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Middle school students sharing opinions on their blogs

Poised at a keyboard in the upstairs computer lab, Elizabeth Pusateri was ready to share her thoughts about volcanoes.

The sixth-grader and the rest of her class at Hillcrest Intermediate School in the Norwin School District had just learned about geological disasters in science. Now, they were writing about what they had learned on their class blog.

"Blogging is really fun," said Elizabeth, 11. "You get to comment on people, you get to share your feelings."

As children spend more time online at home, schools are realizing the educational potential of social media. Edublogs.com, an Australia-based company that provides blogging software for schools, now hosts 600,000 student and teacher blogs around the world.

"They extend learning and collaboration beyond the classroom to anyone that visits the blog," said Edublogs spokewoman Ronnie Burt.

David Warlick, an education consultant who built classblogmeister.com five years ago, said that the free site has served more than 250,000 users in 90 countries.

"The power of classroom blogging is that students are not merely writing to their teachers, what they think the teacher wants to read, and only for a grade," Warlick said. "They are writing with the knowledge that at least their classmates will be reading what they are writing and responding to what they are writing."

Hempfield Area schools began using blogs this year, said high school computer teacher Cheryl Bengel, and students seem to enjoy writing blog posts.

"It has been a really useful and fun tool," Bengel said. "I think they feel like they have a little more of an open forum."

At Hillcrest, even art class now involves blogging, said Principal Rosemary Dvorchak. "The whole purpose is to incorporate 21st-century skills into the classroom."

Sixth-grade teacher Donna Duncan has been using classblogmeister.com for two years. The students post on their class blog, "Blogging Dragons," under nicknames such as "buster," "APPLEGIRL" and "Stinky17."

Internet safety and etiquette are integral to the lessons, Duncan said. The students, whose blogs can be seen by anyone, are cautioned to use only their screen names and never their real names online. Parents sign permission forms, and a teacher reviews blog entries and comments before they go live.

"We have rules about what you're allowed to put on there," explained Margaret Evans, a fourth-grade teacher at Sheridan Terrace Elementary School who was the first at Norwin to use blogs. "We just have to make sure they don't put their names on or where they live."

Though students don't list their hometowns, classblogmeister.com allows them to see where their readers are. Last year, Duncan's class blog was read by people in Australia, India and New Zealand. Evans' class became penpals with a class in Virginia.

"I want to keep them excited about writing," Duncan said. "They're writing the same things they would in a science journal, but they get more excited because it's on a computer."

Her student Jordan Prines, 12, agreed.

"It's funner to use the computer than to just write with pencil and paper," he said.

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