The Blog Experiment: Some Reflections

I started this blog as a personal learning experiment two months ago and promised myself that I would publish 20 blog entries and then write a reflection on the process and what I had learned. This reflection (blog entry #22) may, I hope, serve a number of purposes: (1) allow my students to see that I am also a learner and that I take time to reflect on my own learning; (2) encourage other school leaders to take the leap and begin to blog; (3) enable me to reflect on my own process and decide whether this is an activity worth continuing or not. So, as an amateur blogger on a steep curve, here goes…

WHY WRITE A BLOG?

I have always enjoyed writing. I am a voracious reader. A lot of the reading I have been doing in recent years is by authors advocating for change in schools. Frequently, the theme is about the need for school leaders to lead by example, especially when it comes to technology and the integration of social media as a leadership strategy. According to Eric Scheninger, “transparency through the use of social media breeds attention to programs, initiatives, and leadership style.” Another insightful blogger and author I respect is Will Richardson who echoes this advice: “Meaningful change ain’t gonna happen for our kids if we’re not willing to invest in it for ourselves first. At the heart, it’s not about schools . . . it’s about us.” Equally compelling is George Couros who believes that blogging, “is an easy way to start sharing some of the brilliant stuff you are reading, an easy way to start writing, and an opportunity to spark discussion with your staff and the global community. The best leaders not only can speak, but also have the ability to be good listeners. Blogging becomes a way to listen to your readers and learn from them while sharing your own knowledge.” With all of our middle school students starting blogs this year, I was convinced: I thought it was time to give it a go.

THREE GUIDELINES I TRIED TO RESPECT

Because I came to this process as an amateur, I decided I needed to educate myself before starting. After a bit of research, I bought a copy of a really useful book – Bloggers Boot Camp: Learning How to Build, Write, and Run a Successful Blog. Authors John Biggs & Charlie White offer some ambitious advice, much more than I could commit to, but three suggestions stood out for me and I made note of them and actually did my very best to respect these nuggets of advice. They helped to motivate me.

  • “Blogging is journalism on a thirty-minute deadline.” I found this a daunting piece of advice, yet liberating. Like most people, I don’t have a lot of free time on my hands. I am fortunate in that I can write quickly and I always tried to stop each entry within 30 minutes. This rule brings focus and a deadline. For you, it might be shorter or longer, but a deadline is important.
  • “The blogger motto is primarily First Thought, Best Thought.” Again, this was liberating. I knew that many of the things I was writing could benefit from greater exploration or justification, but I reminded myself this is not scholarly writing and that I had a personal deadline. You can always explore an idea again later in a new blog entry.
  • “A blog that has not been updated for days is a sick blog. A blog that has not been updated for a month is a dead blog.” Okay, this was far from liberating, but I discovered that when I posted regularly, I was developing a growing audience; when there was a significant gap between entries, the audience, not surprisingly, dipped. One hopes to write for an audience, otherwise why write, so this was also good advice.

WHAT DECISIONS DID I NEED TO MAKE?

What would I write about? This seemed obvious enough. The advice to writers is always to write about what you know. I think better advice is to write about what you are interested in. I am interested in educational change – the changes that are currently happening and those that need to. Inevitably, educational technology becomes a focus when you consider these topics, as does change management, which I prefer to consider as an issue of school culture.

What should I call the blog? My favourite word in the English language is maelstrom. First used in English by Poe and derived from Nordic and Dutch sources, it refers to a whirlpool. This idea of a spinning vortex seemed a good metaphor for the constant changes in society that are driving seemingly non-stop changes in schools.

What platform should I use? I looked at the three most popular blogging platforms. Tumblr seemed more like a social media network than a good option for a blog. I found Google’s Blogger to be irritating and a bit over-simplistic. I went with WordPress because it was simple to setup and easy to customise and link to other sites. My students maintain some amazing blogs on Blogger. They are more savvy than me, I know.

Who was I writing for? Essentially, anyone who shares a similar interest in these topics. By linking the blog to Twitter, I discovered that the level of interest was surprisingly affirmative and I quickly found myself developing a Personal Learning Network and engaging in interesting conversations and exchange of ideas with bloggers around the globe. I found the process of sharing things I had written a bit unsettling – I am not a good self-promoter. But that seems to be how this community sustains itself: it is about sharing ideas and learning from one another, not about knowing all the answers and showing off.

WHAT HAVE I LEARNED?

The act of writing helps me to reflect on the things I believe in and to attempt to see them more clearly. While I spend a limited amount of time on the actual writing process, I spend a lot of sitting in traffic time thinking through ideas and attempting to formulate a thesis or topic. I actually feel that I have greater personal clarity on my educational values and beliefs as a result of this experiment.

You will need to read more than you write. Simply putting your own ideas out there without exploring the views of others and engaging in conversation with them means you are quite possibly a bad listener or on an ego trip. The learning comes about through the exchange of ideas. Publishing a blog has allowed me to engage with thoughtful educators all over the world. I have been amazed at the conversations that have come about. I’ve had conversations with a global network of generous and informed educators who are contributing to my professional development in simple yet powerful ways. That “connected educator” concept is real.

Blogging involves a degree of risk and requires honesty. As a colleague put it to me, “you are really putting yourself out there when you start telling people what you believe in. Not everyone is going to agree with you.” This is certainly true, but the topics I choose to write about are part of an ongoing dialogue, a debate, if you will. I do not purport to know all the answers; in many ways, I am simply formulating my own questions.

WHAT WILL I DO NEXT?

Because of the things I have learned and the things that I continue to learn, I think I will continue to blog, to explore the ideas above. One final tip from Bloggers Bootcamp is one I am going to implement next, even though the notion of self-promotion still bothers me: “If you’re not … posting on Facebook about your content, you don’t exist on today’s internet.” So, a Facebook page for the blog is the next step. I will reflect on that learning in the New Year.

TIPS FOR NEW BLOGGERS

  • Do your best to follow the three guidelines I outlined from John Biggs & Charlie White. This really made the whole process manageable for me.
  • Read other blogs and be sure to connect your blog to a Twitter account. Take the idea of sharing ideas seriously. Write about what interests you.
  • If you don’t already, do your professional reading on a Kindle and use the highlight notes function for ideas you find thought-provoking. You will find you have a ready-made stock of ideas and quotations that will help you write and save you time.
  • All the major blogging platforms offer a free service, but if you are interested in taking your blog seriously, buy a theme that you can customise. This will cost you less than one hundred dollars.

In closing, I think the words of George Couros are worth sharing again: “try to focus on … the importance of blogging for not only reflection, but open reflection. The art and practice of reflection can help make ourselves better educators and learners. For us to truly help students, we need to be masters of learning before we can become master teachers. Reflection helps in that process. But “open reflection” helps others and not only pushes our profession forward in a communications aspect, but also in making each other better.”

So far, I am enjoying the experiment.