In a Technology in Education class at the University of South Alabama, Professor John Hadley Strange requires his pre-service teachers to blog throughout the semester — an assignment that morphed about a year ago. Back then, one of his students blogged about a post she read on teacher Bill Chamberlain's blog. Chamberlain left a comment on the post, telling her she should leave a comment and contact information whenever she visits a post.
When Strange e-mailed Chamberlain, who teaches at Noel Elementary School in Missouri, Chamberlain suggested that Strange's class start commenting on student blogs. He also told him that he should join Twitter to network with other educators.
Strange did, and now asks students who take his required class to not only blog, but also comment on class blogs that Chamberlain lists on his blog and in a wiki. This year, he added two other assignments: comment on classmates' and teachers' blog posts.
“It’s changed the whole way I teach," Strange said. "It’s changed this whole course; it’s changed my whole thinking about what we ought to be doing in class."
When students blog, they want to know that someone is listening to what they're saying and giving them feedback, and that's what the Comments4Kids project is all about.
Middle school French and geography teacher Carey Pohanka requires her students at Fredericksburg Academy in Virginia to blog. But that's not enough — they need people to interact with.
"If we’re telling them they should be writing these blogs, then we should be helping them get comments as well,” Pohanka said.
Now teachers and students read and comment on other blogs each week. The comments help them build relationships with other people around the world and realize that they're not writing into empty space.
"Making these connections is good for me simply because I learn from them," Chamberlain said, "and it’s good for them because they know someone’s paying attention to what they’re saying.”
In Iowa, Russ Goerend's language arts and social studies classes publish to the world, not just to their teacher. The sixth-graders at Waukee Middle School enjoy writing, and their eyes light up with excitement when they see comments on their posts. On one post, Chamberlain made a comment, and as a result, carried on a 10-comment conversation about sailing with one of the Iowa students.
"Their world’s been expanded," Goerend said. "They just had no idea that they could connect to people so easily.”
Through these connections, Strange said he wants his college students to interact with children who are engaged in learning and explore different approaches to teaching.
“These are the types of kids they’re going to be running into, so they’ll get to see them in action,” Strange said, "and I hope that it will create ideas in their head about different ways of teaching than they were taught.”
As a teacher, Pohanka finds neat projects and cool collaborations on class blogs. She also builds connections with other educators along the way.
Strange also has built connections with people throughout the world. For example, he commented on a class blog from year three students at Pt. England School in Auckland, New Zealand. The 7- and 8-year-old kids sent him back a movie to thank him for commenting.
In September 2009, Chamberlain found a blog post from a 3-year-old girl named Kaia and her father Jabiz Raisdana, who teaches at the compass International School in Doha, Qatar. He had his kids comment on the post, which later was voted Joint First Runner-Up as the most influential blog post in the 2009 Edublog Awards.
After his daughter received so much attention, Raisdana wrote a post on his blog about the events that unfolded and questioned whether teachers should expose themselves and their students online. Strange saw Raisdana's post and responded to it, then had his students comment.
Those two sets of comments sparked several Skype calls and video messages between the college students in Alabama, middle school students in Missouri, and the 3-year-old and her father in Qatar. Those interactions show how technology can bring people together, Strange said in a blog post.
This blogging experience has taught Strange to try new things, such as Twitter, even if he doesn't like them initially. He's also learned that having an authentic audience is important, and he's made more than 100 new friends worldwide through commenting on blogs.
When pre-service teacher Jacki Gorski checks out class blogs, she sees how other teachers are educating their children and how the children respond. And she also gets feedback from them.
Gorski said she feels blessed to receive input from teachers around the country, including Chamberlain and history teacher Eric Langhorst. She had been working on a podcast project with a partner, and Langhorst helped them out.
Last week, she and fellow classmates started an alumni blog for their class, which Chamberlain signed up to contribute to. He wrote a post on the blog that inspired her.
“I just think it’s invaluable for people in the profession or people learning the profession to get into that network," Gorski said, "because there are people that want to help and really have good stuff to say.”
The kids in Pohanka's classes get excited when they receive a comment on their posts from people they don't know. Through commenting on blogs, they're reading what other students are doing, learning how to write and building relationships with kids around the world.
The sixth-graders like to be noticed and even work on their blog posts outside of school.
"I don’t know any other kids who are going home and trying to write things in their own spare time that they’re that excited about," Pohanka said. "It definitely seems to inspire them to communicate and to write.”