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Published in Print: January 14, 2004, as 'Blogs' Help Educators Share Ideas, Air Frustrations

'Blogs' Help Educators Share Ideas, Air Frustrations

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When another teacher walked into Jeanne Edna Thelwell's classroom and abruptly told her that she needed to see the principal, Ms. Thelwell knew something was wrong. When the first-year New York City teacher got to the office, she was told to sit and wait for her union representative to arrive.

"Is this a disciplinary hearing?" she asked.

"It's come to my attention that you have a Web site," the principal told her. Before Ms. Thelwell could reply, she continued: "Which is your right."

A concerned colleague, however, had brought the site to her attention, the principal told Ms. Thelwell. Then the teacher noticed paperwork stating the purpose of the meeting: Assessing the teacher's emotional state.

"I wanted to laugh," Ms. Thelwell recalled about the October 2002 meeting.

But really, after a bruising first few months at Brooklyn's 620-student Public School 81, the 4th grade teacher was on the verge of tears. Still, she was wondering what she could have posted online to make the principal think she was on the verge of a breakdown. Then she remembered her entry for Oct. 6, her 52nd birthday:

As birthdays go, today truly sucked. ... After this past week, I think I've made a terrible mistake. I have no idea how to teach these kids, and I'm not sure I ever will. ... Realizing on your 52nd birthday that you're not competent to do what you've just banked the rest of your career on is not uplifting.

It's the kind of hyperbole you'd find in the private journal of almost any first-year teacher. Instead, Ms. Thelwell posted those brutally honest insights on her weblog, a journal-like personal Web site, where her tales of the passage of days and weeks and their toll on an inexperienced teacher were told in real time, without the distance—or safety— of reflection.

Personal and Professional

From the intimate to the inane, people have posted personal accounts on the Internet for as long as there's been an Internet. But the recent explosion of weblogging, or "blogging," has greatly simplified the process, as posting to the Web is now as easy as typing text into a box and pushing a button.

A small but growing number of teachers use "blogs" for student projects, to collaborate with each other on curriculum or professional-development issues, or simply to "talk, share, and support," said Pam Pritchard, an elementary-reading specialist with the 2,900-student Little Miami, Ohio, school district. She maintains Edublog News, a site devoted to educator weblogs.

There's also a loosely organized Educational Bloggers Network, which claims more than 120 members. Ms. Pritchard even uses a blog to mentor a first-year teacher, fulfilling needs for both formal documentation and informal support.

"In my weblogging circle, I'm able to discuss ideas with teachers from all over—New York, Chicago, Georgia, San Francisco, and Canada," she said. "When has that ever been afforded to teachers?"

'Good Place to Vent'

For their efforts, teachers-turned-bloggers say they receive professional advice and, equally important, personal encouragement.

Or, as Ms. Thelwell explained it: "In education, you teach people how to think about doing things. Well, writing for an audience is one of the most metacognitive things you can do. ... It helps me identify what's happening to me."

So, in no uncertain terms, she detailed at www.thelwell.org just how overwhelming she found her first year of teaching.

After practicing law for 20 years, Ms. Thelwell had been accepted in December 2001 to the New York City Teaching Fellows program, an alternative route to certification for professionals in other fields, and a blog was born.

At least twice, the teacher posted missives admitting she was ready to give up. While such frankness led to the surreal meeting with her principal, it also generated e-mails of encouragement.

Ms. Thelwell acknowledged that she has heard vague grumblings among co-workers about her Web site, but "I didn't really care, because I had set some limits," she said. To wit: Never relay things said in confidence, identify students, or speculate.

For Ms. Thelwell, blogging wound up becoming a much-needed way to sort through a tortuous first year. She hasn't done much blogging since then.

For Christopher Wright, a 3rd grade teacher at the 500-student Wyman Elementary School in Rolla, Mo., it's primarily a way to share stories.

Mr. Wright is exactly the kind of teacher you'd expect to keep a blog on the side. The 25-year-old does Web consulting in his spare time and has his students work with handheld computers. He started blogging in March 2001, when several mentors encouraged him to keep a journal. Instead, he started www.whatintarnation.net.

"I got turned on by the interactivity," he recalled, as other teachers began e-mailing the then-novice. "Whatever I was experiencing, someone else had recently experienced."

While Mr. Wright's blog is mostly lighthearted, he writes openly about his religious convictions, and when school budget cuts became a serious issue, he worried online, if not aloud:

Today my class had a school day from the past. We put away the handheld computers and headed out to an old one-room schoolhouse. ... One of my favorite stories was about how the school would raise money. The older girls in the school would make a pie. ... The boy with the winning bid would get to eat the pie with the girl. ... Something tells me that these fund- raisers wouldn't go over well now. One of the guest speakers commented that one year, his mother who was the teacher had 64 students. ... When I get worried about budget cuts, I need to remember it could always be worse.

The site's "been a good place for me to vent," Mr. Wright said, but more important, "to vent with people who understand where I'm coming from."

Bad Blog?

Of course, knowing exactly where someone's coming from is virtually impossible online. Case in point: the insensitive Tard Blog, at www.tardblog.com.

The site details—or at least purports to detail—the classroom experiences of a special education teacher using the pseudonym Riti Sped. Sped, the site assures visitors, is "a real person, and really teaches mentally retarded and behavior disorder kids in a real public school." Here's a typical account:

Tomorrow, the special ed kids are going on a field trip (walking around the school outside, picking up garbage, and collecting and dumping the recycle bins). ... I am now going to a Mexican restaurant with my co-workers. ... A bunch of 40-plus-year-olds talking about curriculum, standardized testing, etc., and me, the kid on the staff, talking about all sorts of things that are supposed to be confidential.

While written anonymously, the site is registered, as all Internet domains must be, to a real person. That's Tucker Max, a Chicago native and the author of such books as the decidedly non-education-related The Definitive Book of Pick-Up Lines. Attempts to reach Mr. Max and the site's multiple authors went unanswered. Sped has purportedly left teaching, and the site has not been updated since summer.

Attention, Bloggers!

An irony of blogging, which lets anyone become a push-button publisher, is that for the most part, blogs primarily draw the attention of other bloggers. Yet few experiences are as isolating as being a first-year teacher in a school full of veterans, and Ms. Thelwell and Mr. Wright, among others, found in this interconnected web of sites ways to connect with others in the same predicament.

And one of Ms. Thelwell's most loyal audiences wound up being not fellow bloggers, but the following year's class of teaching fellows.

Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Vol. 23, Issue 18, Page 8

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