The Good, the Bad, and the Fury: Why Respond to Reader Comments?

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?

Looking for resources about blogging? Read this summer writing series with tips from CTQ bloggers, and join the Collaboratory and Communications Lab today!

 

Imagine this:

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!

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  • jozettemartinez

    Ahhhh

    I wish there was a LOVE button because I would so click it… this is the best thing I’ve read in a while. Such great stuff here! I am annoting it and sharing with my staff for Teacher led PD. 

    Thank you, friend. 

  • JustinMinkel

    Thanks, Jozette!

    Thanks for the kind words, Jozette. I’d love to hear your philosophy on when/whether/how to respond to reader comments, from any bloggers out there.

  • DeidraGammill

    Reading your blogs is refreshing!

    Justin,

    As always, you write with such clarity and sincerity. Reading your blogs is as refreshing as a drink of cold water on a hot Mississippi summer day. Ahhhhhh 🙂

    I’m about to embark on my first educational blogging experience via CTQ and I’m as nervous as Scrooge when confronted with Marley’s promise of 3 ghostly visitors (expect the first when the clock stikes one …); the anticipation of WHAT education blogging will actually look like is killing me, but the fear of those “what if’s” can be debilitating (what if no one likes what I write; what if people say mean things; what if no one even reads my blog (!!). Your post feels like a security blanket right about now – it’s going to be okay, even if there are people who dont’ agree with what I write.

    One question – is it the norm for people to read your responses and then comment again? I had 9 comments on my EdWeek Teacher piece in early July, and I responded to 8 of them – but to my knowledge, my responses weren’t read since there wasn’t any further dialogue. (And you’re right – those FB likes/shares and Tweets mean the world!).

    Thanks for another great post. You never write anything but!

     

    • JustinMinkel

      Your comment is an example, Deidra!

      Deidra, yours is one of those comments that “means the world.” Thank you! I was worried this post would have the opposite effect on newish bloggers, amping up anxiety rather than bringing reassurance. CTQ tends, of course, to be filled even in the blogosphere with that feeling of hearth–almost all the comments I have received on posts here are wonderfully generous of spirit as well as insightful. Blogs I’ve written for EdWeek, and the recent Washington Post piece, draw a much broader cross-section of humanity.

      To answer your question, I do find that most people who comment on EdWeek pieces never come back. The process can feel like graffiti–someone walks along, tags the wall, and walks off, possibly never to return. I think what you did in responding to those comments is still truly valuable, though (and 9 is a great number–what you wrote clearly resonated); for a few reasons:

      1. Other readers will take a look at your thoughts when they read the piece,

      2. It models, as Bill Ferriter points out in his comment on this post, that we’re engaged in a conversation rather than multiple monologues, and

      3. It helps you clarify not only your own thinking, but your response to possible critiques. I have found that in various venues, whether it’s speaking on a panel or the lunch with President Obama, that my beliefs are much more easily put into spoken language now that I’ve put so many of them into writing through both my blogs.

  • billferriter

    Dude —
    Dude —

    Just a quick note before dinner to tell you that this post is amazing.

    Such a great articulation of why blog comments — and commenting on blogs — matters.

    Thanks for hammering the point home that blogs are supposed to be about conversations. When we forget that, the health of these spaces suffer.

    Rock right on,
    Bill

    • JustinMinkel

      Wow, Bill–thanks! You just made my night.

      Bill,

      Thanks for the very kind words. I always struggle to find metaphors for blogging, because it’s so different from anything else I’ve experienced. In one sense, it’s solitary the way all writing is solitary–one person in front of a screen, writing that message for the bottle. At the same time, it’s a boisterous dinnertime conversation at a family gathering, except that there are plenty of strangers jammed in among the family, colleagues, and friends. I often end up just marveling at it all.

      Thanks for always voicing what the conversation can and should be. The longer I teach and learn, the more I think professional learning comes down to three things for most people: reflection, collaboration, and mentoring. Deepest thanks for lending your insights and convictions as a mentor to so many bloggers, some of whom you’ll probably never meet.

       

  • jozettemartinez

    My Take

    When I first read your post I gave it a quick once-through and it spoke to me but I didn’t have the time to jot more than a few words of praise and gratitude. Now that I’ve got a moment I’d like to comment on some of the specifics and how they affected me. 

    I suspect you and I are similar when it comes to writing. As I have noticed in your pieces, your word choice and sentence structure are well thought out. I too, painstake over just the right word, placed in the correct place, so that, hopefully, I can draw my reader in and affect them in a profound way that changes them once they have experienced my prose. 

    But not all are like me when it comes to writing… instead of using words to make connections, some are concerned with using words as weapons of mass destruction ( and in most cases, they are not difficult to track down.) I was struck with your words, because a group of colleagues was recently discussing a curt tone one of our administrators has in emails. It is in direct contrast to the warm and encompassing demeanor he exudes in person. We have asked him to stop emailing because frankly, when he does, it puts people on the defense almost 100% of the time. 

    In addressing the elephant that lurks in so many classrooms, office buildings, as well as the safe confines of a cozy home office, snuggly behind a screen of ananimity, I chuckled to myself about this old addage; how do you eat an elephant? Answer, one bite at a time. Yeah, usually, unless you have just written a masterpiece, hung your sleeve out in cyber space for all to see, and here come the trolls, not interested in a full meal of elephant, but simply looking to bite and wound. This happened to my posts a great deal on activist and political FaceBook posts, and in the begining, I admit, it would hurt. Now however, like you, I read every response, and repond in kind, only now I write to support and draw out those silent likers, prompt them to use voice in support of their beliefs. This is very different from how I used to respond- which was to try and teach the ones against me to change their minds. I am no longer interested in doing that. Difference of opinion is what a great blogger is made of. It’s what gets people like R. Limbaugh ( I had a hard time typing his name as my fingers stiffened with utter disgust,) heard and noticed.

    To answer your question, what advise would I give, I say this. Great thoughts, great beliefs are the stuff that change is made of. If you have a conviction, stop lurking- start writing ESPECIALLY for yourself. Regardless of your opinion, if you write it, they will come. 

     

    • JustinMinkel

      Thanks, Jozette!

      Jozette, thanks for the impassioned comment. Love it.

      So many of these comments could be draft blog posts in themselves.

  • WendiPillars

    Reading the comments

    Justin, thanks for your wonderful insights. I love reading your posts, even though I admit I don’t always leave comments. Many times it is purely a matter of time, despite knowing how valuable it is to have that dialogue, and there have been many other times I just need to process what I’ve read before responding. (then forget to come back and respond)

    Blogging is indeed a vulnerable act, and I admire colleagues like you who regularly open yourselves up to the good and the bad. I’m part of your silent majority–your thoughts influence and provoke mine, and I appreciate perspectives from other “parts of the elephant”.  I typically end up sharing with colleagues, both face to face and virtually.

    I have also found myself reading more and more comments on others’ blogs because they lend such true insights, such honest reactions and thinking, but this is something I never even considered doing until the last 2-3 years. Whether a rant, well-devised question, or supportive nod, those comments teach me even more. 

    Blogging has opened up my world in untold ways–both in reading and writing them. I have gained a greater appreciation, as you have, for divergent perspectives. It has made me exponentially more reflective as an educator, has introduced me to ideas I’d otherwise not encounter, and helped me understand the breadth of education–how distinct those parts of the elephant really can be in spite of their common objective. 

    If anyone is considering blogging, my colleague Patrick Ledesma said it best: “Just start writing”. Find a blog or an article and respond to it with your own post. Find something in the news or re-view your day through another lens. Once you start looking you will find that “there’s a blog post in there”! (words of another wonderful writer colleague–Braden Welborn)

    Thanks again, Justin. I look forward to your next blog!

    • JustinMinkel

      Why blogging has extra value for teachers

      Wendi, thank you! I think written reflection is useful for human beings in general–every moment lives at least twice, in the happening and in the remembering of it later–but it has special value for teachers, I think, because our days are so complex and intense. I did a two-year Masters after teaching two years in West Harlem, and apart from the content I learned and mentors I observed, just having the two years to reflect on what had happened in my classroom the previous two years was immensely valuable.

      In a conversation in class, I’d find myself remembering some moment with my 4th graders in New York that had happened but then was buried under the other moments, and I had time–like an archaeologist finding a piece of pottery, old and dusty but intact–to examine that moment and figure out what it meant.

  • SusanGraham

    It may depend of why we blog

    Seems to me that reply or not reply question hangs on the “why” of the blog.

    If a person blogs in order to impact policy targeted addressing controversial subjects or taking strong positions tends helps build readership and it makes sense to respond to comments,positive or negative, which will potentially attract more comments and more readers. Offering reasonable responses to an unreasonable troll can be very helpful in stimulating more traffic and attracting support for positions. A troll or two can be a blessing. 

    If the goal of the blog is to a professional resource or informational, then of course the blogger probably won’t be able to resist their teacher instinct to offer additional information or ask questions that might lead the commenter to build deeper understanding or practical applications. A negative comment is likely to result in this blogger to ask clarifying questions or suggest additions resources as verification or explanation. 

    If the goal of the blog is personal reflection, then the blogger has chosen to include readers in what is essentially a journaling process. For this blogger, negative comments may feel personal , can be hurtful, and should pr ably be ignored. But it seems to me  that if one invites readers to join him/her in that process it would be bad manners to ignore a commenter’s attempt to join the conversation. And if receiving or responding to comments is upsetting or just more effort than the blogger wants to invest, then perhaps a private journal rather than a public blog might be a more appropriate choice.

    It’s likely that every blogger is influenced by all of these goals. But it seems to me that regardless of the purpose of blogging, there’s little to be lost and much to be gained by responding thoughtfully to comments. 

  • DavidCohen

    Another Bill Ferriter story
    Bill was a great supporter for me early on. It didn’t take a lot of arm-twisting or a long series of back-and-forth exchanges. But his encouragement was grounded in insights and specific reasons to blog. Nancy Flanagan and John Norton as well – just the right push.
    I think the only times I’ve had really lengthy comment threads on blog posts were also about Common Core. There’s a hard-core subset of CCSS opponents who aren’t worth engaging anymore. But overall, I like the give-and-take on blogs, and wish more bloggers would respond to their comments.

  • JustinMinkel

    Mentoring and collaboration

    David, your comment resonates with me. I keep finding that what works for improving our teaching–mentoring, collaboration, and reflection–works in branching out to the various opportunities for teacher leadership, too. Mentors like Bill invite us through that door, and soon we find we’ve become one of the mentors inviting others to step through it.