About eight years ago, I looked ahead to the coming summer and I realized that I would need a summer job if we were to support our growing family. At the time, our oldest was two, and our second child was on her way. I looked into lawn mowing and insurance selling.
And then I thought, “Well, why not write a book instead?”
(I did not understand the slow-burn economics of book-writing.)
I grabbed a copy of a book I had seen in Barnes and Noble years before: Michael Larsen's How to Write a Book Proposal, and I started reading. Within a few pages, I hit a troubling statement from the author: without some kind of “platform,” I was unlikely to attract an acquisitions editor's eye. And apparently, my daily interactions with 150ish fifteen-year-olds didn't count.
But Larsen suggested that I could start a blog. So, I started looking into that. For a month or two, every night after the girls were in bed, I'd stay up reading about starting and growing a blog. (My favorite authors were writing at a site called Think Traffic, which has since expanded its scope and become Fizzle.) One key idea I zeroed in on was that I'd be smart to focus the scope of my blog into a single topic or question.
I started listening more closely to the conversations at school. I started hearing wind of this thing that had been around for plenty of time by then: the Common Core. And so I developed this inquiry question: what's the big deal about the Common Core literacy standards? This was a novel question for me, as up to that point in my career I had avoided unwieldy standards documents like the plague.
Without thinking much more about it, in June 2012 I started teachingthecore.wordpress.com. I published posts as frequently as I could, starting with the now-classic “What Do Demons Have to Do with the Common Core State Standards?” I had no publication schedule — it was just “publish as much as you can.” Back then there was no email list to annoy with rapid publishing. I just wrote, revised, and clicked “Publish.” And then I did it again.
After a couple of months and about 50 posts, I decided to invest the $100 or so that it would take to host the site myself and purchase the real-deal domain name — and so I did, as I explained here. I Googled the various tech lessons I needed in order to make the move, and the writing proceeded. The “summer job” thing wasn't panning out yet, but the project was well underway.
By the end of that summer, I had written a post on every one of the 32 anchor standards, and I had copied and pasted and prettied these up into a PDF. I put the PDF for sale at the price of “Pay What You Want” — and slowly but surely, the blog became that summer job. Months late and many dollars short, but it had started to do what I needed it to do early on: support my family.
Importantly, it was doing something far deeper that I hadn't expected: it was shaping me in to a teacher-writer. I was becoming someone who reads primary sources on education rather than secondary ones — I was reading the standards themselves, not the hot-take of someone else. And I was starting to look at what was happening in my classroom through the lens of what I was learning about in the classrooms of the small but hardy group of blog readers I was getting to know.
I kept writing. 50 posts became 100, and then 100 became 200.
The Pay What You Want PDF became a book for Jossey-Bass, and the conclusion to that first book formed the root of These 6 Things.. The “Speaking and Workshops” page led first to one gig, then two, then bit by bit to the 100+ events that have sharpened me in the years since starting. These events and the conversations they engendered led me to many of my breakthroughs. The reading and the writing and the publishing did that too.
This is still how it works today. Though the blog's scope has expanded to incorporate bigger, more timeless questions, the essential work remains the same:
- the difficulties of the classroom and the implications of the research push me to develop hard questions; and
- the hard questions push me to read and to tinker and, all along the way, to write.
Thinking in public has been the best professional decision of my life. It has become more than a summer job — it has become the core of my work, performed day by day in the midst of a quiet life.