Feeling read all over

I must not be getting enough flattery here.  Two weeks ago, I started my own site on my ninth grade students’ new multi-user blogging network, and – you know what? – I get such nice comments.

In person I’m still Mr. S*** the teacher, but online I’m a player. I don’t comment on my students’ blogs because my students may not be ready for their teacher as a subjective reader.  But I blog as Ajax.

My students and I deliberately keep our comments positive.  We have writer support groups where students and I can receive all the criticism we want.  Online, though, I want my guys to experience what I struggled to accept during the three years of my blogging here: specific, unmitigated praise.  My writing has improved in certain ways in three years of blogging, and a comment that poet Sage Cohen left here this past summer helped me understand why:

As a teacher and reader of your blog, I’d much rather enjoy what you write and respond to what inspires and excites me–as this piece has–than edit and critique your work. I trust that as you write more, you’ll find your way to more and more clarity about how to polish your writing to a shine. I think celebrating what’s working in a piece has far greater value in keeping us inspired to write and improve than anything else.

Blog commenters maintain their integrity (and credibility) by selecting an aspect of a post on which to lavish praise.  This specificity is also what gives a comment its worth.  When someone picks something in one of my posts to either compliment or to expand on, I feel read.

Feeling read is one of the best things about writing.  If you ask a writer how she came to see herself as a writer, she will probably tell you a story or two about some of the first times her words got to other people.  Maybe she published a poem in an elementary school anthology.  Maybe a class put on a play she wrote.  One way or another, she felt read.

Site stats already confirm to my students that their blogs command a higher readership than they could probably expect from taping their work onto our classroom walls.  I remind students that anyone on the planet with Internet access can read our posts.  I explain search engine dynamics.  I tell how more words and more time means more hits and more links and maybe more readers.

But not more commenters.  We blog as a gated community.  Everyone can see us, but only my seventy honors students can comment on posts there.  (I have fifty-five other students, but for various reasons it would drain the life out of me to have all of my students blogging.)  The site’s gate keeps out possible predators as well as commenters who may not wish to play by our rules.  But the site’s exclusivity also gives the students another way to experience the writing community that they’ve begun face to face in class.  Internet safety, then, dovetails with my vision of bringing our experience as a writers’ community online.

I hope that people outside the class will be drawn to something fairly unique: a self-contained community of online writers.  I hope also that readers will be drawn to the writing itself.

Of course, there’s no hiding that it’s ninth grade writing.  I don’t want to advertise the writers’ age or make the site look like a school site, though.  How could you feel like a real writer if you were writing on a school site?  You’d feel like you were on training wheels as the “real” Internet streaked by you on those bikes with the skinny, street tires.

I have discovered that high school students don’t go out of their way to write on “school” sites.  According to the results of my written survey, a majority of my current students have a social network page (e.g., My Space or Facebook), a YouTube account, or a blog.  Moving from such user-centered environments to an institution-centered one is comparable to returning to dial-up after a few months of high-speed.  I’m not trying to compete with Facebook, but I’m not going to needlessly repel students, either.

But Ajax is needlessly getting as attached to the site as any of his more enthusiastic students have.  He’s growing addicted to his students’ specific, positive feedback.  Perhaps he has become a king who has surrounded himself with sycophants.

If I really wanted flattery, though, I reckon I’d teach another grade.  Consider the corrosive effect third grade is having on my wife: three months into the year, and she’s living for her kids’ unreserved adoration.  She’ll wear a favorite outfit to school, throw out her arms and say, “Is Mrs. S*** cute, or what?!”  Some boys groan, but the girls smile and nod.  The classroom has become a sickness, a collective mirror, mirror on the wall.

Ninth graders have a fundamentally different relationship with their teachers than third graders do with theirs.  And maybe the kind words – both on this blog and that one – aren’t so needless.  My wife can have her mirror.  I’m allowed a little Ajax.