Learning to be Myself

The first two full weeks of school are now behind me. My grade eight students have been given their blogs. They posted their first entries. The class blogging portal is slowly filling up with student voices. Naturally, I look forward to seeing how these voices will interact and intertwine.

What I am really concerned about, however, is my own voice. For the past three years, my three successive grade eight classes enjoyed blogging and created successful and engaging blogging communities. Most of the time, this development took place without me. While I certainly encouraged my bloggers, discussed their work in class, and posted comments to involve my students in instructional conversations, I have always been absent as a person. This year, I want things to be different.

This year, I want my personal voice to be present in the community. I will, of course, continue to be present as Mr.Glogowski, the grade eight Language Arts teacher. I will be present in my didactic and supportive role of an educator, of a classroom teacher who guides and explains. At the same time, I want to be present as Konrad Glogowski, the human being who has his own interests and views. I want to be present as an individual, not an individual reduced to one role.

In other words, I want the students to see me as yet another blogger in their community, as someone whose reason for being there is not only to support and instruct but also to learn. To learn from and with my students.

My own blog in our class blogosphere has always been used to post updates, assignments, commentary on student work, and words of encouragement. For years, it was called “The Language Arts Blog,” or “Mr. Glogowski’s Blog” or something equally official and unimaginative. The name of my blog has always reflected my one-dimensional presence in the community – the voice of a teacher. I don’t think my students ever perceived it as a blog – a place where the author shares his thoughts, ideas, or experiences and engages in meaning-making. It was a place that my students would visit regularly to read their latest assignment or download a rubric. I don’t think they ever learned anything from my own blog. They learned from the instructional conversations that I engaged with them on their own blogs, but certainly not from my own blog in the class blogosphere. It has always been an uninspiring place, a kind of online bulletin board.

Last year, I started experimenting by posting entries that reflected my own interests. However, I always made sure that they also related to the curriculum. When we read and discussed Animal Farm, for example, I posted some links to articles on totalitarian leaders or on the fragile nature of democracy in developing nations. There needed to be, it seemed to me, a clear link between what we were reading in class and what the students saw on my blog. Everything that I posted on my blog was designed to cultivate an adopted persona and to fit within the confines of the curriculum.

This year, I want to move beyond blogging only about course-related topics. I want my students to see what I am interested in, what makes me mad, what fascinates me, what I write like when I write as someone other than Mr.Glogowski, the Language Arts teacher. In short, I want to be myself and am beginning to take small steps towards this goal.

I started by giving my blog a different name. The titles I used before were too official, too limiting, too school-like. They were institutional and impersonal. This year, the title of my blog is “…looking at things for a long time.” It comes from a quote by Vincent Van Gogh, which, in its entirety, reads: “It is looking at things for a long time that ripens you and gives you a deeper understanding.” I chose it because I feel that it represents who I am as a person and a teacher. I chose it because I believe that the habit Van Gogh recommends in this quote is something that I want my students to develop as well. I want them to be critical, attentive readers and thinkers. I want them to take the time to achieve that “deeper understanding.”

I also chose an avatar. I chose the picture of the fern globe suspended above the Civic Square in Wellington, New Zealand that I took last year (almost exactly a year ago) while participating in the FLNW unconference. It represents one of the most inspiring experiences in my life as an educator and researcher. It also, as a globe, represents unity and peace – values that are important to me as a human being and educator.

In addition to using an avatar, I also used the “About Me” feature of my blog to post a paragraph that explains my reasons for choosing the title and the avatar. My students need to know the reasons behind these decisions – they will provide them with an important glimpse into my personality. They will help them see me as more than just their Language Arts teacher.

The “About Me” page of my blog also contains two quotes that represent my views on writing:

“A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
- Thomas Mann

“Say all you have to say in the fewest possible words, or your reader will be sure to skip them; and in the plainest possible words or he will certainly misunderstand them.”
- John Ruskin

I also uploaded my own background image to further personalize my blog. It is no longer just a virtual class bulletin board. It’s becoming a place that reflects the values and interests of its owner:

school blog header

Of course, these visual changes, while important, are not sufficient to transform my blog into a personal online space. Blogs, after all, are defined by writing, and not merely their appearance. So, this morning, I posted my first personal entry. I wrote about an article on the recent protests in Myanmar and commented on the treatment of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese Nobel Peace Prize laureate who has been held under house arrest for 12 of the last 18 years. I also linked to a call to action video recorded by Jim Carrey. The post has little to do with what we are currently studying in class. I wrote about it because it moved me as a human being. I posted it on my personal blog in the class blogosphere because I want my students to understand who I am as a human being. Why? Mostly because that human being will walk into their classroom tomorrow. If we are to be a community of learners, we need to know each other as individuals, not people who, for six hours every day, play assigned roles.

In other words, I don’t believe teachers should engage in self-censorship. If we do, then our students end up interacting with an automaton, an actor performing a role. Our schools, administrators, and classrooms cannot demand that the richness that makes us human be stripped down because the students are only fourteen, for example, and should not read about human rights abuses, or because time in class should be used only to study the curriculum.

Tomorrow, I will post an entry about a book I started reading last week. It is entitled 28: Stories of AIDS in Africa. It does not relate to our grade eight curriculum. It does, however, reflect my interest in social justice and I will blog about it every time I finish a chapter or two because that is how I learn, that is how I interact with things that I find important. So, I’m beginning to use my blog to define myself as more than a classroom teacher. Mr. Glogowski, the teacher, is an important part of my life, but it should not exclude other aspects of what makes me who I am.

So, fairly soon, my students will see that I am more than my role as a Language Arts teacher suggests. They will see that I am a teacher who is also interested in social justice, foreign affairs, and human rights. They will see that I am a teacher who is also interested in photography and who collects old books and maps. They will get many glimpses into my life. I hope that they will understand that what makes a community is a network of human beings who have the freedom to be who they truly are and whose richness enhances the value of the community they inhabit.

If education is essentially a social process, then the teacher needs to be part of the learning community, not only as its facilitator but also as one of its members. When students are part of a learning community, a blog titled “Mr.Glogowski’s Blog” will stick out and suggest that the community is really a school-sanctioned place where Mr. Glogowski presides because he has already learned all there is to know about his subject. I do not know all there is to know. I use Web 2.0 to expand my knowledge and to engage in meaning-making. I want to be connected to the class community as a learner. I want my students to see how I engage in negotiating meaning.

I have taken the steps I described above because I believe that a teacher’s blog needs to be a personal space. It needs to be a place where I become visible as an individual and where my experiences – joys, disappointments, struggles, successes, moments of inspiration and epiphany – are shared with the community. It needs to be a place of authentic personal attempts at meaning-making, a place where I engage as Konrad Glogowski and not only as Mr.Glogowski, the content expert.

In her preface to Teaching Community, bell hooks argues that her book “offers practical wisdom about what we do and can continue to do to make the classroom a place that is life-sustaining and mind-expanding, a place of liberating mutuality where teacher and student together work in partnership.” There can be no true partnership in a classroom where the teacher can hide behind an adopted persona while students are encouraged to be individual learners and bloggers. We cannot expect students to engage as individuals, to blog as human beings, to share their experiences, passions, interests, and struggles if, as teachers, we are not willing to do the same.

And so, my inspiration for the coming weeks comes from Teaching to Transgress where bell hooks states:

When education is the practice of freedom, students are not the only ones who are asked to share, to confess. Engaged pedagogy does not seek simply to empower students. Any classroom that employs a holistic model of learning will also be a place where teachers grow, and are empowered by the process. That empowerment cannot happen if we refuse to be vulnerable while encouraging others to take risks. Professors who expect students to share confessional narratives but who are themselves unwilling to share are exercising power in a manner that could be coercive. In my classrooms, I do not expect students to take any risks that I would not take, to share in any way that I would not share. When professors bring narratives of their experiences into classroom discussions it eliminates the possibility that we can function as all-knowing, silent interrogators. It is often productive if professors take the first risk, linking confessional narratives to academic discussions so as to show how experience can illuminate and enhance our understanding of academic material. But most professors must practice being vulnerable in the classroom, being wholly present in mind, body, and spirit.

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21 Responses to Learning to be Myself

  1. Sarah Stewart September 23, 2007 at 11:35 pm #

    Hi Konrad, I was very interested to read this entry and will be very interested to see how you get on taking this approach. I teach women who are undertaking a midwifery degree. I have spent nearly 9 years working out how to ‘be’ with them – friend, colleague, teacher or professional. I would not dream of taking this approach with them because I have deliberately chosen to keep myself distant from them in order to preserve boundaries and keep myself safe (adult, female students can be feral sometimes!!). I wonder if this approach you are taking with children would be equally as effective with adult learners? cheers Sarah

  2. Chris Lehmann September 24, 2007 at 12:21 am #

    I’ve never gone wrong using bell hooks as inspiration. :)

  3. Dean Shareski September 24, 2007 at 12:32 am #

    Fantastic as usual…do you have links to your student’s sites?

  4. Ian September 24, 2007 at 3:20 am #

    Konrad, your first group of 8 graders are now entering 11th grade, and are (hopefully) more mature minds than the ones you taught three years ago. Have you asked them what their memories of your classes are? I wonder if their perception of your voice then will be as impersonal as you think.

  5. John Online September 24, 2007 at 1:45 pm #

    I’m always struck by how students, even in 8th grade, think the world revolves around them. That when they leave home, their parents just fold up and wait for them to come home. That then they leave the classroom, the teachers just deflate and wait for them to return except for a little time grading papers. In short, I think it’s interesting for students to have to confront the reality of teachers-as-people but I’m sure that for 8th graders, it’s an uphill and bumpy battle…..I’ll stay tuned…..

  6. Konrad Glogowski September 25, 2007 at 8:09 pm #

    Sarah,

    I think this approach can be as effective with adults (not that I’m sure that it is effective with middle school students :-) ). It seems to me that if a classroom is to become a community, then every member of that community needs to be a participant in every sense of the word. I’ve started thinking about changing my own role in the class blogosphere because it occurred to me that I was spending too much time facilitating and not enough time leading by example and participating as a learner.

    This is a very difficult transition for educators because we are used to having control and are afraid that admitting that we don’t know everything there is to know might undermine our authority in the classroom. It certainly dethrones the teacher but, at the same time, this approach also empowers both the learners and the teacher.

    I’ll be experimenting with it this year and using this blog to comment on my experiences. Looking forward to your comments.

  7. Konrad Glogowski September 25, 2007 at 8:11 pm #

    Ian,

    I got an e-mail from a former student (grade 10) who reads this blog (I had no idea!) and is willing to share her views on how the class blogosphere from two years ago compares to the one I’m co-creating with my eights now.

    I’m looking forward to reading her thoughts and will certainly post them here.

  8. Konrad Glogowski September 26, 2007 at 5:55 pm #

    Dean,

    Thanks … I will be linking to their work soon … still working on school/parental permissions – a bit of a headache really, but I do want the blogosphere to be publicly accessible.

  9. Konrad Glogowski September 26, 2007 at 6:01 pm #

    John,

    Yes, it is an uphill battle. I’m glad you’re interested in watching how it will unfold in my classroom.

    I want my students to understand that I don’t have all the answers and that in today’s world of information and media saturation we should all be explorers who share our ideas as we navigate the information landscape that surrounds us.

    I think I need to show them that I am present in the classroom not just as someone who guides and facilitates but also as someone who is interested in learning and sharing that learning.

    We’ll see if being a learner and being myself will help them become better bloggers and better learners. I will be posting my findings/experiences.

  10. Rosa Gonzalez September 26, 2007 at 6:51 pm #

    I completely agree, if the student can interact with the teacher as an individual and not only a person of authority it may open their minds more and allow them to have a better relationship with the student. Seeing the teacher as an actual person might make them more comfortable to ask questions and try new things. This not only lets you express yourself, but it also allows you to interact with the students in a way not possible in the classroom. While in class there is very little time for discussion of topics not related to class. By reading what you post it could open their eyes to current events they may not hear about otherwise.
    I also think that by actually using it as your own blog and not just for the classroom shows the students that it is not just for homework but that they can use it to express themselves. If they can see it used for other reasons then they may continue to use it throughout their lives. I believe that blogging is a good way for students to be creative and to open their eyes to this new global world of technology.

  11. Connie Chaffin September 26, 2007 at 7:55 pm #

    I am a graduate student and have been assigned to explore blogging as part of the introductory course. I have been going willy-nilly from one blog to another in an attempt to find something that really interests me. Your “Learning to be Myself” blog spoke to me.

    We are spending a great deal of time in this first course reflecting about self-efficacy as teachers. You appear to have invested much time reflecting about how you teach and how you can teach more effectively. It appears to have paid off! Letting students get to know you on more than one level sometimes opens a relationship door that would have otherwise remained closed. I wish you the best on your ever-evolving quest to be a better teacher.

  12. Colette Cassinelli September 29, 2007 at 1:19 pm #

    Konrad,
    I decided to blog along with my students this year in my Graphic Design and Video Production classes. That means that I will be presenting some of my own work and modeling reflective writing. Best of luck! btw, i think i will change the name of my blog too!

  13. Brooke Rose October 1, 2007 at 8:27 pm #

    Hello Konrad. I love the fact that you are opening yourself up to your students by not only showing a different side of yourself on your blog, but by sharing the blogging experience with them. How much more exciting it must be for them that you are doing this alongside them, and not just giving them an assignment for you to assess.

    I’m a first grade teacher in New Jersey and currently working on my Master’s degree online. This week we are exploring the educational blogging community. I feel lucky to have come across your blog. Many of the topics we have been discussing the last few weeks are represented right here in this post: that teachers should always consider themselves lifelong learners, how to utilize technology for ourselves and our classrooms, and finding new and exciting ways to reach our students.

    I’ll be sure to link you up to our message board. Expect more hits!

  14. Katie Schoen October 6, 2007 at 8:34 pm #

    Hi Konrad. I think that joining in on the discussions with your students is a great idea! I have a class right now where we have discussions within certain groups, and our professor responds and puts up articles she has found that relate to our class or articles that relate to something she feels strongly about. I really like it because we don’t see her as the professor in the discussions. We just see her as another peer, which makes it much easier to be comfortable around her in the class and ask for extra help if needed. “In other words, I want the students to see me as yet another blogger in their community, as someone whose reason for being there is not only to support and instruct but also to learn. To learn from and with my students.” There have been a few times too where we as students have posted articles that our professor doesn’t know about, so she’ll ask questions about it in the discussion and then also in class so that she can be more informed as well as the rest of us who are not in that certain discussion group.
    I like the discussions and having our professor involved, and I really think your students will too.

  15. David Truss October 10, 2007 at 2:30 pm #

    Konrad,
    How has this experience been going for you? I think the attempt to ‘humanize’ your voice and share in your students’ online blogging experience is a fantastic approach!
    I wonder if you have found that you need to be a little removed from that same voice when commenting on your student blogs? (See the post about ‘biting your [digital] tongue’ linked to my name for more on this.)
    When I did a couple of short blogging experiences with my Grade 8 students I created a Learning Forum and a Social Forum and changed my voice in each. Although I did not participate much in the Social Forum, when I did, I did so with full intent not to ‘sound like the teacher’.
    I admire your attempt to join your students in their learning journey and look forward to reading about your progress!
    Dave

  16. Samantha October 23, 2007 at 4:23 pm #

    I think it is great that you are furthering the blogging experience for your students by having your own blog as well for them to enjoy. I believe that one way to open up the minds of students is to prompt them a little and allow for their own brains to go wild. I think when they see how you express yourself through your blog and the important topics you bring up, they will be more willing to do so in their own blogs. I know in the class I am currently taking, we are becoming more familiar with blogs and how to use them in the classroom. The more I learn, the more I love them. I think it is not only a great tool to see what kids are thinking but also allowing the shy, timid students to speak their minds without embarrassment. So I hope that having an active blog with your students work out well for you and I hope to hear how it is going in future blogs.

  17. Konrad Glogowski October 27, 2007 at 7:37 pm #

    Hi Dave,

    You’re right – I’ve discovered that my blogging experiments resulted in an interesting dichotomy of teacher voices. There’s me – Konrad Glogowski the human being who writes about issues that are important to him and comments in a readerly voice, and then there’s Konrad Glogowski the subject expert who reverts back to his teacherly voice when commenting on student work. Of course, there are times when I comment on student work in a purely readerly way because I enjoyed reading their work or could relate to it as a person. At the same time, there is often the need to comment as a subject expert, to suggest possible ways to improve the piece or push the student to reach his/her potential.

    It’s been an interesting journey, one that has taught me a lot about what it means to be an educator.

  18. Konrad Glogowski October 27, 2007 at 7:43 pm #

    Samantha,

    You’re right about blogging and shy students. Blogs allow those who lack the confidence to participate in class to express their thoughts and build up a solid readership. I think it also helps when the teacher is present in the community not only as a voice of authority and a subject expert but also as a human being. It shows the students that writing is a process of discovery and that we often learn best when we engage as researchers and with other individuals who share our interests. In short, they see that learning is not just about submitting papers and studying for tests – and that can be a very powerful lesson!

    Thank you for your comment.

  19. Konrad Glogowski October 27, 2007 at 7:47 pm #

    Colette,

    Please post your reflections on blogging with your students and sharing your work on your blog. I would love to get a glimpse of how this approach works for other educators.

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