Are Blogs Better?

I saw one post come through my RSS reader over the past 24 hours or so that fits the bill, and it’s a lovely one from Tracy Zager:

We’ve all been thinking about what might help students get more comfortable switching back and forth between counting by tens and counting by ones. Today, Becky and I were talking with Debbie Nichols, who teaches 1st and 2nd grade. Together, we landed on the idea of passing out 10s and 1s – connected sticks of ten cubes and single cubes, base 10 rods and units, etc. – and then having a counting circle.

At first, author and reader both aren’t quite sure what’s going on with the kids and what will help. Then they try something, and even then we’re not quite sure what to make of it. Then the kids say something surprising and new and then we’ve gotten somewhere new. And the author opens up more questions than she answers, leaving room for anyone else to jump in:

Debbie’s planning to do the same thing with dimes and pennies on a different day. And, of course, we could give older kids multiples of ten and/or multiples of one. After doing it just four times, we noticed an increasing smoothness for some of the kids. They were noticing that they’d either move over or down on the hundreds chart.

Every other post I reviewed fell into these categories:

  • self-promotion, announcements
  • sharing a math problem
  • play-by-play of a lesson (“we started with this warm up…then kids worked on this question…then I asked this…then for homework…”)
  • polemic

All these other types of posts are valuable in their own way, but these days I put a special premium on posts like Tracy’s. I want more of them, please!

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11 thoughts on “Are Blogs Better?

  1. Weird. I just caught up on a week of posts and my breakdown was:

    • a couple hundred people writing posts for innumerable personal and self-fulfilling purposes
    • one guy grousing they were using his internet wrong.

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    1. Seriously, Dan? “One guy grousing”?

      Look: is the idea that we’re not allowed to describe what sort of writing we love? Is talk of preferences taboo? Can’t I say what I like, and explain why I like it?

      Who exactly is this one, grousing guy? Are you sure it’s me?

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      1. I’m pretty pissed off by your comment, so here’s a requote of the part of my post that you didn’t read:

        All these other types of posts are valuable in their own way, but these days I put a special premium on posts like Tracy’s.

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  2. Am I drawing too straight a line between this post and the other one where you called all this writing “boring”? I think it’s a bad look for a guy who’s managed thus far to provoke lots of people without punching down. I don’t think it’s effective as tactics either. One tweet celebrating Joe Schwartz or Tracy Zager will do more to move the MTBOS than ten posts berating some classroom blogger who reads you and is read by nobody and writes stuff you don’t care for.

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    1. Am I drawing too straight a line between this post and the other one where you called all this writing “boring”?

      When I say “most writing about teaching math is boring,” I mean to include books, blogs, articles, the whole gamut. But, yes, I do include the things that show up on my reader. They’re all clearly valuable, but are they all interesting? No, not to me. Am I really the only one who feels this way?

      I think it’s a bad look for a guy who’s managed thus far to provoke lots of people without punching down.

      “Punching down” is when someone with higher status criticizes someone with lower status, right? I have no self-awareness of my status is in the online world, but I’ll believe you if you say this looks bad.

      More to the point, though, I believe that criticism is a sign of respect. To criticize someone is to take them seriously. The greater insult is to just ignore someone’s work. (Echoes of Freddie here….)

      I also believe that criticism can always be done respectfully and kindly. Maybe talking about “boring” writing in my other post missed that mark. In fact, I think now that it does, and I’d like to change that line.

      But if there’s something you want to say, there’s almost always a nice way to say it.

      I don’t think it’s effective as tactics either. One tweet celebrating Joe Schwartz or Tracy Zager will do more to move the MTBOS than ten posts berating some classroom blogger who reads you and is read by nobody and writes stuff you don’t care for.

      I’m not thinking tactically, this is not Stage One or something.

      Here’s what I know: criticism is an important part of nearly every discipline or art. This is true for students, apprentices and experts alike. The kids have SMP.3, the experts have critical workshops. This is true of math, music, literature, science, quite literally any intellectual field.

      Why would the MTBoS be different? One possibility — the depressing one — is that the things we’re doing aren’t serious enough to qualify for criticism. (Maybe MTBoS is facebook for teachers, and it seems silly to talk about how one can do a better or worse job of facebook.) Or maybe some are doing work that might be amenable to critique, but others don’t, but we want everyone to feel as if what they’re doing is valuable? (So it’s some version of the “Average Teacher” argument?)

      99% of this is about being nice, polite and respectful. Even though you were a jerk in how you said it, I think you’re right that I wasn’t properly nice, polite or respectful by calling most teacher writing “boring.”

      That other 1% is about substantive issues. Maybe this 1% is the interesting part. I take writing seriously, and I know that others do too. I think that how we write about teaching is inseparable from how we think about teaching. I think that criticism is appropriate, as part of a conversation about what the knowledge that comes out of classrooms might look like. I don’t think you can get there by operant conditioning through RTs and faves. I think it has to be an explicit conversation with peers about what our art might look like.

      I tend to think that, in the long-run, this is better for the MTBoS than just saying “everything is awesome!” Who knows, though?

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  3. I think it’s self-evident that neither of us is interested in treating ideas with kid gloves or turning this community into a mutual admiration society. How we go about it matters, though. I was too terse in my initial come-on here. And I think that calling people’s ideas boring is somewhere in the opposite direction of taking them seriously.

    I took personal offense at the implication that my non-archeology writing is boring. (Along with the writing of other people I care about.) I need to learn to disconnect my wifi for a few hours when I get myself spun up like that, though. It won’t happen again.

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    1. I took personal offense at the implication that my non-archeology writing is boring.

      It’s not boring. That was a wrong thing to say, and it was the sort of wrong that rightly pissed you off.

      I need to figure out a clearer way to think about the sort of writing I especially love. The interesting/boring dichotomy is a flop, and it’s also mean.

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  4. I admire both of you for how you’re handling yourselves in this conversation.

    Given that I’m now deep in the feedback business, I think a lot about these issues. I know a lot about helping individual writers say what they want to say, better, although I’m learning every day. I don’t know a lot about helping a whole group of people write better if I don’t even know who they are and how they write individually. Aside from Strunk and White, who does?

    I think elevating writing that inspires you is a great start. And here’s the rub about criticism: the type of blogwriting I think you’re describing has *vulnerability* as well as thoughtfulness and pedagogical insight. For example, in Joe’s beautiful post about Alex, Joe asked for help, admitted when he made a move that didn’t work, and revealed what he doesn’t know about how children learn to count. The one thing I know for sure is, if you want to hear more writing like that, you need to create safety for people to be vulnerable and defend them when they are.

    I think that’s why the “boring” label stings so much, and backfires. It makes people disinclined to share, when what I think you really want is for people to share at a deeper level.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The “boring” label is wrong. I think it’s wrong because it’s just wrong. That is, I think it doesn’t even come close to describing the sort of writing I’m talking about. Polemic is often gripping, challenging. A play-by-play of a day’s work can be fascinating. There are 180 blogs that I’ve avidly waited to read. So “boring” is wrong, and on top of that it’s an insult. I think I understand what I did wrong, why it was wrong and I think I won’t do it again.

      Tracy, I think you’re right about the vulnerability involved in Joe’s sort of blogging. It does require a sense of safety. A great way to mess with that sense of safety is to insult other writers, as I did in tossing the label ‘boring’ around. You’re totally right.

      (If there’s any consolation for me, it’s that only about 50 people read this blog. I hope this mistake wasn’t more widely seen than that.)

      Can I clarify something, Tracy? I’m not trying to help “a whole group of people write better.” Influence is an unreasonable expectation to have for one’s work, or at least that’s how I see things. Like a lot of people, I write primarily for (a) myself or (b) a sort of ideal reader. I have a few people in mind when I write, mostly people I admire: you, Dan, Joe, Lani, Max, Kristin, David, Anna, Kent, Malke, Christopher…many others. I write, primarily, to try to find some truth, make myself happy, or to blow you away.

      We all write, and we all think critically about many issues. We often disagree deeply on matters of pedagogy, and we’ve figured out ways to do it politely. I want to think more about how we write about teaching, because increasingly I see the form of our writing is deeply entwined with its content. I’m sure there’s a way to talk about craft without making people feel bad.

      (Actually, I think “archaeology” is a form that is particularly well-suited for respectful disagreement.)

      I promise I’ll worry more about respecting others. I really am in awe of everyone else around here, I need to make sure my writing reflects those feelings of esteem. Let me know — nicely, now! — if I screw up again.

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      1. “Like a lot of people, I write primarily for (a) myself or (b) a sort of ideal reader. I have a few people in mind when I write, mostly people I admire: you, Dan, Joe, Lani, Max, Kristin, David, Anna, Kent, Malke, Christopher…many others. I write, primarily, to try to find some truth, make myself happy, or to blow you away.”

        This is fascinating to me. I’ve noticed that, when I write for that list of people and then some, I become too clever by half.

        If I write for the teachers with whom I work in schools, however, I get traction. That’s my most honest, direct writing. And if you all like it too, bonus!

        I’ve thought about audience a lot more for my book than my blog. I used to find it paralyzing to imagine certain people reading this book. I mean, shit. But here’s the knowledge that freed me: they’re not my target audience. I need to not worry about how much they’ll take away from it; instead, I need to worry a lot about what classroom teachers will get out of it. When I started writing for teachers, I found the approachable voice I wanted to use and my book began to flow. That voice sometimes appears on my blog too, depending on what I’m saying, but not always.

        For me, in book or blog, presentation or conversation, professional life and personal relationships, everything falls apart if I try to impress. I don’t think I’m the only one for whom that’s true. If I relax, listen, and speak to what I know in simple language, though, then it sometimes resonates. I’m just trying to do more of that.

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