Do you still remember the thrill of receiving a summer postcard from your teacher? How exciting it was to open the mailbox and find that personal piece of mail waiting—and to realize that your teacher was thinking of you. Perhaps the photograph on the face of the card led you to the encyclopedia to learn more about a particular place, while a handwritten line or two described a cultural experience, unusual food, or new language. Travel postcards, sent by thoughtful teachers over the years, have broadened the world of many a child.
Yesterday’s postcards have gone high-tech. Weblogs, or blogs, enable today’s teachers to send a new kind of post, sharing their travel experiences as they unfold. Blogs provide an up-to-the-minute opportunity for teachers to continue to educate their students through semester breaks, to interact with their school communities, and to share experiences and locales that encourage understanding of the broader world. And those 21st century postcards come complete with the ability to upload and publish journal entries, photos, slideshows, audio, video, and educational links.
Blogs are part of the Web 2.0 family—the next generation of the internet adventure. Rather than passive applications, where static information is posted, these more active platforms allow users and readers to respond, to create, and to connect. Coined by some as "social technologies," these 2.0 capabilities include blogs, wikis, podcasts, chat rooms, and forums. Such online experiences are about participating, about sharing knowledge and viewpoints, and about inquiry. In an educational framework, the entries and responses of the participants may scaffold on prior study, speak to current interests, or form points of departure for further investigation.
Sharing the Adventure
In February 2007, I received the exciting news that I was a recipient of a Fulbright-Hays Scholarship. Fulbright Grants were established in 1949 as a channel to increase mutual understanding between "peoples of other countries and the United States through the exchange of persons, knowledge, and skills." (You can learn more about this opportunity for educators through the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at http://exchanges.state.gov/education/fulbright/about.htm.) This federal education grant would make it possible for me to travel and study in China during the upcoming summer break.
After I came back down to earth and the dust settled, I began to reflect on the most meaningful ways to include my learning community in this upcoming adventure. As the school media specialist in a rural elementary school, I worked with all of the teachers, all of the students, and many parents and grandparents in the daily course of my professional life. I had recently initiated a personal blog for family and friends, and I was enjoying the process as a personal learning initiative, a creative outlet, and as a conduit for communication. A travel weblog, updated as I progressed across the Asian continent, seemed a perfect vehicle for sharing my experiences abroad. My third graders studied ancient China as part of their state-mandated social studies. I had a 6-year history of working with my students and school community to build technology skills. The community in which I lived supported me as a teacher and a learner. What I did not know how to do, I could surely learn.
Shopping for the Right Site
Like most teachers, I often work through ideas with fellow educators. A colleague who taught in a very large middle school as the technology teacher shared her mishaps with a teacher-initiated blog. Originally intended as a creative forum and instructional tool for her students, the blog seemed to take on a direction of its own over time, becoming instead a space for gossip, personal comments, and socializing among her students. Bombarded on a daily basis by the imperative to edit, revise, and delete hundreds of student responses, her pronouncement on her blog experiment was "never again." Online reading yielded further information on ways that blogging was being integrated into learning experiences and offered many thoughtful suggestions as well.
I realized that it was important to shop for a blog tailored to my needs. As a beginner, I needed a weblog that was user-friendly on both ends and safe and accessible for my students. I also needed one that offered management and control options. There are many weblog servers available, and nearly all of them are free. I ultimately decided to go with Blogger.com, a free service provided through Google. Blogger provided me with full editorial rights, a choice of templates, personalization, my own web address, and a platform that allowed me to insert (and delete) web links, photos, slideshows, maps, audio capabilities, and lists along with my online journal entries. It also included help sites and tutorials. Viewers were free to respond to my journal entries, but only after those responses were sent to me in email form, where I was given the choice to reject or to include each response as it appeared.
Setting the Stage
The immersion of my third-grade students in ancient Asian studies provided the platform for a test run of an educational blog during the spring of 2007. In collaboration with the classroom teacher, students read A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park. Their book reviews and recommendations were posted to the blog site. A study of Chinese dynasties provided a springboard for research and summary skills. Student results were posted on the same site. With the help of an LCD projector, I was able to project the site onto a screen, provide some instruction in navigating through a blog, and demonstrate the process of setting up a weblog site. Interestingly, when I began the lesson by asking my students if they knew what a weblog or blog was, I received a room full of blank stares. When I asked the same children if they knew what MySpace was, nearly every hand in the room flew up. Sometimes it is all about the language!
As summer break approached, I used Publisher software to print a number of colorful business cards advertising the blog address. Finished off with a bit of magnetic tape, readied for the refrigerator, and prefaced by an article in our school newsletter, these user-friendly business cards provided the perfect reminder to check the weblog over the summer break.
Live From Beijing … and Beyond
Outfitted with a newly acquired, lightweight laptop computer and a digital camera, I took off for orientation and training in Menlo Park, Calif. While in California, I created and posted a few entries. My first trip to China did not come with a guarantee of full internet accessibility, but I trusted that I would have enough access available to the make the addition of the extra luggage worth my while.
Once in China, I took advantage of a few user-friendly tools to keep my readers informed and engaged. The friendly format of blogger.com made it easy to embed links, enabling my students to further investigate and to learn independently. Photos taken along the way were easily uploaded to the site. I made use of a few web tools, such as PictureTrail (www.picturetrail.com), to build attractive slide displays of experiences and locations. Google Maps (www.googlemaps.com) provided link-friendly maps that allowed me to chart my trip through China; to add place markers, comments, and a mileage log; and to refine map skills in my students as they followed my journey. The insertion of a video clip by China’s tourism bureau provided a breathtaking view of Chinese culture and geography. Audio clips provided opportunities to hear the Mandarin language as well as traditional Chinese music. I also included a suggested reading list and an interactive survey on China’s cities. Long in the habit of teaching to all modalities, I made sure there was something for everyone in this weblog.
I wasn’t the only member in my Fulbright group with the idea of blogging along the trail. Several other teachers also kept an educational blog. One high school history teacher took on the monumental task of keeping a daily weblog for his students. I preferred to organize my entries by topic, keeping them "elementary friendly," and allowing me a day or two respite between entries. (I was also compiling and sending out photo albums through PictureTrail and Ofoto.) On more than one occasion, my fellow bloggers helped me navigate my way through new IP addresses, international conversions, and intermittent access limitations.
The Chinese Connection
While immersed in a new culture, traveling halfway around the world in the company of new friends, what a joy it was to hear from my learning community as they read and responded to the weblog! Among my responders were students, former students, teachers (from my school as well as neighboring schools), parents, grandparents, and community members. Some families logged on together to follow the trip.
Because a foundation had been set for Chinese studies during the school year, students were eager to learn more about China and its culture during their summer break. "I jumped up every day and checked the blog," said 8-year-old Dorsey. "I knew that China was interesting. But now I feel like I know so much more about China."
"Seeing (my teacher) there made it so real," said Jade. "I tried to answer the questions on the blog, like finding out the length of the Great Wall of China." Jade’s mother and sisters followed the blog along with her, and they added to their knowledge of China by checking out related books during summer visits to the public library.
Charlie, a former student and rising eighth grader, logged on as well. "It was amazing to see the sights and read about the experiences as they happened," he said. "I see someone I know do something like that (travel to China), and it makes me realize that I can do anything. It inspires me."
Still Learning Stateside
With the advent of a new school year, we were able to draw from the information posted on the weblog to continue to learn. We revisited the blog as a class. A quick show of hands let me know that about 50% of the student body had visited the site over the summer. While some students were hesitant to post on the blog (and others thought they had), there were many questions and comments during our discussions. Of particular fascination were the strong contrasts of China—from ultramodern Beijing readying itself for the 2008 Olympic Games to the rural villages of the Guizhou province, where time seems to stand still. Student interest catapulted a research and technology project that we christened "Time Tunnel." Using the weblog as a springboard for further research, students chose a particular place or site to investigate from information on the weblog’s Google Map. Pupils were asked to consider their locations from two perspectives—the past and the present. Each student developed a first-person narrative reflecting the changes of that location over time. Creative play and digital photography skills integrated as they used the artifacts and souvenirs I collected in China to take photos of each other in (none too authentic) Chinese garb.
Adobe Photoshop Elements provided the tools for the next piece of our project. Choosing from digital albums of photos snapped during my travels, students developed layered photos. Photos of their research site formed the first layer of the image. Student portraits formed the second layer. The third layer paired the photos on a background, and a fourth layer added their original texts as well as a graphic timeline. Some students captured additional images from educational sites and added them to their timelines. The resulting pieces served as a demonstration of mastery in the areas of research, writing, and technology. Students practiced weblog technologies as they practiced uploading their finished projects and written summaries to the site.
Layers of Learning
The prime directive of the school media specialist is to cultivate within his or her students an enthusiasm for lifelong learning. That means finding creative ways to connect and to encourage authentic learning. That directive may stretch beyond the traditional curriculum, the school walls, the K–5 learning range, or the nation’s borders. In a virtual forum that includes everyone, it most definitely speaks to the reality that teaching and learning are, at heart, a very human enterprise. Our weblog continues to play a role as a learning and communicative tool for our current third graders as they begin their studies of ancient China. Photos, entries, and links allow students to learn independently, while student projects serve as models for peer teaching. Children in our community, and in others, may log on at any time to relive the journey, cultivating reading, writing, research, and technology skills as they embark on their own virtual travels through the fascinating land of China.
Check it out for yourself! Log onto www.mrsriddle.blogspot.com.
Johanna Riddle is the media specialist at Samsula Elementary School, Volusia County Schools, Fla. She is nationally certified in K–12 media education and has been the recipient of a number of awards and recognitions, including the Smithsonian’s Learning Innovation and Florida’s Art Educator of the Year awards. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.