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5 Ways Students Can Learn as They Blog

American writer, editor, and teacher William Zinsser taught that “writing, and learning, and thinking are the same process.” If this is true, then the not-so-easy task of the teacher is to get students to effectively put their thoughts into words on a page. One relatively simple way to get students engaged in the process is to help them take ownership of online writing; specifically, get students to create and maintain a blog, which will allow for what Zinsser calls the four basic premises of writing: “clarity, brevity, simplicity, and humanity.”

5 Ways Students Can Learn as They Blog

    1. Write about topics that interest them.

      Allowing students to choose topics that have personal and meaningful applications to their lives provides opportunities for better writing. Still, some students will be stumped and say, “I can’t think of anything to write about.” Consider encouraging them to scan the front page of Yahoo, Google, or any other online news source. Read some headlines, which might lead to reading some articles. Respond to news they find interesting, shocking, or outrageous. (Look, you may have students reading AND writing!)

    1. Write in response to current events or videos that make them think.

      Posting links on a teacher or class blog and asking students to read and then respond on their own blogs allows teachers more control over the selection of topics that students write about than complete self-selection. Consider linking news articles like Kelly Gallagher’sArticle of the Week” and asking students to post their reflections, or post YouTube videos that have thematic ties to the literature being discussed in class. Students can write commentary or reflections as a way to show they are learning about life outside the classroom.

    1. Write in response to questions about literature.

      Asking questions that make students think and/or justify their thinking about the books they are reading creates instant “prompts” for student blogging. Open-ended questions like “How does this story relate to _____?” or “How would you deal with _______?” or “Describe another story that deals with the same conflict” lead students to make connections with the text that may help with their reading comprehension. Of course, by adding the “use text evidence to support your answer” component, students learn how to justify their responses and maybe embed quotes and all that good stuff.

    1. Write to show technology integration by using hyperlinks, tags, digital images, videos, etc.

      Encouraging students to add links, tags, images, etc. in their posts ensures that they are exploring what it means to embrace 21C writing skills. When students model authors’ blogs that effectively lead readers to more information, they show that they understand how knowledge is linked and perhaps they will come to understand that seeking knowledge takes effort.

    1. Write in response to peer posts and comments.

      Requiring students to interact with their peers’ online writing promotes a spirit of collaboration and community beyond the classroom. Teach respect in terms of language, but also allow for disagreement, as debate is what often makes for deeper learning.

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Yes, You Can Do Workshop in an AP English Class

I sat listening to Donalyn Miller the author of The Book Whisperer talk about how she gets her students to read an average of 60 books a year. She talked about student choice in selecting books. She talked about reading herself in order to match books with kids. She talked about creating readers and not just teaching reading. I thought:  “Cool, but how do I do that with MY students?”

I’d just been assigned to teach AP English Language and Composition the next fall, and I was trying to get my thoughts aligned with the expectations from the College Board. At the same time I was in the middle of my three weeks National Writing Project summer institute, and I kept hearing that I must give students time, and more time, to read and write. My head swam.

At one point, I asked Donalyn: “This is all great, but how does student choice and all this reading work in an AP English class when the focus is on students passing the exam?” Honestly, I was put off by her response:  “It’s not all about the test. Is it?” Yes. Yes it is.

Or so I thought at the time.

It took me three years to figure out how to use Workshop in my AP English class, but I have. Mostly.

My Definition of Reading Writing Workshop:  Students do more work than me!

Weekly Schedule

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday
Flex Instruction/ Writing Workshop: Timed Writing Debrief

HW: blog post due

Reading Workshop:

Multiple Choice/Critical Reading

Direct Instruction/ Reading or Writing Workshop as needed Writing Workshop: Timed Writing


HW: blog comment due

Alternate Weeks:

Topic & Theme Flood/Vocab & Current Events

The table shows a typical week in my AP workshop classroom. Of course, there are always interruptions to my well-planned schedule.

Blogs:  Student Own and Class

One of the best instructional practices I have is mandating that my students create and post to blogs. Some kids truly take ownership and write more than I assign; some do the absolute minimum. Some refuse to blog at all. Those are the kids who miss out on the practice it takes to become an effective writer, and most of those do not get qualifying scores on the AP exam. My class blog is Citizen Scholars. You can see how I post prompts that students respond to either in the comments or on their own blogs. To see student sample blogs scroll down my blogroll and click on a few. Some are better than others: Joseph, Sarosh, and Simina’s are quite good. When I give students choice about what they write on their own blogs, I consistently get better writing.

In the fall of this past year, I had students find and read current events of their choice. On their blogs they had to write a response to something within the article they read. I scored their writing based on whatever skill we worked on in class that week, using a generic version of the AP writing rubric. Spring semester I tried something new: students were to move through the modes of writing. They got to choose their topics; one week they were to write a description, another week a compare/contrast, etc.

My students write more than I can ever grade. I might grade one in three blog posts, but the more feedback I give, the better the writing. Using Google Reader and the Flipboard app on my iPad is a simple way to read student blogs. I give feedback on sticky notes. Or, if you get your students using Twitter, they can tweet their blog urls every time they post. Again, using my iPad, I can read their blogs and leave feedback quickly via my own tweets and re-tweets of student blog posts.

Multiple Choice Practice/ Critical Reading

Historically, the part of the AP exam that my students do the worst is on the multiple choice section.  As a result, I’ve tried to include more targeted practice with critical reading. My goal is for students to complete 30 multiple choice practices per year. This is difficult (I think I got through 24 last year) but is proving to be worth it as students’ scores improve. Some variations on multiple choice practice (all can be done in small groups or with partners) include:

  • Students read and discuss the passage, finding rhetorical devices and explaining the effect they have on the piece
  • Students use question stems to write their own questions and/or answers for the passage
  • Students receive the multiple choice questions without the answer choices and must answer the questions in short essay format
  • Students receive only the answer choices and must compose the questions that go with them

When students engage in the “work” of reading, they are absorbed in what I called Workshop. The challenge for me was learning to trust that my students would find everything important within a passage. They surprise me every single time!

Direct Instruction/ Reading or Writing Workshop

I learned from Penny Kittle the value of using professional authors like Leonard Pitts, Jr. and Rick Reilly as mentors. Craig Wilson, USA Today columnist, and Mitch Albom are also favorites. These authors write about high interest, contemporary topics, and their writing is chalk full of the rhetorical devices I want my students to include in their own writing. Some weeks we read like readers–reading articles as we focus on content and comprehension. Some weeks we read like writers–analyzing articles as we identify and discuss the effects of the language the authors use to create their messages. Like Kittle, with students I create anchor charts that hang in the room, which detail the different techniques authors use in the majority of their pieces. In years past I’ve had students write process papers on topics of their choice, modeling the writing of one of our mentors. These are often students’ favorite pieces of writing.

Since time is so limited, students write their drafts outside of class. (Of course, I have to teach them the difference between a draft that they are ready to get feedback on from peers and their pre-writing that they quickly sketch during the period prior to mine. Drives me crazy.) In class, students read, evaluate, and give feedback on one another’s writing as I wander the room and conference with as many students as possible.

Conferencing is the key to creating better writers.

During my larger classes, it is difficult to conference with each student. I often post a sign up sheet with time slots for before or after school. Students may choose to meet with me for a more in-depth discussion about their writing. Depending on the student’s needs, I might make this additional conference time mandatory.

Book Clubs

Since I want my students to become lifelong readers, I try to introduce them to books that they will be compelled to read. The AP English Language exam, unlike the Literature exam, does not require students to be well-versed in any specific pieces of literature. It would be easy to delete full-length books from my syllabus, but in my heart I am still a literature teacher, so I want my students to read good books. I also agree with Penny Kittle:  students must be prepared for the rigorous reading they will have to do in college. If I can get students to spend time reading books they enjoy, perhaps they will be better prepared for the time demand of college reading.

I got the idea of student book clubs from a colleague in a neighboring district. She introduced me to the novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safron Foer (before the movie) and told me that once I read that book and felt the need to talk about it–because I would, I would understand how Book Clubs could work with my students. She was right. When students read something that is interesting and requires discussion, they will read (instead of Spark Note), and they will be more likely to read more.

My students read a minimum of four books outside of class (not enough, I know.) They choose titles from my short list. While this does not allow for complete student choice, it does allow for a little. I try to select books that have complex themes or subject matter yet are engaging enough that teenagers will find them interesting. Students meet in Book Clubs during class once a week for about three weeks to discuss their books. Then, our focus changes from reading to writing. Students continue to meet with their Book Clubs, but now the clubs become writing groups. Once the books are read, students must write process papers in which they address some aspect of the book they read and write an argument about it, using evidence from the books as their support. Many students find these essays difficult; they are very college-like in that students must “read the book and write a paper about it.”

I conduct many mini-lessons while students are writing these essays, i.e., structure of an essay, semi-colon and/or colon use, periodic sentences, embedding quotes, etc. Students know if I teach a mini-lesson, I expect to see evidence of mastery of that skill within their essays.

Topic & Theme Flood/ Vocab & Current Events

The topic & theme flood is something my team is going to try this year. We got the idea from a trainer from AP Strategies we’ve been working with for the past year. She suggested that since most students know so little about the world in which they live, we need to bring the world inside our classrooms more. Every other Friday students will engage in a discussion about a specific topic, e.g., integrity, belief, power, success. They will read a short passage that focuses on the topic, identify the theme, and then have to “hunt” via the web for current events that relate to that topic and/or theme. Then they will engage in some kind of activity wherein they share the articles that they find. We hope this will help build student background knowledge for the variety of passages that might appear on the exam, and build their knowledge of the events happening in the world around them. We plan to include vocabulary instruction that corresponds to our topics, but that is still a work in progress. Most recently we used a vocabulary list of SAT words, but we feel that focusing on words that would describe tone might be more beneficial–not sure how that will look yet.


While I do not have Workshop at an AP level all figured out yet, I love the challenge of trying. I know that students like to think, and they like to be busy in class in a way that forces them to figure things out. Workshop is the best avenue I have found for getting there. The best comment I heard all year came from Daniel, a genius of a kid with a knack for cutting up and getting under my skin. He said, “Mrs. Rasmussen, this is so hard. You make us think so much.”

Yep. Something is working.

Writing Workshop: Assessment and Hope

Students should write more than teachers can ever grade. I heard this first from Kelly Gallagher, author of the book Readicide, a book, among others, that helped me frame my curriculum around Workshop. If I remember correctly, he said that his students write four times more than he grades. Really?

I pondered this for a long while, and I still struggle, but I think I have some of it figured out. I thought for a long time that my students would not write unless I graded what they wrote. Every assignment:  “Is this for a grade?” Every answer: “Yes, everything is for a grade.” The refrain got old.

Then I tried something new: I began writing with my students on the first day of school, and I had some kind of writing activity every single day. I don’t remember where I read it, but when I was researching the work of the reading writing workshop gurus a couple of years ago, I know I read:  if you struggle with time and have to choose between reading or writing, choose writing.

It’s the complete opposite of what I thought:  My students are struggling readers. How do I give up reading when I know they need it? I thought about it more and realized: If I teach writing well, students will be reading. And they will be reading a lot.

So let me explain how this works for me. Remember, I teach AP English Language and Composition (that’s the top 11th graders) and English I (that’s on-level freshmen)–two extremes.

Writing Every Day

There are many ways to get students to write every day. Of course, some ways will get them to take their writing more seriously than others. I find that when I give them an audience, students will put a lot more effort into what comes out their pens. Audience matters!

Topic Journals. Following the advice of Penny Kittle, author of Write Beside Them, I created “topic journals” that students write in once a week the first semester. I bought composition notebooks and printed labels, using various fonts, of the topics: love, conflict, man vs. man, man vs. self, man vs. nature, war, death, gender, hope, redemption, family, romance, hate, promise, temptation, evil, compromise, self-reliance, education, friendship, guilt, doubt, expectation, admiration, ambition, courage, power, patience, fate, temperance, desire, etc. I created 36 notebooks; one for each student in my largest class.

I introduced the topic journals to my AP students first. I set up the scenario:  “I will be teaching 9th grade. I need your help. Do you remember what it was like to be new to high school? nervous, anxious, a little bit obnoxious? I created these notebooks so you could write and give advice to my younger, less advanced students.”

The first task was to turn to the first page in the journal and define the topic. Many looked up the terms in the dictionary or online. They wrote a quickwrite explaining what the topic meant. Then on the next page they wrote about anything they liked as long as their writing fit the topic. I had them sign their posts with their initials and the class period. I told them that they could choose their form (a letter, a narrative, an advice column) as long as they remembered that their audience was 9th graders, and whatever they wrote had to be school appropriate. “If you write about bombs or offing yourself or anyone else, you’re off to see the counselor or the police.” These are good kids, most of them in National Honor Society. They took my charge to help my younger students seriously. This exercise often worked as a lead into our critical reading or class discussion that day, and sometimes students chose a piece they’d started in a topic journal to continue exploring for a process piece.

You can imagine how I introduced the journals to my freshmen. I began by saying, “You know I teach AP English, right? That’s the college-level English class. Well, those students would like to offer you advice about high school, life, and whatever else you might have to deal with the next few years. They are going to write to you in these topic journals. Your job when you see these notebooks on the tables is to choose the one that “calls” to you. First, you will read the messages the older students wrote for you, and then you will respond. Remember to use your best writing.” I then set the timer and had students read and write for 10-15 minutes, depending on the lesson I planned that day. Sometimes I had students share out what they wrote; most often we tucked the notebooks away for another week.

Students constantly fought over a couple of the topics:  love, death, and evil were their favorites. I am certain that is telling (and it did help me when selecting titles for book talks.)

While students wrote in topic journals, I read what students had previously written in the notebooks kids did not select. I’d write a quick line or two in response to something in that notebook. I always used a bright orange or green pen, so students could tell I’d had my eyes in that journal. They knew I was reading them, but they never knew when or what entry. This helped hold them accountable for not only the content of what they were writing but also the mechanics of how they were writing it.

Assessment? Formative. Students have to think quickly and write about a topic on a timed test for the AP exam (11th grade) and STAAR (9th grade).


At first I only set up a class blog, and I had students write in response to posts I put on the front page and in response to an article I put on an article of the week page (another Gallagher idea). It didn’t take me long to realize that students would write more and take more ownership of their craft if they created their own blogs. The first year I had students set up blogs I taught gifted and talented sophomores, and I was nervous. Nervous that something would happen:  they’d post inappropriate things, they’d do something to get themselves and me in trouble, they’d be accosted by trolls out to hurt children through internet contact. I chose Edublogs.org as the platform because I could be an administrator on the student blogs, and I had my kids use pseudonyms. This was overkill. Yes, I did have to change two things that year:  one student called his blog Mrs. Rasmussen. I told him my husband didn’t appreciate that much. Another kid used a picture of a bomb as his avatar. Not funny. All-in-all my students did great, and they wrote a lot more (and better) than they ever did for me on paper. I was a stickler for errors and created this cruel scoring guide that said something like: A=only one minor error, B=two minor error, C=three minor errors, F=four or more errors. Students that had never gotten a C in their lives were freaking out over F’s. “Sorry, kiddo, that’s a comma splice. That’s a run-on.” I had more opportunities to teach grammar mini-lessons than I ever had in my career. But see, these kids cared about their grades.

My 9th graders now–not so much. They care about a lot of things, but if I punish them for comma errors or the like, they shut down and stop writing. I learned to be much more careful. Now, I work on building relationships so they trust me to teach them how to fix the errors themselves. It takes a lot more time, but in the end, student writing improves, and students feel more confident in their abilities. I am still working on getting my 9th graders to be effective writers. So far, I have not accomplished that too well, as is evidence of their EOC scores this year.

This past year my AP English students posted on their blogs once a week. I told them that I would read as many of their posts as I could, but I would only grade about every three. I wouldn’t tell them which ones I’d be grading. I let students choose their topics, but since I had to teach them specific skills to master for the AP exam, I instilled parameters. They had to choose a news article that they found interesting, and then they had to formulate an argument that stemmed from that article. The deadline was 10 pm on Monday–every week. This assignment accomplished two of my objectives:  students will become familiar with the world around them, and students will create pieces that incorporate the skills that we learn in class. When I turned to social media to promote student blogs, I got even more ownership from my students.

Assessment? Formative or Summative. Students apply the skills they learned in class regarding grammar, structure, style, devices, etc. Scored using the AP Writing Rubric for the persuasive open-ended question.

Twitter in the Classroom

One of these days I will write a post about the many ways I used Twitter in class this year. For now, let me just tell you:  Twitter was the BEST thing I added to my arsenal of student engagement tools. Ever.

When I began asking students to tweet their blog url’s after they wrote on Mondays, I started leaving quick and easy feedback via Twitter. It was so easy! Kids would tweet their posts; I’d read them; re-tweet with a pithy comment. Within minutes of the first couple of tweet exchanges, students were posting and tweeting more. They were getting feedback from me, and they were giving feedback to one another. They began building a readership, and that’s what matters if students blog. Just because they are posting to the world wide web does not mean anyone is reading what they write. But, a readership, especially one that will leave comments, that’s a whole new story.

Assessment? Formative. Students share their writing and make comments about their peers’ writing. Critical thinking is involved because students only have 140 characters to express their views.

Student Choice. Sometimes.

In a perfect writing class, I am sure students get to choose what they write about every time. This does not work in an AP English class where I am trying to prepare students for that difficult exam. Once a week my students complete a timed writing where they respond to an AP prompt. The guidelines for AP clearly state that the essays are scored as drafts; minor errors are expected. My students must practice on-demand writing. There is no time for conferencing or for taking these essays through the writing process. Unless–we revisit. And sometimes we do. Students are allowed to re-assess per our district grading policy if they score below an 85. 85 is difficult for many of my students, so lots of them re-assess. To do so, students must come in and conference with me about their timed writing. I am usually able to pick out the trouble spots quite easily, and it’s through these brief conversations that I get the most improvement from student writing. Often, instead of conferencing with me, students will evaluate their essays with one another.

I show several student models of higher scoring essays and teach students how to read the AP Writing Rubric. Then, in round robin style, students assess their own essays and at least three of their peers. I remind students not to be “nice” to their friends and give a score that’s undeserved. This will not help anyone master the skills necessary for the AP exam. Rarely do students give themselves or their peers scores higher than I would.

My students also write process papers. For AP reading workshop students choose a book from my short list. After reading and discussing the books with their Book Clubs, students have to write an essay that argues some topic from the book. I model how to structure an essay. I model how to write an engaging introduction. I model how to imbed quotes and how to write direct and indirect citations. I model everything I want to see in this type of writing.

I allow several weeks in my agenda to take these papers through the writing process, and students do most of the work outside of class (not so with my 9th graders).

  • Day one students generate thesis statements, and we critique, re-write, and re-critique.
  • Day two students bring drafts that we read and evaluate in small groups. (I have to teach them that a draft is a finished piece that they are ready to get feedback on–not a quickwrite. So many students type up their rough draft and call in good. This makes me crazy! And I tell them that I will not read their first draft unless they come before or after school or during lunch. They must work on their craft before I will spend my time reading it.)
  • Day three students bring another draft that we read and evaluate again. Sometimes, depending on where my kids are in terms of producing a good piece, I will take these up and provide editing on the first page. Never more than the first page!
  • Day four students turn in their polished papers. I score them holistically on a rubric that aligns with the AP Writing one, or if it’s my 9th graders, I score them on the appropriate STAAR writing rubric.

My freshmen students need a much more hand holding, and we do a lot of writing on lined yellow paper. Most often, especially at the first of the year, they get to choose their own topics. However, I have to give them a lot more structure because on the new Texas state test. 9th graders have to write two essays (about 300 words each): a literary essay, which is an engaging story, and an expository essay, which explains their thinking about a given prompt. Students use the yellow paper to draft during class. I wander the room, answering questions and keeping kids on task. I also try to write an essay every time I ask students to do so. I use these essays as mentor texts in addition to mentor texts I find by professional authors.

Usually I begin class with some kind of mini-lesson if students are in the middle of drafting. I might show students a paragraph with a description that uses sensory imagery and instruct them to add some description in their own writing. Or, I might teach introductory clauses and have students revise a sentence to include one or two or three. This way I am able to get authentic instruction that my students need right there in the middle of their writing time. When I score these student papers, I specifically look for the skills I’ve explicitly taught. If I do it right, I will have read my students papers one or two times during their writing process, prior to them ever turning in their final draft.

Notice I said “if I do it right.” I rarely do it right. I am still learning to budget my time and get to every kid. I am still learning to get every kid to write. I am writing English I curriculum this summer, which I will use in the fall. I hope to get some of my challenges with my struggling students worked out as I focus more purposefully on the standards. I realized this year that while I am teaching writing as a process all the time, I am not necessarily targeting the standards that fit into the process. I am thinking about this a lot lately.

This is still my burning question:  how can I get kids who hate to read and write to participate in writing workshop so their writing improves and their voices are heard?

I am turning to the gurus as I research and think this summer. Jeff Anderson’s book 10 Things Every Writer Should Know has been an excellent start.

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