The greatest direct teaching benefit is the ability to differentiate tasks. To me, authentic differentiation means that students work on the same task with differentiated support, organization, and strategies. Differentiated should never be 'different'. I have discovered many ways to use our class blog to differentiate, but I would like to highlight the most powerful with an example of an assignment. Here's their current task posted on our blog:
Follow the link and watch some TED talks about children. Please choose one and post it on your blog. Be sure to write your opinion about it as well as any personal comments you might have.
As in any classroom, my students have a range of language and and analytical skills. I was able to differentiate this assignment in several ways:
1. EAL - to scaffold for English Language fluency, I wrote 'cloze' paragraphs for a few students which allowed them to focus on the specific content. It became more of a 'listen for' activity which was ideal for them to get started. Later, they changed the original cloze content, which I was all too happy to see, and were able to develop paragraphs comparable to any others in the class.
2. Vocabulary Expansion - Some students hesitate to use new vocabulary. Being an outrageous show-off myself, I don't understand this. For these students, I left private comments on their posts suggesting that they research synonyms for a few stagnant words, or even suggesting alternatives.
3. Roadrunners - At least two students in my class will always tear through a task faster than most. The first differentiation option for them can be to utilize their ability to focus to explore connecting their posts to other articles and content by creating hyperlinks or adding images. I prefer not to automatically give quick-finishers more work, and they almost always prefer the second option: Explore and comment on other class blogs (a valuable activity in itself).
4. Private Comments - When a student completes a post, there is always the opportunity for me to provide 1:1 feedback via private comments. It's a chance to assess their writing objectively and provide the individual and invaluable feedback that truly drives writing instruction, and it gives me something to do at ten o'clock at night.
5. Leveling the Field - I don't do it a lot, but I do edit my students' posts before publishing. I have found it to be effective modeling which also serves to mitigate any embarrassment writers without the best grammar or spelling skills might feel when their work is shown to the world. In some cases, it's great to call a student over for a session of suggestions to model the writing process and make their post ready for the internet.
The instructional possibilities of blogging are limited only by the creativity of the users, so in a sense they are unlimited. At this point, the class is working on expanding their opinion paragraphs into short essays with an integrated technology piece about saving and organizing drafts. To integrate data collection, interpretation, and presentation, we created and added graphs to further strengthen the persuasiveness of the the posts.
Personally, I enjoy the process of printing a manuscript and marking it copiously and I feel it can't really be substituted. But I'm finding that there is also no substitute for the real-time, intimate writing environment of the class blog to provide the authentic differentiation that maximizes learning and motivation.