Saturday, February 11, 2012

Two-way journals with 7th graders

    This year I’ve introduced my 7th graders to Moodle (used already with 8th graders for two previous years).  As always, the 7th graders demonstrate how very different they are from 8th graders.  For example, more and more of my students are choosing the online/ Moodle option for their two-way journals; in my blended classroom, students read a book both have picked, and then write back and forth about it.  For more about these journals, see:  While only about a third of 8th graders choose Moodle, with their second two-way journal project, only a few 7th graders are still writing on paper.  (Some students still prefer cool-looking diaries, or spiral notebooks.) 

   Three big differences.  First, the already-mentioned 7th grade enthusiasm for using online / Moodle for communications (even though they see each other daily).  Boys and girls used Moodle discussions at about the same rates.

    Second difference, 7th grade students are reading faster.  In the past, I’ve given students about 2 ½ to 3 weeks to read their books, and many have needed every single day.   Lately, I’ve been hearing, “Can we get a new book?  We finished ours already,” from the 7th grade.  The 8th graders enjoy the project, but take a more blasé attitude.  They finish the book and write reflections after they’ve finished.  The 7th graders seem to prefer to keep on reading.  On the other hand, I’ve had quite a number of “non-reader” 8th graders who have begged for us to do more two-way journals, “so we can read the next book in that series.”   And 8th graders don’t have time set aside for reaching, while 7th graders still do.

    Third difference, students are writing more, and writing in more depth. In most cases, I’m seeing deeper thinking.  This is only the second two-way journal  that the 7th graders have done.  But boy do they get it.  And are they into it!  They’re even referring to things they learned in other classes.  I’m seeing this across the spectrum of reading ability; with 8th graders, I see more of what I can only call “dancing on the surface.”  8th grade is more about being cool; 7th graders can’t manage that yet.

    Two 7th grade pairs selected a book they decided they hated  after just a few days of reading – Canned.  Could they please, please change?  Of course!  I want them to find a book they’d rather read because then they’ll read.  One pair selected New Boy.  The other chose One Fat Summer.  And they’re off and running.  (The 8th graders when they didn’t particularly like the book, persevered.  Too much trouble to find a new book?)  It does help to have hundreds of books for them to choose from. 

    I’m curious to see how these 7th graders will use two-way journals next year when they are in 8th grade.  Will they take a step back?  Be less enthusiastic?  I’ll need to find a way to  make two-way journals become fresh for them – maybe require them to add images to their words, something the 7th graders occasionally do already without prompting.

Using personal online conversations to help students achieve

    When students are engaged in an extensive research project, I want them to have a way to converse privately with the teacher, to reflect about what they’re learning, and to have an opportunity to get extra help.  I called these Private Journals to reinforce their private nature.   In the past, I’ve used separate threads in a single discussion forum for this task, but that didn’t provide much privacy.  Once I learned how to use the Online Text Assignment in Moodle, I switched to this instead. See:

    I’ve always thought providing this private communication channel was a good idea.  But I’ve found evidence that it’s even better than I thought. 

    After we finished the project, I asked students to tell me what worked well for them and what didn’t work; they answered free-form, not from a list.  Many of them spontaneously said they liked the Private Journals.

    I wasn’t even sure they were looking at my replies in the Private Journals, but then I checked out the Participation Report (under Administration >Reports) where I could see how many times students edited or viewed the entries.  (Thanks to Colin Matheson in the Moodle Mayhem Listserv  for this great idea).  Students generally wrote their entry without further rewrites,  but many went back to either 1) see if I had replied yet, or 2) read my reply several times.  How’s that for evidence that teachers matter?

    I really enjoy this part of the project, as it allows me to give undivided individual attention.
    Clearly students want this special attention.  I could suggest resources or search strategies, or give attaboys, or listen to some new cool fact they had learned, or just share their enthusiasm for what they were learning.  It was like having a mini-tutoring session with each student – without interruptions as well as with time for me to think. 

    I had been afraid that I wouldn’t be able to get the conversation going when each Private Forum post was separate from previous entries; in each, the student speaks and then the teacher speaks.  This was more disjointed than using a separate thread in a discussion forum for each student.  But we still managed.

    I also learned to add the due date to the title of the different posts so that students could distinguish them.  (I had originally just posted four Private Journals for students to post to, but they found this confusing, and were posting in random Private Journals – lesson learned). 

    As in the past, when I’ve used this tool (along with making sure students have found a subject they really want to research,) the result has been well-researched and well-written reports from a great variety of learners. 

    I always thought this was a useful tool – I just didn’t know how much.