Bethel Park teachers use blogs to better student writing

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At Bethel Park High School, English literature papers are jumping off the wood pulp and launching into the blogosphere.

Three teachers are using blogs to help students write -- a sort of an online term paper in shorter bursts -- and the group is finding it's improving the caliber of the writing and evoking scholarly thoughts from students.

Blogs are online, dated journals or logs, usually by one writer, updated regularly with the writer's thoughts and ideas.

High school English teachers Nicole Roth, Charles Youngs and Michael Bellini are using blogs, short for Web logs, in their classrooms. And a new pilot project will have some kids blogging about art displays at the Carnegie Museum of Art.

The first known blog reportedly was written in 1997, but Dr. Roth first heard of them in 2002.

"It just opens up a lot of doors," she said, noting how it can be cross-curricular.

She just completed her doctorate at Duquesne University in instructional technology. Her dissertation topic was a study of blogs and their effect on writing.

Dr. Roth found the results fascinating. Her study involved 128 kids in five sections of freshman English. Some wrote their papers by hand. Others used word processors and a third group were bloggers.

At the end of the term, independent graders looked at writing samples without knowing which group the students were in.

While the bloggers may have started out a little behind, they "ultimately caught up and surpassed [the others] with their writing skills," she said.

Mr. Youngs, a Bethel Park High School English teacher and curriculum facilitator, started the district's blogging program in 2003 and uses it for all 100 students in his English 12 honors class. The students read the book, then post their comments. He adds links to relevant topics and also interjects in the online discussions to help "reteach" what is needed, he said.

The blogs, which take the place of take-home writing assignments, are "closed," which means you can only see the comments if you are an authorized user. That decision was made in part to protect the kids, who post at school and at home, from Internet predators.

The students still have tests and papers to write, but he has found they have adopted a scholarly tone in their writing.

The software Mr. Youngs uses, called eBloggy, is free. Recent postings includes thoughts on "Letters to a Young Poet" by Rainer Maria Rilke. And there are no abbreviations or slang. Students are required to use proper grammar.

"Katie C." wrote: "Letters to a Young Poet" truly enlightened me in many different areas of life. Rilke presents [a] multitude [of] philosophical ideas ... which enabled me to enjoy the text while embedding within me a feeling of inspiration."

"Rachel B." wrote: "Rilke finds beauty in everything, which also expresses his views of Romanticism. Another lesson I found to be interesting was Rilke's views on solitude. He says to embrace solitude. Today's society tends to shun 'outcasts,' while maybe they are really the only people [who] understand what Rilke was talking about."

The three teachers have taken what they know on the road, and have given presentations for Prentice Hall and schools around the country, with more appearances to come.

They hope to expand the program in Bethel Park to other disciplines, although the foreign language program already is aboard. A pilot project throughout the next year, called "Studio B" will have a half-dozen kids blogging about the art they see in Gallery 17 at the Carnegie Museum of Art, with hopes of securing Foundation money to hire a Web administrator for the project.

Mr. Youngs also branched into other multimedia areas, with Podcasts and other audio and video components on his blog.

Dr. Roth's students were nervous at first, because unlike a regular term paper, their comments were read by their classmates in addition to the teacher. They would stare at the empty block on the computer screen that holds about 200 words and try to fill it all, sometimes with difficulty. But by the end of the class, "I couldn't get them to stop," she said.

This doesn't mean the kids necessarily liked to blog. She also surveyed them for qualitative information and "all the groups, they equally hated [writing]," she said, no matter what the format.

But the bloggers were better risk-takers. They saw other students write and were able to model after them.

Mr. Bellini also uses blogs in some of his remedial classes and said it can help with shy students or those who need to process their thoughts before presenting them. It is a great way to build confidence, he said.

"There's the feeling that they're doing something they're good at," he said.


Laura Pace can be reached at lpace@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1867.


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