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Cheney teacher’s class project – a blog – leads to book deal

Cheney High School teacher Monte Syrie has compiled his blog postings from Project 180 into a book soon to be published.  (Courtesy of Project 180)
Cheney High School teacher Monte Syrie has compiled his blog postings from Project 180 into a book soon to be published. (Courtesy of Project 180)
By Nina Culver For The Spokesman-Review

Cheney High School teacher Monte Syrie is in his fifth year of writing daily messages about education on his “Project 180” blog, a blog that has launched a book that is expected to be published this year.

“It started out innocently enough,” Syrie said. “It was a dare from one of my students.”

Syrie, who teaches 10th grade language arts, had assigned his students an independent learning project. He asked them to create a product that related to something they were interested in. Then a student asked if he was going to do a project, too. “I agreed that I would do it,” he said.

He’d been toying with the idea of writing a blog, so that’s what he decided to do. “I decided to make it about education,” he said. “They say write what you know.”

The blog is available at letschangeeducation.com. Syrie said his goal is to write about things he wants to change, how to turn them around 180 degrees and make them better. His goal is to challenge the status quo, convention and tradition.

Syrie said he didn’t plan to make it a daily blog at first. “Once I started, I discovered a habit, and it became a routine and eventually became a ritual,” he said. “It has really helped me grow and learn.”

Syrie has been teaching at Cheney High School for 18 years, the same high school he graduated from in 1990. He taught for seven years in Royal City, Washington, before moving back home to teach.

In a recent blog post he discussed how students get labeled as good and bad students. “And if we label the learning, does that then label the learner?” he wrote. “And if a learner is labeled, then how does that impact her learning, her life? We see the impacts, I think. The lack of confidence. The abundance of anxiety, even – especially – among our ‘good’ students, who come to worry not about the learning but about the grading.”

Discussions about grading come up a lot in Syrie’s blog. He points to it as one of the areas where he’s really advocated for change. “Grading causes a lot of consternation in education,” he said. “I don’t think it always fairly reflected learning. For too long, we’ve used grades as either a carrot or a stick.”

One year he gave all his students an “A” at the beginning of the school year, actually handing them wooden letters. He told them that would be their grade at the end of the year no matter what. Syrie said it proved that students would still learn and be engaged even if they didn’t have to focus on earning a good grade. “I think we were at a 96 percent on the state assessment in that class that year,” he said.

His blog has also helped him focus on his students as people. He begins each class with “Smiles and Frowns,” a time when students share about what has made them happy or sad that day. He said it encourages connections and helps create a family atmosphere. “We have to put the kids first,” he said. “One of the most important lessons I learned is a renewed commitment to the humans in the room.”

He ends each post with the words “Do. Reflect. Do better.”

Syrie maintains an active Twitter account, where he often shares links to his blog posts. His tweets caught the attention of Codebreaker Inc., a Canadian company that focuses on elevating the voices of teachers, he said. They reached out and said they were interested in publishing a book based on his blog.

“I had already begun on my own,” Syrie said. “I was going to self-publish on Amazon.”

There will be some blog posts in the book, but Syrie said the book will be about his journey to “better.”

“I want it to ignite others to pursue their own betters,” he said.

Syrie said he’s grateful he’s being allowed to write the book in the way he thinks it should be written. “They’re educators themselves,” he said. “They understand the journey.”

The goal is to have the book out by August, but Syrie said he’s finding it difficult to put together the book while still writing daily blog posts. He said he is committed to doing the blog for five years. But he also doesn’t think he’ll give up the blog after the five years are up.

“I don’t think I can,” he said. “I have to have that time in the morning to reflect. The work’s not done.”

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Nina Culver can be reached at nculver47@gmail.com

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