On what topics would an eighth grader blog? Anything and everything, I’ve learned.
During an all-day creative writing workshop I conducted with about forty students at Henrico County Public Schools‘ Elko Middle School, I read student writings on everything from football to indie music, from wrestling to baking. I also read a powerful “open letter” to parents and teachers urging us to rein in the class clowns so serious students could learn, and another short piece discussing the pain associated with “friends” who are not sincere.
As the father of two teenagers, I know full well that young people have a lot on their minds. They also have more ways to share that in words that weren’t around when I was their age. Blogging empowers self-expression, and these young teenagers understood that.
But why were all of these students blogging, and what was I doing running a workshop with them? I found myself in this school library east of Richmond, Virginia, through the generosity of the Henrico Education Foundation. I wasn’t invited to teach these students what a blog was. Each of them already had a blog, a vision of Elko Middle School Literacy Co-Department Chair Haley Hendershot and Instructional Technology Resource Teacher Garry Marshall.
It helps that every middle-school student in the Henrico County schools is issued a laptop. But Elko pioneered student blogging this school year to help middle schoolers improve their writing with a medium that might inspire a bit more passion than, say, another five-paragraph essay. Trust me, they’re still learning writing fundamentals; it’s not all blogging. They also are being taught the importance of privacy and safety online, ensuring that when writing about themselves they don’t leave clues that could lead them to be targeted by a predator. And they’re being taught the importance of copyright, in terms of respecting others’ writing and images online.
And so I was brought in to help them take their blogging to another level. I customized my six-week “Becoming a Standout Blogger” course I teach for adults through places like The Loft Literary Center into a compact overview of blogging tips, and then we dove into the good stuff. We took what we had learned and group-critiqued a post on a blog found by Ms. Hendershot by a young blogger, Emily Eva Alice, who chronicles her love of makeup and her fight with cancer. Then, fueled by pizza and chips, each of the kids wrote an original blog post on the spot.
I was grateful to see that about a dozen Instructional Technology Resource Teachers from other Henrico middle and high schools joined us for the all-day workshop. That allowed us to break the forty or so kids into small workshop groups, each supervised by an instructor. One by one, the students critiqued each others’ work, using constructive workshop rules I had outlined.
I acted as a floater, dipping in and out of the various workshops. As such I wasn’t able to read every student’s work. But I was impressed with what I saw. These were first drafts, mind you, written well into the day (after lunch I usually just want to take a nap). But the enthusiasm in the room was palpable, and refreshing. Ms. Hendershot told me that the students had all volunteered for the workshop. Yes, they were getting out of their other classes that day, but no, they were not excused from the homework expected in those classes.
Perhaps the most surprising part of the day for me was the question-and-answer session held after we were done workshopping everyone’s writing. Ms. Hendershot handed me a set of cards containing questions the kids had written. I was surprised at how many of them were personal in nature. When did I first develop an interest in writing? Why did I start blogging? How much money do I make? (While I didn’t provide the taxable income I just put on my latest tax filing, I did talk a bit about how blogging can fit into an overall platform for an aspiring professional writer.)
It soon became clear that these students saw themselves as writers, and wanted to take advantage of having a professional writer in their midst to learn more about that life.
I’ve been teaching in various environments for more than a decade now, and while I’m never nervous about my grasp of the subject matter, I’m always curious as to the students I’ll be teaching. All I really ask of a student is that they are there to learn; not all students bring that mindset to class. (I greatly sympathize with the student blogger who wrote on that subject.) These students were all eager to learn, which made my day that much easier. It also gave me confidence about their futures, and society’s as well. I hope other Henrico County schools follow Elko’s example, and even more thoughtful and engaged teens are encouraged to embrace a vehicle to voice their aspirations and reflections.
What role can you see blogging play in helping a student grow as a writer?