Writing is allowed to be hard

What makes this post weird, for me, is it started with having something to say. Lately, this is not how I write. Here is the origin story of my last several posts:

And so on. Now, I don’t want to be facetious. It’s not like I start these projects without any thought about what I’m going to say. Usually it’s sort of a nascent take. It’s often extremely tentative: maybe I’ll end up saying…

The point isn’t that I go in to a piece of writing without anything in mind. The point is that all these recent posts have required active development. Through a combination of research, drafting and editing, I figure out what the post is about well after I decide to write it.

I mention all of this because I’ve been talking to people recently about why they stopped (or never started) blogging. Before you misunderstand my purpose, there’s nothing wrong with not blogging. Seriously: do whatever you want. I never want to be the guy to criticize someone for not doing something. As long as nobody’s getting hurt, don’t-do to your heart’s content.

Here’s the thing. A lot of people were telling me that they don’t blog because they don’t have ideas, or because they’ve already said what they want to say, or they don’t have the time, and so on and so on. These are all entirely legitimate reasons not to write — along with the very best reason, which is “I don’t feel like it.”

I worry, though, that in the online math teacher community (mtbos) the dominant, default view about writing is that it’s supposed to be easy. The expectation in our community is that writing about teaching is most appropriate as either an organic expression of your views or as a casual, nearly-personal record of your professional practice.

Now: this isn’t such a big deal! There is no crisis in the mathtwitterblogosphere — the community is growing, and pretty much everyone is having a fun, meaningful time. I certainly don’t see myself as a dork Cassandra.

(OK fine, just a bit.)

Here’s what I think might’ve happened. Blogging was a fantastic medium on which to build a math education community. The community’s initial growth was enabled by a particularly flexible type of writing — relatively quick posts that shared a brief, relatively unsexy thing about teaching. This wasn’t the only way to blog, but it was a fantastic, accessible genre for teachers who were new to the community. It was easy to dive in, and a lot of generous engagement resulted while knowledge and resources accumulated.

Along with this success, the community developed a series of (totally reasonable and beneficial!) norms around accessibility. Blogging doesn’t need to be anything fancy, and you don’t even need to worry about a reader — write for yourself, and if other people find it helpful? Hey, that’s a bonus.

People are justifiably sensitive about this point so let me say it again: I am not critiquing this view on blogging, or even its prominence in the blog-o’-land. It’s a message that maximizes accessibility, and that is probably the most important value of our community.

I think that now might be an especially good time to remind people that there’s another way to write in this community, which is to slowly, painstakingly, dutifully carve out posts. And — thinking entirely personally here — it’s just so, so much fun to write like that. You should try it! Taking writing seriously is a hoot.

Let’s get the costs out of the way: I spend a ton of my free time reading and writing. Call it whatever you want — hobby, avocation, craft — but it’s time-consuming. It’s also sometimes unnatural, in the sense that I have to search for something to say, and I need to figure out how to say it. (I still fire off a quick sharing post from time to time, but I’m drifting away from it.) And, because I work hard on this stuff, I sometimes get frustrated when my work is ignored or when I see myself as having failed.

So much for costs. The benefits: seriously, it’s a blast. I learn so much more from crafting a piece than from a post like this one, where I’m sort of just yapping. And, if the past is any indication, I’ll probably be a bit disappointed with the response to this post. Some folks will like it, others won’t, and that’ll be that. My longer, more complex pieces, though, have generated incredibly meaningful responses. I’m blown away by the comments people have left on these posts, and my email correspondence has been rich as well. And that’s all I’ve ever really wanted from this blogging thing — to get to write and to have it mean something real to my peers.

(It’d be nice to have writing in legit publications so my parents could have something to talk about, but that would just be a cherry on top of my current situation.)

What I’ve found, after a lot of stumbling and searching, is that an especially fruitful genre for me is review. Some of the most fun I’ve had writing (generating the most exciting responses) has come when I read a difficult book or article as best I can and try to make sense of it in writing.

I would love to read more complex, critical writing about reading, especially from teachers: won’t someone humor me?

Another type of post that I’m finding especially fun is the research/practice post. I find it a tricky balance. You need to tell two stories at once, taking care to weave them together without sublimating experience to research or dismissing serious findings. This type of piece also gives me that awesome feeling I had when I started blogging and people were still sharing the unsexy things — the feeling that, potentially, any classroom moment could be transformed into a post and thereby be significant beyond the moment itself.

This is another type of post that, while I suppose anyone in education could write it, is especially interesting to me coming from people in classrooms.

There’s a third type of post that I’ve been trying to figure out how to handle. I really want to get better at writing straight math. I want to learn how to apply what I know about teaching to the sort of content that I’m interested in learning about. And I’m also interested in using writing as an engine and discipline for learning new mathematics. My experience with the history of algebra essay was totally energizing; I’m ready for more.

But I’m also eager to read more writing about mathematics from the people who know the most about helping other people make sense of it. It’s a type of writing that is particularly apt for teachers to do, and yet I don’t see much of it.

These three areas — the review essay, the research/practice post, straight math — are some of my favorite types of writing to read, and I am especially interested in reading them from teacher-writers. My purpose here isn’t to nay-say what anyone else is doing. I just want to share how much fun, how rewarding it’s been to explore these areas in my own writing, and to try to entice someone else to start down a similar path.

These kinds of writing will always be hard and time-consuming. But so is making incredible math videos or putting together a presentation. I think there’s a community of writers out there in mtbos interested in playing around with writing, but I don’t think it’s come together quite yet. And maybe there are some people that are looking for a way in on blogging, but haven’t figured out how to make it click yet.

My message, then, is that writing is allowed to be easy, but it doesn’t need to be. Writing can be an effortful process that ends, but doesn’t start, with having something to say. It can involve research, months of planning, asking friends for editing and revising, revising, revising. And, when everything clicks, this sort of writing yields rewards different in kind to the rewards for the more common modes of blogging.

Blogging can be very, very hard but so much more fun.

10 thoughts on “Writing is allowed to be hard

  1. Not really a response, but another tangent perhaps: I’m interested in what others’ lists (like yours at the end, of what post themes you’re currently interested in) look like depending on (a) where they are in their career as a math teacher, (b) where they are in their newness to the MTBOS, (c) what grade level(s) they teach.

    Something I’ve been thinking about a LOT this summer, and not blogging about on purpose because of politics, is classroom management. I’m dropping in daily to co-teach in a summer school classroom, and I don’t think I’m doing a great job as a co-teacher, as a coach, or really even as just a plain teacher. But a lot of what I think is happening comes down to school-wide and classroom-level management and identity issues that I feel really strangled by, because it’s not my school or even classroom. .

    But it makes me think: where do I go to learn about (and then perhaps share with others) the journey of someone who moved from ineffective classroom management strategies, to more productive strategies for building a community of math learners, collectively pursuing worthwhile math goals?

    I don’t think I’ve ever read an MTBOS post that talked about classroom management – though I’ll admit, I’m not very wise on how to look. Is it because the average blogger is way past the “how do I set up a classroom for success” phase? Is it because classroom management isn’t fun to talk about, and maybe even shameful to worry about?

    As I think about the teachers I work with most – novice teachers, popping in to others’ classrooms for short amounts of time to ‘try things out’ with students – I wonder at times which MTBOS blog posts would really resonate with them. I often think of many of the blog posts that have really struck me and made me re-think my own teaching. But those don’t seem to be about the kinds of things that my undergrads are focused on. Getting-through-the-day-without-a-coup or Knowing-what-the-standards-even-mean seems to be more up their alley…but I don’t see those a lot – though some do come to mind.

    My point is, the cohort of MTBOS writers and the cohort of MTBOS readers may not be the same. They may be at pretty different places in their journeys as math teachers, as community members. I wonder what it would take to support more intersections between cohorts, if we think that would be beneficial.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think a lot of the challenge of writing about classroom management is that you are writing publicly about real people who may read (or whose families may read) your stories. It is difficult to say something specific and meaningful online without violating privacy. But I agree with everything you said about classroom management and classroom culture and the need to read more on those, and a lot of our best university-level thinkers and writers like Lani Horn and Tracy Zager give us a lot to process and try and reflect on in our classrooms. I wonder if there’s a way to set up some kind of anonymous site that would let people give enough specifics for the reader to follow the story, but vague enough that no one could link it to individuals?

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      1. I think this is spot on: privacy is a huge issue, and in the search to become better teachers, we also have to be keenly aware that the internet is a public forum. That’s definitely a reason for me not to really talk at all about the persistent challenges I’ve faced this summer in summer school – which is a huge bummer, because I know there are others out there who could offer me a lot of advice and resources to improve. I know this fall I’ll be in a similar pickle – working in classrooms that aren’t mine, trying to meet needs of students whose privacy I have to maintain in districts that might actually be excited and proud to broadcast that my colleagues and I are there. So when it comes to anything that can be traced back to those kiddos, I’ll have to be all rainbows and sunshine, even when what I really need is advice and support for dealing with major challenges.

        I like the idea of a private, anonymous forum, and I wonder if an “Ann Landers” style of “ask MTBOS” type anonymized letters could do it. A blog with some type of light moderation by an admin who has to filter spam or duplicates, but otherwise a shared login so teachers could get feedback on things they’re struggling with, or even unpopular opinions.

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      2. I’ve thought about using fictional cases to write about classroom management stuff. That seems similar to what you’re thinking about, Julie.

        Also, anyone can email me a classroom management case and I’ll happily anonymize and blog about it in whatever way would be helpful.


  2. Seems like a comment is necessary.

    I am such a fan of people writing about teaching math. Pretty much every day I make it to my reader. It feels a little hypocritical that I don’t write as much as I should. But guilt has never motivated me. I don’t write because I don’t have time, and that’s okay.

    I do write because I believe in writing to learn. It’s weird for me, because as a prof I am supposed to be doing academic writing, and I don’t. I don’t do research in math ed, but spend most of my time teaching. Writing for the practitioner journals (TCM, MTMS, MT) was weird because of the time lag. Do I do anything for more than a few semesters? What makes this writing-worthy? (A bit hypocritical since I love a lot of the articles that are in there.) The impermanence of the blog was perfect for me. There’s no implicit ‘everyone should try this’ vibe to it.

    Maybe to some teachers blogging has the feel of academic writing to me?


  3. Also, another note – I agree with your sentiments in this post. Writing is allowed to be hard – which means the complex, well-crafted posts may not be the beginnings. I also think you’re right, that often the harder you work to serve up ideas to readers, the more you’ll have come to the table and stick around.

    I actually think it would be a kindness for frequent MTBOS bloggers whose blogging style has changed over the years, like you, David, Kate, Sarah, Megan, others…to write a short piece on that journey you’ve made as bloggers. Maybe a short collection that could be tied together somewhere, so that those who are new to MTBOS blogging might understand why some posts by Michael seem casual and here’s-how-today-went, while others are much more focused on reading, writing, and research.


  4. Nice. Good advertisement for / encouragement of the hard stuff for sure.

    I wonder if part of the origin of this missing element is simply the feeling of the format; blogs make it so easy to just click “publish.” There’s no editorial process required, no approval needed. It is perhaps both their advantage and their disadvantage. It takes an awful lot of self-discipline to require that of yourself – I don’t have it, it turns out, but I definitely feel your pitch to work on it.

    I do feel like there are avenues for this sort of writing. NCTM publications (including their blogs). Edutopia’s blogs. Various topic-specialized places – AMStat publishes such things, and the college board has some AP-based blogs. Heck, education columns in newspapers. But of course the disadvantage there is the opposite – you get the editorial aid and the guaranteed audience you don’t have to build yourself (and, potentially, payment), but you also have to be allowed to do it. And the feedback is likely not as personal-feeling, since most people feel as if they are responding to the publisher, not the author personally.

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    1. Well said. I think you get at something that has kept me living on the outskirts of the MTBoS community as opposed to moving downtown: Writing is a transformative activity, the mental equivalent of physical exercise. You get stronger and more comfortable with an activity the more you do it. Still, just like with running or swimming or lifting weights, you hit a plateau stage. To push past, you need to dig in and make mental bargains: I will going the weekend warrior route and will stick with this particular workout as long as it takes to deliver a result that lives up to my own personal standards. For me, that usually means four or five drafts with completion of the first coherent draft roughly coinciding with the “50 percent done” mark.

      Anyway, that’s my takeaway on your post. One can certainly stay below this level of writing intensity, delivering quick, informal takes. Indeed the medium of Internet/Twitter publishing all but encourages that form of expression. Balancing out the need to get your ideas out and in front of others, however, is the deeper need to get ideas out and in front of your own conscious mind.

      I’m in a weird position where I teach both mathematics (algebra last year) and writing (Theory of Knowledge, a central course in the IB curriculum), so a lot of my thinking this summer has been how to encourage students to be more reflective. Not just “In class today, I learned…” reflective but deeply reflective as in “I just figured out what X” means or “I’m still struggling with why Y happens so I’m going to try to think it out.

      I use the workout analogy above. For most people, it takes a couple weeks of jogging just to get up to the level of a 5- or 10-kilometer race. Conversely, it is the experience of completing a race — with all the angst and agony that often goes along with it — that puts some runners back on the street or track with a deeper sense of purpose. The more you have a sense that your writing is taking you somewhere interesting, the more committed you become to the overall process.

      Anyway, it’s a scary bargain you are offering, because, as we all know, time is at the root of your discussion. I can remember quite a few writing projects that kept me up until 3, 4 or even 5 a.m., time I considered well spent because I could feel myself pushing towards a sense of clarity that would ultimately prove edifying for myself and the reader, whomever that might be. Such moments required an automatic rejiggering of the next day’s work priorities, however, which is why you don’t see me doing that too often nowadays. When you’re telling a young (or old) writer to go deep, you’re also telling them to be prepared for the consequences.

      Thanks for the post. It was both thought- and work-provoking.


  5. Michael, I really enjoyed this post as a description of different kinds of math blogging. I might go back and experiment with the different sorts and see if I can find more satisfaction with one sort or another.

    I’m only speaking for myself, and have no idea how much this applies to others, but the audience factor is huge for me with blogging. It just feels downright embarrassing and exposing to write this whole long thing and get absolutely no response, especially if it happens more than once. The last thing I wrote on my MTBoS blog (http://sadarmadillo.blogspot.com/) was about a Hidden Figures schoolwide field trip, something I poured my heart into and an experience that was one of my most meaningful and joyful as a teacher. I wanted to encourage others in the math teaching community to do the same, especially since the posts and resources other teachers had shared online were part of what had inspired me. As far as I could tell, that post basically dropped without a trace and/or people read it and just didn’t like it. No comments on the blog, no comments on Twitter. (The comment on there now is from Carl after I wrote something similar to this in a discussion on Twitter or his blog, I forget which.) Blog posting just often leads to a nasty, exposed feeling that leaves me wondering whether I really want this personal thing out there for anyone to read if it’s not appealing to anyone. Maybe you have to have started earlier than I did, maybe you have to do it more regularly to build up an audience, maybe I’m just not good at it, or maybe what I have to say in long form doesn’t appeal to people, but it just isn’t fun right now and that discourages me from trying it very often.

    Sorry to be so negative, and to anyone reading this, don’t let my insecurities discourage you! You might have a completely different experience, and in fact for my first few blog posts, people were super nice and encouraging. It just isn’t my thing yet, at least not enough to do it very often.

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