Why blog? Getting started - my experience
Recently, I've been thinking about blogging and why people do it. I've been encouraged by the nomination for an award I mentioned in my last post, and by Karenne Sylvester's call for entries to the blog carnival she has organised to help newbie EFL bloggers.
So, what makes someone sit down and write something and publish it on the Internet for all to see? In particular what makes an EFL teacher do this. The main reasons I suppose are self-expression, to communicate with other teachers, to share ideas, reflect on practice. Of course there's also the teacher who wants to try it out because you want your learners to blog and you don't think you should ask them to do something that you wouldn't do or haven't tried . That's why I started.
Let me start with some statistics - I've been blogging at http://blog-efl.blogspot.com for six years (since July 9th 2003), have written 553 posts so far and over 60,000 words.
My first post was directed at a group of teenage learners I was teaching in a summer school in Barcelona. I wanted to try out a new global community my school had set up for learners and had managed to get a daily computer room slot. Then, at the last minute, I was told that my students wouldn't be getting accounts in time, so I needed a backup plan. I remembered that a friend of mine had invited me to set up something called a blog six months previously - I'd joined and written one post and then not returned. But, I had seen that it was a quick and easy way of publishing on the Web and wondered if I could do this with my learners.
I jumped in and all of the learners in the two classes I was teaching se up blogs and started writing about themselves and reading what the learners in the other class had written - their curiosity was provoked, and although few of them wrote much, they were motivated enough to want to write and to read what the others had written, sharing their interests, and asking questions by leaving comments on the other learners' blogs.
I also started using the blog I'd set up to reflect upon the experience rather than write to the learners, as illustrated by the second post I wrote. By the end of the course, I was convinced that this was something that I should look into more, even though the learners had become a little bored with blogging during the course and I decided to do something else (you can read about this here if you like).
Getting Interested in blogging
I spent time after the course finding more out about blogging. At the time, there was little written about blogging and only a handful of EFL teachers were using blogs. One of them was Teresa Almeida D'Eca's Let's Blog. Teresa is a teacher based in Portugal - I'd been introduced to her through my colleague, Nik Peachey (who funnily enough has only recently started blogging himself) and was very impressed with her blog. So much so, I wrote a review of it on my blog.
I started learning a lot from the other educational bloggers out there about how best to use them. Aaron Campbell's article on Weblogging in ESL was very influential and there were tips from other bloggers about how best to encourage participation, and whether or not to correct.
You can tell from the amount I was writing to the blog (48 posts in August 2003!) just how enthusiastic I was getting. In fact this figure only shows a small part of it - I'd also been put in contact with a teacher in Brazil - Barbara Dieu (or Bee), who had been blogging with her students for some time. I wrote a review of her blog, Bee Online and also started responding to some of her ideas she had.
Sustaining Interest in Blogging
One of the many ideas that Bee had for promoting and sustaining learner interest in blogging was the idea of having a mystery guest on her blog. I was one of the two mystery guests in August 2003, and the results were convincing - the students responded well and wrote loads during this period. Bee said that they were all motivated and asking questions, trying to work out who the mystery guests were between classes, trying to get her to give them clues, etc. And afterwards, the conversations continued as we got to know each other. For me, this was the moment when I realised the power and potetnial of blogging with students. You can read the actual posts here - as a sidenote, I think it's wonderful that all of this still exists - it's been great to revisit this now, so many years afterwards.
I went on to run my own blogging experiments with classes that year and several years afterwards. Some of them were successful, others not so much. I kept in touch with both Teresa and Bee. They introduced me to the wonderful Community of Practice, the Webheads in Action, and to lots of other educators around the world. I co-moderated a series of online workshops about blogging with Bee and Aaron Campbell through the TESOL Electronic Village Online. Eventually, though, I found my interests turning more towards podcasting and then to social networking and games and virtual worlds. However, I still believe blogging is a great tool to use with students, and although my own blogging output has diminished recently, I can see how valuable it is for teachers' reflective practice and for sharing ideas and building community. Especially now, that it has started to be used by mainstream EFL teachers rather than just those who are interested in technology. This for me, is the key, and the main reason why I am interested in blogging regularly again.
So, what about the so-called blogger's block? Looking back at my blog entries, I can see that I have a lot of unpublished drafts. Posts that I started and didn't finish. And then I remember times when I wanted to write something and didn't. I think the most important thing is to be involved in the blogosphere. If you read other blogs (and nowadays take part in the conversations that are constantly happening in Twitter and Facebook, as well as on mailing lists, etc.), then you'll never be short of ideas for blog posts. Of course, the other thing to remember is that blogging is all about contributing - and no matter what you think, everyone has a unique voice and a relevant point-of-view - you can always add something interesting to the conversation. Just, as Karenne recently encouraged me to to on Facebook, jump in and do it - don't think too much about it.
I think it's also important not to feel overwhelmed - there is so much out there, you'll never be able to keep up with everything that's going on, vever be able to read all the blogs, etc, that you'd like to. Choose a few people to read regularly that you find interesting and then from time to time, let yourself be led by links from their blogs (or by serendipity) to other people. Be sure to contribute to other people's blogs by writing comments - it's very important for bloggers to feel that there's somebody out there reading what we are writing (otherwise, why write it, right?) - tools like clustrmaps are very important to a blogger to see that they have an audience (I prefer this visual demonstration of audience more than looking at a counter or at stats - I have also noticed that it impresses students more too)
Setting goals can be important to keep up interest too. apart from the goals you may set up with students (a good one is to always relate what you are doing in class to the blog and vice-versa), if you blog for other teachers or for yourself, then you might want to use the blog:-
- for reflective practice (write what you think about how a particular class went)
- as a repository for a future teaching e-portfolio
- to sound out ideas that you may want to follow up in an article or a conference presentation / INSETT session
- simply keep a record of your time as a teacher
Most of all, treat blogging as something you do for fun that can also help your professional development and you should be able to continue, happy in the knowledge that what you are doing is of value.