To Blog or Not to Blog?

A superintendent’s response to the critics who say blogging is time-consuming and has no merit for school leaders by NEIL A. ROCHELLE

Newsletters, websites, local access television and community newspapers serve as the typical media superintendents use to get the word out to parents and public. One might logically ask, “Isn’t that enough to deal with?”

Throw in all the e-mail correspondence to read and answer, an ever-present cell phone and a Blackberry on 24/7, and you have created constant contact and information at your disposal. How much more technology does one superintendent need before bulging at the seams?

Neil RochelleNeil Rochelle wasn't prepared for some critics of blogging among his superintendent colleagues.

In the four years since I first was exposed to the read/write web (more commonly known as Web 2.0 technology) and social networking, I have been questioned on several occasions why I blog and when do I even find the time with all my other duties overseeing a 3,000-student school system.

The latter question is easy. I’ve never been much of a sleeper, so late at night when the house is quiet is a perfect time for me to feed my blog. It also doesn’t demand a great deal of time. A blog post can be just a few sentences and a link to other information. My rationale for becoming a blogger has evolved over time.

Creative Use
Several years ago I attended an education conference that focused on Web 2.0 technology. Two experts were training administrators and teachers to use social networking, social bookmarking, blogs, wikis and podcasting as a means to reinforce skills that not only would help students in the 21st century but change the way teachers teach. The message was clear: Use the Internet to not just gather information but to share information, to collaborate with others, and at the same time to allow students to learn content in a more independent and creative manner.

This application of the Internet is what differentiates Web 1.0 and Web 2.0. Web 1.0 basically refers to the capacity to seek and collect information. Web 2.0 affords users opportunities for collaboration and contribution toward knowledge building.

As part of the training, I began a blog. I brought along a team from our school district with the intent they would bring these ideas back to our schools, use them with students, and share their new learning and successes with other teachers. I began the blog initially to share information about our initiative with faculty, staff and interested parents — in pursuit of our board of education’s goal of increasing accessibility of technology to students and staff to improve student achievement. A related goal seeks to prepare students for the 21st-century workforce, including teaching technology and communication skills. In essence, through my blogging I hoped to create a chronology of our attempt to better integrate technology with instruction.

I added several links as resources, including examples of successful blogs other teachers had developed for or with students. I also added a tracker to count how many people were reading my blog posts and where these individuals were located. Within days, I was completely amazed to find hundreds of readers. Within months, that turned into thousands of followers from as far away as Africa, New Zealand, Fiji, Israel and Taiwan. Was it truly possible that many people were interested in what I was writing about developments in my small, rural school district in Western New York?

At last look, I had followers from 54 countries around the globe. For someone who always wanted to publish but never could find the time, I found this exhilarating. It also reinforced just how powerful the web can be. Just think, superintendents can blog about issues, events and leadership challenges, publish their ideas on the web, and have them read not only by their teachers, parents and peers, but many other education leaders from around the world. What better way to improve our leadership skills and solve challenges in our district, with the benefit of new ideas from leaders around the country or the world? Through blogging, I could deliver information while readers had the capacity to comment on my writings — to reinforce what has been posted, provide additional information or engage in constructive debate. I was sold!

Positive Vibes
As school superintendents with so much to communicate, we need to move beyond a reliance on the traditional media outlets. These no longer will suffice. When we want to push out a message, there aren’t enough ways to make that happen. Why not consider a blog? Unlike a printed newsletter, there is no limit to space and it’s free to set up and maintain. Unlike an interview with a newspaper reporter, I don’t have to worry about what will be misconstrued or misinterpreted, what will be cut out of my message, or what slant will be given to the story. I can create a blog post to say exactly what I want, circumvent limitations of space and communicate when the timing works for me. If someone wishes to comment on what I’ve shared, I can respond and others can see my response.

My blog, which I’ve titled “Changing High Schools,” is read by parents, students, teachers, colleagues and others worldwide with an interest in the topic. I have had only positive feedback and experiences from my blogging. In addition, once I started blogging, I discovered thousands of other blogs written by teachers and administrators, many of them posting thoughtfully on their programs and practices, from which I gain a wealth of knowledge and ideas to consider in my own district.

Since my introduction about four years ago, I have developed two other blogs. I use one, titled “Iroquois Community Updates,” to inform the community about upcoming activities and positive things going on in the school district, such as the imminent capital project or the latest developments in our annual budgeting process. The other blog, titled “The Superintendent Wants to Hear From Students,” gives students a channel for communicating ideas for improving what we do in our schools or for expressing concerns.

Word travels fast, and people became interested in my use of Web 2.0 tools, our school district’s technology initiative for preparing students with 21st-century skills and, in particular, my blogging. I was asked to be present at a joint conference of the New York State School Boards Association and New York State School Public Relations Association. The session was intended to focus on the important role of public relations specialists in a school district, especially in dealing with the news media.

I shared my experience as a rare superintendent who blogs and the value I reap from blogging as yet another way to get my district’s message across to the public.

Most administrators in the audience were intrigued, even impressed. They liked the possibilities but were concerned about finding the time each week to develop a blog and keep it current (something that sometimes is a challenge for me).

Blogging References

These are the online locations for blogs that Neil Rochelle references in his article.

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What I wasn’t prepared for were some vocal critics of blogging. These district leaders, clearly frustrated, had had unfortunate dealings with blogs that were started by disgruntled taxpayers lambasting boards of education and their superintendents. They felt victimized by these blog posts and the personal attacks they contained. The critics in the audience believed the blogs created an unnecessary platform for community members to be critical of school districts and did so in a manner that required superintendents and public relations directors to constantly combat and correct misinformation through more traditional media outlets, such as their district websites, newsletters and local newspapers.

None of these individuals felt comfortable commenting on the critical blog posts aimed at them, and they appeared almost angry that I would promote blogging. Doing so, they suggested, would only encourage community members with a grudge and anti-tax forces to begin their own blogs. The critics at the conference session feared that if they did blog, they would never be able to manage comments posted by members of the public and would end up in perpetual debate through the blog. None had considered launching their own blog.

A Moderating Option
In four-plus years, I honestly have not had one negative experience through my blogging. I strongly believe superintendents can blog to their benefit, and there are ways to address critics’ concerns.

For instance, when you launch a blog, you can set the preferences to ensure public comments are moderated for profanity. Anyone can respond to what you write, but before the response is posted to the site, you as the author of the blog have an opportunity to read the comment and delete it if it is inappropriate or contains profanity. One caution, however: I would never delete comments just because they are critical of a school district action or conflict with my own views as that would constitute censorship and most likely lead to louder dissent and a catalyst for bloggers to post negatively.

If a public comment challenges your information or clearly misinterprets your message, you have the capacity to either comment back with accurate information or begin a new blog post to address an issue raised. At the other end of the spectrum, as the author/host of a blog, you have an option of blocking all comments, completely preventing anyone from responding to your posts. In that case, you may just put your information out there.

For me, the two-way channel has many benefits. I believe parents and the public are looking for more communication, more transparency and almost instantaneous information rather than waiting for a monthly newsletter or even a weekly newspaper. And fortunatelty, most blogging software is free or even may be available through a school district’s web page provider, so the only cost is time.

Not all districts with a website have the financial resources to employ a public relations specialist to post new information to the site daily. My district does not. My blogging can be more timely and more detailed than what may traditionally be posted to a district website. In addition, I see myself as an instructional leader. I truly believe the use of the read/write web can be a powerful learning tool and hope my blogging serves as a role model for both my teachers and students.

When students blog, I try to view them once I know they are posted. I cannot tell you the number of positive comments I get from parents and students about just how excited a student is when seeing the superintendent has read the student’s latest blog post and has left a response. Imagine, a superintendent taking the time to read a student’s work and reacting positively to it! The students’ blogs run the gamut from personal blogs about their favorite ice hockey team, a chronology of a summer vacation and even curriculum-related blogs.

Social Networking
Over the years I also have come to realize the valuable connections I can make with teachers and administrators in my district using the web. I use social networking sites such as Ning, an online platform that allows you to create your own network around specific interests. I have my own group in Ning for our teachers and a separate group for our administrative team. Another online network, Classroom 2.0, offers a wealth of information and the opportunity to exchange ideas and experiences.

I also can be found on Twitter, the micro-blogging service that enables users to send and read other users’ brief updates, and I contribute to LeaderTalk, a blog for thoughtful school and district leaders.

Blogs and social networks are not the be all and end all nor should they ever become your sole source of communicating. The blog is just one more tool, which when managed correctly can be a positive and valuable service that helps gets your message across.

Ready to take the plunge? Best to start slow and see some results. Have your first blog be one that creates a journal during a family vacation and send the link to members of your extended family and wait for their reaction. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Neil Rochelle is superintendent of the Iroquois Central School District in Elma, N.Y. E-mail: nrochelle@iroquoiscsd.org