In a time of Internet controversies and netiquette issues, Benjamin Tan shows how blogging can teach students something about both grammar and manners.
You never know what you get on the Internet these days. Whether it is a petition demanding foreign workers to be “banned from Orchard Road” or
a call to eradicate the Malay race, cyberspace has made personal rants and raves free for the world to read – whether it be offensive or simply absurd.
And yet, Benjamin Tan reads on. This English teacher not only reads his own blog but that of 40 Anglican High School students. His rationale? To teach students to develop their opinions and be able to express them properly.
Something to get started
Blending teaching methods with modern trends such as blogging and video games is definitely not unusual in the Singapore. With the Ministry of Education encouraging ICT in the classroom, schools have explored everything from Pocket PCs to iRecorders – all with the aim of “preparing students for the future”.
For Benjamin, however, the decision to use blogs in the classroom was based on personal experience. “I blogged when I was in university,” he recalls. “It got me going when I needed to write my thesis. So when I became a teacher I thought it would be applicable as a precursor to actual writing.”
And a “precursor” is what Anglican High School needed. With most students uninspired to even pick up a pen, English teachers often face the gruelling task of getting them to produce essays that are thoughtful, expository and argumentative. The fact that the O-level exams test language proficiency based on written work does not help ease the pressure either.
Determined to change his students’ attitude towards writing, Benjamin decided to focus on what he felt was the root of the problem: finding something to write about. “Pen-and-paper is really boring,” he explains. “It’s very artificial to students, especially if they don’t want to write about whatever you’re giving them. I tried to make it more real by getting them engaged in the topic they’re discussing.”
Taking topics inspired by news articles and movies he had watched, Benjamin then revamped the standard classroom practice of journal writing by allowing his students to upload reflections on either their personal blogs or blogs created for class.
Going a step further, he eased essay requirements and focused on the students’ argument skills instead. “I made things pretty clear. Sometimes I say, ‘I’m not looking at grammar at all. I just want to see how you engage the reader in your argument.’ It’s all about the persuasive nature of the language.”
Ironically, Benjamin faced stiff resistance when he first implemented the idea of blogging in class. While blogs allowed students to compose their assignments in a medium that was far more interesting than a piece of paper, the thought of having their English teacher reading their personal blogs was a turn-off. “It took 3 weeks for me to get them just to open their blogs or even create a new one for me to read!” says Benjamin with a laugh. “It was almost like an invasion of their privacy.”
So how did he get students to finally accept the idea of blogging for class? “Basically, I created my own blog,” answers Benjamin. “It’s like extending the hand first. I’m willing to write about what you need to write, and I’m willing for you to see what I am as a teacher.”
And it worked. Benjamin now finds himself reading 40 online journals where students write entries on everything from capital punishment to technology. It works both ways as well. Benjamin’s own blog is dotted with comments from students who drop by to read his musings on trips abroad, being in high school, and even an indignant entry about a visit to a dentist who charged him $45 just to tell him that he didn’t need his molars removed.
“When they realised that I wasn’t there to make comments about their grammatical mistakes and just wanted to encourage them to write, they really warmed up to me. I think they’re pretty okay with writing now,” he says proudly.
The tricky part
Of course, Benjamin is well aware that reading his students’ online journals is different from reading essays composed in class. And while he sees himself mainly as an English teacher, reading blog entries on his students’ private struggles requires more than just a lesson in grammar. “It’s tough because if I encounter an issue which seems bad enough, the question is there: Do I come in, or am I invading the students’ privacy?” he says.
Privacy is not the only issue. Given that people are now “posting faster than they can process” (Kwek & Low, 2006, p.H6), quite a number of local blogs have made headline news with their unpopular comments online (the most recent case involving Raffles Junior College student Wee Shu Min). The arrest of “racist bloggers” has even prompted civil servants to trawl the Net for “offensive” entries. While these issues have been linked to problems of discrimination and prejudice, Benjamin feels that part of the problem is a simple case of insensitivity.
“Even if they know they want to make fun of a certain person in public, I think students are not sure of the impact their actions will have on that person,” he says. “Blogs are semi-published material, so part of education is telling students that it’s a public space. It’s almost as good as writing a letter to the newspapers and saying that so-and-so is an idiot.”
Benjamin also feels that helping students blog responsibly from the start is better than punishing them after they’ve done something wrong, “On a micro scale, we have students who bad-mouth other students online or put nasty stuff on the tag board. We also have students bad-mouthing the school, so I think this is really part of education,” he says. “Instead of saying things like, ‘If we catch you again, this will be done to you,’ I think it’s important to teach them how to be sensitive to authority and their own friends.”
Beyond the blog
Benjamin, however, is careful not to be too ambitious about the role of blogging in the classroom. While it is useful for getting students engaged, written assignments remain the main mode of assessment. “I can see the potential of it being more, but sometimes students themselves would rather do the written assignment because they know at the end of the day, that’s how they are assessed in the O levels.”
Still, Benjamin’s work reminds us that the abstract notion of “preparing students for the future” is not as complicated as we think. Sometimes, it just means devoting extra effort to utilising a medium that young people know well. Benjamin believes that “with MySpace and all these personal spaces online, people will soon be using them to express themselves so much. If you don’t teach that today, we’re going to miss out on something pretty big.” And yes, we believe him.
Kwek, K., & Low, A. (2006, July 25). Internet users learning netiquette the hard way. The Straits Times, p. H6.
> Want to learn about setting up your own blog? Click here.
> Visit Benjamin’s blog at http://mebentwy.blogspot.com/