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Authority without power: democracy, classrooms, and #blog4nwp

I started blogging because I want to help teachers change what we do in our classrooms. I remain convinced that teachers' individual decisions have more impact on what happens in their classrooms than policy does. I don't want any school to become the land of do as you please, but I do want every school to become a land of learn as you please. To enable teachers and students to co-create and negotiate curriculum, assessment, and instruction - and to change public education - teachers have to let go of being classroom monarchs and policy serfs.

That doesn't mean that teachers aren't stakeholders in their classrooms or school divisions. Instead, teachers have to find ways to maintain and use their authority without power.

Power should be a common good that a community creates and shares to change itself in positive ways. It should not be centralized in a person or position. Like too much praise, power undercuts the authority and credibility of individuals who wield it.

Furthermore, if too few people have power, the community doesn't benefit, and its debatable whether or not those in power really benefit from it. The pursuit of power as a limited resource limits what its holders can do.

However, the pursuit of power as a common good changes it from a resource hoarded by few to a medium employable by everyone in the network that creates it.

How does this look in a classroom? How does this look in a network of classrooms or in a network of teachers? How does authority become a shared power for learning and change?

In a classroom, it looks like inquiry, co-learning, and co-creating.

In a network of classrooms, it looks like a blossoming renaissance of authentic education. where complex student behaviors and projects emerge out of a shared set of simple protocols: imagine, explore, experiment, re-iterate, revise, share.

In a network of teachers teaching teachers, it looks like the recent #blog4nwp campaign, which demonstrated how individual decisions to act, social media, and shared purpose can channel teachers' authority into shared power to cause change.

#blog4nwp brought together several communities and hundred of teachers that each played an authoritative role in creating the campaign's narrative and political power. The National Writing Project (NWP) created a nationwide network of project sites, site leaders, and teacher consultants who contributed to an amazing body of work in professional development and lifting students' voices. CoöpCatalyst provided a place to archive the campaign. Project sites encouraged teachers to participate. Teachers encouraged students, family members, and friends to write on behalf of the NWP. By the time Congress passed a 2011 budget bill that included at least some competitive grant money for which the NWP could apply, a decentralized network of sites, blogs, and other media sources housed hundreds of posts and thousands of tweets on behalf of the NWP. 

Our authority hasn't diminished and our shared power hasn't gone away - it can be used again to support the inclusion of federal funding for the NWP in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

How #blog4nwp used educators' authority to create and share power deserves consideration. Since #blog4nwp was largely an online campaign, it's useful for aspiring and veteran teacher leaders and activists look at it as networking effort and to consider how else teachers can use the tools that #blog4nwp used to organize for even broader change in our classrooms and in education.

Here's what worked:

  • Broadcasting: Twitter has served as a great clearinghouse and amplifier for individual posts' signals, and the #blog4nwp hash-tag carried a substantial amount of traffic throughout March and April of 2011. Twitter's @ command also served #blog4nwp authors as a kind of certified mail function; we could be confident that something tweeted @EdPressSec, for example, reached @EdPressSec, even if the account managers didn't reply. Twitter also made it easy to join hash-tagged networks and to follow their members. Twitter broadcast and built #blog4nwp at once. The direct message (DM) function also let folks carry on their own #blog4nwp back-channel conversations for connecting people and planning, posting, and sharing resources.
  • Blogging: Several kinds of blogging helped #blog4nwp inspire and collect testimony in support of the NWP. Blogging services gave voice to individual educators and allowed the campaign to publish its call to action and detailed updates on next steps. Posterous made it easy for NWP project sites to invite non-blogging teacher consultants and supporters to blog-by-email.
  • Visualization: The United States of #blog4nwp Map showed NWP's nationwide support among educators. The map showed how easy it was to create a primitive infographic using free tools. I can only imagine that it will become easier to author more nuanced infographics with free online tools as time passes.
  • Opt-in leadership: Several people helped update the #blog4nwp archive, and several other people, mostly site leaders, started collaborative blogs and Posterous sites to publish posts. Contributors were able to self-select their levels of involvement with #blog4nwp and to organize their local networks in support of the national campaign. No one faced any kind of approval process or editorial interference in doing what they felt was right for the NWP.
  • Nimble learning: #blog4nwp wasn't planned all at once or flawlessly executed over time. It began quickly, within the space of a week, because of the NWP's need. It let itself expand over time to include more and more contributions and to address more and more stakeholders in education, media, and government. Instead of limiting itself to it initially announced weekend push, the movement extended its invitation to educators and kept promoting their work on behalf of the NWP through the last vote on the FY11 budget. By doing so, it created a larger and more invested community that will be able to quickly bring itself back up top speed to support the NWP during the ESEA reauthorization.

#blog4nwp largely got democracy right, but we still have to get better at influencing our media and leaders to exercise their power for the students, teachers, and schools positively affected by the NWP. Good government serves people - fervently and judiciously - rather than agendas. Federal funding for the NWP is good government, and we can help our leaders realize this and reinstate that funding.

In the meantime, in our classrooms, with or without technology, we can use the lessons learned from #blog4nwp to co-create more democratic spaces for us and our students. If the NWP's funding isn't restored, many, many schools will never be able to access their teachers' and students' genius for writing. Similarly, when we dictate what happens in our classrooms - when we cut out time for inquiry and student-directed learning - we miss out on our students' genius and all the things that they could teach us about ourselves, our world, and our profession.

Stay tuned; share your power; remain active; keep broadcasting.

With thanks to the organizations and individuals who covered and supported #blog4nwp in its first round of work, as well as to everyone sharing out the work of the NWP and Digital Is.