There are so many different ways we can empower students to own the learning; from owning the assessment process to doing choice menus and choice boards to having students engage in project-based learning. In this article, we explore how Geek Out Blogs allow students to own their learning by choosing the topics for reading and writing. It’s an approach that’s authentic and project-based but also structured and aligned to the content standards.
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Five Reasons to Have Students Pursue Their Interests in Class
A few years ago, I co-wrote the book Empower with the driving question, “What happens when students own their learning?” As a middle school teacher, I had seen how the biggest challenges I faced with student engagement were actually challenges with student self-direction and self-management. I worked with some amazing colleagues who helped redesign the learning experiences with a focus on student-centered approaches, including project-based learning, inquiry-based learning, and service learning. We ran a co-curricular program called Project IMPACT and launched Social Voice, where students created blogs, podcasts, and documentaries. We took on the mindset of “PBL for all” and I got to participate in a STEM Camp for English Language Learners.
As a professor, I’ve gotten to observe teachers at every level, including early elementary teachers who launched student-centered lab experiments and social studies projects. But they also found subtle ways to incorporate voice and choice, like the way their students would compare and contrast math strategies or the times the way they incorporated choice boards into their learning. Over and over again, I have noticed that something powerful happens when students own the learning:
One of easiest ways for students to own their learning is by choosing the topics they pursue in the ELA classroom. In other words, instead of making the subject interesting, we empower students to pursue their own interests within the content area. The following are five reasons students should have opportunities to pursue their interests in class.
- Starting with student interests can help build student confidence. Certain students might struggle with a particular skill or concept. They might arrive to your class feeling like they are behind. However, when they pursue their interests, they build on their own expertise and gain greater confidence in your classroom.
- Starting with student interests sends the message that we are all experts in something. This creates a culture where students are able to learn from one another from day one. It’s also a chance to be humble and model the learning process for your students.
- Starting with student interests affirms their agency. As the instructor, you are saying, “I want you to share your expertise. I don’t care if people think it’s shallow or insignificant. Who you are matters to me. So, if you geek out about Hello Kitty or limericks or super spicy pepper jams, I want you to share it.”
- Starting with student interests can be a safe way to get to know one another. Not every student feels safe sharing their story. Starting with a personal biography or a comprehensive get-to-know-you activity can create situations where students re-live trauma. While vulnerability has a place in the classroom, it can take months to develop trust as a community, and students should have a sense of control over how much they are sharing. Furthermore, some students don’t feel safe sharing aspects of their identity. This is especially true for certain members of the LGBT+ community. However, everyone has geeky interests and sharing geeky interests allows students to share something personal without centering it on their story or their identity.
- By starting with student interests, you are able to create a bridge between the subject area you teach and each student’s world. As a result, they are able to see the subject area matter as inherently relevant to their lives.
In other words, when students are able to pursue their own interests, they have more agency in their learning. They are shifting from compliance and engagement into a place of true empowerment, where they have voice and choice in their learning.
Getting Started with Geek Out Blogs
Geek Out Blogs are based on the concept of a Genius Hour, where students get to chase their curiosity while they create something entirely new.
Genius Hour (or 20% Time) projects begin with a simple idea: give students a dedicated period of time to pursue their passions, interests, and questions in a creative way. It’s an idea popularized by Google but one that has existed for years in the technology industry. Here’s how it works:
With Genius Hour, students own the entire journey: They choose the topics based upon their own geeky interests. It doesn’t have to be a traditionally academic area. They might like fashion or food or sports or Legos or Minecraft or deep sea creatures. They can then match these topics with topic-neutral standards. Students ask the questions and engage in their own research to find the answers. Along the way, they design their own plan of instruction. They decide on the resources and activities. Each student sets goals and engages in self-assessment. They work at their own pace and set their own deadlines. Students decide on the grouping. Some work alone. Others work in pairs or small groups. In the end, students figure out what they will make and how they will share their learning with the world. A word of caution: It’s not a free-for-all. The best Genius Hour projects have systems and structures that empower students to reach their full potential.
This is why I created Geek Out Blogs when I was a middle school teacher. With Geek Out Blogs, students pursue their own topics but they do so in a more structured way that supports reading, writing, and multimedia composition. Along the way, students learn information literacy, media literacy, and digital citizenship. They’re also developing vital soft skills, like communication, curation, collaboration, and critical thinking.
Geek Out Blogs work well as a get-to-know-you activity at the start of the year. However, they also work well as project you can do at the end of the year, where students get the chance to apply reading and writing skills they’ve learned in a way that ties into their personal interests. I’ve seen some teachers run Geek Out Blog Projects as a once-a-week activity that students do for an entire year. Here, they gradually add key ideas to their blog throughout the year. Others prefer to to take 2-3 weeks once or twice a year to run the project and then let students add to their blogs as an enrichment activity throughout the year. While Geek Out Blogs are generally an individual project, some students might choose to create partner or small group blogs with multiple posts from multiple authors. So, a small group might do a fashion blog or a gamer blog and that’s totally fine. I find that it helps to give students flexibility in grouping.
Phase One: Choosing Your Geek Out Topic
In many cases, students struggle with blogging because they haven’t actually read many blogs. They might have read some articles online and they might have access to magazines but they haven’t really seen how the blogging process works. For this reason, it can help to expose students to all types of blogs. As a teacher, you might curate a set of blogs relating to all kinds of interests. This list could include gamer blogs, sports blogs, fashion blogs, music blogs, foodie blogs, etc. I began my curation by reaching out to people in my own network who nerded out on different topics and I specifically asked for references that were inclusive and diverse.
Once you have your curation of blogs, you can place students in pairs and have them explore examples. During this phase, students can come up with a general definition of a blog and list the key features that they notice (a date, visuals, a catchy title, ideas that are broken up by headers, a first-person voice). From there, they can pair up again and compare their lists. Next, students can pair up one more time to analyze and evaluate the blog examples. You might have students grade the examples using a blogging rubric or do a t-chart with best practices and worst practices. They might select a group of blogs and rank them from worst to first using their own criteria. However, for a more open-ended and analytical approach, students could fill out a see-think-wonder chart where they select blogs that caught their attention and jot down what they see, what they think about the blog, and what they wonder.
I realize that analyzing examples of blogs might be time-consuming but the goal is to build their prior knowledge before launching into the project. From there, students can start to explore their own geeky interests. The following questions can help guide students along the way:
- What do you really care about? Why?
- What is something that you’re passionate about?
- What is something you know inside and out?
- What are some things you believe deeply in? What are some convictions you have about life?
- What do you love to do?
- What do you know a lot about?
- If you could invent your own course, what would it be?
I also created this Genius Hour prompt that provides students with a general sense of how the Geek Out Blog / Genius Hour approach works:
As a middle school teacher, I loved watching how diverse their interests were. In one class, students were all over the place. A girl chose Korean pop music while the girl next to her delved into issues of immigration. A boy across the room chose Minecraft while the kid next to him chose zombies (and immediately began writing about the seven amazing reasons why zombies would make great pets). A few kids wrote about their lives, their families or their cultures. Some students have even focused on the intersection between multiple interests.
During this phase, it can help to have students identify their potential audience. This is a great chance to have a conversation about privacy:
It’s also a chance to have students to build empathy as they explore who their audience is, what their audience needs, what questions their audience has, and how they will reach their potential audience.
Once they have a sense of their blog topic and their audience, students can create their blog. As a teacher, you will likely choose the platform students will use. However, they can create the blog name, the color scheme, their profile picture, and other blogging features. I love the way KidBlog works in terms of the layers of privacy and the management of the blogs from the teacher profile. However, I also like the way Edublogs for the rich features that mirror the WordPress platform. If you want students to publish their work to specific interest-oriented communities, you might check out Write About (which I helped co-design) which focuses on students publishing to an authentic audience within the platform.
Phase Two: Generate Ideas
Once students have created their blog, they can begin brainstorming ideas for blog posts they would like to write. The following activities can help students generate ideas:
- Create a list of questions people might have about your topic. You might even pair students up and have them ask as many questions as they can come up with about the topic. This process will help students create an initial list of blog post ideas.
- Have students engage in a quick research of existing blogs in that domain (i.e. sports blogs, fashion blogs, maker blogs, gamer blogs) and see what information hasn’t been written about before. What ideas haven’t been explored? What perspectives haven’t been considered? What groups have been left out of the conversation? This can help students clarify their audience and find their creative voice.
- Ask students to find connections between their topic and larger trends. They might look at social, cultural, economic, environmental, or technological trends. For example, a student might explore fast fashion and its environmental impact or another student might look at the social and economic effects of the growing esports industry.
- Encourage students to go back to the curation of blogs and explore what types of blog posts exist in different domains. Some of the most creative ideas happen when we borrow ideas from one domain and apply it to another. For example, you might take a “makeover” idea from a home improvement blog and use that approach with a gaming blog to reconsider how gameplay could be improved.
After students have generated a list of initial blog post ideas, you can provide them with a set of ideas that they can customize. I find that it helps to create sentence frames that they can use as their initial blog post title. This can help with students who need additional language support:
- Research your topic and find seven random things that you find fascinating. Create a post called “Seven Things You Might Not Know About _________” or “Seven Fascinating Facts About ________.”
- Think about a strong opinion you have about your “geek out” topic. Write a persuasive post on the topic.
- Write the story behind how you got into your particular “geek out” topic. What is it that you find so fascinating? Create a post called “The Surprising Story of ______”
- Write a “how-to” post showing how to do something connected to your topic (i.e. how to do a kick flip in skateboarding, how to make a TikTok video, etc.). Write “How to _______ in _______ Easy Steps”
- Create a Q+A post on your “geek out” topic. Include questions that people would typically have. Write “Common Questions and Practical Answers About ______”
- Do an interview with an expert on your topic. Write “(Expert Name) on ________, ________, and _______”
- Write an introductory blog post for people who are new to the topic. Share the key entry-level information people would need to know. Write “How to Get Started with _______”
- Write a history of your topic and include a timeline. Write “The History of _______ from _______ Until Now”
- Compare and contrast two aspects of your topic. It could be two bands and their respective styles, two approaches to a skill, two opinions, two brands (Marvel versus DC). Write, “________ Versus _________” or “How _______ Compares to ________”
- Do a Best of / Worst of blog post with the sentence frame “The Seven Best _______ in _________” or “The Seven Worst ________ in ________”
In this phase, some students will choose to work in isolation as they plan out all of their blog posts. Others will want to brainstorm with a partner or in a small group. They’ll bounce ideas back and forth and add to their brainstorm. Some students will map out an entire blogging calendar while others will keep a massive brainstorm and choose what they’ll write in a more spontaneous way.
Phase Three: Start Blogging
In this phase, you can blend together shorter pieces and longer pieces. For example, a student might do a 2-paragraph shorter blog post and then spend a longer time engaging in research, outlining, writing, and revision. Here, you can integrate direct instruction into the Geek Out Blog process. For example, you might provide students with sentence frames for questions and have them practice asking research questions. You can then do direct instruction and guided practice on the research process while allowing students to determine how they want to organize their research (a table, a spreadsheet, notecards, sketchnote). I developed the following structured research process for students:
This is also a chance to integrate mini-lessons and discussions about digital citizenship and digital ethics. Students can learn about copyright and Creative Commons as they select visuals. They can create digital ethics that they use as their norms for engaging online. You can also teach some smaller mini-lessons on visual design and cover the basics on how to create and edit audio, how to make slides / visuals that grab the reader’s attention, and how to edit videos. If you missed my recent interview with Clement Townsend, you should check out his ideas for how we can incorporate video and audio composition into our content areas. I really think there is value in having students design and embed multimedia elements in student blogs. In the past, I’ve even had students create anchor charts with design dos and don’ts.
In this phase, it can help to use a simple checklist that students use for each blog post:
- My post has a title that is interesting and compelling
- The title at the top and the heading titles are capitalized
- My posts at least one visual (picture) that is Creative Commons compliant
- I have broken my blog post down using headings
- I used labels and/or tags that relate to my topic
- My post is proof-read for errors in spelling, grammar, and any other mistakes that will potentially drive my teacher bonkers
- I have shared my post with my teacher and my classmates. (Optional: I have shared my posts on social media)
It also helps to build in time for students to leave feedback on one another’s blog posts. Generally, I broke the feedback up into two areas. The first was the writer’s workshop, where students might use something like a 3-2-1 structure (3 strengths, two weaknesses, one suggestion) or a more in-depth 20-minute feedback process:
The second type of feedback is the feedback on student ideas. This is the public feedback students give to one another when reading their blog posts. The goal here is to engage in a deeper conversation in the comment section of the blog. I developed the following sentence stems for students who need additional support in leaving blog comments:
COMMENTS AS QUESTIONS
- Why did you _______________?
- What made you think of writing _____________________?
- Have you considered ______________________?
- Is it possible that ________________?
- Have you considered the possibility that ____________?
- I was wondering why _________________?
COMMENTS AS STATEMENTS
Agree / Disagree
- I agree that _______________ because _______________.
- I disagree with your thought that _______________ because _______________.
- While I agree that ________ I’m wondering __________.
- I was a little confused about _______________. Could you explain _______________?
- I noticed that __________. I was wondering if you could explain how _________?
Adding Your Thoughts
- I really enjoyed _______________ about your post. (Add thoughts afterward)
- You mentioned that _______________. This had me thinking _______________,
- You bring up the problem _______________. I think a solution might be _______________.
COMMENTS AS PARAGRAPHS
Paragraph #1 – Agree / Disagree
I agree with _____________ but I’m wondering if __________________ is also true. I feel this way about ________________, because __________________. What do you think about that?
Paragraph #2 – Questioning / Adding Additional Thoughts
I feel ___________ about your thoughts on_______________. What you said about __________ had me wondering about ______________. Have you considered ________?
Paragraph #3 – Quoting the Post
You mentioned, “quote the post.” I agree/disagree with this, because _______________.
Paragraph #4 – Adding Your Own Thoughts
I agree with _______________. I also think (give your own thoughts).
Phase Four: Reflect on the Process
The Geek Out Blog project allows students to iterate on their work because they continually add newer blog posts. Many students will choose to edit and update previous blog posts. However, when it’s all done, they can also reflect on their process using the following questions:
- How did the blogging process go? Were you able to engage with a real audience?
- What did you learn about yourself based upon this experience?
- What part was the hardest for you? Why?
- What part was the easiest for you? Why?
- Will you continue to post to your blog? Why or why not?
What About the Standards?
Whenever I mention Geek Out Projects or Genius Hour, people ask, “How do you get away with teaching whatever topics you want? Don’t you have a ton of standards you need to teach?” People assume we have added an additional project to an already packed plate. But that’s not how it works. We aren’t adding anything. We’re re-arranging the plate in a way that honors student voice and choice.
The key is to tap into content-neutral standards. For example, in our Geek Out Blogs, my middle school students had to make sure that their blogs included persuasive and explanatory texts. Here are the two main standards we used.
- CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.1: Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence
- CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.2: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content.
Students also engaged in research:
- CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.7: Conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question), drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration.
- CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.8: Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, using search terms effectively; assess the credibility and accuracy of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.
- CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.9: Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.
They moved through the entire writing process:
- CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.4: Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. (Grade-specific expectations for writing types are defined in standards 1-3 above.)
- CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.5: With some guidance and support from peers and adults, develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on how well purpose and audience have been addressed. (Editing for conventions should demonstrate command of Language standards 1-3 up to and including grade 8 here.)
They also published their work to the world, both in writing shorter and longer posts:
- CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.6: Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and present the relationships between information and ideas efficiently as well as to interact and collaborate with others.
- CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.10: Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of discipline-specific tasks, purposes, and audiences.
This project included nearly every single Common Core Writing Standard in the first few weeks of school. Notice, also, how none of those standards mention specific topics. These were all topic-neutral standards, which meant students could choose skateboarding or fashion or history or video games and they’re still learning the same standards. As long as they were practicing discreet skills in reading and writing, they could choose their own topics.
Note: This is a highly updated version of an article I originally posted on August 19, 2013.