The Fundamentals of Middle-School Blogging

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 SchoolsElko 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.

Henrico lecture edited cropped

It’s a good thing the screen was there, so they couldn’t see how sunny and beautiful it was outside!

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.

Henrico faculty cropped

With my hosts, Melissa Conner, Garry Marshall and Haley Hendershot.

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.

I love my Loft Literary Center students, but they've never teamed up to make me a thank-you poster!

I love my Loft Literary Center students, but they’ve never teamed up to make me a thank-you poster!

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?

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

23 Responses to “The Fundamentals of Middle-School Blogging”

  1. SO LOVE THIS POST!!!🙂 Of course, I might be biased since I have taught adolescents for a while now. SO many teenagers are told they are special and they can do anything they want but are given no format or structure to help themselves grow. “Get ‘good’ at math and good things will follow.” Blogging for them is a wonderful way to develop their voice and begin to know themselves. They also don’t realize the power they can have, and blogging can be a powerful format for discovery, like the young blogger you mention battling cancer. I don’t care how old anyone is, everyone has a story to share, and we can all learn from one another.

    This is a great vehicles for teenagers to self discover (with some supervision and guidance, of course😉 ). It’s also becoming recognized as a tool for learning engagement and demonstration of understanding in schools. I found it especially helpful to use social media or blogging with introverted students, who were much more likely to blog or write comments about a topic than raise their hand in class. Thanks Patrick! So thrilled you got to do this, hope you had a lot of fun!

    • Hi Carrie! What great feedback, thanks! I have far more experience with adults than children in formal instruction, although I’ve engaged with kids from pre-school through teens in church and volunteer programs over the years and have always enjoyed it.

      It’s interesting to hear that blogging is something increasingly recognized as an educational tool. I first learned of this when Ms. Hendershot reached out to me late last year inquiring about my availability for a workshop with her school’s students. I’m glad to hear the education community is focused on this possibility.

  2. I love this post and am thinking how I would love to have attended your recent workshop but also of the key role that enthusiastic and encouraging people can play in the writing careers of aspiring writers of any age ~ but perhaps most of all the younger generation.

    • You know, that was the thing that surprised me, not their interest in various topics or enjoyment at the freedom blogging gives to express themselves (including the ones reticent to do it aloud, as Carrie suggests above), but their interest in meeting another writer. I’ve been a professional writer in one aspect or another for so long and have been around writers for so long I forget that it’s not something everyone does!

  3. Good work Patrick. Blogging is a name for writing itself. Writing is expressing in written form. I think writing is like breathing and is natural to us all, however basic tools are required. The obvious ones are pretty much a given but confidence does play a part. Constant working with writing turns it into a craft and develops into a highly skilled process. There are no secrets with writing. Just start and keep going. Bloggs, poetry, essays, stories all done for the pleasure of the heart not the audience. Authenticity will win over good grammer anytime.B

    • Love that you mention grammar; there were a handful of students that had grammar and spelling challenges in their posts. But they were first drafts, and I’ll call out my very bright and talented daughter, now 18, who struggled with that in middle and high school!🙂 I made sure we didn’t focus on that in workshop, but instead on the broader strategies the writer brought to the post.

      We are on the same page re: blogging as writing, in particular creative writing. That is the focus of my Loft class, with the particular focus on recognizing the unique challenges of being read online and how that differs from other publication forms.

      • Being read online has a feeling of instant response and so it either floats or sinks for an audience. I have a sense of fatalism about such things as I’m sure you now know. The written work needs to stand alone- it may or may not be read, but it surely has to be written. It is the writing itself in whatever form it takes, that is the only important ingredient. Cars come in all colours, shapes and sizes but one thing that is pretty much a standard is the motor. Without a motor, a car could be a sofa and two chairs. That’s what writing is- the motor of ideas and stories. Blogging gives writing a somewhat ephemeral character but that is entirely dependant on the intent . All writing means something to someone.B

  4. My middle school artists are loving they can post the progress of their artwork.

    • Ah, yes. That reminds me; I don’t think it was required of my daughter, but when she was a senior in high school one of her art teachers encouraged the kids to blog to share their visual art.

  5. Haley Hendershot Reply March 26, 2014 at 5:56 pm

    Thanks, Patrick! You did a wonderful job capturing this event. One of my favorite moments was right before that picture of us was taken. Shanna (a student) laughed when we handed her the camera. “I’m not a photographer. I’m a writer!” she explained. I remember talking to friends in our MFA program who, like me, were very uncomfortable referring to themselves as “writer” or “poet.” Middle school students have a different outlook. They haven’t received rejection letters or papers with red ink all over them (at least not too much). I admire their confidence in trying new things without fear of failure. Thank you for showing my students what their future could look like as a professional writer.

    • Thanks for having me there, Haley!

      Yes, it’s true they haven’t received the criticism and rejection that can come from a serious adult pursuit of writing. We talk sometimes here on this blog about what it means to be a writer, and how it’s more than your “clips” or income, how it’s really more a core part of you and the act of writing (or any art, really) is something you just have to do. We often have to remind ourselves of what these kids know intuitively.

  6. Wow, what a brilliant thing to do, Patrick – and how exciting for all those kids, to have a real writer there to listen to them and mentor them.

    Before there was blogging I think the closest thing would have been the diary or journal; I tried to keep one as a teenager, but my entries were pretty sporadic (partly because I grew up in a house where there was NO SUCH THING as privacy, and so if you could only write the stuff that wouldn’t prompt outrage and interrogations from would-be snoopers it left you only able to write inoffensive platitudes. And what’s the point in that?)

    Blogging though, takes the journal process to a whole new level. It allows you to explore ideas and emotions publicly and with more depth and creativity, with a chance to reach out to other, like-minded people. With a diary, you would write things like “Am I the only person in the world who feels like this?” and keep it as a secret thought or fear, confided to no-one else but yourself (well – unless you lived with my family, but let’s not go there…) With a blog, you can write “Am I the only person in the world who feels like this?” and from somewhere out there in cyberspace comes the reply “No, I feel like this too sometimes” – from people like you, who understand how you feel and are glad they’ve now found someone else who also ‘gets it.’ That’s powerful, with the potential to do great things and change the world – even in teeny little ways.

    With social media proms like Facebook and Instagram putting us all in danger of turning into self-obsessed neurotics (sorry if that sounds harsh, but I have no love for those sites ;P ) I love the idea of young people turning instead to blogging, where they can say something that’s important and meaningful to them, in a manner that encourages them to make use of their writing skills. Much better than “I’m eating pasta LOLZ” with accompanying ‘duckface’ photo.

    I loved reading this post, Patrick. It gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling inside to hear about the next generation of great writers flexing their muscles with such passion and intelligence. You did a wonderful thing that I’m sure they won’t forget in a long time.

    • Hi Wendy! Thank you so much for this comment. You articulated the key difference between blogging and journaling for these kids, the public nature of it. That requires more bravery, but it also offers the reward of having others read your writing. A number of kids talked about how excited they get when someone reads one of their posts and comments. (We also talked about how to leave a constructive comment; you’d be a good instructor on that!)

  7. Great effort with huge potential. What a positive thing blogging has been for me, and no doubt has the same potential (or more) for kids. Much better than the chat rooms I’ve seen, where thoughtless quips are often spewed forth.

    • Ah, chat rooms, a breeding ground of banality and insult. (And companionship, but similar at times to trying to enjoy a coffee date with a friend in a working landfill.) So glad you have found blogging rewarding!

  8. What a fabulous program! That you for sharing. Blogging is a perfect writing style for teens, I think, because it encourages self-expression and discussion with peers–discussion of a far more thoughtful ilk than that found in chat rooms, as you point out above! The teen years are a time of figuring out who you are and what you think…and from my years of blogging, I think blogging is a powerful tool of self-discovery.

    I know of several teen bloggers–friends of my own teens–and I’ve definitely seen a need for privacy education. It’s easy for kids (well, easy all of us) to take the “it can’t happen to me” mentality. I’m so glad you had the opportunity to share your blogging know-how with a teen audience. Are any of your students’ blogs public? I would love to visit them, if they are.

  9. Thank you for using my blog post in your blog, I got more people looking at my blog because of you thanks again I hope you can come again.

  10. I my parents read my blog and were suprised that I don’t want a Quinceañera because they thought I would be a girly girl but I’m not, thank you again for putting my blog post on your blog hope you can go to the school and do the workshop again, that would be perfect!!🙂

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