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Thursday, July 30, 2009

How Making Mistakes and Blabbing it to the Universe Improves My Teaching

Alternate title: Messing Stuff Up, Writing It Down

These are my notes for a workshop next week. Comments/additions/criticisms? Please help, oh PLN of mine.

Why Bother?
- Communication tools make widespread collaboration possible where it hasn't been before.
- If you aren't thrilled by the professional development or lesson improvement opportunities offered by your school, you have other options.
- Speaking for myself, being a learner makes me a better teacher. Continue growing, learning, and improving your craft.
- Network with other like-minded professionals.
- The ability to get ideas, and to get feedback about your work, no longer has to be limited to a planning period, an annual conference, or only teachers in your school and district. As a result, your teaching will improve faster.

Why Start a Blog?
I always had a hard time with reflective practice as a private exercise. I was told it was important, but it wasn't rewarding in a way that led me to pursue it regularly. All my writing landed with a dull thud. Publishing those reflections, successes, failures for an audience means my work is broadcast in a community of intelligent professionals who read, use, and comment on my work. The feedback from them is the reward that keeps me doing it. (Update: Read MizT's elaboration on this point.)

You Don't Have to Start Your Own Blog
There are plenty of ways to develop, benefit from, and contribute to a learning network without starting a blog of your own.

Read Blogs - Through the habit of reading other teacher's blogs, you will get ideas and insights in an easily accessible format, delivered to your computer. You can go to individual websites, but using an aggregator like Bloglines or Google Reader is much more convenient. Instead of bookmarking and visiting individual sites, an aggregator collects them all in one place for you. New posts in your subscribed blogs are automatically sent to the aggregator through the magic of RSS (Real Simple Syndication (you don't need to remember that.)) You only have to check the one site, the aggregator, to see if any of the blogs you read have been updated lately. For Google Reader you will need a Google account, then you can click Add a Subscription and type in an address.

If this is all brand new to you, here are a few to get started with (I chose these to represent a spectrum of math ed bloggers out there... through linking from posts that appeal to you, you will find more and more): 360, colleenk, Dan, Elissa, Jackie, Jason, JD, John, Sarah, Sam, Sue, and me.

Comment on Blogs - Don't be afraid to add to the conversation on a blog by commenting. Include your first and last name, unless you are cultivating a pseudonym (see below). If you start a blog later, you will have built a reputation you can use to draw people to read your posts. When it's available, I always check the box for "email me follow-up comments," so I don't have to go back to the post later to read the latest comments.

Twitter - It's more than celebrities and talking cats! Many educators are coming on board, and I'm finding more and more useful links and discussions on there. It can be a good way to get started. Set up an account and describe yourself in a few well-chosen words. If you are looking for ideas about who to follow, start by checking out who I and other math teachers are following. Once you follow someone, they will often follow you back, if they see that you are a teacher. Congrats, you have readers! (Of your tweets. Limited to 140 characters.)

Delicious - Save bookmarks that are available anywhere there's Internet. I use this as the place to save all those links that I want to remember later. Add tags so you can search them easily. It also has a social component, whereby you can follow people and see what they are saving.

How to Start a Blog
, Considerations, and Potential Pitfalls
There are gazillions of articles about the technical aspects. Spend some time googling and reading articles. I use Blogger and like it fine. Lots of people like Wordpress.

Decide why you want to start a blog. To share your great lessons? To comment on education policy? To relate funny stories about your day? To post pictures of your lunch? It's good for a blog to have a focus. If you don't want to write original content and just want to share links or pictures, consider another solution like Twitter, Tumblr, Flickr, or Delicious.

If you and some friends all want to start, consider a group-authored blog (example). You will immediately have each other as readers and commenters.

Decide whether you want to post with your real name or anonymously/pseudonymously. The decision to use my real name was a personal one and works best for me. Plenty of awesome blogs are written by teachers who would rather not identify themselves. If privacy concerns are keeping you from starting a blog, consider a nom de plume. Either way, I advise against publishing anything you wouldn't want a student, parent, or administrator to read.

Have several ideas for posts before you start. When you begin, you will want to update at least once a week. Otherwise people will lose interest and you won't generate a following.

When you write a new post, don't publish it right away. Several commenters made this suggestion, and it's a good one. Instead of "Publish", the blogging software should let you "Save as Draft." No matter how much you like your post, you will think of a crucial edit 5 minutes later. You will realize that the way you stated something could be taken the wrong way. You will think of more elegant phrasing. Of course, you wouldn't want blogging to put you in a bad light, or give you a reputation for being unprofessional. Write the first draft and let it marinate for 24 hours before publishing.

Stick with it. It will take time to generate a following. You can get readers faster by leaving comments on other blogs (and including the URL of yours,) linking to your new posts on Twitter, or submitting a post to a blog carnival.

It's generally considered bad form, not to mention lawsuit-inducing, to post identifiable pictures or videos of students' faces. If you want to do this, you should get guardians' consent in writing.

Further Reading/Watching

This post wants to convince you of the value of educational blogging.

In this TED talk, Seth Godin says we all have the potential to "change everything" by leading people just waiting to be led. Not specifically about education, but relevant.

This episode of Ze Frank talks about the meaning of creativity, and what it takes to go from 0 to 1.

This post at the Fischbowl describes the value of a Personal Learning Network for both teachers and students.

Darren has his students blogging to expand the walls of his classroom.

Sitmo is a relatively easy way to include mathematical equations in blog posts.


  1. I would agree with the part about beginning with comments and reading others' blogs. Maybe you can find some really good links to blogs people can try out for different disciplines or focuses of education (management, sports, etc.).

    I haven't started my own blog, but I consider myself somewhat a part of the community by posting on blogs like yours. It's also a great way to find other, similar blogs (as I somehow found yours off of dy/dan's).

    Anyhow, maybe give them a few starting links, if you have some. It can be hard to find some good ones if you don't know where to start and then you just feel lost.

    Unless you have a lot of young teachers, I'd expect a lot of questions about the security of posting information about yourself, but you mention web anonymity here.

  2. Yep, Dave, that's how I started, reading, then commenting... I wanted to be clear that it isn't necessary to start a blog to be involved in all the great sharing going on. You're a good example - you make great contributions and I'd certainly miss you if you disappeared.

    I was going to point to the links in my sidebar widget, but probably I should winnow that down into a few of the best examples to start following.

    This presentation is just for math teachers. And I agree, there are fears of threats of privacy to overcome with all teachers, not just older ones.

  3. Looks good, Kate. I'm sure grateful for the help you gave me when I started up.

    And I liked your advice about writing weekly. Even if the readers didn't care, it's a good habit to be in for myself.

  4. Looks good--maybe do a little section on using rss feeds? I thought it was too much trouble to read people's blogs until they all got delivered to my google reader (like magic!).

    It's good advice for me too--I'm in the process of starting to blog . . . not ready to make it public just yet!

  5. Thanks, Mrs Fuller, I tried to address that in the "Read Blogs" paragraph, but I should expand on that.

  6. I agree with expanding the RSS bit. I'd also add something to the "Why Bother" section about the ability to get feedback/ideas isn't limited to one planning period.

  7. And it's not only about mistakes or seeking help. I love getting ideas from you or other bloggers for what to do in my own classroom.

  8. Great tips Kate!

    Under "Have several ideas for posts before you start" you may want to talk about "save as draft" feature of blogs. Keep a collection of good ideas and see which ones develop into posts. Some days inspiration strikes and those drafts will be there to capture your thoughts.

    Pictures of students is not just bad form, they could be lawsuits. Watch out of those!

    Also, I think you underestimate your intelligence and sensibility. I haven't followed your blog for long, but my guess is that your mistakes somehow end up putting you in a positive light (like the answers to the interview question "What are your weaknesses?"). Some teachers may never recover if they post things that show them in a bad light. I can see how blogs could be bad for them. "Save as draft" is a lifesaver. Same tip people give about writing letters applies to blogs, put it away for 24 hours and reread before sending (especially if angry).

    If this is a talk where you want to encourage teachers to blog, you may want to talk about some of the pitfalls of blogging. Talking about them may ease some concerns. My guess is some teachers want to blog but have fear and doubt.

  9. I like what Mr.H said:

    Tell them more about the pitfalls to avoid, and tell them about save as draft.

    Most to the point, I wish I'd thought to wait 24 hours on anything that might be sensitive. I wrote one I wish I'd never posted. Pulled it down after about half a day, but everyone who had me on a reader would have seen it.

  10. 360 is my favorite group blog. And the Everything Seminar (at Cornell), even though half to three quarters is over my head.


  11. Thanks everyone for the awesome suggestions. I just did some heavy editing where many of you will see the influence of your comments.

    Now I need to answer the question - what value is added for these people by coming to see me speak?

    My idea is to start the workshop with a quick online survey to gauge the experience level in the room before I start. Then, instead of reading this like a script, I'll use the computer/internet/projector combo to show them a post where the comments helped me refine a lesson, show them how I use GR, show them how to make a comment, etc. Then maybe we can break into different groups tailored for the areas people want/need to focus on.

  12. What conference will you be speaking at, Kate?

  13. Kate,

    I got sidetracked by watching Ze Frank and forgot to comment back here. Good luck with the presentation!

    I think that video captures a lot for me. Stop lurking, start commenting. From there, sooner or later the community forms. (I remember both you and Jackie making comments at dy/dan hesitant about what you had to offer--though I'm failing at finding them. 13 months after you started blogging you're trying to hook others.) Getting over the inertia and starting is amazing.


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