Tag Archives: activism

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.

 

Some Pressing Questions About Literac(y)(ies)

A friend of mine, Sheerah, who is in a course I’m taking on literacy and literacy studies with Anne Gere this semester, recently posted on our course blog a number of questions that have been weighing on my mind lately, too. I want to post a few of her questions here and invite some conversation about how we talk about (and teach) literacy and how we might go about addressing questions like Sheerah’s (because I know teachers all over our country share her concerns… I do).

In her post, which is here but you might not be able to view it depending on my prof’s settings, Sheerah asks some huge questions. Here are a couple of them:

If “multiple literacies” are the way to go, then does that mean it is not a problem that my seventh-grade student ‘Vanny’ has difficulty comprehending a text that his suburban counterpart ‘Cody’ could comprehend in first grade—that is not a problem? That is not an injustice? Vanny can read receipts! Therefore, who cares if he can’t read Mrs. Frisbee and the Rats of Nimh.

I think Sheerah, here, is frustrated that in all our talk about valuing students’ out-of-school literacies, we sometimes forget that there are in-school literacies that, though “schooled” literacies that probably won’t matter much (if at all) in students’ lives outside of school, are still literacies that are valued in our society and that “get students places” in life (according to my privileged version of what “success” looks like, anyway). This goes for texts, too. Sure, kids might be reading lots outside of school, but does this matter if the valued genres and texts in school are vastly different? Well of course it matters. Of course it’s an injustice that Vanny is in such a different position than Cody as he enters 7th grade. But what does this mean for literacy teaching and learning?

I think Sheerah voices a challenge for us here: when we talk about literacies, what do we mean? What does valuing multiple literacies look like in the classroom? How does valuing multiple literacies help (or hurt? or limit? or enable?) students? I think it’s easy to say that we need to value students’ evolving literacy tasks and skills, but what does this mean in a system where some students come from markedly different backgrounds than others, have more opportunities to read books and other texts, and struggle with the literacy practices that other students grow up engaging in? And what does it mean that we live in such a system that, no matter how much we clamor in our research, still values traditional literacies over the emerging and dynamic literacies of today’s youth? And because questions always beget more questions, here’s how Sheerah concluded her post:

What is the solution? Can we use literacy to enact social justice—both at the level of government/policy and at the level of the classroom? If so, how?

She talks in her post about her experiences as a teacher in the Bronx, where students struggled to understand the texts that they needed to understand in order to pass through the system. We have been reading Catherine Prendergast’s book, Literacy and Racial Justice, alongside the work of scholars like Deborah Brandt, Brian Street, and Shirley Brice Heath, among many others. The conversations in class have gotten intense. A couple weeks ago our discussion nearly brought me to tears — we were examining standardized comprehension tests from the NY Regents Exam, and the cultural biases were both obvious and disgusting, and reminded me of the wall against which I rammed my head for three years as a middle- and high-school teacher, trying to challenge the system and never feeling like I succeeded.

Sheerah asked some important, and thought-provoking, questions in her post, and I share her frustration as a fellow former teacher and as someone who is passionately dedicated to questioning and challenging scholarship in literacy studies and education. But with such systemically sanctioned obstacles in the way, I often feel pretty hopeless. I’m wondering if any of my readers have some answers to her (and my) questions, some musings, or some revolutionary work or teaching they can share to lift our spirits!

 

This Nauseated Me

Which shouldn’t have surprised me, because the title of Ravitch’s post is literally, “Read This and Share my Nausea,” but still. Read it. Misery loves company. Or don’t, and spare yourself.

I spend a lot of time and thought trying to find ways to stick up for the knowledge veteran teachers bring to the classroom through my actions, my research, and my work with pre-service teachers. We have much to learn from teachers who have dedicated their lives to becoming lifelong learners. I know they know their… well, you know. I know this because I spent the few short years I was blessed to have in the classroom learning from teachers who had a lot more experience working with teens than I did. I learned more about who I was as a teacher from my colleagues, which sometimes meant learning about things I might choose not to do. Many times, though, I piggy-backed on experimental unit plans, asked for advice when I just didn’t know how to teach poetry (I suck at all things poetry), or brainstormed with a colleague during passing periods. I spent a lot of time talking to people who knew more than me about our chosen profession, hungry to be a better teacher every day. Most teachers share that hunger, regardless of how many years they’ve been in the classroom.

I don’t really have time for a lengthy commentary tonight… I’m tired, and I Ravitch’s post just made me a little more tired. Tomorrow’s goal: find something a little less depressing to post.

New Website for Teacher Voices Looks Promising

This website, entitled Teachers Speak Uphas recently come across my radar. It’s literally brand new — their first post ever is still popping up in my RSS feed — and I think that once they get things moving, the site will be a promising place for teachers to find information, teaching resources, and stories from other teachers. I also think this has the potential to be a forum for teachers to voice their experiences and knowledge — if the developers can get this knowledge into the line of sight of policymakers, this space could be a powerful tool.

I’ve been clicking around and so far my favorite part of the site is the list of interesting blogs and advocacy organizations. I can’t see, yet, how to contribute a post, or whether the organizers are going to invite guest posters… this is something they’ll need to make more explicit in the coming weeks. You can send them a message with “your story” or ask how you can help — this is a place to start, but I wonder if they will make it a more official webspace with guest authors who will do more than simply email their stories (it seems to me that this would make it a space more dominated by actual teacher voices). It also looks pretty grassroots at the moment — all midwestern Illinois/Indiana organizers with English/writing backgrounds. One of their upcoming events is a presentation at NCTE in Las Vegas, and they have some great people on the panel — Sonia Nieto and Carol Jago among them.

I hope they are able to make this site something special. Go visit, click around, send them a message.