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Saturday, July 29, 2006

Blogging and Teaching

by folkbum

Any minute now, I will probably be marking my second appearance in USA Today (the first is here). I did a long interview last week with education reporter Greg Toppo, who contacted me for a story about teachers who blog.

I haven't really given the subject a lot of thought, except as it relates to me and my own situation. But, especially during and after the conversation with Toppo, I've been considering what I do, and how that's different from what many other teachers do.

The NEA Today did a story about teacher bloggers last September that began to touch a little bit on the issue:
Many teacher blogs look like personal diaries and serve as virtual lounges, a place to kvetch and share inspiration with colleagues [. . .].

The stories your colleagues could tell… and do! More than ever, under the anonymous cover of the Internet, teachers are downloading their daily frustrations, aggravations, and occasional satisfactions. "It's the first thing I do when I get home," says La Maestra, author of A Contar, the daily tale of a bilingual educator in Texas. [. . .]

For La Maestra or Ms. Frizzle or Posthipchick, the blog isn't just a teaching tool, aimed at motivating students. It's a way to remember the details of their jam-packed day, turn on their inner comedian, and activate their politics. After a day spent basically alone--well, except for those 34 kids--the blog serves as a welcome way to decompress, says the pseudonymous Ms. Frizzle.

It's cheap therapy--and it's particularly valuable for new teachers. You might not want to tell Mrs. Delaney in the next room that you dearly wish you'd looked twice at an accounting degree--but you can freely tell your tales of woe to strangers, who often offer a bit of nonjudgmental advice.
Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that those bloggers don't sound like me at all. I have said before that for me, I have a big, bright, red line that I do not cross. I don't talk about "school." Sure, I talk about education. I even talk about what's happening in the district. But I don't use this blog as a way to decompress or connect with colleagues (though I know many of my fellow MPS teachers do read me) or ever--ever--reveal anything personal about colleagues, students, or parents.

Greg Toppo was very interested in that in his interview. In fact, one of his first questions was, "You aren't anonymous--tell me about that." Apparently, he'd mostly been talking to teachers who don't use their names, and told me I was a rarity. He asked if I were worried about repercussions, and I told him that no, I had a strong union that I trusted to support me. Besides, I said, the superintendent knows who I am and what I think of the way he's running the district. He would have fired me years ago if he'd wanted.

Toppo mentioned one anonymous teacher in particular, First Year Teacher (who is now well beyond her first year). He read to me, incredulously, from this post, which is FYT's unsent letter of resignation after a particularly horrible year. Here's a piece of it:
First, there is a dangerous man in room 134. I have referred to him as Jackass, mostly, but you know who he is. I know that you are aware that he is tracking his female students menstrual cycles on a sheet of paper at his podium because I have told you this. I am certain that you know he also keeps a picture of a female student on his whiteboard and has been observed kissing it by students because, again, I have told you this. At Field Day recently he also laughed along side some male students as they stood behind a female teacher making comments like "This is the best view around!" and "Booty, booty, booty, booty, rockin' everywhere!" He has spit in the face of some male students, pushed a boy into the door, made fun of the accents of Hispanic students, and held votes as to whether students would be punished or made fun of. Again, I made you aware of each of these activities, though you've done nothing about it. I'm not sure how you sleep at night knowing you have allowed this man to be here for two years and are now planning to write him a "shining recommendation" though you aren't allowing him back here. It seems obvious that he is just going to go to another school and behave the same. It is people like you that make child abuse an easy crime to commit. You might want to deal with your issues concerning this.
You see my point.

There are any number of reasons why I would never write the above paragraph. The most obvious one is that you, the reader, know who I am and a clever Googler can figure out where I teach, opening the district up to a tremendous lawsuit. Additionally, while I have on occasion written that unsent-letter sort of thing, I know that the whole point behind those is the catharsis of writing, not the letting people see--and, while the principal may never have seen it, putting it on the blog is still a step beyond what this process calls for.

Most importantly, though, in a situation like the one FYT describes, the correct answer is not to post it in a blog, but to call the police, or, at least, social services. Telling the principal is the right first step but, when that principal doesn't follow through and I know that students' health and well-being are in danger, I have to act beyond sitting here and typing.

Greg Toppo, perhaps following the "there must be two sides, and they must disagree" model of journalism, wanted me to condemn FYT for this, and the "diary" style of teacher-blogging in general. And, yes, I believe that there is some exposure under FERPA in situations like those, but I also told Toppo that, you know, that isn't my style and I would never do it, but they made their choice. I would like to think that these teachers--some that I read and many, like FYT, that I don't--are smart enough people to know FERPA and to know, especially after three or more years of doing this kind of blogging, where their own lines are, and how not to cross them.

I figured out, over the course of my conversation with Toppo, why there is a difference between me and many of the other teacher-bloggers out there, and it has to do with why I started blogging in the first place. For me, blogging was never about having a diary or a journal or some other chronicle of my life. Yes, I occasionally bring on the personal, but I didn't start this blog as a way to keep in touch with friends or document the thousand mediocrities that are my daily life.

I started this blog to be political. I was brought to blogging, like a lot of Democrats who started in the first half of 2003, by Howard Dean and his campaign for president. The more other blogs I read, the more I thought, "Hey, I could do that." Even when writing about education elsewhere, such as at the defunct Open Source Politics or a blog a few other Milwaukee Public Schools teachers and I started to provide some alternative, positive views of our profession and union, I was more about the issues in education, the politics of it all. I never wanted, nor have I ever tried to have, the kind of blog where I talk about students--their lives, their foibles, their performance. (The exception is if the students are news, as when a student of mine won a Gates Millennium Scholarship recently). I don't even use this space to talk about lessons, activities, or units to bring into the classroom.

The personal was never political enough for me to blog about. And the early surrender of my anonymity meant, if I ever did get around to doing a different kind of blogging about teaching, there would be tremendous consequences. Hence, my big, bright, red line.

I don't know when the USA Today story is running; rest assured, I will tell you when I see it.

(An aside: Toppo asked me about maybe sending a photographer in case the story were to run with an accompanying picture--you know, photograph the the teacher-blogger in his natural futonian habitat. It confused me at first, as I'm sure others--such as First Year Teacher, linked above--are both more telegenic and more elemental to the story he's writing. Only after I hung up the phone did I realize that he asked me because I'm the only one not trying to stay anonymous!)

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