Prepared is best, but underprepared is always better than overprepared.
— Jesse Stommel (@Jessifer) February 19, 2014

Newman and I had our students create blogs this year as a way to practice formative writing that accounts for an authentic audience and prepares students for success in summatively assessed writing. For example, if we were ultimately going to write a compare/contrast paper, students would first practice the skills of comparing/contrasting on their blog.

In addition, a key part of the blog assignment is giving students a chance to think about their learning.  The blog functions as a place to practice writing, but it is also used to post summative assignments and reflections. In this way, the blog captures a student’s work for the class in one place, provides an authentic audience, and requires other design decisions as students consider the genre of blogging.

Basically, the blog acts as a platform for formative practice and as a hub or portfolio for publishing a student’s work from throughout the year.

Our students have done some pretty amazing work. They’ve designed blogs that show genre awareness, they’ve practiced the skills for a unit in various ways, and they’ve created some strong final assessments.

The truth is, though, that if you would have asked me last summer if I thought the blogs would look like they do and that we would have been able to do all of the things mentioned above, I wouldn’t have had any idea what you were talking about.

Initially, I was looking for students to complete a more traditional digital portfolio, like the kind DePaul University has been at the forefront of using. This would have been a carefully designed showcase of the student’s best work and a reflection component for each piece and the portfolio as a whole.

Courtesy of Ridolfo and Devoss’ “Composing for Recomposition”

I was also interested in having students remix an assignment from the year in order to show their understanding of how rhetorical situation is contextual and that text can be repurposed. Jim Ridolfo and Danielle Nicole Devoss call this “rhetorical velocity.” They explain that “[r]hetorical velocity is, simply put, a strategic approach to composing for rhetorical delivery. It is both a way of considering delivery as a rhetorical mode, aligned with an understanding of how texts work as a component of a strategy.” In particular, I was interested in the “remix” aspect of Ridolfo and Devoss’ “rhetorical velocity.” I wanted students to have an “understanding of how the speed at which information composed to be recomposed travels—that is,… [an] understanding [of the] rapidity at which information is crafted, delivered, distributed, recomposed, redelivered, redistributed, etc., across physical and virtual networks and spaces.” 

I believe that if students understand rhetorical velocity and how to remix effectively they will have a much stronger understanding of digital literacy and participate online as more informed digital citizens. For example, one of my students was thrilled to receive the following comment on a post that analyzes “Holocene” by Bon Iver:

Courtesy of whereswaldoemerson.wordpress.com
The blog assignment that resulted in little celebratory moments like the above was a direct result of collaboration among colleagues. After a series of back and forth emails where I wrote—as per usual—way too much—something that is typical of Newman and my collaborative process—Newman wrote:   

Saturday 7/20/13 3:34pm: Is this possibly the opportunity for the students to start using blogs? Then we can have them also embed videos they make for class–or images they analyze–and it can all be hosted together? 

I love the exigency of “this” in the above email. By having students blog, they would have a hub for the portfolio, reflections, and remix mentioned above, and, as Newman suggested, they would  have a place to document their learning in the formative stages as they move toward composing a summative assessment.

You see, we had tried blogs a couple of times before and had wanted to find a natural way to include the genre in our first year writing courses. This was our chance.

I’ll spare you of any links to the first time we tried blogs. Essentially, we had a class blog where students posted a rhetorical analysis of a speech.  It was not my best moment as an educator. Basically, we didn’t have students do the work to become familiar with the genre of blogging, so the posts were too text heavy, lacked proper paragraphing, and didn’t hyperlink. Thankfully, we scratched that idea after only doing it one time. We needed to take into account the question Eric Patnoudes poses: “Are you using technology to transform instruction or is it simply replacing the old ways of doing things?

For the next couple of years students completed a blog also dedicated to just one assignment. This time, however, we had each student create his/her own blog and we scaffolded toward the summative assessment. Students practiced paragraphing, linking, hyperlinking, and embedding images and video. By the time they had to write and post their summative assessment (an evaluation of a restaurant, product, or album) they had a strong understanding of the genre constraints for blogging.

We took what we learned from doing the evaluation blog assignment for a couple of years and built our current assignment.

But, as I mentioned in the beginning of this post, I didn’t know what the end result would be. I have to say that I wasn’t prepared for all of the nuances we ended up coming across as students composed their blogs.

We even ended up using the blogs as a platform for the final 8-10 minute presentation—at the suggestion of Eric Patnoudes.

I’m proud of the work students did this year with blogging. Their blogs tell some great stories about their journey to learn new literacies, different modes of writing, remixing, and the blogs finish up with a presentation about their story as writers. 

In a sense, once the year ends, our students’ blogs are finished. This seems to contradict the purpose of a blog, but I guess it makes sense if, as Roland Barthes argued, we don’t “furnish [the text] with a final signified.” Sure, the class is over, but the inherent nature of composing for digital audiences assumes that the work students did on their blogs could potentially be repurposed or remixed in various ways by future audiences.

I‘m glad we didn’t approach blogging 100% prepared with a script of assignments, but remained flexible and allowed for creativity. 

I guess you could say that Newman and I were “prepared,” but not “overprepared.” We found the sweet spot with this one.