When Burlington High School history teacher Michael Milton began blogging about his classroom, 10 posts flew from his fingers in three days.
Their topics ranged from his lesson plans, like “The (Industrial) Revolution will be Twitterized*,” to reflections on modeling a classroom after the TV show “The West Wing.”
“It was just like I had all these things stored up that I wanted to say,” Milton says. “I hope that putting myself out there, that’s kind of like showing ‘Here’s the mind of a teacher, here’s what teachers do.'”
Soon after its 2012 creation, Milton’s blog, michaelkmilton.com, began to pick up steam. Educators flocked to the online resource for lesson plans and discussions about their craft. Today, Milton has over 3,000 followers, and his most popular post has over 6,700 hits.
“A lot of times people who show lesson plans, they’re different businesses or nonprofits,” Milton says. “A voice that is always missing is teachers.”
Now, that’s changing. Milton is just one of a growing number of local educators, parents and policymakers who have turned to independent blogs to spread awareness about their school experiences.
Armed with platforms on websites like WordPress and Blogger, these keyboard crusaders create wide communities to share practices and concerns within the education world. And as the voice of bloggers gets louder, it’s having a growing effect on education practice and policy.
When Milton started teaching, he says, it could feel a little isolating.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m an independent contractor as a teacher because we don’t always meet with other people,” Milton says with a laugh. “I can go for weeks without talking to another adult.”
He’s exaggerating, sure, but the solitary nature of the teaching job remained a far cry from the education program, packed with rich discussions, that had landed him there. Blogging provided a platform to share class lesson plans, to discuss how they worked and to get feedback from other educators.
Milton found inspiration in an unlikely source: Cook’s Illustrated magazine.
“They give you the recipe, but also the story behind it,” Milton says, “so you kind of understand it better.”
It was this mindset that he hoped to translate to lesson plans. He likes bloggers’ ability to talk about what doesn’t work as much as what does. He says he spends a few hours a week scrolling through other teachers’ blogs.
“I like it when I can feel like I’m talking with them,” Milton says. “I want them to not try and sell me on why this is the greatest thing ever, but talk about some of the pitfalls.”
Blogs also gives teachers a chance to share who they are. Milton’s has a lot of himself. His Twitter handle is a “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” reference (he’s a big fan). He’s a member of a historical improv group and has links to digitally altered movie posters he uses in class that reflect history (think Star Wars Episode 1776 and Singin’ in the Reign of Terror). And Milton’s energetic, conversational tone is evident in his posts about lesson plans.
“It is scary because you’re putting yourself out there,” Milton admits. “Like, this is me, this is who I am.”
Still, it’s paid off. Milton now blogs for Discovery Education, sees other teachers using his work and takes to social media for conversations about the craft of teaching.
Milton gets about 1,000 visitors a month. Blogs like his create a network of teachers sharing ideas, a network that he says inspires them all to innovate in the classroom.
He feels most validated when teachers take his lessons as a starting point and change them to work for their classroom, rather than simply recreating what he presents.
“Getting people to think differently about what they can do in their classroom,” Milton says, “is my ultimate goal.”
Blogging For The Wonks
Unsurprisingly, other educators have also taken to blogs to get people to think differently about education.
“There’s a lot of decisions that get made, a lot of conversations that happen in places that matter, that people who are impacted by education every day never hear,” says Tracy Novick, former Worcester School Committee member.
Novick is the voice behind the blog Whos of Who-cester. She blogs about school finance, school reform and education politics, and she often liveblogs education policy meetings.
She started the blog in 2008, when a group of Worcester residents organized to press the city council for higher school funding.
“I figured if I’m going to go to the meetings, I might as well write it all down,” Novick says. “The more people that are better informed, I really think the better off we all are.”
Novick uses Blogger and averages about 50 blog posts a month. She has over 2,200 followers on Twitter, where she shares her posts. Most months, she says, she gets about 1,800 visitors to the blog.
“I started off with a really narrow focus, which was just to cover that budget battle in 2008, and then it kind of sucked me in to what else is going on in Worcester education,” Novick says. “Which then led to my years on the School Committee, which then kind of sucked me into what’s going on at the state level.”
Her blog explains the complex issues behind school finance and policy in a digestible way. It’s become a resource for parents and educators to become informed about such issues as the state budget’s effects on urban districts, standardized testing decisions and new members of the board of education.
During her time on the Worcester school committee, she says, the blog became a public, living document that school committee members, herself included, could refer to for facts.
“I think that the Internet gets a bad rap — and in some cases it’s justified; there are plenty of nasty people out there,” Novick says. “There’s also a really big community of educators in different parts of education who are supporting each other, who are talking to each other, who are having really engaging conversations.”
The Not-So-Silent Parent Voice
In Boston, some of the most lively blog-driven conversations about education come not from educators, but from parents.
“It’s one thing to kind of discuss education reform, it’s another thing to actually live it,” says Mary Lewis-Pierce, author of the blog Public School Mama. “Real kids need to live the consequences of people’s decisions.”
Lewis-Pierce has two children in Boston Public Schools. She’s been a longtime public school advocate on Twitter and often reads other parents’ blogs. She began blogging in July, posting five or six times a month.
“I really needed a format where I could express a little bit more of what I was thinking and what my kids were experiencing,” Lewis-Pierce says.
This November, the young blog got a boost. Esquire’s political blogger Charles P. Pierce picked up a post detailing a parent meeting with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh where, the post says, the mayor spoke of a plan to close district schools.
The Mayor’s office denies the claims, responding directly to the blog.
“It was an unusual experience for me because I’m not someone who’s ever had too much exposure,” Lewis-Pierce says.
In the weeks afterward, a colleague at work approached her about the blog. The colleague isn’t a teacher or a parent, just someone interested in education. That level of exposure surprised Lewis-Pierce.
Like the other bloggers, Lewis-Pierce has a full-time job. Still, she finds solace in blogging after a full workday.
“Blogging makes me feel better because it gets whatever I’ve been thinking off of my mind,” Lewis-Pierce says. “So actually in some ways it helps me have free time, otherwise I’d be so revved up in all my thoughts about what’s going on.”
Different Blogs, Different Audiences
The rise in blogging brings up a question of audiences. Who are the primary readers of professionally written education stories (like the ones that appear on this website)? Who are the primary readers of independent blogs?
There’s no official count of independent education-focused blogs. Some have multiple posts a week; others see posts a few times a year. The bloggers generally share their writing through personal social media accounts.
Yet there’s one thing these three bloggers agree on: Their readers are like them. Teachers read teaching blogs. Parents read parent blogs.
Even with different backgrounds, the three bloggers all took to blogging for similar reasons: They felt that the voices of people like them were not adequately represented. They wanted a record of the issues they deemed important.
And so they carved out a space for themselves.
“I’m not a journalist, I’m a blogger. I’m an advocate,” Lewis-Pierce says. “I feel like it’s my blog to tell my story and express what I’m experiencing.”