The first two full weeks of school are now behind me. My grade eight students have been given their blogs. They posted their first entries. The class blogging portal is slowly filling up with student voices. Naturally, I look forward to seeing how these voices will interact and intertwine.
What I am really concerned about, however, is my own voice. For the past three years, my three successive grade eight classes enjoyed blogging and created successful and engaging blogging communities. Most of the time, this development took place without me. While I certainly encouraged my bloggers, discussed their work in class, and posted comments to involve my students in instructional conversations, I have always been absent as a person. This year, I want things to be different.
This year, I want my personal voice to be present in the community. I will, of course, continue to be present as Mr.Glogowski, the grade eight Language Arts teacher. I will be present in my didactic and supportive role of an educator, of a classroom teacher who guides and explains. At the same time, I want to be present as Konrad Glogowski, the human being who has his own interests and views. I want to be present as an individual, not an individual reduced to one role.
In other words, I want the students to see me as yet another blogger in their community, as someone whose reason for being there is not only to support and instruct but also to learn. To learn from and with my students.
My own blog in our class blogosphere has always been used to post updates, assignments, commentary on student work, and words of encouragement. For years, it was called "The Language Arts Blog," or "Mr. Glogowski's Blog" or something equally official and unimaginative. The name of my blog has always reflected my one-dimensional presence in the community - the voice of a teacher. I don't think my students ever perceived it as a blog - a place where the author shares his thoughts, ideas, or experiences and engages in meaning-making. It was a place that my students would visit regularly to read their latest assignment or download a rubric. I don't think they ever learned anything from my own blog. They learned from the instructional conversations that I engaged with them on their own blogs, but certainly not from my own blog in the class blogosphere. It has always been an uninspiring place, a kind of online bulletin board.
Last year, I started experimenting by posting entries that reflected my own interests. However, I always made sure that they also related to the curriculum. When we read and discussed Animal Farm, for example, I posted some links to articles on totalitarian leaders or on the fragile nature of democracy in developing nations. There needed to be, it seemed to me, a clear link between what we were reading in class and what the students saw on my blog. Everything that I posted on my blog was designed to cultivate an adopted persona and to fit within the confines of the curriculum.
This year, I want to move beyond blogging only about course-related topics. I want my students to see what I am interested in, what makes me mad, what fascinates me, what I write like when I write as someone other than Mr.Glogowski, the Language Arts teacher. In short, I want to be myself and am beginning to take small steps towards this goal.
I started by giving my blog a different name. The titles I used before were too official, too limiting, too school-like. They were institutional and impersonal. This year, the title of my blog is "...looking at things for a long time." It comes from a quote by Vincent Van Gogh, which, in its entirety, reads: "It is looking at things for a long time that ripens you and gives you a deeper understanding." I chose it because I feel that it represents who I am as a person and a teacher. I chose it because I believe that the habit Van Gogh recommends in this quote is something that I want my students to develop as well. I want them to be critical, attentive readers and thinkers. I want them to take the time to achieve that "deeper understanding."
I also chose an avatar. I chose the picture of the fern globe suspended above the Civic Square in Wellington, New Zealand that I took last year (almost exactly a year ago) while participating in the FLNW unconference. It represents one of the most inspiring experiences in my life as an educator and researcher. It also, as a globe, represents unity and peace - values that are important to me as a human being and educator.
In addition to using an avatar, I also used the "About Me" feature of my blog to post a paragraph that explains my reasons for choosing the title and the avatar. My students need to know the reasons behind these decisions - they will provide them with an important glimpse into my personality. They will help them see me as more than just their Language Arts teacher.
The "About Me" page of my blog also contains two quotes that represent my views on writing:
"A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people."
- Thomas Mann
"Say all you have to say in the fewest possible words, or your reader will be sure to skip them; and in the plainest possible words or he will certainly misunderstand them."
- John Ruskin
I also uploaded my own background image to further personalize my blog. It is no longer just a virtual class bulletin board. It's becoming a place that reflects the values and interests of its owner:
Of course, these visual changes, while important, are not sufficient to transform my blog into a personal online space. Blogs, after all, are defined by writing, and not merely their appearance. So, this morning, I posted my first personal entry. I wrote about an article on the recent protests in Myanmar and commented on the treatment of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese Nobel Peace Prize laureate who has been held under house arrest for 12 of the last 18 years. I also linked to a call to action video recorded by Jim Carrey. The post has little to do with what we are currently studying in class. I wrote about it because it moved me as a human being. I posted it on my personal blog in the class blogosphere because I want my students to understand who I am as a human being. Why? Mostly because that human being will walk into their classroom tomorrow. If we are to be a community of learners, we need to know each other as individuals, not people who, for six hours every day, play assigned roles.
In other words, I don't believe teachers should engage in self-censorship. If we do, then our students end up interacting with an automaton, an actor performing a role. Our schools, administrators, and classrooms cannot demand that the richness that makes us human be stripped down because the students are only fourteen, for example, and should not read about human rights abuses, or because time in class should be used only to study the curriculum.
Tomorrow, I will post an entry about a book I started reading last week. It is entitled 28: Stories of AIDS in Africa. It does not relate to our grade eight curriculum. It does, however, reflect my interest in social justice and I will blog about it every time I finish a chapter or two because that is how I learn, that is how I interact with things that I find important. So, I'm beginning to use my blog to define myself as more than a classroom teacher. Mr. Glogowski, the teacher, is an important part of my life, but it should not exclude other aspects of what makes me who I am.
So, fairly soon, my students will see that I am more than my role as a Language Arts teacher suggests. They will see that I am a teacher who is also interested in social justice, foreign affairs, and human rights. They will see that I am a teacher who is also interested in photography and who collects old books and maps. They will get many glimpses into my life. I hope that they will understand that what makes a community is a network of human beings who have the freedom to be who they truly are and whose richness enhances the value of the community they inhabit.
If education is essentially a social process, then the teacher needs to be part of the learning community, not only as its facilitator but also as one of its members. When students are part of a learning community, a blog titled "Mr.Glogowski's Blog" will stick out and suggest that the community is really a school-sanctioned place where Mr. Glogowski presides because he has already learned all there is to know about his subject. I do not know all there is to know. I use Web 2.0 to expand my knowledge and to engage in meaning-making. I want to be connected to the class community as a learner. I want my students to see how I engage in negotiating meaning.
I have taken the steps I described above because I believe that a teacher's blog needs to be a personal space. It needs to be a place where I become visible as an individual and where my experiences - joys, disappointments, struggles, successes, moments of inspiration and epiphany - are shared with the community. It needs to be a place of authentic personal attempts at meaning-making, a place where I engage as Konrad Glogowski and not only as Mr.Glogowski, the content expert.
In her preface to Teaching Community, bell hooks argues that her book "offers practical wisdom about what we do and can continue to do to make the classroom a place that is life-sustaining and mind-expanding, a place of liberating mutuality where teacher and student together work in partnership." There can be no true partnership in a classroom where the teacher can hide behind an adopted persona while students are encouraged to be individual learners and bloggers. We cannot expect students to engage as individuals, to blog as human beings, to share their experiences, passions, interests, and struggles if, as teachers, we are not willing to do the same.
And so, my inspiration for the coming weeks comes from Teaching to Transgress where bell hooks states:
When education is the practice of freedom, students are not the only ones who are asked to share, to confess. Engaged pedagogy does not seek simply to empower students. Any classroom that employs a holistic model of learning will also be a place where teachers grow, and are empowered by the process. That empowerment cannot happen if we refuse to be vulnerable while encouraging others to take risks. Professors who expect students to share confessional narratives but who are themselves unwilling to share are exercising power in a manner that could be coercive. In my classrooms, I do not expect students to take any risks that I would not take, to share in any way that I would not share. When professors bring narratives of their experiences into classroom discussions it eliminates the possibility that we can function as all-knowing, silent interrogators. It is often productive if professors take the first risk, linking confessional narratives to academic discussions so as to show how experience can illuminate and enhance our understanding of academic material. But most professors must practice being vulnerable in the classroom, being wholly present in mind, body, and spirit.