Imagine this: Last week, I had just finished teaching a math lesson when a stranger started shouting at me through an open window. I couldn’t figure out whether his shouted monologue was a response to the math lesson I had taught, or if he was just having a bad day. By the time I came up with a response, he had wandered off and started shouting into another window.
Blogging can often feel like the scene described. We put ourselves out there, and we sometimes get pelted with snark, rants, and fury as a result. Still, I continue to read every response to the posts I write, and I reply to many of them, for three enduring reasons. Teacher-bloggers, what’s your philosophy on responding to reader comments?
Last week, I had just finished teaching a math lesson when a stranger started shouting at me through an open window.
“Whatever happened to teaching the BASICS?!” he yelled. “This Common Core garbage is worthless. Teach my kid to add and subtract, period.”
I was trying to think how best to respond when another stranger joined him at the window. The guy’s name was TeacherWarrior and he spoke in all caps.
“ARNE DUNCAN AND OBAMA HAVE DESTROYED THIS COUNTRY. OUR PUBLIC SCHOOLS HAVE FAILED!!! GET OUT WHILE YOU CAN.”
I couldn’t figure out whether his shouted monologue was a response to the math lesson I had taught, or if he was just having a bad day. By the time I came up with a response, he had wandered off and started shouting into another window.
At that moment, a mild-mannered kindergarten teacher from Minnesota walked up to the window.
“I like your focus on conceptual understanding and non-cognitive skills like persistence,” she said. “But isn’t there a place for memorization, like having kids learn their multiplication facts?
I threw my arms around this third startled stranger, and we began a conversation that made us both better teachers, thinkers, and writers.
Strangers at the Window
Blogging can often feel like the scene described. Before we started blogging, most of us shared our practice with a small circle of trusted colleagues—explaining an idea for a lesson with a co-teacher across the hall, talking with our principal about what she observed on a classroom walk-through.
By putting our teaching techniques, experiences, and beliefs about education into writing, we invite a sea of strangers to respond. With the click of the ‘Publish’ button, we have suddenly replaced a close-knit circle with a vast crowd. We have invited hundreds of strangers to peer into our classroom windows.
There’s no telling how these readers will respond. Angry rebuttal? Reasoned dissent? A tirade related to the post’s topic by the scantest of tangents, written by someone who skimmed the 32-word excerpt and then banged out a rant?
Or, at rare moments, a different kind of response: the calm voice of a practitioner out there who saw value in our words and has offered us an astute question, an insightful point, or a meaningful story.
Three Reasons to Respond
At an EdWeek blogger summit this summer, I learned something that astonished me: Many established bloggers don’t even read the responses to their posts, let alone respond.
I understand their reasons, and I envy their decision. Reading and responding can take as much time as writing the original post. There’s also the risk of fueling a fire better left to smolder and die. When I read a rabid, racist, or doom-and-gloom comment, I sometimes hear the voice of a wise teacher friend in my head: “You can’t engage with these people.”
For teacher-bloggers accustomed to a school climate of collaboration and mutual respect, barbs from strangers can snag deep. A snide comment or furious filibuster can trouble our thoughts, a toxin that takes weeks to dissipate.
Still, I continue to read every response to blogs I write, and I reply to many of them. Here are three reasons I’ve made that choice:
1. I learn from the comments.
Bill Ferriter, a blogger with a Twitter following the size of a small city, gives a humble purpose as his #1 reason for blogging: “I blog to learn.”
Grasping our education system always feels like the parable of the blind men and the elephant. I often forget how different my context is from that of other teachers scattered across the country. I may have a firm grasp on my piece of the elephant—the trunk, the tusk—but I don’t know anything about the rest of the animal.
When I wrote a piece explaining why I support the Common Core, titled Is Common Core the Enemy of Autonomy?, I received a flood of disagreement. I learned something useful from almost all the comments, and it often had to do with context.
I’m in a school and district with skilled leadership, where teachers have ample time to collaborate. As a result, Common Core has been a good thing for our students. But I heard from many teachers who care about their students just as deeply as I care about mine, who teach in districts where implementation has been a train wreck.
As a result, Common Core has done their students more damage than good. My next post was based on what I learned from the conversation with readers who disagreed with me: Administrators Gone Mad.
I rarely change my mind completely, and I don’t expect to change many readers’ minds, either. But I come away with a better understanding of why I believe what I believe, and I gain the humility to realize I’m only writing about one part of the elephant, not the whole beast.
2. I respect the readers.
Without readers, bloggers are just crazy people muttering to ourselves. If someone takes the time to read what I’ve written and write a response, I think they deserve for me to read their thoughts, no matter how violently they disagree with me.
I don’t respond to every comment. There will always be a handful of trolls who just want to shout about whatever has sparked their fury that day, even if my post is barely related to the topic they feel like ranting about. But readers usually make points worth considering, and if they’re willing to take the time to read about my experiences and beliefs, I’m willing to read about theirs.
Sometimes the commenter never goes back to read my response. By the time I post a reply, they have moved on and are busy shouting into somebody else’s window. But other readers following the thread will read my response, and it becomes an integral part of the original post.
Last month, I wrote a piece for Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post blog The Answer Sheet about a conversation I had with President Obama and three other teachers: What 4 Teachers Told Obama Over Lunch.
I spent a couple of hours reading and responding to comments (299 at last count), many of them negative. Valerie Strauss wrote a follow-up post a few days later, based entirely on reader comments and my responses to them.
In the digital universe, the words we write often live twice, or a thousand times. Comments are no exception to that sprawling, iterative process.
3. The silent majority matters.
I’m always amazed by the disconnect between the tenor of comments I receive on a given post and the number of “Likes” that post has received. The piece on Common Core was typical. 18 comments, not counting the 13 responses I wrote, and all but one disagreed with me…yet the piece had 166 Likes and 63 Tweets. At least 165 people liked what I wrote enough to share it with their friends and colleagues, though they didn’t post a comment on the blog site.
People are usually more motivated to write a comment when they’re angered by what you wrote than when they agree with you. But for every commenter who writes a tirade, there are 10 or 20 readers who quietly read what you’ve written, think about it, and pass it on to their friends and colleagues by word of mouth or social media. They may never get in touch with you, but you’ve had an impact on their professional world.
The biting, cynical comments on my posts have faded into a scrim of distant pollution, too similar in tone and substance to recall individual comments. But I remember every teacher who wrote to me in a spirit of dialogue: the 1st grade teacher who started a home library project in her Oregon school after reading about mine, the retired English teacher who thanked me for representing our profession.
These teachers don’t write in all caps. Instead of snarky rants, they write a few sincere lines. They tell a student’s story, or share something they have learned through their years of teaching. Yet their words linger, while others fade.
Messages in Bottles
The act of writing is an invitation. Read these lines, whoever you may be—friend, colleague, or utter stranger—and respond.
Writing a blog post often feels like putting a message into a bottle, then tossing it into the sea. That digital sea is filled with strangers, and the waters can be rough. But it’s also magnificent, in all its violence, cacophony, and changeable temper.
Writing the message for the bottle takes time and discipline. Throwing the bottle into the sea demands courage. When the bottle bobs back, we never know if the message inside will contain fury, gratitude, or simply a question we had never considered. But the bottles return. We read the words within, and we keep on writing.
For the many of you who are teacher-bloggers, I’d love to hear your thoughts on these questions:
How do you handle reading and responding to comments on your posts?
What is one thing you’ve learned from a comment you’ve received?
What advice do you have for new bloggers, or for teachers who are considering writing their first blog?
This post appears as part of a new metablogging series from CTQ bloggers featuring their tried-and-true tips and best practices. Join the Collaboratory and then sign up for the Communications Lab to continue the conversation and get tips for taking advantage of summer writing time!