Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Eddy Ramírez: Blogging from the Classroom, Teachers Seek Influence, Risk Trouble

Blogging from the Classroom, Teachers Seek Influence, Risk Trouble: Blogs give readers a firsthand look into the sometimes messy world of teaching
By Eddy Ramírez
U.S. News and World Report

When he started his blog, Teaching in the 408, language arts teacher Kilian Betlach tried at first to remain anonymous. He identified himself only as "TMAO," and he withheld all names, including those of his students and his school. But it didn't take long for teachers and administrators in his district in San Jose, Calif., to stumble onto his blog and realize he was the author. "Just discovered your blog," one teacher wrote in response to a post in which Betlach went off on a school official who had spoken during a gathering. "I think I was sitting in front of you at this assembly," the teacher said. Betlach replied that "bridging the electronic divide is a little spooky."

Although generally dismissed by school administrators as "faculty bathroom graffiti," teacher blogs, including those that are written anonymously, are becoming essential reading for anyone who wants to look beyond standardized test score reports to see what's really going on in schools. These blogs "raise important issues and give the rest of us a peek into a world that we see and hear about very rarely or only anecdotally through the media," says Alexander Russo, a former parochial school teacher who has written about the education blogging community. Many of the readers are other teachers, elected officials, and education policy wonks. But parents and students also surf the Internet for blogs written by faculty at their schools.

It's difficult to say how many teachers maintain a blog., a blog-tracking site, counts 6,046 blogs with teacher "tags," though that doesn't necessarily mean a teacher is behind each one of those. If done well, blogs can shape public opinion and, in some cases, galvanize people to action.

But there also are risks involved, and teachers can pay a price if they cross the line. In 2006, a Chicago public school teacher resigned after a heated controversy over blog entries some students and teachers said were racially insensitive. The blog, called Fast Times at Regnef High, described the school's mostly black students as "criminals" who stole from teachers, smoked pot in the hallways, and had sex in the stairwells. Still, his blog started a conversation about the school's problems that eventually led the district to make some improvements, including allocating more money to revamp the school's curriculum.

Exercising caution. Free speech protects teachers who want to blog about matters of public concern, says David Hudson, a First Amendment scholar. But courts have ruled that schools can discipline teachers if their speech, including online postings, disrupts school operations. School officials in Florida, Ohio, and Tennessee have removed or suspended teachers for online postings on social networking sites like MySpace. Teacher unions have also warned members to use caution if they blog.

Betlach says he's never faced disciplinary action for anything he's written. He says he felt overwhelmed by his job teaching seventh-graders with limited English skills at one of the lowest-achieving schools in his district. Instead of venting by commiserating with colleagues in the teachers' lounge, he created the blog. He mostly used his blog to offer his take on education policy—for instance, lampooning unions for resisting performance-based pay for teachers even though he was a union representative himself.

But he acknowledges that it's difficult to know where the line is when writing a blog about work. For example, early on, Betlach wrote an entry titled, "Everything Hurts," in which he described drinking so much one weekend night that he couldn't bring himself to grade his students' papers the next day. "With blogging comes responsibility, and it's hard," he says.

Bill Ferriter, a sixth-grade teacher at Salem Middle School in North Carolina who blogs about his job, describes the teacher's blog as "the great equalizer." He says blogs make it easier for teachers to exchange ideas and influence policy decisions.

Ferriter spends up to four hours each week blogging and an hour each morning trolling different education blogs for best teaching practices. In his blog, The Tempered Radical, he often writes about using the Internet to boost student learning. He counts a state education board member with similar ideas as a loyal reader. "I've learned how to represent the challenges of teaching in a way that has resonance but that doesn't necessarily turn policymakers off," Ferriter says. "I don't want to burn any bridges."

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