John (Croft) Norton is the founder and co-editor of MiddleWeb.com. John also co-founded the national Teacher Leaders Network and works as an education writer, editor and virtual community developer. See his LinkedIn page for more background.
There are very few people who rival John’s connections in the education world, his editing ability, and his willingness to help. Middleweb was my first introduction to the education tech world nine years ago…..
What’s the MiddleWeb backstory?
Thanks for giving me this opportunity, Larry. I love to talk about MiddleWeb.
Middleweb.com first appeared on the Web in 1996. The project was supported by the NYC-based E.M. Clark Foundation, which was investing heavily in middle grades reform efforts during the 1990s. MiddleWeb served both as a place to publish stories about reform efforts in districts where Clark was active and as a website where middle level educators could find resources to improve classroom and school practice. Over about six years of Clark support, MiddleWeb evolved to become more of an “all things middle grades” site, with thousands of pages of content. Like you, I’m a bit compulsive!
We also began a listserv discussion community during the 1998-99 school year, which grew to over 600 very lively and loyal educator-members. We had amazing conversations, some of the best of which were captured and published as website content. For 3-4 years in the early 2000s, we actually had F2F gatherings at locations in the US and Canada. The Clark funding ended in 2002.
What happened after that?
I kept the email chat community going and worked on the site whenever I could find the time. In 2006, the listserv group moved to the National Middle School Association (now the Association for Middle Level Education) as “MiddleTalk,” where it continues today. As the years passed, I was less and less able to keep the large website current (you know about that) but I did continue to publish a biweekly Gr 4-8 newsletter that grew to a circulation of more than 15,000.
I might say that the content of the newsletter was heavily influenced by my Clark experiences. For about 8 years I led small teams made up of journalists and educators on district visits where we observed in thousands of 4-8 classrooms and interviewed in-depth hundreds of teachers, principals and central office people. We wrote about what we learned in a district-specific newspaper of our own creation, circulated in the community and published on our website. (One of the districts was Long Beach Unified in California, which is widely recognized today as a high performing, high poverty, high minority system.) I think we learned a lot about what matters in the middle grades.
Back to the 21st century: The decade I spent trying to keep the big idea of MiddleWeb alive while also earning a living was made possible thanks to the sponsorship of Stenhouse Publishers — a company with a strong focus on literacy and some notable middle grades teacher/authors (like Rick Wormeli, who’s been a steadfast MiddleWeb supporter since the beginning). Stenhouse bought an ad in every newsletter, which defrayed the overhead. Anyone who has loved MiddleWeb over those years has Stenhouse and marketing director Chuck Lerch to thank.
What’s going on with MiddleWeb today?
We’ve literally been reborn! Two years ago I was able to recruit Susan B. Curtis, who’s been both a middle grades teacher and a reference librarian, to partner with me. With her help we moved the newsletter to a modern mailing platform that supported graphics. We generally upgraded the looks and the content. Stenhouse agreed to expand their advertising support so we could go weekly.
Then a very good thing happened — the SmartBrief company, which publishes over 200 industry and professional newsletters in partnership with associations and special-interest groups like ourselves, invited us to partner on a new newsletter for grades 4-8: MiddleWeb SmartBrief. Stenhouse sent them to us and agreed to be the first advertiser. (What a great company – they really are committed to the work of teachers.)
We receive a small share of any advertising revenue as part of the arrangement, and that gave us the impetus to create a new MiddleWeb and devote more time to site development. We were really lucky to coax Jose Vilson, a notorious teacher/blogger/geek into helping us “mod” a new site. He picked the cool WordPress template we’re using and helped us customize it.
We launched the new WordPress-based site in mid-June, just a week before MiddleWeb SmartBrief began to appear on Tuesdays and Fridays. The response to both has been excellent. Many of our MiddleWeb community friends from the 2000s showed up to promote the new site, to urge colleagues to subscribe to the MW-SB and to contribute content and good advice.
3. What’s new about the new MiddleWeb?
Our slogan is All about the middle grades. We’re trying to keep a sharp focus on teaching & learning in grades 4-8. Of course there are many matters that concern all K12 educators and we do touch on some of those, especially in our Quick Links feature, where we feature (in short form) some of the most interesting things we come across each day.
On the new site we’ve decided to emphasize original content. We have four main threads:
• Resource Roundups: We’ve always specialized in finding and sharing resources you can use. Now we’re featuring “resource roundups” — our tag for short, link-laden essays built around a theme. Here are two recent ones: New Teacher 911 and Back to School. My partner Susan puts together most of these, calling on her teaching background and library science skills. She does a great job.
• Guest Articles: These are first-person posts, typically featuring the voices of teachers and school leaders, including folks on the front lines, who have stories to tell and good practice to share. We love to get queries from writers. We can’t pay right now (no revenue coming in yet) but we can offer fame. Anyone who’d like to write for us can check out our user-friendly editorial guidelines. Couple of samples: Nancy Flanagan’s The Teaching Essentials; and Marsha Ratzel’s No-Bunk Letter to Parents at the start of school. You may have detected that we’re putting a lot of emphasis right now on advice for new teachers and prep for a new school year.
We’re also launching several blogs between now and the end of the year. One is underway: STEM Imagineering with Anne Jolly, a middle grades science teacher and Alabama TOY who now writes STEM curriculum for an NSF-sponsored project (and helps school teams become action researchers). Our next serial blog will focus on special education and co-teaching and will be co-written by two excellent SpEd teachers and NBCTs – Elizabeth Stein (Long Island) and Laurie Wasserman (Boston). We’re still looking for a literacy-oriented blogger. If any of your readers has an interesting proposal, they can write us.
• Book Reviews: We’ve made arrangements with education publishers to share review copies with us, and our call for reviewers was well-timed for summer break (okay, luckily timed). We have over 100 books out for review at the moment, and quite a few reviews in the queue for posting. You can see what we have so far at this page. Anyone who likes book reviewing can find out more about how to get involved here.
• Interviews: We’re also talking with interesting people who have expertise around middle grades education — or just do great things for middle grades kids and schools. Visitors can peruse our Five Q Interviews for ideas, insights, and good chat. Here’s an interview with teacher/writer Cossondra George who we described as the Goddess of Good Advice for newbies. And another with Tempered Radical Bill Ferriter about writing professional books. (And thanks for letting us interview you, as well!)
We want MiddleWeb to have a community feel and one way to accomplish that is to invite readers and visitors to become participants in content creation. Here are some ideas we’ve posted about getting involved. Writing for us is just one way – but an important way! You know that I’m an editor-for-hire in one of my personas, and we offer that editorial support gratis, for what it’s worth.
4. How is the MiddleWeb SmartBrief different from your long-time biweekly newsletter “MiddleWeb’s Of Particular Interest”?
Well, as many people know, SmartBrief is an information-sharing company with lots of newsletters, including some popular education editions: ASCD SmartBrief, Accomplished Teacher, SmartBrief on Ed Tech and quite a few more. But they had nothing specifically aimed at the middle, and that’s where we came into the picture.
Our MiddleWeb SmartBrief really has two components. First there’s the content gathered by the SmartBrief editorial team, who focus on news and resource articles from the social media stream that (1) have a middle grades focus, and (2) carry a byline and are less than two weeks old. The SB editors are professional information gatherers and it’s great to have them scouring the Web for useful stuff. We worked with them to come up with the section themes for each issue: Teaching in the Middle, Tweens & Young Teens, Classroom Innovation, Technology & Connected Learning, and Middle Grades Leadership.
Then Susan and I also provide several content items in each issue — in a section labeled MiddleWeb Recommends. Most often we write about new content we’ve posted on the MiddleWeb site, but we may mention other items of interest.
Here’s the best part about the SmartBrief partnership. The SB editors work very closely with us to make sure we think what they are providing is in sync with the needs and interests of the grade 4-8 audience. We may be asked at the last minute whether some new “find” is a good fit. If not, they find something else. We also send along things we’ve spotted that we feel would be good to include, and they’re very responsive to our suggestions.
My background is in journalism and I’ve been really impressed with the quality job these folks do and the level of collaboration we’ve achieved. If a subscriber writes in and says “I’d like to see more about innovative teaching,” we all pay attention to that and try to be responsive. Our MW-SB subscriber list is growing rapidly, so I’m pretty sure we’re on the right track. It’s free and folks can subscribe here.
5. What other projects are you involved in?
I turned 64 this summer, and you’d think MiddleWeb would be enough! But I’m actually working as a consultant for two great organizations — the Alabama Best Practices Center (three states away from my NC mountain home) — and Powerful Learning Practice LLC, where I wear several hats, including editor for the Voices from the Learning Revolution group blog. We’ve published nearly 200 essays there in the last 18 months, written by educators who are making the “shift” to more digitally infused, inquiry/PBL learning. Both ABPC and PLP support significant online communities of educators and have been recognized by USDOE for their leadership in that arena. As a founder of two highly engaged online communities myself, I love staying involved in what I think is the most exciting dimension of professional learning these days.
Thanks for the interview, Larry. You really are the Web Impresario of Education.