Burcu Akyol on Blogging with EFL Students

EFL teacher, Burcu Akyol of Turkey, talks about advantages and challenges of using a classroom blog.

Written by Tara Benwell for TEFL.net
Burcu Akyol

Burcu Akyol

Tara: For many EFL teachers in the blogosphere “Burcu” is a household word. Can you share a bit about your background for those who are just about to meet you?

Burcu: I graduated from Hacettepe University, ELT Department and have been teaching English for nine years. I started my career at a language school where I taught adults. After teaching adults for two years, I decided to work at a private school. In Turkey, private schools provide better opportunities for teachers. I’ve worked in three different private schools since then. Currently, I work at a group of private schools in Istanbul as an Education Coordinator. My main areas of interest are teacher training and learning technologies. I find great pleasure in sharing my experiences with colleagues. The possibility of inspiring a lot of people is just great! In February 2009, I decided to create a teacher blog to share ideas and experiences. At the same time, I joined Twitter which I believe is a great tool and resource for teachers. On Twitter, I met great people and we’re sharing great links and resources there.

Tara: Besides maintaining your popular EFL blog for teachers, you have created an interactive learning blog for your students. What inspired you to develop your first classroom blog?

Burcu: I’ve been blogging with my students for two years. Until I started my EFL blog, I was a silent blogger in the ELT blogosphere. Especially in the first year, I was so busy with improving my blogging skills that I couldn’t spend any time building connections or telling people about our class blog. In the second year, I was more confident and spending relatively less time finding or creating content for the blog. My primary source of inspiration for the classroom blog was absolutely my students. We all know that our students today have fairly different living and learning experiences compared to ours. As a Hebrew proverb says: “Do not confine your children to your own learning, for they were born in another time.” So I thought using some appropriate Web tools in my lessons would attract their attention more than anything. Taking my students’ age and language level into consideration, I decided to get started with a class blog. At that time, I was not totally sure about its possible effects on my lessons and student motivation. Fortunately, it turned out to be one of the best things that I’ve ever done for my students.

Tara: Your fifth grade students at TED Istanbul College made an excellent video about their blogging experience. Many of them talk excitedly about their connection with international visitors. How do you encourage students and visitors to leave comments?

Burcu: I love to share that video with my colleagues, because I think it is really inspiring. Whenever I hear about a method, technique or activity, the first thing I want to see is how well it works with my students and to get feedback from them. I think this video proves that I did something good for them. The connection with the students from South Dakota Brandon Valley Middle School was a great experience for me and my students. They also love seeing our ClustrMaps Widget which is a tiny map on which red dots grow as the readers of your blog from around the world visit your blog. I encourage my students to leave comments by giving them real reasons to write. They just think that they are answering me or interacting with each other or students from other countries. They forget that the main purpose is studying English.

Tara: You had some great advice about moderating student comments in your IATEFL presentation “ELT meets the Blogosphere”. Can you share a few tips with us?

Burcu: Moderating student comments is a very important part of blogging with students. There are issues that you have to consider before you introduce the blog to your students.

  • Are you going to correct mistakes? If yes, what type of mistakes are you going to correct? Spelling? Punctuation? Grammar? Personally, I prefer to correct major spelling and grammar mistakes. Besides, I don’t approve comments with lots of punctuation mistakes.
  • How are you going to give feedback on your students’ mistakes? Sometimes I gather some student comments (without giving names) on a worksheet and ask students to spot the mistakes in class. Although this technique works very well, it is the most time consuming.
  • What are your blogging rules?
  • If a student does not have a computer or Internet access at home, what is going to happen? I have a few students who do not have computer and Internet access at home. I try to make them feel involved by giving them more time for blogging in our computer lab lessons. Besides, we are lucky to have a computer and a projector in each class and we usually open the blog in the last five minutes of the lessons to watch some videos or to read student comments.

On the other hand, you should show your students that their comments are important by replying to them either on the blog or face to face. Praising the students who regularly write comments also has a great effect on their motivation and consequently increases the number of comments.

Tara: In your teacher’s blog you talk about ways to maintain student interest. One idea I had never heard about was assigning a blog assistant. Is this like the online version of having a “star student”?

Burcu: I don’t have any criteria for choosing blog assistants. However, I tend to choose the ones who look the most hesitant about blogging. It is a great way to make them feel involved. At the beginning, I talk about their responsibilities. (eg. Responding to friends’ comments regularly, finding good links and reporting to the teacher, helping the teacher find interesting content for the blog, etc.) You should see how enthusiastically they are doing their jobs!

Tara: What challenges can teachers expect when attempting to launch a classroom blog?

Burcu: At the beginning, be ready to spend a lot of time on finding content for your blog and moderating student comments. Never feel desperate because it is a trial and error process and soon you will realize that you are getting better every day. Don’t forget that “Motivation will almost always beat mere talent” (Norman R. Augustine). Hopefully the school administration will support your decision to start a class blog. Otherwise you may either have to convince them or forget about blogging with your students.

When you start a class blog, the other teachers may be told to do the same. This is where the problem starts. A lot of teachers are reluctant to use technology since they are quite happy with their traditional materials. Unfortunately, schools do not question their teachers’ attitude towards technology and they take little or no action to help teachers overcome this anxiety. There is a problem of heavy workload as well. Teachers are usually told to use technology but they are not given fewer teaching hours. All these things may lead to serious problems in schools.

Tara: Recently teachers have appeared in the media for having unprofessional relationships with students on Facebook and MySpace. What advice do you have for keeping the classroom blog “professional”?

Burcu: The only key to keeping your blog professional is setting rules and clear criteria at the very beginning. Your students should know that there will be consequences if they do not follow the rules. These consequences may differ according to your students’ age level. My students are very young (10-year-olds). When a student of mine sends an inappropriate comment, I usually warn that student privately and the problem never occurs again.

Tara: Your blog for teachers caught our attention via a Tweet to a post you wrote about the ELT Twitter users you follow. What tricks do you have for maintaining an audience for your classroom blog?

Burcu: Actually, I don’t have any. I sometimes refer to my class blog in the articles that I post to my EFL blog and this way the class blog gets visitors. My target audience is my own students although we feel good when we have visitors from other countries. However I can say that I have a lot of tricks for maintaining my own students’ interest.

Tara: I read that you are hoping to give your TEFL blog a makeover (we like it how it is!). Your current classroom blog is extremely colourful and interactive. How important is the look of a classroom blog and how can teachers create an attractive web space for students?

"Teachers who want to create an attractive blog for their students should write catchy titles for their blog posts and use lively colours and interesting images. Using different widgets on the sidebars helps as well." Burcu

“Teachers who want to create an attractive blog for their students should write catchy titles for their blog posts and use lively colours and interesting images. Using different widgets on the sidebars helps as well.” Burcu

Burcu: Thank you! I decided not to give my teacher blog a makeover so soon. I received very useful comments from experienced bloggers and I agree with them that developing strong readership should be my priority.The situation is different for a class blog. Especially if your students are young, the look of the blog is as important as the content. If they do not find the blog visually attractive, they will not want to visit it.

Written by Tara Benwell for TEFL.net
July 2009 | Filed under Interviews
Tara Benwell is a Canadian freelance writer and editor who specializes in materials for the ELT industry.