For schools anxious about blogging, David Mitchell is a beacon for trust and creativity, writes Tony Parkin
”Hi, my name is Binyameen and I am an 11-year-old student attending Heathfield Community Primary School. In the next few minutes I am going to talk to you about how blogging has changed my life.”
This session opener from one of David Mitchell’s Bolton Year 6 pupils at the 2011 Bradford bMoble Conference wasn’t an exaggeratiion. Blogging has created a revolution in teaching and learning, as Binyameen continued to explain.
“Nearly a year ago I had no idea what blogging was, however ever since we started it in Year 6 I haven’t been able to stop. This new digital way of learning has had a huge impact on me and on my literacy, as my skills on blogging has pushed on that. Writing in books is boring where only the teacher sees your work, whereas on the computer the whole world gets to see it." And Binyameen isn't the only one excited...
Press exposure has made David Mitchell's name synonymous with primary classroom blogging. His work has been recognised with awards from Naace, Microsoft, Toshiba and the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT), but he always points out that he wasn't the first to do it, and he didn't do it alone; many other schools are also blogging. He stood on the shoulders of giants to help blogging reach the place it occupies at Heathfield Primary today.
Writing had long been identified as in need of improvement at Heathfield Primary School in Bolton. Not unusually, there was a particular concern with the writing of boys – including the lack of it! Two years ago, with an even more challenging cohort than usual approaching their final year, headteacher Dianne Spencer and deputy David Mitchell determined to research approaches and techniques that could have impact in this vital area.
Inspiration came from Jack Sloan's Blog at Chorlton Park School in Manchester
David set off on a round of visits to other schools seeking ideas to try out at Heathfield. He was impressed by the work created on Jack Sloan's Blog at Chorlton Park School, in Manchester, seen on a visit organised by the SSAT's primary team which was showcasing the value of a creative curriculum. David felt it held out a real chance of inspiring some of Heathfield's reluctant writers and, on his return, suggested to Diane that a radical whole-school approach could be the best way forward.
Within 4 weeks of the visit, they had created a whole-school blog site, with one blog for each class, helped by John Sutton, who specialised in the provision of classroom blogs and helping schools develop their use. Working with Year 6, David led by example, creating both his own blog and one for his class.
The initial blog was project based, and focused on trying to reach those reluctant boys. This, the first group to experience blogging at Heathfield was a challenging class on many levels. David knew they would need lots of new ideas and inspiration to maintain longterm interest in blogging, and for this he brought in many web 2.0 tools – like Voicethread, Animoto, Audioboo, Coveritlive, PrimaryPad, PhotoPeach – to keep the blogging fresh and the pupils writing.
By the end of that year, after just seven months, that Year 6 blog had attracted around 100,000 hits and 1,500 comments. With the writing clearly improved, David and Dianne knew they had a hit on their hands.
As with all education innovations, however, the key evaluation measure would be the impact upon pupil learning. The initial aim of the blogging project had been to address the under-performance in writing, and help the pupils improve their SATS scores. They were not to be disappointed. The SATs writing results clearly showed the success of the innovation, moving from only 9 per cent achieving level 5 in the previous year, to 60 per cent in the current year.
This figure is even more impressive when taking into account that the projected figures at the start of the year had indicated a weaker cohort this time round, and had predicted a decline in performance. Instead they saw each child making on average 6.6 points progress in writing, equating to two years' progress in just 12 months. Convinced of their success, David and Dianne needed to determine the next step.
Embedding and spreading success – starting with teachers
Having led the way with Class 6, and now convinced of its impact, they turned their attention to the task of embedding blogging across the school. Teacher professional development in blogging was next on the agenda. This was done in a typically supportive and relaxed manner, reducing pressure and allowing the teachers to develop their own approach and pace.
Each teacher was trained after school by David using a very informal 1:1 technique, so that they could develop their own skills according to need, and find their own reason for using a blog that was appropriate to their curriculum and pupils. Support continued after initial training so that each teacher could develop at a sustainable speed.
The teachers also supported David while he held "live" pupil sessions in the evening, after school, where the pupils shared tasks and socialised under the supervision of a teacher. This was all done at the demand of the pupils who by now were wanting more time than they could be allocated in class for their blogging.One of the nicest results of this approach is that each class blog has a different look and feel. This was no accident! During the 1:1 training, teachers had been encouraged to find their own identity for their blog, and to use it to answer issues specific to their pupils.
Year 4 teacher Nichola Wiggans used her class blog with Voicethread embedded to communicate and collaborate with a Year 4 class in Australia. The Reception blog focused more on images, and is an oasis of visual beauty where PhotoPeach is used each week to update the parents on the progress of their children.
At the end of May 2010, David moved his focus from working with Year 6 to Year 5 and getting in some early preparation before the summer break. David's next idea was for his new Year 5 class to participate in an international World Cup project. With 32 nations in the FIFA World Cup, the "Blog the World Cup" project had been set up as 32 blogs on a collaborative site, one for each competing nation. Each blog was managed by a class (or school) and a live online draw was made to allocate classes and schools to the different country blogs.
Heathfield was successful and drew Germany, so Year 6 wrote about their country and its team on their dedicated blog (http://germany.blogtheworldcup.net/). In just 28 days during the World Cup they had people from 100 countries visit their website, with 30,000 hits, and 400 comments to pupils, including two comments from the German Embassy in London, from the Ambassador for Culture and Education!
When the time came for a new Year 6 group, David pondered the school's next move. But he was unprepared for what happened. “What came next, with the incoming Year 6 was such a shock," he says. "These new bloggers were not interested in the fancy Web 2.0 tools, they just wanted to write! They had seen how much exposure the previous Year 6 had been getting, and they had one aim... to knock them off the Google Number 1 ranking search for 'Year 6 Blog'!”
As the news has spread, and as the Heathfield blogging has attracted the various awards, via public presentations and news coverage, David and his bloggers have attracted great media interest. This year has seen the pupils work live on their blog with author Pie Corbett, Sky News presenter Tom Parmenter and with various newspaper reporters and media coaches. They have produced 5,000-word creative stories from home and have appeared live on BBC1 Breakfast TV to 4.5 million viewers.
‘Quadblogging’ was another of David’s innovative ideas to involve other schools in students’ experience of blogging and commenting, and was widely welcomed and influential in spreading the word.
In quadblogging, four schools agree to spend one week out of every four focusing on one school blog in turn, visiting and reading and leaving comments. This increases the interest and incentivises more contributions from children in preparation for the regular surge in visitors. It has proved a successful spur to get schools blogging.
Blogging has become an embedded way of life at Heathfield Primary School, and nowadays when the pupils start a new project, a project blog is launched at the same time! And yet all this was driven by the pupils' demands for more and more opportunities to blog. But another shock was yet to come…
The revolution came when the learners stepped up the action for their own blogs
It had never been part of the original plans to give pupils a blog each, nor to give pupils direct responsibility for blogs of their own. Mindful of the need for internet safety, and with possible concerns about blogs open to the world, the Heathfield blogs had always been carefully managed and moderated whole-class blogs.
However student voice will out, and David has recently had to change tack to recognise that some students will always demand more of their own creative freedom. Pupils had inquired about having their own blogs in earlier classes, but David had always explained that ideally he wanted all the writing held together in one place. This also meant he could keep a close eye on things and was able to approve comments or approve pupil blog posts quickly.
However, he became aware that a number of the pupils had independently begun to set up their own WordPress blogs and were beginning to create their own content. This rather forced his hand, and he realised he would need to embrace their development to allow him to help steer and monitor their independent learning.
David's thoughts now after this shift? “How glad am I that I did embrace it? Just look at what was achieved by Fern in only five days – Fern's Big Idea. She wanted to create a blog to host her story in which her audience would decide the direction of her story through voting for what should happen next, so she included polls. One development that has been really exciting with Fern’s blog was finding that PollDaddy allows you to add audio into the polls, and not just written text.”
Another pupil, Raja, began using a completely different Wordpress theme (CommentPress) to publish a new book, A World Like No Other. CommentPress is a theme with the distinct appearance of a book, and which allows an audience to comment on a specific part of the writing – now Raja is thoroughly enjoying his writing. After a full morning of writing SATs, he recently approached David at lunchtime and asked “Can I go in the ICT suite and work on my book?”. As David says “There’s something just ‘right’ about that!”
Not to be overshadowed, two other pupils, John and Matthew, approached David with a different idea, a football-related blog. Their plan was to get their audience to vote for a favourite team from the Football League. John and Matthew would then research and produce a fact file about the winning team, and post club news for two to three days before another poll wold be launched including teams from another league. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the school's location, Manchester United won the first poll!
This pupil-led evolution has given David cause for more thought: “These developments, which occurred over only a few days have demonstrated to me that by keeping an open mind, being flexible and listening to the pupil voice, you can evolve the tools you have available to enable even deeper learning to occur”.Need, strategy, provision, implementation, professional development, collaboration and sustainability... in every way blogging at Heathfield has been an excellent model for anyone keen to explore how to innovate using technology in education.
Conditions for innovation
- "A real problem to solve and a logical approach that focuses the innovation being tried to the problem that you are addressing.
- "An environment where failure is an option. Many innovations may work in one situation but not another. Many will not succeed as hoped... but unless you are allowed to fail you won't even feel encouraged to try.
- "Opportunities to see what is working in other schools, and engage with fellow teachers on their own experiences of trying out innovative techniques. It is always reassuring to hear that others experienced innovative challenges, and pick up tips on perhaps ways of trying things a little differently.
- "A supportive headteacher who has the attitude 'We need to do something new... if we do what have always done we will get what we have always got!'
- "Something that is exciting to the pupils, which captures their imaginations and will motivate them to engage.
- "Something that is equally exciting to the teacher – pupils quickly pick up on a teacher who is passionate and enjoying their work. Blogging has made me a bubbling, outgoing, excited, childlike teacher who frequently gets even more excited than the pupils do!
- "Surround yourself with similar people. You need help and motivation thoughout an innovative project, and other enthusiastic innovative teachers are the best source of that inspiration.
- "The right support structure to take the load. I was lucky enough to be introduced to John Sutton, who had all the systems, technical experience and expertise that was needed to set up safe blogging in the primary classroom. Perhaps even more important, he also had the ability to come into school and work with both teachers and pupils to develop the essential competence and confidence. A wonderful combination of the pedagogy, technology and CPD (continuing professional development) expertise that can be so hard to find."
Sources of inspiration
- "The work of Jack Sloan and his pupils at Chorlton Park Primary were absolutely crucial and at the start of all my work. It was Jack who showed me what was possible through pupil blogging, and without the chance to have seen him doing this with own class I would not have had that insight into thinking this may be the solution to Heathfield's problems with writing. He was helpful in so many other ways too.
- "Dianne's role as headteacher has been pivotal! Her trust in my ability to make a difference and do something that will inspire the pupils has been felt at all stages through this project. I present an idea, Dianne asks questions. If the idea is good enough, it answers all the questions. Diane has challenged, questioned and enabled all the innovations at Heathfield, and has been sounding-board, devil's advocate and equally passionate enthusiast. The innovations have all been achieved through a real double act, though Dianne is always keen to stand back and let the credit go to others.
- "The SSAT's Primary Network has been a vital source. It was them we approached to find out what might work, a visit to Chorlton Park that they organised which showed us the possibility of blogging, and the continued support of colleagues in the network that has helped provide the continued impetus.
- "Twitter! All teachers need ways to test their ideas, reach out to fellow teachers, hear what is going on elsewhere, and to establish their own personal learning networks. Though I use a number of different channels, I find Twitter a constant source of help, support and inspiration."
Heathfield Primary School's Blogsite
Blog the World Cup
Heathfield's Germany World Cup site
The 2011 Year 6 blog
David Mitchell's blog
David Mitchell on Twitter – @DeputyMitchell
Fern's Big Idea
"A World Like No Other"
The Sandwich Project
Avatar-inspired Pandora blog
BBC's "Blogging makes writing 'cool' for boys at Bolton School"