Daily Archives: September 13, 2010

Using student-written blogs to prompt historical thinking

Student blogging

blog (a blend of the term web log)[1] is a type of website or part of a website. Blogs are usually maintained by an individual with regular entries of commentary, descriptions of events, or other material such as graphics or video. Entries are commonly displayed in reverse-chronological order. Blog can also be used as a verb, meaning to maintain or add content to a blog.

Most blogs are interactive, allowing visitors to leave comments and even message each other via widgets on the blogs and it is this interactivity that distinguishes them from other static websites.[2]

Many blogs provide commentary or news on a particular subject; others function as more personal online diaries. A typical blog combines text, images, and links to other blogs, Web pages, and other media related to its topic. The ability of readers to leave comments in an interactive format is an important part of many blogs. Most blogs are primarily textual, although some focus on art (Art blog), photographs (photoblog), videos (video blogging), music (MP3 blog), and audio (podcasting). Microblogging is another type of blogging, featuring very short posts.

(Wikipedia entry)

Teaching at CCBC, I have access as a professor to the WebCT/Blackboard hybrid as a resource.  There are many features–not all of which I have explored!  One thing I do use it for is posting student blogs for comment.  In truth there are other options for setting up student blogging that do not require using the types of programs that colleges have available, but in my case there are many advantages–tech support, instructional help (usually!) and a site students are already expected to use.

I suppose the first thing to do is to justify to students and the reader why we are using blogs.  I have several reasons:

  1. Improve student writing skills
  2. Force students to write about material in a short snippet, which eliminates summarizing and demands prioritization
  3. Ask students to write about class material we just covered and upcoming material by blogging on assigned reading
  4. Spur discussion and more thought about subjects by requiring participation through comments

Students write two blogs when their turn is up: the first on the previous week’s material and the second on the assigned homework reading.  This means that students are asked to continue to think about material after we have wrapped it up in class (barring connections that require us to look back and reflect) and before they have ever heard me talk about the next subject.  I laid it out for my students with the following instructions:

For our class, we will be using blogs as a way to practice writing, ruminate on material, continue discussions and hold debates.  The responsibility to write blogs will fall on a rotating basis for each small group in our class.  When your group is on the (blog ) deck you will be required to write two blogs: one about class material and discussions to end the first week and one about the homework reading to kick off the next week.  If your group is not blogging that week, then you are commenting on the blogs that have been posted.  You will need to write (at least) one comment on one of the blogs (and, it can be in response to someone else’s comment) at the end of the week and one comment at the beginning of the next week—in other words, you follow the same timeline as the bloggers, but write less.

In our case, a blog should run from 250-300 words in length.  A comment should run from 100-150 characters in length (so, much smaller than the blogs!) and be in response to the content shared by the blogger you selected.  To give you a sense of perspective, the first two sentences in this paragraph have 40 words and 183 characters (not including spaces).  I am able to check this quickly in Word by going to Word Count under the Review tab.  The comments should be meaningful so it should take you some time to craft a response that is on point but not terribly long.  What we want to avoid are statements such as, “I agree,” or, “good point.”  Rather, I would like to see comments that reflect the thoughtfulness and goals we seek to improve on in our course this semester.

Because I will have multiples writing samples from my students, even if they are not terribly long, I can address specific problems that students maybe having with their writing.  On the downside, I am not assigning a research project with this.  Students are required to write two take-home exams, which ask them to demonstrate some of the skills necessary in research–such as reading primary sources and drawing conclusions from evidence in them about an event–based on in-class practicums, but there is no step for going into a library or archive and finding the material you need.  As this is an introductory course, I do not think that it is the end of the world, but part of me pines for written papers based on student research.

In order to help students who might be faced with writer’s block I came up with the following prompts:



  • (Provide an answer to one of the questions we considered during the week)
  • (Provide further insight into a discussion/conversation/debate carried out in class)
  • Does the class material this week remind you of something else we have looked at already in class (from a prior week)?  (I.e. how familiar or foreign is it?)
  • Did the material in class prompt more questions?  Why are these important?
  • In what ways is this material and history important to us today?
  • (Other prompts that move/motivate/excite you . . . )


  • How does this text help us understand this historical period?
  • After reading this text/document what gaps do you want filled in—either based on the content or the author’s methodology?
  • What questions does this author’s approach to the material raise?  Does the author appear biased?  What assumptions are made by this author?
  • Does this text/document remind you of any others we have read in this class?  How so?
  • How does this text answer the upcoming question of the week (on syllabus) in your opinion?
  • What sources does the author use (if any) and how does he use these sources?
  • (Other prompts that move/motivate/excite you . . . )

I also provided a list of Perspectives of Past and Present, as I call it, which sets up various ways for which history may be relevant, even essential to someone today.  Previously, I had set this up as a short paper assignment in which they would compare events from their textbooks to current event articles, but I felt in many cases there was not a strong enough base knowledge for this to be truly fruitful in the way I had set it up.  So, at present I use it exclusively as a part of my blog prompts, although I expect it will find a new life in future manifestations of my Western Civilization II class.  (I had not used them with the earlier class, because I felt it would only distort student perspectives.)

Some Perspectives of Past and Present:

1.  History as a moral or strategic example.  In this perspective, the observer sees in the past lessons that can be applied to the present.  History has often been used as a teacher by providing moral or strategic examples which can be applied today.  This is the idea that we can use history as a laboratory for human experiences.

2.  History as an exploration of change.  In this perspective, the observer identifies a break with the past that will be long-lasting with far-reaching consequences.  History is a record of change and its study provides tools that best help us understand change.  This type of inquiry, triggered by the questions, “Why now?” and “What has changed?”, teaches us a great deal about human nature and societies before ours, which in turn help us understand our own culture and others.

3.  History as an exploration of continuity.  In this perspective, the observer identifies a continuation from the past to the present.  Continuity in history provides us with a very tangible connection to the past, revealing links to those who came before us.  It is possible to see some of the constants in Western Civilization.

4.  History as cause and effect—the present emerging from the past.  In this perspective, the observer determines an initial beginning point in the past that leads to a specific consequence in the present.  The present conditions are very much the consequences of the past.  In some instances, the causes lay deep in our past, but nonetheless are responsible for both positive and negative effects.

5.  History as it helps us understand peoples, cultures and societies, today.  In this perspective, the observer recognizes past events that explain certain features of people, culture or society, today.  Certain current characteristics of different peoples, cultures and societies are shaped by past events.  Knowledge of these events improves our understanding of people today.

There are other great ways to introduce students to 21st century skill-sets.  I refer often to the following websites–which also appear in my sidebar–for great ideas to introduce students to technology (more necessary than you might think as my young guns in college this semester were by and large unfamiliar with the concept of blogging!):

History Tech: http://historytech.wordpress.com/

The History Channel this is not . . . : http://nkogan.wordpress.com/

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Filed under Experiences, Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Tech tools