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The Space Between Disciplines

Today, an author I have deeply admired for a decade challenged a few of us to write, so I’m writing. On the edges, after toddler bedtime, as I must, if writing is to happen.

In retrospect, I’ve never really been much of a disciplinary thinker.

Flashback to elementary school: my 4th grade teacher asks me what my favorite subject is, and I can’t answer her question. Math. No, English. No, Math. Maybe science. Music, actually. Chorus.

Flashback to 11th grade. I’m taking AP US History, it’s somewhere between November and January, and we’re learning about Reconstruction. That abysmal moment in US History where we finally did the right thing, but wrongly, and former slaves could be found throughout our nation drifting somewhere between freedom on paper and chains in practice. In AP English, we’re reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved. It’s pure coincidence that the units coincide, but I start to put the pieces together, realizing that the narrative of Sethe and her tortured maternal heart is the story of so many of the slaves-turned-not-really-free in the pages of my history textbook.

Flashback to college, as I sit in an Architectural History seminar, completely transfixed as the professor describes the engineering of arches in gothic cathedrals. Artistic beauty meets mathematical genius at the top of each perfect archway, keystones and tympana garnished with stories that guide and rule the collective memories of the people who sit within the building’s protective walls.

When I entered a doctoral joint program that spanned the social sciences and humanities, the fit seemed natural, especially since I couldn’t choose between education and my love for studying how people think, learn, and grow; and English and my love for how people express, argue, and communicate. Why pick? It’s all connected.

It’s all connected. I love finding connections. I love making connections. Between people. Between ideas. It’s my thing.

That’s probably why I studied social connections for four years and wrote a really long book about it that no one will ever read. It’s probably why I ultimately wound up leading technology integration for public schools. What’s powerful about new technologies, and particularly today’s technologies? They connect. People. Ideas. Of course, I dig.

But today, and lately, and sometimes here and there, I struggle to live in the space between disciplines. At times like these, I challenge my own belief, conviction, regularly-argued-assertion, that it’s all connected. Because if it’s all connected, we lose our categories, and it becomes difficult for us to make sense of the world. The human brain loves to create buckets, to organize. But beyond being an evolutionary impulse, we need categories and disciplines in order to think deeply about things. Sometimes we need fewer connections; sometimes, we need boundaries. Limits. Things we are ignoring so that we can focus on this, only this, and not on all of the things “this” connects to.

What are you talking about, Liz?

Let’s back up. Last year, a team of colleagues and I formed a “STEAM Team,” a group of community members (parents, students, teachers, administrators) dedicated to researching, defining, and exploring “STEAM” options for our district. We started by attempting to define “STEAM” education. What did we mean when we said “STEAM?” We read some articles. STEM v STEAM. STEM as a passing trend. Some stuff on design thinking. We discussed the people involved and resources needed to design impactful interdisciplinary learning. We engaged in challenge tasks at every meeting, sometimes building robotic arms out of straws, clips, and string, sometimes creating audiobooks with sound effects. We have crafted recommendations to bring such engaging experiences to our students across all grades, and we have had a lot of fun exploring and uncovering what lies in the space between disciplines.

Then today, a visit to our high school from an author whose most known and popular young adult novel, Speak, is the only book that has somehow made an appearance in every stage of my 10-year career in education. From curriculum development to teaching 9th grade English to tutoring English language learners to leading libraries, this book has followed me. When Laurie Halse Anderson visited today to speak with our high school students, I was just as giddy as the teens. And, I was reminded of the disciplinary roots in English literature that once consumed my attention and passion.

I was taken back to my English classroom, where we – my 9th graders and I – dug in. 

We didn’t think about math (well, we sort of did when we surveyed the school and analyzed our findings).

We didn’t think about history (ok well that’s a lie, most of my ELA classes were half history).

We definitely thought about art and music as a way of giving voice to pain, as Melinda does in the text.

We thought about technology a lot, because we decided to make documentaries on ancient desktops with nowhere near enough storage, using camcorders from 1995.

But mostly, we thought and talked and wrote about texts and language and reading and revising and composing. We developed theories about the text and its messages and themes. We talked about consent, censorship, silence, trauma, gender politics, and adolescence. We learned how to defend our ideas with evidence from multiple texts, how to frame quotes within a sentence, how to identify patterns in imagery, language, and dialogue. We redefined what it meant to “write” when we tossed out the classic literary analysis essay and created documentaries about things that were hard to “speak up” about. We dug in.

“Digging in” is what disciplinary thinking allows us to do, and something I don’t feel like I get to do as often lately, as I focus on connecting disciplines, on building technology meaningfully into the work of all disciplines. STEAM n’stuff.

I love living in the space between disciplines, because it allows me to see, discover, and attempt to articulate the myriad connections between science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics… and also civics, literacy, politics, sociology, psychology. However, we cannot draw those connections without first developing the categories around which generations of thinkers have thought deeply. We must first categorize and focus in order to later discover the space between, and within that chasm, create new “disciplines.”


On (Multi)literacies

The Scene

Sometime in the not-too-distant past, an email came across one of the group lists to which I subscribe. The author of the email was encouraging members of the community – in this case, the school library community of the Commonwealth – to provide feedback on a survey related to possible changes to licensure requirements in the state of Massachusetts.

I completed the survey, but that’s not what this post is about.

One of the proposed changes to current licenses in Massachusetts is in response to the new Digital Literacy and Computer Science standards that were recently developed and passed. The standards, IMHO, are excellent. They require us to consider how we are (or in most cases, are not) developing students’ computational thinking, digital ethics and citizenship, and digital literacy skills. They are also tough – demanding that kindergarteners be able to explain complex human-computer relationships and that 5th graders be able to articulate how technology can create or bridge socioeconomic divides – and I’ve never been one to stand down to a challenge.

The email author, at one point in her message, referenced a shift in possible instructional technology teacher licensure, which requires technology specialists to have some expertise in computer science (at least enough to teach the fundamentals to students). This has implications for teacher preparation programs, and also for other specialists – like library specialists such as herself, who for decades have taught digital literacies right alongside information literacies and “regular old” literacy… which I know one can define in a million different ways, but by which I basically mean reading, understanding, and hopefully enjoying written text.

She wrote something to the effect of “digital literacy is ours.” Ours, meaning librarians’.

This struck me. Enough that I immediately emailed our library lead teacher and #librarybrain extraordinaire to get her thoughts on it. It struck me because it made me think about my definition of digital literacy, which I haven’t questioned in a long while. It made me think about the definition the state of Massachusetts is giving digital literacy by sticking it in a set of standards that includes computer science. And it made me think about “information literacy,” and what that is, and how it is distinct (?) from digital literacy or other literacies.

The Point

This year, our district has been piloting a model that combines “information literacies,” “digital literacies,” and “content literacies” into a single “Research and Digital Learning Block,” which is way too long of a title so it ended up getting shortened to “Research Block” and next year it will be “Integrated Literacy Block” (it has an identity crisis, but I promise it’s awesome). We piloted the model in three schools, but by the end of the school year, all six of our elementary schools had heard about “research block,” and next year, it will expand to all six of our elementary schools.

Integrated Literacy Block is all about multiliteracies. It’s all about layering literacies. The whole point is that “information literacy” can’t be teased apart from “digital literacy” can’t be teased apart from “content literacy.”

Integrated literacy blocks look a little like this: content area teacher, library teacher, and digital learning teacher all find a time, once a week, and block their schedules. At this time, no matter what is happening in the regular literacy curriculum, either information literacies or digital literacies and standards are incorporated into that content. If you’re a visual thinker, here’s a cool diagram:


I like diagrams like this one. They are neat and clean and indicate conceptual boundaries between things that might not actually have sharp lines separating them. Diagrams like this make a vague world coherent. But what that post to that email list in the not-so-distant past did for me was throw into sharp relief the problematically distinct conceptual line I had drawn between “digital” and “information” literacies as we had conceptualized, and then implemented, our “Integrated Literacy Block.”

As we developed this framework for integrating technology and information literacies, I had to draw lines that would distinguish the roles and expertise of the individuals who were participating: classroom teacher, library teacher, tech teacher. Each of these individuals would essentially “own” a “literacy” in our new instructional model:

Content teacher: content literacies. 

  • Decoding texts
  • Bringing contextual knowledge to texts
  • Comprehending and navigating texts
  • Identifying and navigating many types of texts
  • Synthesizing and connecting content across multiple
  • Creating and writing texts

Library teacher: information literacies. 

  • Generating compelling questions that texts can answer
  • Finding digital and paper-based texts that will address those questions
  • Assessing texts for validity, reliability, and bias
  • Synthesizing information from multiple texts or text types

Digital Learning Teacher: digital literacies.

  • Comprehending and navigating digital hypertexts
  • Comprehending and navigating multimodal texts
  • Creating multimodal texts
  • Accessing appropriate devices and software to engage with digital texts

These distinctions made perfect sense to me as I created the diagram above, but even as I sit and write about these literacies, I struggle to tease them apart cleanly. Certainly, there are discreet skills associated with decoding versus accessing the Internet, navigating a database versus making meaning from a paragraph, creating a podcast versus conducting a keyword search. However, the lines blur in a classroom where students are conducting research about the exploration and conquest of the Americas; creating collaborative Google slideshows that feature maps, images, and information gathered from library databases and print texts; generating questions about explorers; and presenting what they learned to their classmates. Suddenly “assessing texts for validity and reliability” is wrapped into a series of lessons that includes “comprehending and navigating digital hypertexts” and “bringing contextual knowledge to texts.”

But also – that’s the whole point. None of us can “own” these literacies, because they rely on one another; one can’t develop an effective multimodal text without a firm grasp of how various modes (audio, visual) contribute to one another, how audience expectations shape the text, or how information is gathered and conveyed in multimodal texts. Which means, as educators with expertise in various pieces of the literacy puzzle, we (should) rely on one another.

In my dissertation, I defined digital literacies as “socially organized practices one enacts in digital, often online, spaces using digital or non-digital symbol systems to produce or otherwise interact with texts.” That’s a relatively fancy way of saying “literacy: but, now.”  Today’s literacies require us to be comfortable learning about and teaching with texts that are exceedingly complex. 

Today’s texts, in contrast with “yesterday’s texts” are:

  • Coming to us constantly and from all angles. Our phones. Our TVs. Our computers. Our bookshelves.
  • Filled with distractions. Clickbait. Videos. Ads. Links to other texts on the same topic.
  • Personalized, thanks to big data. Don’t believe me? Watch this.
  • Condensed. Think 140 characters (or less).
  • Global and local, all at once. As are our students.

I reject the notion that anyone, regardless of their role in education, can “own” or be solely responsible for any piece of the literacy puzzle, because I struggle to see how the pieces are easily teased apart. Certainly, I make the effort to distinguish the realms of expertise among teachers in our district, if for no other reason because no one person can be responsible for the entire literacy domain in today’s complicated web of text, hypertext, multimodal text, and multiauthored text.

I do not write this to undermine the aforementioned email author’s point of view; to the contrary, I appreciate that her perspective threw into such sharp relief my own beliefs on the matter, forcing me to question the lines and definitions I had drawn around “info/digital/literacy.” Her post has helped me to (re)consider and articulate my own perspective: that to clearly distinguish literacies, and especially to claim any sort of “ownership” over them, is to undermine today’s complex literacy landscape.

Today’s literacies are multi. So must we be.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Working from Home

I work from home. This has become more and more true over the past few years, as I have let up on course-taking and picked up on time-writing. The more I work from home, the more I learn to live with the love/hate relationship I have established with my home office (which migrates through the house, since everything is portable these days).

In case you’re thinking it, stop. I’m not a hermit. Okay, this semester, I’m a little more hermit-like than usual. But I do enjoy scheduling days away, like last Friday, which I spent bopping around campus all day before a night out with my partner. But the definition of “hermit” (according to a very rigorous Google search) is “a person living in solitude as a religious discipline.” I do not live in solitude, and I certainly don’t do so religiously (or with any discipline). I tweet, I pin, I post, I skype, I “hangout.” My day is still punctuated with meetings, and it’s a rare day that doesn’t require a trip out of the house to go somewhere — it’s just that I usually come back home within a few hours. I spend much of my day interacting with others. The fact that I’m doing it in my pajamas in front of the fireplace shouldn’t matter.

Should it? I have been thinking a lot lately about the benefits and drawbacks of working from home. Certainly, it has its perks. But it also has its problems. Which I will describe here.

The Goodgirl sits in front of computer on her bed, pajamas on.

  1. Pajamas. PJs are great. If you don’t think so, something’s wrong with you. My current favorite pair are pink and stripey. If I could wear them everywhere, I would.
  2. Furniture. Not that crappy office furniture that has been used by about three decades of people before you took over your graduate student office. No, real furniture. With cushion. Cushion is important when writing a dissertation.
  3. Food. I get to make myself wonderful lunches that are hot and fresh, which helps me stick to my healthy eating habits.
  4. Gym. We splurged on an elliptical machine a couple Christmases ago, which has helped me get my daily exercise in. And it’s in my basement. So whether I’m running or going downstairs, I have the ability to take a break and get some exercise, which usually gets the juices flowing again. Which brings me to…
  5. Time. I manage my own. And there are few luxuries greater than that one.

The Bad

  1. Time. Because I manage my own, and because I’m still learning how to do this, I sometimes slip up. I schedule out my day in blocks on my Google Calendar, but did I really just spend an entire two-hour period analyzing data, or did I check Facebook a few too many times, or spend a few minutes scanning my Twitter feed, or get up for more coffee? This would be a problem if I WASN’T at home, though, so it’s more of a personal issue than a WFH issue.
  2. Laundry, Dishes, and Floors. I’m at home. I should be cleaning. Except I shouldn’t. Except I should. Except I shouldn’t. Except I should. Except I shouldn’t. This is constant, people.
  3. Spatial Confusion. I drift throughout the house. I have an actual office upstairs, which is sort of the “hub,” but I migrate around it depending on the time of year. For a while when the puppy was little, I worked in the family room by the back door, in case she needed to go out. Now I work in the living room by the fireplace… cuz it’s WARM. These spaces shift from being “work” spaces to being “home” spaces throughout the day, which isn’t necessarily problematic, but does bring up some work-home boundary issues sometimes.
  4. The Dog. Because as one of my colleagues said to me last week, “it’s more fun to put boots on your dog and take a video than it is to analyze data.” On some days this is more true than others.

The Really, Really Ugly

There’s really only one thing that really bites about working from home. And that’s the isolation.

It can be hard to learn how to deal with, and hard to learn how to embrace. It can make you a nasty person on bad days or a really productive person on a good day. This is what led to some serious emotional issues at the end of my first year, when I needed to work on my exams. On some days, the isolation is downright maddening.

Think about a day working at home versus a day working in an office — even if you don’t speak to many people in the office, you still say hi to someone as you walk in, goodbye to someone as you leave. You stand up to get water and run into a friend. You talk. I didn’t realize how silent I had become until I spent a day talking and had a sore throat at the end of it.

This takes actual time and practice to get good at. It requires you to love your work. So it’s a good thing I do.


Seven Ways in which Getting a PhD is like Training for a Marathon

I always wanted to be a sprinter. As a child, I thought I was very fast.

My middle school track coach helped me realize how wrong I was about that.

I am very good at being a metaphorical sprinter. I like to do things as quickly and efficiently as possible, while still doing them well. I get a kick out of streamlining processes and crossing things off of lists. I pride myself on finishing tasks in a timely manner. I like to be fast.

Unfortunately for me, when it comes to the PhD, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. And the closer I get to marathon day (because I decided to do that. run a marathon.), the more I realize how many things marathon training and dissertating have in common. So here are seven ways in which getting a PhD is the same. damn. thing. as training for a marathon:

(1) You start out thinking you’re invincible.

Dissertating: You’ve got this. You have plenty of experience with writing — after all, you wrote that master’s thesis. You know how to look stuff up on the library website. You have plenty of original ideas — plenty! Seminar papers? Piece of cake. Your dissertation study is going to be the coolest. And the biggest. And the most interesting thing on the face of the planet. And also super, mega important, for reasons you will be able to clearly articulate to anyone who asks.

Training: You have steadily increased your mileage over the past two years, so you know you can keep increasing it. You recently made your best time ever in a race. You’re still in your 20s. You don’t have kids. What’s going to stand in your way?

(2) You believe you know what you’re doing until proven otherwise.

DissertatingEverything is going well until you get feedback on your first (or second, or third) seminar paper. The professor lets you know that your arguments are surface-level and uninteresting, and that your prose really needs some work because it’s clunky and hard to understand. Oh, and vague. You need to be less vague about all the things you’re talking about. Also, what do you mean when you say “literacy?” how about “identity?” how about “practice?” Ugh.

Training: You bought the decent shoes. You read a book about how to train. You’ve done your research. And everything is going well until your weak hips result in a knee injury. Before you know it you’re hobbling around the house like you’re 80, taking hot baths every night, sitting on a heating pad all day, and praying you won’t permanently injure yourself. When you stub your toe on something, your first thought is “crap, if I just broke my toe, I won’t be able to run.” You realize how fragile you actually are. You’re amazed you’ve lasted this long.

(3) You think you’ve hit “the wall” in your first year. But you haven’t.wall

DissertatingMan, that second semester grind was hard this year. You really hit the wall. You stayed up all night in the grad student lounge trying to get just a few… more… paragraphs onto the page. You hit “print” moments before the seminar paper was due. Two years later, you’re staring down the barrel of a mountain of a data and don’t know where to begin and you realize that this. THIS. is the wall.

Training: In your second mile, you feel really winded. You slow down your pace and suck in air, trying to make it past “the wall” to your four-mile finish line for this workout. You gulp down water. You sort of have a cramp on your right side. You run through it. Two years later you’re in mile 18 of a four-hour training run and you feel your entire body seize up. You’re feeling a little loopy and uncoordinated, unable to put your water bottle back in its holster without using two hands. Your vision seems a little… off. And you realize that this. THIS. is the wall.

(4) The gear gets more and more expensive.

DissertatingSure, you needed books for classes in your first year, but that MacBook you’d been running around with for the last three years is working just fine. Now it’s time to write the dissertation and your computer has crashed three times, and you’re a regular at the computer repair shop on campus. Oh, and software. And voice recorders. And cameras. And books. You suddenly have opinions about things like video card brands, RAM and hard drive requirements, and data backup subscription services.

toenailTraining: Why, oh why did you ever run in a cotton T-shirt? What were you thinking? Those shoes that were good enough to get you a mile down the road get replaced with $120+ shoes that are a half size too big (because you want to keep your toenails) and you have opinions about which Nike DriFit gear is best for which weather conditions. Your socks cost more than socks should ever cost, and you get more excited about shopping at Dick’s than you do about shopping at Macy’s.

(5) You get faster, but tasks take longer to complete.

DissertatingIt used to take you the better part of a day to write a few pages. Remember in undergrad when you had to write two pages every. single. week?! I mean. It was ridiculous. You wrote more than 200 pages that semester! Well, now, you can punch out ten pages in a few hours (sometimes) and they’re not even that crappy. But wait. First you have to do all this analysis, and before that, you need to collect a bunch of data. Oh, and once you complete your 50-page chapter, your adviser is going to point out to you that it’s really just a whole bunch of chapters that you’ve managed to smash into one really confusing chapter, so you’re gonna have to fix that. So yeah, you can write ten pages in a few hours, but you’re gonna spend the rest of your life revising those ten pages.

Training: You start out barely breaking 12 minutes. You are slow and you know it. You are pretty sure that a caterpillar passed you a few minutes ago, and that if you walked you’d be going about the same speed. Now you can run a 10k at an 8:30 pace. But wait. Your Saturday runs are taking three hours out of your life. And also you should probably sleep for nine hours, because you burned like 2500 calories today. And don’t forget to make all your food from scratch so you know you’re getting the right fuel, and to do your stretches before and after your run, and to sprinkle in some strength training to avoid injury. You might be faster, but that doesn’t mean your workouts take less time.

(6) You get bored.boredom

Dissertating: You love your work. You do. It’s fascinating shit, really. People tell you that all the time, and you agree with them, because after all, you chose this. But if you have to look at one more article defining the term “literacy,” you’re going to fall into a coma. And after staring at the same chunk of data for three hours, it still isn’t making any sense to you. Because let’s be honest — it doesn’t matter how thrilling this stuff is to you, eventually, too much of any one thing is going to turn your brain into scrambled eggs.

Training: So yeah. There’s that house again. The one with the fake metal rooster in the yard and the sign that says “The Schirmer’s” and the tiny, obnoxious white fluffball of a dog yipping at you through the window. And there’s that spot in the road that always floods because, whether it’s raining or not, that real estate agency turns their sprinklers on every. single. day. In mile 10 you’re chanting the school fight song in rhythm with your steps. In mile 14 you’re daydreaming about sloths, and kind of wishing you were a sloth. In mile 16 you start drafting the next chapter of your dissertation. But don’t worry. You won’t remember any of those brilliant thoughts you had while you were on an adrenaline high.

(7) Your support networks become increasingly important and far-reaching. 

Dissertating: Here’s the best part — the farther into this you get, the more incredible friends you have made. You’re looking forward to an upcoming conference because you get to present with a friend in Georgia and bunk up with a friend from Michigan State. You’ve developed a (sort of) respectable Twitter following, and you love the people in your program, who you know will be your close friends and colleagues for the rest of your career. You know you can turn to this friend when you need a buddy to cook with, this friend when you need a break from revision to grab lunch, and this friend when you need help making sense of chapter feedback. You realize you aren’t as bad at this as you sometimes think you are, making every late night of writing, every embarrassing discussion blunder, and every crashed computer so worth it.

Training: You “like” a page on Facebook. You set up a Pinterest account and get addicted to the running memes that pop up on your home feed. You start a Facebook page and get really excited when people you’ve never met “like” it, because your network of runner friends is growing. You are alerted to new sites to follow and new pages to like through your growing network. You are able to ask questions of fellow runners, to commiserate when a run sorta sucks, and to provide help and support to beginning and seasoned runners alike. Before you know it, your love of this sport is even more intense, even more all-consuming than it was before, making every boring moment, every achy hip, and every novice mistake so worth it.

Some Thoughts on Teacher Bloggers

First, a Story

A teacher I have come to know over the past year is also a blogger. Let’s call her Allison. Allison is a teacher, a mom to two little boys, a wife, a blossoming tech nerd, and a lover of good wine. Allison maintained a blog that shall remain nameless. Her blog featured humorous but also thoughtful stories about her life as a teacher and a mom. She blogged about things like lessons she found entertaining and hysterical that her students thought were weird (that was one of my favorite posts). Or the ridiculousness of some of the right-to-work policies being touted in our state capitals. Or the realities of being a wife and mother — childbirth, wrangling toddlers, and fostering a positive relationship with her husband. She commiserated and communicated with other parents and teachers in her blog. She cussed a little, too.

I loved her blog. Not just as a researcher who is very interested in teachers and the ways in which they tell their stories using digital media. No, I loved her blog as a person. As someone who used to teach, and misses it. As someone who will someday have kids. As someone who loves some good wry humor now and then.

Note the past tense.

I’m not using the past tense because I no longer love Allison’s blog. I’m using the past tense because recently, Allison had to remove all of her blog content and move to a new online space. Start over. Clean slate. But not in a good way, and not for a good reason.

Allison maintains anonymity in her blogging life. Why? Well, her content is kind of snarky and sarcastic (which is part of why I love it). Also, she doesn’t always talk about teaching — she maintains a different network in her life as a blogger, which she wishes to keep separate from her work as a teacher.

Why else? Probably because, when it comes to being a teacher, there are weird stigmas attached to having a life outside of the school. Teachers are humans? What!? Probably also because it’s getting easier and easier for administrators to find reasons to fire teachers. Probably because, for many reasons, teachers are wary of letting their personal lives come too far into the school zone. Afraid of the vulnerability this poses, afraid of attacks on their livelihoods, on their families, on their healthy frames of mind. Teachers, after all, are already getting attacked on the professional front… why risk allowing that into one’s personal life?

What Happened? One of Allison’s students found her blog and was talking to other students about it. A colleague of Allison’s alerted her, and she removed all of the content from online (didn’t download it and move it — actually removed all content). Allison, alarmed by the fact that her once-anonymous blog was “outed” and that her students were aware of it, and concerned about what this would mean for her professionally, went into immediate blogger hiding. She created a new (also anonymous) blogspace, on which she has posted once. She’s starting over.

This pisses me off, folks. Not the starting over part, the needing to part.

I find this very frustrating, for a number of reasons. I’ll address each one separately below, but here they are in brief:

  1. Teachers are held to a standard of moral conduct that is not in keeping with the moral expectations in the rest of our society, and that is based primarily in Christian doctrine. And that’s just messed up.
  2. Teachers have almost no outlet for ever voicing the experiences they have in the classroom OR the experiences they have at home that might influence their approaches to their work.
  3. Those outlets teachers will create for themselves, because of item (1), often need to be masked by pseudonyms, and many teacher bloggers never tell their administrators or even colleagues about their blogs.

Here’s a bit more discussion on 1-3…

(1) Moral Standards

Do I think teachers are held to a higher moral standard than others in our society? Yes. Do I think this is okay? Yes. I need that to be totally clear.

What’s not okay? For teachers like this one, who got fired after writing horrible things about students on her blog, to maintain webspaces where they call out current or past students for being holy terrors. That’s unprofessional and ridiculous, and school districts shouldn’t stand for it. Teachers like these, in my opinion, shouldn’t be teachers anyway — we need to seek out the best in our students and help those parts of them grow! Not denigrate teenagers for being teenagers.

However, for teachers like Allison (or another friend of mine, who we’ll call Sylvia), to feel the need to censor themselves or to make their blogs anonymous because they’re worried the content might reflect poorly on their characters or might result in professional repercussions… that’s ridiculous. Sylvia has since de-anonymized her blog, which deals primarily with educational policy concerns and the life of the overworked English teacher. Allison’s blog was much less ed-y, yet her desire to keep it anonymous is much more pronounced.

Should teachers be strippers? Probably not. Should they deal drugs? Um, no. But dropping the occasional f-bomb in a blog post directed towards an adult mommy-blogger audience? I can see why Allison is worried about this reflecting poorly on her if an administrator caught wind or if all of her students found the post. I would have probably done the same thing she did if it were my blog. But does that mean she shouldn’t be able to engage this other — very rewarding (and even paying) part of her life? Can she not have this other job because her current one holds her to a moral standard that almost no other profession needs to answer to?

Surely, being the leader of children means teachers need to consider their role in shaping those young minds. But though many people have no problem letting our kids watch HBO, they might have a caniption if a teacher gets spotted at a bar by a student (what was the student doing at the bar, one might ask?) or if she curses up a storm with her friends outside of school. In other words, the moral standard teachers get held to is markedly Puritanical (I think) and is entirely unfair. Teachers are people who should be able to live their lives outside of school as productive adult citizens who, like most adults, might happen to swear and drink now and then.

(2) Teacher Venues for Voicing Experiences

Everyone and their great uncle thinks they know about being a good teacher. Well, that’s probably an overstatement — but certainly many people believe they know a lot about teaching, because, well, they grew up around teachers! We’ve all had teachers — good teachers, bad teachers, teachers we remember for that one amazing lesson, teachers we can picture but not name, teachers we keep in contact with for years after we leave their classrooms. It’s easy to have an opinion about what constitutes good teaching, or what makes a teacher effective, simply based on our experiences as people who once went to school, or as people who have kids who go to school, or as people in a society that has schools.

But really, you don’t know teaching until you’ve lived it. Becoming a teacher turned my understanding of the profession upside-down. Does it have its perks? Yes. My mom, who taught middle school math for 20 years before becoming an administrator, will tell you that teaching allowed her to raise us in the way that she wanted to — it allowed her to stay home in the summer with us, and to spend her evenings with us.

But teaching is not for the faint of heart. As a matter of fact, it can be downright heartbreaking sometimes. At other times, it can be the most heartwarming job on the planet. Basically, if you’ve got a weak heart — don’t start teaching. Unless you want to develop palpitations, that is.

The victories of teachers can be truly stunning, the defeats crushing. I remember a student I had when I taught 8th grade — she got pregnant halfway through the year. She was a sharp kid. Her poetry was beautiful and she loved to read. Sometimes she would come in my room and we would talk about the latest young adult novel she discovered. Sometimes she would write a poem “just cuz” and bring it to me for feedback so she could revise it. Not to turn it in, mind you. Just to make it better. One day, her mom emailed me to thank me. Her daughter had told her that she felt like she was just “that pregnant girl” to some of her other teachers (one teacher had said something terrible about her pregnancy to her friends, which I won’t repeat).

When she stood up at an assembly to speak out against race-based bullying at her high school, I was so proud of her I was shaking.

When she dropped out of school at the end of her sophomore year, I was heartbroken.

Teachers need places to tell these stories. The good ones. The sad ones. The ones that help us think about our society more critically, because schools serve as microcosms full of micropeople where the goods and ills of the world we live in play out daily. Blogs are a great way to do this and to reach a wide audience.

(3) They Who Shall Remain Unnamed

Would I openly — unanonymously — blog and teach? Well, I do. But would I do it if I were still a high school teacher? I don’t know, honestly. It would depend on a number of things, including:

  • The content of my blog
  • The supportiveness of my administration
  • The supportiveness of my colleagues
  • The setting in which I taught (rural? urban? suburban?)
  • The community in which I taught (conservative? liberal? diverse?)
  • Whether or not I had tenure, assuming that’s an option.

…and probably a number of other things, as well. Sylvia’s decision to “out” her blogger identity and to blog unanonymously was supported by her colleagues, though (at the time I spoke with her) she hadn’t directly told the principal about her blog. She also lives in a community that is fairly supportive of teachers and education in general, and that would be likely to agree with whatever “controversial” content she or her co-writers, who are colleagues of hers, might post.

I don’t know how much I would be willing to “rock the boat,” so to speak. I’ve never been in a position to make that choice — I became a blogger after I left the classroom. Allison’s decision to stay anonymous makes perfect sense to me. Sylvia’s decision not to also makes sense.

My concern has nothing to do with individual teachers’ decisions to be anonymous or not, but with the system that requires teachers to silence ideas they have that might prove “risky.” What counts as “risky?” Having an opinion about our governor’s education policies could prove risky in some communities. Teaching a lesson on the history of the word nigger could get you fired in other communities. Experimenting with new classroom formats, such as the “flipped” classroom, could prove risky as well. Which would make blogging about these things risky. Which would make attaching one’s name to her blog super risky.

You might be thinking, Liz, who cares if teachers blog anonymously? Why do you care that they need to use pseudonyms? I care because teachers should be recognized for the brave, risky, innovative things they do. Because the fact that teachers feel the (completely understandable) need to de-identify themselves worries me. It sends a message. And that message is “we can’t speak, for fear of reprimand.” For fear of firing, of being misinterpreted, of being discounted or disrespected. And that’s just depressing. Teachers should be able to show off, to showcase themselves, to have digital presences that aren’t masked or hidden.

I have been thinking through a number of these issues a lot in the past few years. I’ve written a few papers on blogging and teaching, on the role of anonymity, and on teacher identity. I’m happy to share readings or other things I’ve written with anyone who wants to know more, or who wants to engage in a conversation about this topic. It’s a loaded one, and one that I struggle to discuss, because I want to remain critical (of myself, of our world) while still making my ideas clear. So please, let me know your thoughts, reactions, criticisms, ideas.

And when a teacher wants to tell you a story, listen.