This post is not for everybody. In fact, over 95% of teachers don’t need to read this post.
It’s certainly not for the teacher who is just starting to blog with their students. If you’re thinking about starting a class website next year, read this post about how to make a class website. (If you’re not thinking about blogging in the classroom, here are six reasons why your students should blog.)
If you’ve been running a class blog for a while, then this post is also not for you. You might want to give each of your students their own blog on Blogger, WordPress.com or Edublogs.org first. Some teachers will want to buy premium upgrades on WordPress, or Edublogs to get more features.
If you want more from your student blogs, then consider creating a class network of blogs using the multisite features of WordPress. You need to run your own self hosted WordPress account in order to do this.
If you’ve been running your own WordPress network and you’ve set up your students as admins on their own blogs, then chances are, you’ve installed a lot of the free themes from the WordPress repository. This post is for you. Read on.
For the past few years, I’ve run my own multisite network using a self hosted WordPress account to give my students the opportunity to manage their own student blogs and the creative control to call their own shots. (Usually students blog on a teacher controlled website – students are often just authors and contributors, while the teacher is the ultimate admin.) Setting up students as administrators on their own blogs is a great hands-on lesson in literacy and media literacy.
Free themes are great and there are lots of very cool themes out there, but one of the problems with free WordPress themes is that you’re limited to a cookie-cutter template. Sure, some themes offer opportunities to tweak and change the appearance, but free themes usually don’t offer a lot in customization opportunities.
One of the dangers of classroom technology is that it can be a gimmick. Education Week Teacher ran a first-person commentary by Paul Barnwell, who pointed out that students “become dependent on technology that requires too many templates… These gimmicks do not develop genuine technology competence.” He raised the issue of how we can help students to become more tech savvy – and be able to synthesize ideas/media forms, and create original stuff.
Media literacy and student blogging: Why students need to do more than simply choose a cookie-cutter theme for their student blog
I’ve seen many students thrilled with how cool their WordPress powered website looks, but the only thing they did was choose a pretty theme and use the default sidebar widgets. Worse, they’ve uploaded a low resolution image to the background which tiles to infinity and make a pretty theme look horrible…
But the student is ecstatic because it’s an image of their favorite band or actor. The content might be theirs, but most students who blog haven’t put any critical thought into the design choices or layout of their website simply because the option to customize their theme wasn’t there.
One of the tenets of media literacy is that media are constructions: Media texts (i.e. websites) are created by people “who make conscious and unconscious choices about what to include, what to leave out and how to present what is included.” (Media Awareness Network)
(Another important tenant is that media have commercial implications. There’s a reason why ads can be found in certain locations on websites. Google knows that “certain locations tend to be more successful than others.” Check out Google’s official recommendations for where to place Google ads based on their heat map.)
Google is a master in analytics and a great lesson in best practices. Their search results are laid out in a very specific way based on eye tracking research. People tend to scan search results in order from the top left and then make their way down.
How do your students design websites? Are they able to make decisions about how to present information on their website, or are they at the mercy of the theme that they chose?
- How many columns are on the website? One, two, or three? How wide are the columns?
- Is the main content on the left side of the right side? Why did they make that choice?
- What fonts are used? How big are the fonts? What colors are used for the main text, links, etc.? How do the fonts impact the audience?
- A picture is worth 1000 words. Are you able to use thumbnails in your list of posts? How does this impact your click through rate?
- Can you control the article byline? Do you want/need to show the author name, post publishing date, number of comments, post tags or categories, etc.? Does this make a difference?
Does your WordPress theme lets you customize these features? The Thesis theme does.
And, that’s why I use the Thesis theme framework on my professional sites because it’s easy to customize your website appearance.
And after thinking about Barnwell’s commentary about teaching students to use technology to create in a meaningful way, I think the Thesis theme framework will be the only theme that I provide students for their blogs next year. (Instead of letting them choose from 20 or 30 themes that I’ve preinstalled.)
Five reasons why I chose the Thesis theme framework
I bought a Developer’s license for the Thesis theme framework. Here are the big reasons why I went with Thesis. (Our Webcircles site uses Thesis, btw.)
- Chris Pearson, the guy behind the Thesis theme framework also developed another theme that I really liked back in the day (Cutline)
- if you check out the Thesis gallery showcase, there are a lot of very cool professional looking themes that don’t really look like they’re WordPress anymore.
- Matt Cutts is the head of the Google web spam team. He has a very large voice in terms of how to rank well in Google. He uses Thesis. Danny Sullivan, who is a search engine optimization guru also uses Thesis. Two really powerful endorsements for the Thesis theme framework.
- Lots of people use the Thesis theme framework, which means it’s (usually) easy to find advice and code to tweak your theme. (The Thesis theme framework offers an affiliate program which is a great marketing strategy. The more you write about the Thesis theme framework, the more traffic you get, which hopefully translates into more referrals and more commissions.)
- I find the official Thesis blog has a lot of nice tips and tricks on how to optimize your website – and obviously, they’re providing code snippets for how to do it with the Thesis theme framework.
People who know a little bit of code will like the Thesis theme framework because you can easily customize the CSS design and add custom functions. Each time you activate the Thesis theme on a site, it creates a custom folder so each site can have its own custom CSS and functions. That’s very cool because that means two sites using Thesis on the same WordPress network can look completely different due to custom tweaks.
Of course, there are some hacks and changes that need to be made before I can use Thesis theme framework with a student blogging network. That “big green save button” is really a “big ass save button” but that can be changed. The cool thing about the Thesis theme framework is that you can modify the Thesis theme for your entire WordPress network from a single folder. (They call it Thesis master control and enhanced multisite support, but I call it thank-goodness-I-don’t-have-to-worry-about-child-themes.)
[stextbox id=”info”]How to use the thesis master control and enhanced multisite support:
- Kristarella explains in her comment, but basically rename the “custom-sample” folder to “custom” and “put stuff in the custom_functions.php file and it will apply that stuff to all sites on the network.”
- Apparently only the custom_functions.php file applies to all network sites. The CSS file doesn’t work, but you could WP_enqueue_style from custom_functions.php if you wanted some common CSS across the network.
Three Ways to Customize your Thesis code
Here are two ways to customize your tweaks and hacks to the Thesis theme. (Aside from using FTP.)
1. Add custom code to Thesis just by logging into your class website or student blog
You can add custom code to your CSS just by logging into your WordPress site. Regular admins of a WordPress site can only edit the CSS file:
If you’re the super admin of your WordPress student blogging network, you can also edit custom functions just by logging into your WordPress site.
This means that students (administrator accounts on their blogs) will have the ability to tweak the appearance of their WordPress site with some CSS code, but they won’t be able to add any custom functions and that’s okay.
Having a student drops some malicious PHP code that they found on Google is not a good thing for your WordPress student blogging network. (The average middle school student won’t be able to code in PHP anyway. The few students who are able to pull together some lines are welcome to give me the code directly and I can manually insert it onto their site for them as a super admin.)
2. Use the OpenHook Customizations Manager to tweak your Thesis code
The OpenHook Customizations Manager WordPress plug-in lets you add custom code to specific Thesis and WordPress hooks which makes life a little easier. The menu option is available to users who have the “delete_users” capability which in theory looks like regular admins, but in practice, only my super admin user account has access to this menu on my multi site WordPress installation. (My regular admin account can’t see the OpenHook Customizations Manager menu.)
This could still be a dangerous plug-in in the hands of a student because they can run malicious PHP code from their website. If your student admins have the power to activate their own plug-ins on their blog, you need a way to limit which plug-ins they can activate.
If you have a WPMU DEV premium subscription, you can use the pro-sites plug-in to limit access to certain plug-ins by restricting them on the “premium account.” (Mind you, then you need to figure out how to tweak the plug-in to make sure that students are not constantly bombarded with requests to upgrade their account. But that’s another story.)
Make your life (and your students’ lives) easier with the Thesis toolbar plug-in
The Thesis toolbar plug-in simply list the thesis options in the WordPress toolbar/admin bar. The plug-in works for both regular (i.e. student) admins and super admins, but that doesn’t matter because it doesn’t give you any extra functionality. The toolbar simply links to existing menus.
- I’ll probably install this for my students blogs to make it a little bit easier for students to customize their Thesis powered WordPress sites
- I like how the Thesis toolbar links to the thesis user guide, tutorials, and forms for easy access.
- I also like how the Thesis toolbar menu includes a link to the OpenHook Customizations Manager if you have it installed (and if you can permission to access it.)
Even though it’s summer vacation, I’m really excited for next school year. I can’t wait to see what what students can create with the student blogs using Thesis. Looking back at that idea that media are constructions, next year, we’ll be able to do more than manipulate the words and ideas that we write. We’ll be able to really manipulate the layout and design of our websites, too.
How do your students make conscious and unconscious choices about the appearance of their student websites?
This blog post was dictated using Dragon NaturallySpeaking premium in Microsoft Word.
- There were 2017 words in the first draft of this post.
- Dragon Naturally Speaking made 50 word errors which mean that it transcribed 97.5% of the words correctly.
- The voice recognition software also made an additional 17 punctuation errors meaning the total accuracy rate was 96.7%.
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