SAN FRANCISCO, CaliforniaAt the end of the school day, you won't find Helen Turnbull carting home stacks of papers to grade. Instead, she goes online to interact with her young writers while they are still in the process of researching, writing, and revising their assignments. And her students go online just as often to read their teacher's comments and also check out what their peers are working on. Turnbull's eighth-grade classroom at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School has become a hotbed for educational weblogging.
The Web-based publishing trend has been specially tailored for school use, with students posting their work to a classroom Web site that's protected by a password. Turnbull's weblog is hosted by Bay Area Writers Project, which also provides the teacher with technical support through its Educational Blogger Network, edBlogNet.
Turnbull explains why this use of technology appeals to her best instincts as a teacher: "The fact that student work is published on the weblog motivates higher-quality work as students don't want to look bad in front of their peers." That can deliver a more powerful push for young teens than encouraging words from a teacher or even a parent.
What's more, Turnbull is able to differentiate instruction, delivering the support that each student needs to improve as a writer. At the same time she's individualizing instruction, Turnbull can also keep track of broader patterns. She keeps a list of common writing errors, such as subject-verb agreement, then targets "mini-lessons" to small groups of students who share the same need for skill development.
The benefits of weblogging go far beyond improving writing skills, however. In a recent project called an "I-Search," students used their logs to track their research methods and critical-thinking process as they explored a topic of individual concern and wrote an essay about it.
Turnbull has long been a fan of the I-Search assignment, which involves a more personal quest for information than the typical research paper. Students consult several print sources to expand on what they already know about a topic. They write in the first person, bringing their own voice to their prose. "The I-Search motivates and inspires students like nothing else I've ever seen," Turnbull reports. "They work harder to find information and read at higher levels because they are genuinely interested. The final product is a well-researched piece of expository writing with an authentic voice."