Two years ago today, around 2 a.m., my blog was born. During a time when I struggled to find my place again as a teacher on the Southwest side, when I felt unsuccessful, when I thought I abandoned my dream to be writer, I could not sleep. So on May 17, 2011, in the middle of the night, I started, again, to write. In August that year, this blog joined Chicago Now.
Two years later, I’m at a different place professionally and personally. The White Rhino blog now has a place among impressive writers at the Chicago Tribune and the Sun-Times, thanks to the recognition from the Education Writers Association. I can say—once again with pride—I am a teacher and a writer.
So, tonight, I offer a toast to my many dedicated colleagues with the hope that more good teachers start their own blogs. Here’s ten reasons why they should.
1. Yes, you do have time
There are bloggers who post something every day (some post a few times a day). But I’ve learned that posting once a month is good—considering our workload. Setting aside 20-30 minutes a week to draft some ideas will help craft meaningful posts. Sometimes, my posts happen in a quick reaction to something I read or hear, such as the response to the Noble Street Charter School protest that I wrote in one sitting after seeing the news report. Others take more time, such as the article about my student who is transcending violence.
One strategy is to keep a list on your phone about topics that might make good blog posts. Chances are, there are a million reactions and responses to education issues and situations that go through your mind on the commute or at the end of the day. Write them down. Or record them and think out loud. Keep a list. Express your perspective. The writing will flow more easily when you, then, sit down to write a few hundred words to post.
2. Race matters
While there are strong voices in education blogs, most are white. This isn’t bad. But the conversation is incomplete. I’ve worked with intelligent teachers of color who have valuable opinions about our profession. Our views offer a perspective that does not exist in leadership at the local or national levels—or in the news or online. The truth is, too many times, I’ve been in meetings where the intelligent black and brown voices remain silent. Sometimes they’re overpowered by bold, bullying voices (sometimes those are white, sometimes not). We have to remind our colleagues and ourselves that we can speak well.
A challenge that I present to the minority teachers I mentor is: “You have to say one thing at every meeting you attend. It can be a question, a response, a paraphrase—something. You cannot be silent in professional conversations. You cannot be invisible.”
3. Unity does not mean we agree
In Chicago, there are approximately 28,000 teachers. It’s impossible for any one leader—at the district, union, or school level—to fully encapsulate all of our perspectives. The strike was a challenge that pushed us to question what we believe. And I can honestly say, while we were united, we did not all agree. Quiet conversations on the picket line asked tough questions of all leaders. People had different ideas, some suggestions. But we fell into the trap of being silent to remain united.
My strike reflection post grew out of those quiet conversations with trusted friends and colleagues. We can still be united in our professional causes and if more good teachers presented their ideas and solutions, we would make more progress as professionals.
4. Teachers are the same but different
Every school is different. We all face similar challenges as urban teachers, but we all have stories that will remind leaders that we work in complex settings. A solution at one school or community may not work at another. And ,sometimes, serious needs in our specific community go ignored. In a post after I won a Tribune contest that let me ask Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis and CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard some tough questions, I was able to bring up the issue that we lack college-prep schools on the Southwest side.
We can use our blogs to highlight what leaders think is unimportant, such as having students spend a whole school day in January without heat, because we work in neighborhoods that are not as politically popular as others.
5. More education bloggers need to think it, not say it
The logic goes, “I am educated; therefore, I am an education expert.” Too many non-teaching or non-education experts present views about our profession that are strong with confidence but weak with insight. Some bloggers work far from our classrooms. Some just don’t get it and really think they do. Good teachers are the experts and our voices need to be at the forefront of the conversation.
6. You say it anyway; now write it
Many of the blog posts I write grow out of conversations I have with good friends and colleagues, sometimes over coffee, sometimes over drinks. I’m honest and say, “I’m thinking about writing a piece regarding . . ." and then I listen to what the smart people around me have to say. Sometimes I use their judgments about my ideas to help me better articulate my arguments.
I’ve had many conversations about the need to increase ethnic studies programs, so when the opportunity to write about this came up, I wrote easily. When tragedies happen, like when a six-year-old girl was killed in Little Village, I took advantage of the opportunity to write about the violence and document all of the ideas—many full of anger—that arise each time the unnecessary happens. We shouldn’t feel like blogging is starting from scratch. We usually know what we need to say.
7. Help others figure out what to do
Because of all the similar challenges we face with classroom management, instruction, and other professional, as well as personal, responsibilities, we can use blogs to help other teachers find solutions to common problems. My most popular blog post—shared over 2600 times on Facebook—is about my approach against ol’ school five-paragraph essays. I just wrote it because I had a few strategies I used that worked well and even helped me become a better writer. Who would’ve thought so many people care about five-paragraph essays?
In another post, when I wrote about my serious concerns about a teaching book that was gaining popularity in our schools, I got many emails from other teachers who said they, too, felt that something was not right about this book. My post helped them figure out why.
8. You don’t have to write it all
I also invited colleagues to post their writing on my blog. One colleague wrote about his growing political identity as a Chicago Public Schools teacher. Another recently shared a post about his concerns with education reporting by Chicago Public Radio. For Mother’s Day, I posted an essay by my own mom. We all have colleagues who have something interesting to say and our blogs can be a place for them (and save us when we don’t know what to write).
And when we doubt our logic or are unsure about a post, we can hit “save draft” instead of “publish.” Right before I hit “publish,” I ask myself if I can defend this piece comfortably and confidently. If my gut tells me “no, not yet,” I don’t publish it. When I do get mean, illogical comments, like I got with my Easter post, I respond to a few, delete the racist ones, and ignore the others. On most occasions, however, I find that supporters will appear and speak up, too.
9. Students like to see us struggle
I share my writing struggles with students. Last year, I showed them an ugly email a Tribune editor sent me when she rejected my commentary. “That’s so mean,” one student said. I told them I go through the same struggles they do:
- What do I write?
- How do I say it?
- This is too long—how can I shorten it?
- What do you mean this doesn’t make sense?
One of the most challenging writing tasks for me was an essay about my father’s experience in an agricultural guest worker program in the late 50s. I tell the story about how I almost didn’t write it because it was too hard for me to figure out what to do with all the information I had. But it opened the doors for me on National Public Radio.
When I recently spoke on a panel about teacher evaluation at a national conference, I looked at my students and said, “Uh . . . I don’t know what I’m gonna say. I need your help.” I asked them for their views and that helped me figure out what to write.
10. Blogging is simpler than it looks
Bad blog posts address too many conflicts or too many issues. They usually come off as a brainstorm, not as a well-developed argument. They leave the reader confused wondering, "So . . . what am I supposed to think or do?" Most well-written blog posts, on the other hand, follow a simple structure. Start with one conflict. Provide some background on this situation. Develop the ideas and arguments. Close with a solution. The element that makes many blog posts memorable is personal experience. These are the posts that guide readers to an insight.
Effective bloggers also remember to distinguish between an article (which we know presents more than one side and lets the reader decide) versus an editorial (which we know favors one view and aims at gaining the audience's support). Blogs usually contain more editorials that have a relevance to the readers. If they don't have meaning to anyone but the writer, they're diary or journal entries, not blog posts, that really shouldn't be published.
One essay I struggled with as I made it relevant to a national audience is about how my students and I talk about gun violence in class for CNN’s Schools of Thought blog. A December post about my mom’s fight against cancer remains one of my most valuable essays and, I hope, carries meaning for other people who love someone who continues their fight, or fought as much as possible.
The technical part of blogging is simple. I figured out how to start my blog using blogspot.com two years ago tonight in a few minutes. All I needed was a gmail address.
So on this cool evening, when I can put aside the papers that need grading and pause my search for ways to keep my seniors engaged during the last few weeks of school, I raise my glass to The White Rhino blog, which is two years old today, and wish for an unending, courageous teacher voice--and hope more good teachers’ start to blog.
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