Do You Know What Today Is?

Birthday CakeIt is huffenglish.com’s 8th birthday! To make it even more special, I’m celebrating by writing this post in the Blogger’s Cafe at ISTE!

Of course, a cursory glance at my content for the last year or so reveals very little actual blogging.

Why is that? Well, I moved 1,000 miles away and started a new job. I now work at Worcester Academy, and this summer I begin my second year as their Technology Integration Specialist. I can’t think of a more wonderful place to work. They value my professional development enough to send me to the premier educational technology conference in the world, and I work with some truly amazing educators.

I have been really dissatisfied with the quiet on this blog. Even though I made some major changes in my professional and personal life over the last year, and I gave myself permission to let the blog go for a while, I have always maintained that people make time for things they consider important. People used to ask me how I had time to blog, tweet, etc. You know, all the social media. I said I made time to do it because it was important to me. And it is still important to me, but clearly not as important as some other things going on. I am announcing today that blogging has once again moved to my front burner, and if it’s not on the very front burner, at least it’s on the stove again. It’s been relegated to the recesses of the freezer as I tried to acclimate to my new home and job, but because blogging is important to me, I’ll be making time for it again.

Why is blogging important to me? It allows me to reflect on what I’m thinking and learning. Sure, I can do that offline in any one of a variety of note-taking apps I use or even with a pen and notebook, but the kind of thinking and reflection I do here on this blog transformed me as a teacher. Eight years ago, when I started this blog, I was an English teacher, and I had no idea technology integration specialists even existed, much less did I dream of ever being one. I assumed I would spend the rest of my career as an English teacher in Georgia. I am still teaching one English class, by the way, but who could have imagined I would be helping teachers integrate technology in Massachusetts? I didn’t even like technology when I started teaching, and I certainly didn’t think I was any good with it. Now I teach others how to use it in their lessons. Is that crazy?

You really never know what trajectory your career is going to take, and it is smart to make connections with really smart educators online and off, to participate in chats with other teachers when you can, and to tap all those great resources online and in your community. You just never know where your life will take you, and even if you plan it, opportunities will arise that you never foresaw, and doors will close where you expected them to be open.

I am the happiest I have ever been in my life right now, and a lot of that happiness has to do with my professional satisfaction. But only a few years ago, I felt like I was at a professional nadir, and my dissatisfaction at work made it hard to enjoy everything else. It is really true that if you find something you love to do, you really don’t ever work again.

Here is hoping you can find what makes you happy, too.

Happy birthday, huffenglish.com. To many more years of blogging! (And I mean real blogging.) Cheers!

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Tuning Out

Fingers in EarsSometimes you just need to take time off and check out.

I can’t remember the last time I checked Twitter and tried to read most of the tweets. I can’t remember the last time I checked out one of my favorite blogs. I haven’t written a whole lot lately, either. And all of that is OK because I think sometimes we need to take breaks from all the information overload.

I like to be a part of the edublogosphere and keep up with my colleagues and friends on Twitter. But sometimes it can be overwhelming, and the sheer volume of information can be daunting. So, I have been on an information sabbatical, and it has been wonderful. I have learned how to make soap, and it has become a satisfying, engaging, and interesting hobby for me. I have been reading a little. I watched the entire first season of Doctor Who and a few episodes of the second, so now I’m totally hooked. I have been busy with the start of school in my new position.

The move from Georgia to Massachusetts was mentally and physically exhausting, and I think I just needed some time to recharge my batteries. I didn’t unplug right away, but I would say it’s been about a month since I really kept up with all the social media I usually use. I am beginning to feel recharged. I think once I get my bearings at my new school and find myself settling into the routine of the school year, I will be able to engage in social media again. As for right now, if you’re wondering where I’ve been, well, here I am. I am not the kind of person to announce a hiatus or quit altogether, but I recognized I needed to tune out the cacophony for just a little while.

It’s been a wonderful vacation, and I know in my heart I’ve missed some really important things, but stepping back can be important, too, and I think many of us hear the message that we need to be continually engaged in the conversation or people won’t read our blogs or will not follow us on Twitter. I decided not to worry about that a long time ago. If my blog is good, people will visit when I post. If they are looking for quantity, they probably won’t. If what I tweet is helpful and interesting, people will follow, and I don’t need to worry about losing folks who think I don’t tweet enough. This is great advice to anyone who wonders how to juggle it all. The fact is, I’m not sure anyone can. You have to set priorities based on your goals. Right now, my goal is to settle into my job and enjoy my new home. So far, so good. I will be in touch soon.

Image via Roxie’s World

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Seven Years of Blogging

It seems fitting somehow that my blog turns seven years old as I am currently attending my first ever ISTE conference. I am also starting a new job 1,000 miles away from the place where I have lived and worked for the entire time I have written this blog. I started this blog because I thought I had something to say about education, and I was impressed with what I was seeing in the edublogosphere (which was much smaller at that time). I didn’t try to analyze what I would focus on or what my audience would be. I just decided I would write about the things that interested me, and if they also interested others, so much the better. I still think that was a smart move because even when months go by without a post on this blog, I know that I am writing here still because I want to share something, not because of any expectation I set for myself. I have seen so many good bloggers quit over the years, and I think that they are partly crushed by unrealistic expectations:

  • They feel pressure to build a huge audience really quickly. I know how it feels to think no one is reading your posts. You don’t see comments. It feels like an echo chamber. But over the years, I have heard from lurkers who might never leave a comment but still get something out of what I post. There are a lot of bloggers with wider audiences, and there are all kinds of reasons for that, but I feel blessed to have a supportive readership.
  • They feel they need to focus on one thing. It’s true that niche blogs seem to do well—just a focus on math or technology or educational policy. But I think sometimes folks put themselves in the position of feeling like they can’t comment on other things because their audience expects them to write about one subject only. It’s your blog, and you should explore topics that interest you.
  • They set up a posting schedule and/or feel they must write every day. Write when the spirit moves you, I say. If you force yourself to write every day or to write according to a posting schedule, you are going to wind up treating your blog as work instead of your own reflective space. I am guilty of this, too. I have a posting schedule set up in my calendar. I was worried about how little I was posting, not realizing that part of my silence was due to some real unhappiness on the job. I determined that a posting schedule would solve my problems. I couldn’t follow it. I started feeling guilty, and I worried no one would stick with my blog. It didn’t turn out to be true, and putting that pressure on myself only made me want to blog less. Blogging when I want to about what I want to made me love my blog again.

This conference has been amazing so far, and I am sure that once I have had time to think, decompress, and reflect, I will have plenty of posts about it.

Image via Martin Thomas

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Malaise

???This blog is in the doldrums, and I’m not sure how to pull it out yet. I always hate those posts in which people say they’re going to take a break from blogging, and I don’t really want to take a break, but I do want everyone to be aware I know I’m not writing much and what I’m doing feels more forced. Comments are by and large still kind, but more often I notice the odd cranky comment. It feels like crankiness is just sort of in the air.

It’s also March, and that’s a tough time of year. It’s hard this time of year. I often feel uninspired and really tired this time of year, and I think that’s normal for teachers.

All of the anti-educator rhetoric in the air is depressing. There is so much anger and uncertainty in the air.

I will work on it.

Meanwhile, I did hear that the NCTE conference proposal put together by Paul Hankins, Glenda Funk, Ami Szerencse, and me on the hero’s journey was accepted. Unfortunately, I will not be able to present with the Folger folks because the sessions were scheduled for the same time, but I am very excited about this presentation, and I hope to see you there. And that right there is a good reason to get out this malaise.

Creative Commons License photo credit: charles chan *

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Blogging Teachers: Some Advice

Through the Lens

The investigation into the blogging of Pennsylvania teacher Natalie Munroe has generated a great deal of discussion about whether teachers should blog or what they should blog about, while Munroe contends she’s done nothing wrong and hopes the attention her blog has received will encourage debate about the more difficult aspects of teaching. I have read some of the cached comments Munroe made on her blog. My own advice would have have been not to express such sentiments in a public forum, such as a blog.

Teaching can be frustrating, and I think it does help to vent sometimes, but it’s important to remember that even if we feel our blogs are small and unlikely to attract notice, as Munroe did, or even if we believe we are anonymous, we are putting information out there into the ether, and I think Munroe would certainly agree that once it’s out there, it’s hard to erase it, especially as caches and archives make it difficult to ensure no copies exist somewhere.

One of the more frightening responses I can imagine administrators might have to this story is to ban their teachers from blogging lest they lose their jobs. I think teachers need a voice to talk about education and to share their ideas. If you are considering blogging or are already blogging and are now hesitant to move forward after hearing about this story, I would advise the following:

  • Don’t count on remaining anonymous if you choose a pseudonym. In fact, I have long contended that teachers should blog under their real names.
  • Don’t blog negatively about your students. However frustrated you may feel, think about how you would feel to read a teacher’s disparaging remarks about you online, even if no names were used.
  • Don’t blog negatively about colleagues or administrators. I think that’s just asking to get fired.
  • Pay attention to language, tone, subject matter—fair or not, teachers are held to a higher standard regarding public persona.
  • Don’t give up. Building a readership takes time. You can encourage others to check out your blog by commenting on theirs and linking to their blogs in posts and/or blogrolls.
  • Try to update consistently, but don’t stress out if you can’t. I know I’ve lost readership as my posts have become less regular, but I had to cut back for a variety of reasons.
  • Figure out what you want to do with your blog—reflect? share? interact with others? Blogs usually do better with some sort of aim or niche, but you need not feel confined to discussing only that subject.
  • Keep the conversation respectful. Making a lot of noise and attacking other bloggers might get you attention. The wrong kind, in my opinion. People won’t listen to you if you’re rude and nasty.
  • Trust your common sense. If you wouldn’t say it at work in front on colleagues, students, administrators, or parents, you should probably not say it online.

Should Natalie Munroe lose her job over her blog? Well, indications are that her school had no blogging policy that she violated. I’m pretty sure they will now, and it’s likely to be a draconian one that prevents teacher voices from being heard, which is unfortunate. I don’t know the context of the comments she made, but on the surface, it’s an issue of professionalism. That said, I’ve had my own comments taken out of context and exaggerated, and I really wish I’d never made them in the first place, but I own up to having made some of the mistakes I’m advising you to steer clear of. Not all of them, sure. And that’s perhaps why I’ve managed to stay out of trouble at work.

What advice would you give? What did I miss? If you’ve been following the Munroe story, what do you think?

Creative Commons License photo credit: davidz

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Happy Birthday, Blog

Birthday (Cup) CakesFive years ago today, June 25, 2005, I started this blog. I had seen a few other education blogs and websites, and I felt inspired to start my own. I found out quite recently that one of the people who inspired me to start my own site had to shut her site down because of an illness. The other site that inspired me to start mine is still around as a blog, but hasn’t been updated since January, and I don’t know if it’s down for the count or on an extended hiatus.

Last year, I shared some statistics about my blog. Over the course of a year, a few things have changed. This post will be my 650th post. This blog has received 2,471 comments. Feedburner reports that I have 885 RSS feed subscribers, though site statistics like that are kind of hard to pin down. Feedblitz says that 104 people subscribe to this blog via e-mail updates. I know my Statcounter isn’t 100% accurate because I haven’t had it for the duration of my site, but it says that huffenglish.com has received 842,044 page views.

I talked about some of my favorite posts last year. Over the course of this year, some new additions include the following:

  • A Hogwarts Education because it was really cool to be on the radio in Ireland, and I was really excited that Sean Moncrieff’s staff sent me an mp3 of my interview.
  • Teachers and Facebook, which generated a lot of really good discussion.
  • Double, Double, Toil and Trouble, which was a great opportunity to showcase my students’ work.
  • Shakespearean Insults, in which the virtues of an iPod Touch for concocting Bard-inspired barbs are extolled.
  • The Perils of Teaching the Books We Love, which describes my trepidation about teaching Wuthering Heights. P.S. It turned out OK. The students enjoyed my sharing that speech I wrote about how much the book means to me, and I converted one of my students! She told me that the book was her “new obsession.” She came by several times to talk about it with me. I also had a student from last year thank me for introducing that book to her; she said it remains a favorite.
  • GCTE Conference 2010, which has a run-down of what I learned at that conference. It was a wonderful conference, not the least because I was awarded the Georgia Secondary Teacher of the Year award.
  • The Journey, which describes my Hero with a Thousand Faces course.
  • I Just Tried It, which discusses how we change our perceptions of learning and doing over time.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Gerry Snaps

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Transparency and Reassurance

Bill Genereux has an interesting post about what he calls “The True Digital Divide.”  He discusses in detail something I touched on in my presentation at GCTE.  If we truly want students to engage with the technology and use the Web 2.0 tools available to them, we have to be leaders.  We have to use the tools ourselves.  If we want students to blog, we should be blogging.  I think educators blogging could be a very positive form of transparency.  In an age when people make a lot of assumptions about what is or is not happening in classrooms, often I think the teachers’ voices are missing, and blogging can be a positive platform to share what we are thinking and learning and doing.  On the other hand, I think it has become for many teachers who blog a platform to complain.  No doubt teaching is hard work, and sometimes it feels good to vent.  I personally think blogging is a terrible platform for complaining.  First, I don’t think most of us like to read it.  Second, it’s just not wise; Regnef High School anyone?  I am very interesting in posts and conversations that make me think.  So yes, we need to be using the tools, for as Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach notes, “Technology will never replace teachers. However, teachers who know how to use technology effectively to help their students connect and collaborate together online will replace those who do not.”  And of course, Alfie Kohn reminds us that sticking techy labels on tired or misguided practices isn’t the answer either.  Still, I think we’re moving into a positive direction when parents and students (as well as other teachers) can gain insight into what teachers are thinking and doing.  I have actually noticed something interesting: students joke about Googling me and finding lots of links.  I admit it’s true that I am in a lot of places online.  But I encourage them to read it and tell me what they think.  And when they do, they share their observations.  It can be a good thing when students, parents, and colleagues get a glimpse into a teacher’s mind and like what they see.  Transparency can foster reassurance.

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Should We All Stop Blogging?

Wired has a new, somewhat controversial article about blogging:

Thinking about launching your own blog? Here’s some friendly advice: Don’t. And if you’ve already got one, pull the plug.

Author Paul Boutin makes some valid points:

  • The blogosphere is dominated by online magazines, corporations, and paid bloggers.
  • Insult comments and trolls wreck personal blogging.
  • Text-based Web sites are sooo 2004; social networking and video/audio/image-heavy content is the thing.

It can be argued that it’s hard to compete with the likes of the Huffington Post, Engadget, Boing Boing, or the like.  This blog — and most likely your blog — will not be in Technorati’s list of the top 100 blogs.  But if that’s why you’re blogging, then no wonder it’s unsatisfying.  The first person you should be blogging for is you, which is what I intend to argue in my presentation at the Georgia Independent School Association conference the week after next.  If you are simply trying to get a big audience, I have to question why.  Sure, it’s nice to have regular readers and commenters, but if your main concern is being the most popular, most read, then I, for one, wish you wouldn’t blog or wouldn’t start a blog because I think you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.

Insult comments suck.  Trolls suck.  They’re part of the Web, and they’re one reason why despite how much I love Web 2.0, I don’t have my students establish their own blogs.  Maybe I will some day, but I know how furious it would make me if my student received a trollish comment I wasn’t able to delete first.  There are always folks who feel it’s OK to be rude jerks, and for some reason, the anonymity possible with the Web brings out the worst behavior in people in that regard.  However, what Boutin doesn’t mention is that all the blogging systems I can think of have comment moderation, and no one is beholden to publish comments at all.  A comments policy should cover anyone interested in allowing comments.

Many changes made to blogging allow for all kinds of media to be incorporated into blogs, and indeed, a lot of the posts I see (and some of my own, at that) incorporate this media effectively.  I don’t know why they should be considered mutually exclusive at all.

I have become a much more reflective person as a result of blogging, and I don’t think it’s an inherently bad idea to blog, provided one is doing so for the right reasons and has given some thought to direction, purpose, and policies with regard to blogging.  I like Twitter, but 140 characters will never be able to replace what I do with my blogs, and I enjoy Facebook, but I don’t use it for the same purposes of self-expression that I do here.  Maybe it’s because I don’t take many pictures, but even though I have a Flickr account, I am just not into it (aside from finding good Creative Commons licensed photos to use on my blog).

I guess my response to Boutin’s claims is that they’re legitimate, but that blogging doesn’t have to be defined in such narrow terms and for such narrow purposes as he proposes.  What are your thoughts?

[via Roger Darlington]

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Edublogs Offering Domains

In wonderful news for education bloggers, Edublogs is now offering domains to its users.  If you already own a domain (or even a subdomain — for example, my classroom blog, Mrs. Huff’s English Classes is on a subdomain of huffenglish.com), you can map it to Edublogs for just $15 a year.  If you don’t own a domain, you can let Edublogs take care of that for you for just $25 a year.  In either case, it’s much cheaper than running a WordPress install on your own host.  Learn more at Edublogs, and make sure that if you have questions about having your own domain with Edublogs that you leave comments on their site or contact Edublogs, as I am not affiliated with Edublogs and might not be much help.

Last year when I did a quick run-down of various blogging services for educators, I recommened Edublogs most highly.  I’m happy to have even more reasons to recommend them now.

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Thinking Out Loud

At my school, I am often sought out for technology ideas. For instance, my school is really good about publicizing the things I do with blogs and wikis. When The Atlanta Jewish Times called the school looking to speak with educators about their use of technology, my colleagues made sure the reporter, Suzi Brozman, talked to me. They are really supportive of what I do with technology, and they seem really interested in the applications available. My colleagues, in short, see me as a leader in integrating technology into the classroom. But I’m not nearly doing enough. So much more could be done! A cursory glance at the things Lisa Huff (no relation — I don’t think!) is doing with her students was enough to tell me that. I was quite humbled by what I saw — saving and sharing her posts in Google Reader left and right. Here is what I want to do next year:

  • More wikis. Some ideas: wikis for portfolios, wikis for collaborative learning, wikis for teaching.
  • Blogging. I would like my students to have individual blogs for reflective writing. I think having a student blog where I publish their work is not really accomplishing all that I want to accomplish.
  • Podcasting. You really should hear my students talk. I tried to talk them into letting me record their Socratic seminar on the deaths of Romeo and Juliet, but they knew I’d post it here, and they weren’t ready for that. It’s a shame because it was a great discussion. They debated the issue for well over an hour! I like what Lisa Huff is doing with VoiceThread, a tool I was introduced to at a conference in November and still haven’t experimented with.

I find myself feeling so excited about these potential ideas that I want to sit down and plan it all out, which is crazy because I’m not really sure what I’ll be teaching yet (for one thing), and I still have seven weeks this year. I know what you’re thinking. Go ahead and try some things. Better late than never, right? Well, I just might. My ninth graders will be studying poetry and short stories soon (May), and I see some potential there. I think the student blogs will need to wait for next year, but perhaps I can do a poetry project using wikis and VoiceThread and/or SlideShare.

It didn’t occur to me until I saw Lisa discussing it in her blog that the fact that students could display their finished work through these types of online portfolios might be the “something extra” that makes them attractive to colleges and employers — a pretty persuasive argument for, as we say down here, getting off the stick and making it happen.

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