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Infrastructure

Leaders’ Blogs Offer Candid Views on Life In Schools

By Jeff Archer — May 01, 2007 6 min read

Kimberly Moritz, the principal at Gowanda High School in western New York state, had never heard the word “blog” until she learned to set one up at an education conference last July. But when her third posting to her online journal drew 18 comments, she was hooked.

Since then, she’s posted entries two or three times a week, provoking online debates on student cellphone bans, teaching The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, teacher recruitment, and cheating. Comments come from students, teachers, and administrators, near and far.

“It’s very helpful for me professionally, to be able to organize my thoughts on a subject, to write about them, and then hear from my readers,” said Ms. Moritz, 43, whose blog, G-Town Talks, regularly gets hundreds of visitors a day.

Ms. Moritz is part of what, by many accounts, is still just a small community. While the total number of blogs has been pegged at more than 70 million, some experienced education bloggers estimate that the number of school leaders getting in on the act is in the hundreds.

That’s likely to grow, though, as early adopters spread the gospel of blogging. The American Association of School Administrators and the National Association of Elementary School Principals recently held their first sessions on blogging at their annual conventions.

The few principals and superintendents who do blog see great value in the tool. The ease of posting new items on the Web makes for a nimble form of communication. And by allowing public comments, the medium builds relationships—within school communities and among them, they say.

Open Dialogue

To be sure, blogs have pitfalls. They demand frequent updating to bring visitors back again and again. They represent a more open form of dialogue than administrators are used to. Some administrators, in fact, have shut down public commenting when things got out of hand.

Administrators Who Blog …

From Feb. 16, 2007:
“The Worthless Lesson Plan…
I say that we should start a revolution and quit making teachers fill out lesson plans for us but instead prepare for great classroom instruction. … “
Blog: Dr. Jan’s Blog;
Jan Borelli, Principal, Westwood Elementary School, Oklahoma City, Okla.

From March 27, 2007:
“Potential New Hires …
I’m more convinced than ever that teaching requires risk takers, people with passion about something outside of the classroom, like their hockey team, the band they’ve been playing in for years, or fish. … "
Blog: G-Town Talks;
Kimberly Moritz, Principal, Gowanda High School, Gowanda, N.Y.

From Feb. 6, 2007:
“Parent Conference From Across the Globe
… I put him on speaker phone and he participated in the parent conference from Iraq. It was mind-boggling that this father could take the time out from his stressful job in the middle of a war zone to talk with us about how his child was doing in math and reading. … “
Blog: Mr. P’s Blog;
Steve Poling, Principal, DeGrazia Elementary School, Tucson, Ariz.

From Feb. 26, 2007:
“So What Would You Tell the Congressman?
… Someone at the federal decision-making level needs to spend some time IN the classrooms of today and see if this level of ‘accountability’ is worth it. … “
Blog: The Wawascene;
Mark Stock, Superintendent, Wawasee Community Schools, Syracuse, Ind.

SOURCE: Education Week

But Scott McLeod, a Minneapolis-based educational technology expert, said the benefits outweigh the risks. Since last fall, he’s been helping principals set up blogs for free, and in February he started a blog written by administrators called LeaderTalk.

“People are talking about your organizations anyway,” Mr. McLeod said. “Would you rather they talk behind your back, and you don’t know about it? Or, would you rather it be in a way that you can respond to, and have other community members see it?”

Blogs, short for “Web logs,” emerged in the 1990s when new software made it much easier to publish on the Web. That meant individuals could then quickly post their thoughts, and their online readers could just as quickly react to them by posting their own comments.

In the field of education, the first to make the greatest use of blogs were writers, teachers, and technology experts, said James Farmer, the founder of Edublogs, a 2-year-old nonprofit service that hosts about 70,000 education-related blogs. “There are probably only a few hundred school administrators [with blogs], but it’s only a matter of time before it explodes, like it has in every other part of the edublog community,” said Mr. Farmer, who is based in Melbourne, Australia.

Among those principals and superintendents who do blog, the motives vary. Some blog to connect with other administrators facing similar challenges; others see their writing mostly as a way to communicate with their local constituencies.

In January, Mark Stock, the superintendent of the 3,400-student Wawasee community school district in Indiana, used his blog to send out word that students sent to a hospital after a bus accident were not seriously hurt. But he also posts alerts about education policy.

“My opinion comes through, but I’m not over the top with it,” said Mr. Stock, who sometimes conducts informal polls on such topics as the No Child Left Behind Act on his blog, called The Wawascene.

“I let the people on the comments take the sides,” he said.

Principals who blog often do so for professional development. For instance, Steve Poling, the principal at DeGrazia Elementary School in Tucson, Ariz., has posted about how he landed his job, his first as a school leader, on his blog, Mr. P Talks.

Meanwhile, a veteran principal, Jan Borelli of Westwood Elementary School in Oklahoma City, offers lessons from more experience on Dr. Jan’s Blog. Among her tips: Don’t think of teachers as friends, and don’t try to change anything your first year as principal.

“I’ve been a principal for a lot of years, and I always thought, ‘Man, if someone had just told me that,’ ” said Ms. Borelli. “People now e-mail me and say, ‘What would you do in this situation?’ and ‘Thank you for what you said.’ ”

To blog takes time, though. Blogs that aren’t refreshed at least a couple of times a week quickly lose their audience, experts on the phenomenon say. Many of the best-read blogs also are written in a personal style that many administrators may not be comfortable with.

Many administrators who blog have been instructed by their school boards or lawyers to add disclaimers saying that the views they express are their own, not their districts’. Many post rules for making comments, such as banning profanity.

Turning Ugly

Still, comments can turn ugly, particularly because they can be made essentially anonymously. Mr. Stock briefly pulled the plug on his blog when comments were made that included personal attacks following the departure of a popular high school football coach.

Clayton Wilcox, the superintendent of the 148,000-student Pinellas County, Fla., school district, retired a blog he’d run for more than a year last spring after a number of episodes in which comments became mean-spirited.

Overall, he said, blogging was a positive experience, providing him with useful input and letting him share his decisionmaking process with constituents. But, he added: “I was hearing from enough people that it was an embarrassment, and when I went back and looked at it, it was.”

In one such case, some racist remarks were made in comments on his blog after news that police had handcuffed a 5-year-old African-American girl at a Pinellas County elementary school—a video of which was made public. The comments were quickly removed.

The St. Petersburg Times, which conceived of the idea for the blog and hosted it on the online version of the newspaper, later relaunched it with a new format with multiple hosts, including Mr. Wilcox. But it has been largely inactive in recent months.

“I understand totally why administrators shy away from doing it,” said Will Richardson, a Flemington, N.J.-based education consultant and the author of a book on using Web tools, including blogs, in the classroom. “It’s risky, or at least it’s perceived as risky.”

But he and others argue that any potential downside needn’t scare administrators off. Not only can inappropriate comments be removed, but administrators also needn’t turn on the comment feature at all if they want to use their blogs just to let others in on their own thinking.

Ms. Moritz, the Gowanda High School principal, agrees that blogging, on balance, is good for administrators, and believes that the more open she is, the better. On whether to teach students Huckleberry Finn, she wrote, “They HATE it.” On recruiting teachers, she wrote, “Those who only want to play it safe … apply elsewhere.”

One of the thorniest issues dealt with on her blog involved a student at her school who had found answers to old state exam questions on the Web and used them to ace a school test that had the same items. She titled her posting on the case “Cheating or initiative?”

The posting drew 29 comments, mostly from students. Some said the student involved—who wasn’t named—should be punished. Some criticized how the exam was given. Ms. Moritz replied that the student hadn’t cheated, and pledged new procedures for test administration.

“It was somewhat difficult to manage, and sort of consumed us for a couple of days,” said the principal. “But I think if I hadn’t had the blog, the students would have gone the rest of the year getting angry about it. I’d rather deal with it than have it go on.”

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the May 02, 2007 edition of Education Week as Leaders’ Blogs Offer Candid Views on Life in Schools

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