I look forward to working with the amazing staff, supportive families, and smiling students at South Park!


Jessica Morehead – First Grade

Hello! My name is Jessica Morehead. This school year I look forward to joining the South Park team and the opportunity to work with the wonderful community I grew up in. I received my Bachelors Degree in Elementary Education and Special Education from the University of Northern Iowa. I come to South Park with teaching experiences at various schools in Chicago. I have loved the opportunities to teach in multiple grades but I know my heart belongs in first grade. I look forward to meeting each of my students and their families in the next few weeks!

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Nicole Marak – Third Grade

Hello, my name is Nicole Marak, and I am happy to be joining the third grade team at South Park!  In May, I graduated from Illinois State University with a degree in elementary education.  My student teaching experience took place in Wheeling, District 21, in a second grade classroom.  I was fortunate enough to take part in a year long student teaching program.  This past summer, I taught 7th grade language arts in Wheeling.  I am very excited to become a member of the South Park family.  I look forward to a year filled with lots of fun and learning.  I can’t wait to get to know all of my students and their families!

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Alison Alves – School Psychologist

Hello South Park community! I am Alison Alves, the new School Psychologist joining the South Park Team. I received my Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary and Special Education from Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia before going on to teach English Language Learners and Special Education in Massachusetts. I moved to Chicago in 2010 to earn my doctorate in School Psychology from Loyola University, Chicago. I look forward to collaborating with this special team to support our students- cheers to a great year ahead!

Jenise Sterling – Helping Hands Pre-school

Hello, my name is Jenise Sterling and I’m excited to introduce myself as the new Helping Hands Preschool Teacher! I have my Bachelor’s Degree in Early Childhood Education from Indiana University and I am currently working on my Master’s. This will be my first year as a classroom teacher in District 109 Helping Hands Preschool program, but I was a teaching assistant under Kat Armstrong, and I have spent the past two years teaching preschool for Carpentersville District 300. I am very excited to come back to District 109 and work with the amazing South Park Elementary Staff!  I look forward to creating a working partnership with families and a sense of community in the classroom while providing meaningful activities that my students can apply to real world situations. I believe in creating a classroom community based on empathy, kindness, and respect and I’m excited to support my students both as learners and citizens of the world.

How Fast the Years Have Flown By

In early June, my younger daughter graduated from high school.  Aside from my pride as a father of two high school graduates, both of whom are either starting or continuing college later this month, I was struck by another thought:  We no longer have a child in our local public school system.  After 16 years with kids in school, we no longer have open houses, conferences, concerts, ice cream socials, BINGO and family game nights, and the myriad of other events that parents with school-aged children attend year after year.  These are bittersweet thoughts, for sure.

After coming to terms with the fact that this also means that I am old, I started to reflect on all of the experiences my kids had in school.  My reflections may be slightly different than some other parents in the same situation because I can reflect through two distinctly different lenses: one as a father and one as a principal.  Here are my “take-aways” from our experiences watching our kids proceed through the system.

My girls had many different teachers between their kindergarten and senior year of high school.  Some were amazing and a few were mediocre. This includes all of the self-contained elementary teachers and the more content-centered middle and high school teachers.  This also includes all of the specials teachers and a few special education teachers.

Upon reflection, here is what I learned during the last 16 years.

The very best teachers brought out the very best in my kids.  There is no doubt about that.

  • Over the course of the years, they each experienced some of the very best instruction possible – but not every year (see the next point).
  • The girls learned in spite of the few mediocre teachers they had over the years.  Why?  Because we helped them persevere through the nine months in the classroom.  We helped them understand that they had to take a certain amount of responsibility for their learning and successes, regardless of the circumstances of the classroom environment or the teacher’s instructional practices. No doubt they are better prepared for college and the world of work because of the variety of adults they had to deal with.
  • The girls were placed in classes with and without their closest friends over the years, and they actually did better socially and academically in classes without their very best friends. They were forced to come out of their shells and make new and different friends.  In addition, they were not as distracted as they would have been with their BFFs in class.
  • There were times that both girls experienced failure and disappointment.  But, they made it through these times, and they are stronger and much more resilient now because of these experiences (what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger, right?).
  • There were times that both girls felt the pain of teasing, exclusion, and “girl drama.” In some cases, this was quite severe, which was heartbreaking for my wife and me to watch.  I also admit that there were times when they each doled out some not-so-nice comments and actions to others.  But, I believe the girls are more sensitive, caring people now because of these experiences.
  • Did we fight with them about homework, studying, watching too much TV, eating right, going to bed, playing video games, and all the rest?  You bet we did.  Did we survive?  Absolutely!  Were the teachers and staff members on our side all along the way to guide us through the tough times?  Yep, and I truly appreciate that.

Yes, the years our kids go to school are stressful for us parents, and I can’t possibly explain how fast they have flown by.  But as I look back, I wouldn’t trade any of it.  I am very thankful to all of the adults in all three schools who were there to mentor, teach, encourage, assist, praise, and even scold my girls’ (hopefully not too many times!) throughout their journey.

Social Media and Young Children

This week we completed the Hour of Code in all of our classrooms.  The purpose of this activity was to give the students a “taste” of what it is like to do computer coding.  This was a big deal all over the world (over 74 million people!), and we are proud to have joined the millions of others who participated. The Hour of Code was a fun activity for our students, but it is only one small piece in this new era of education.  As you may know, all of our district’s students in kindergarten through eighth grade were given a device to use in school and at home.  The idea of a 1:1 computing environment is one that was percolating in the district for a number of years before we were able to make it a reality.  As we finish the first half of the 2014-15 school year, we have learned much about the use of computers in all of the students’ hands.

From our experiences thus far, we have learned that the majority of our students have been very responsible with their devices. Sure, we have had some Chromebooks break and we have had some issues with the iPad apps, but for the most part the 1:1 experience has been a  very positive one.  Most importantly, the students are respecting the power of the Internet, and they are using their devices in responsible ways.  We have had very little trouble with kids acting inappropriately online, and we are very proud of the kids for this!

With that in mind, I want to take an opportunity to share some of my thoughts on social media use for elementary students. I’ll start with a personal story of when my own children (now 20 and 17 years old, respectively) were in elementary and middle school.  Back when my younger daughter was 12, she begged and pleaded for her own Facebook page.  However, Facebook’s policy was (and still is) that children must be 13 in order to sign up.  My wife and I stuck to our guns on this, and at 12:01 am of her 13th birthday, Gillian created her Facebook page!  Five years ago, when we were dealing with this “drama” I wrote a blog post about it. Here is the link in case you are interested in reading my thoughts from November, 2009.  Facebook Blog Post.

I share this personal story again because the issue of young children joining social media networks has sprung up around our school district. I do think there is a distinction between educational uses of technology and social uses of technology. I am an avid fan of social media and I use it regularly to communicate about our school, for my own professional development, and personally to keep up with family and friends (@dbsherman). However, we must always be conscious of the difference in how we as adults use social media and how our children do. There is an appropriate time for students to establish social media profiles.  Please note that the terms of service for sites like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter clearly state that users must be at least 13 years old. Reading the terms of service of these companies leads me to think that none of the students in our elementary school should have personal profiles on these sites. There are several reasons for this but the main reason is that students of this age do not have the understanding and maturity to use these sites appropriately. Unfortunately, often times students establish accounts without the knowledge of their parents or guardians.

We do not allow the use of these sites during school hours nor do we allow personal electronic devices such as cell phones to be used during the school day or on the school bus. However, students create and use social media accounts outside of school.  That being said, young children are still using social media.  Although their posts and tweets are made outside of school hours, the impact can carry over into the school day causing a disruption in the teaching and learning process.  I believe that elementary aged children might use social media in ways that can be harmful to themselves or others, and this is something about which we adults must be cognizant.  A great resource to help parents navigate these issues with their children is Dr. Devorah Heitner’s blog on her “Raising Digital Natives” website.  I encourage everyone, but particularly parents of intermediate-level students, to be aware of your child’s potential social media activity.

Are others dealing with social media issues among elementary and junior high students?  If so, what are you doing about it?  I am curious to know what is going on, especially in schools that are now 1:1.

We Are Building The Plane

This week we deployed about 200 iPads to our K-2 students and about 240 Chromebooks to our students in grades 3-5.  We are officially a1:1 school!  It is the start of a very exciting time in the school for the students and teachers.  But, the 1:1 deployment brings new and very different challenges for us as educators.

To get this school year started, I shared this video with our staff at our opening meeting, and I asked them to contemplate this question before watching it:  This video is an analogy for the new school year.  Why?   I used to tally their answers which were right on the money.  Here are some examples of what they wrote:

“Teaching kids with technology as we are learning how to use it also.”

 “Learning as you go and building knowledge as you work.”

“Teaching students with technology that we are still learning about.”

“This video is a metaphor for our school year because we are using and teaching with computers while we are learning ourselves.”

“We are preparing students for things that don’t yet exist”

“We don’t have the luxury of “building” before we start with students – We’ll be doing all the “building” and teaching at the same time.”

“We are total risk takers! And hope we land on our feet.”

“We’re gonna wing it this year:-)”

I absolutely loved their responses!!  Our teachers totally get the concept of taking risks on something so new and different that there is no perfect, prescribed way to do it.  We could easily have waited a year or more before implementing a 1:1 learning environment, but would we really be any wiser then?  The idea that we jumped in, ready to experiment and learn along with the students, is refreshing and invigorating for our school, and it is a critical to meeting students at their level of learning.

Sure, the last few days have been tiring as we have run into some bumps in the deployment road.  But we did it with a lot of help from a lot of people.  And, now that the devices are in the kids’ hands, we have our work cut out for us.  We now have the challenge of engaging, inspiring, and empowering our students to become self-directed, 21st century global learners.

1:1 and Parenthood: A Different Perspective

And now, a few thoughts from the other side of the desk…

On Thursday, my 17 year old daughter went to school to pick up the iPad that she will be using for her senior year.  I had already completed the paperwork required by her school district, and I had paid the $30.00 insurance fee (knowing my kid, this will be money well spent!!).  So I was pretty excited to see the actual device in her hands.  Finally, after years of writing about the need for 1:1, my own child will be a willing participant in this new adventure in teaching and learning.  That is so cool…Right?

Friday night she asked me if I would help her set up the iPad.  I said yes, but I could not help until Saturday.  I actually had no intention of helping her, however!  Why?  Because as a Gen Y kid, she should be able to read the directions and do it herself.  Isn’t that part of the point of giving kids their own devices?  They need to become self-directed in their learning, and this starts with setting the thing up.  If she gets stuck, she will need to figure out what to do.  There are tons of resources on the Internet to help her.

On Saturday, I was very busy with honey-do projects, and by dinner time, my daughter had to meet her friends.  Alas, I was not able to help her, so the device sat in the box.  On Sunday we ran errands during the day, and then she went to a concert by some guy named Daughtry so the iPad sat in the box.  Finally, tonight my daughter lost her patience with her “exceedingly busy” dad.  She sat down and pulled up the very explicit directions on how to set up the device.  I looked over her shoulder, and I have to admit that the school did a great job detailing the process for the kids.

Well, my evil plan worked; the kid set up the device by herself.  Sure, she struggled a few times, but that makes the whole experience even better for her.  She figured it out on her own.  The iPad is ready to take her to the outer limits of her learning.  So, I ask this most important question…

Are her teachers ready to guide her to a new type of learning never before experienced by students in schools?  I will ponder the answers to that question as this new school year evolves.  Stay tuned.