The impersonal hand of government can never replace the helping hand of a neighbor.
Hubert H. Humphrey
Some of the best writing I read every day comes from the most unlikely source, a local Facebook page. I know my audience of Big Fresh readers is gaga about literacy, but do the math on this one. How does a community of 35,000 people in Maine get over 50,000 “likes” on its police department Facebook page? The answer for the Bangor Maine Police Department is this: they create a chronicle of the goings-on in the department and city that is almost always funny (and sometimes poignant), with loads of photos in the mix. I can’t count the number of times I’ve laughed out loud at a post, and marveled at the wry humor and skills of the writer. The tales on the page have been described as a cross between The Andy Griffith Show and The Wire, which is apt. You can view the Facebook page here:
I interviewed Sergeant Tim Cotton, who authors the Bangor PD Facebook page, to see what tips he has for teachers and school leaders who want to do more with their social media posts. He explained, “I’ve always liked to write. My process is pretty simple – I write what I’d like to read about. I work with 100 people in this building dealing with 35,000 people in the community, so I’m sitting on a pile of great stories. The officers are terrific about providing photos, and I often just stare at a picture and start writing about the story behind it.”
I asked Tim about the humor in his writing, since humorous writing is probably the most difficult genre. “The key for me is to never make fun of the subject, but to make fun of myself and our department. Self-deprecating humor always works. I have flaws, I make mistakes, and that makes people see I am just like them. You can make light of your work without denigrating other people.
I flew out to a cold case conference in Pennsylvania a few years ago. The speaker before me was a forensic anthropologist. He started his presentation by saying, ‘I have skills none of you have. No one here can do this work but me.’ All 500 people in the room immediately hated that guy, because he told them he was the smartest person there (which was probably true). When I spoke, I began by saying, ‘I’m here because I’m a failure. I can’t solve this case, and I need your help. But hey, I did get a free trip paid for by the government to Pittsburgh!’ Everyone laughed and was instantly on my side. The presentation wasn’t as polished or as brilliant as the forensic guy’s slides, but the audience was with me.
What it comes down to is we’re all average, and we all have gifts. If your humor conveys that truth, you’re going to connect with everyone reading your writing.”
Sergeant Cotton had a few other tips for crafting popular social media posts and building an audience,, some of which will come as no surprise to anyone who teaches writing:
- Write every day. Tim writes first thing in the morning, usually at 4 or 5 a.m. and tries to post twice a day. “Some days, I’ve got nothing, but just sitting down and making myself write makes me come up with something.”
- Ask staff to share stories. If you can get them to take a photo (preferably with no identifying features of people in the photo), all the better. Teachers and school leaders are also “sitting on a pile of stories” just like Tim – but do you have a process in place for collecting them?
- Use your mascot. The “Duck of Justice,” a lowly wooden mallard, appears on t-shirts for the Bangor PD purchased by fans throughout the country, and in many photos on the page. Most schools have a mascot – do you have a small stuffed version of that mascot you can use in photos or bring out into the community?
- When all else fails, post a picture of a dog. Seriously, or post a photo of a cat, or any other pet. “People go crazy for animals on Facebook,” said Tim.
Tim Cotton does what many would say is impossible – he manages to write about the work of the police in a way that is fun, inspiring, and informative. Teachers are also in a profession that is often criticized in the media, but we know there is joy to be found in the stories in our midst. If you have plans this summer to rethink how you use social media to share those tales, I hope Tim’s writing gives you some ideas for putting your work out there in your community.
This week we share ideas for closing out the school year strong. Plus more as always — enjoy!
Founder, Choice Literacy
Free for All
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Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan share suggestions for helping students make summer reading plans:
Looking for the perfect read-aloud to close out the school year? We’re featuring contributor picks all month long on our Choice Literacy Facebook page:
Parent Anne Sawan explains why she is not a fan of assigned reading over school breaks in I Hate Summer Reading:
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Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris explain how ending the year is all about making space for memories, and provide some texts to help in the process:
Melanie Meehan encourages teachers to build a video collection of students at work to use with next year’s class in Closing Out the Year with Video:
Jennifer Schwanke in Best Part of Me shares a favorite activity for building community and self-esteem:
Poetry is fun to read and write as the year draws to a close. A Spring Villanelle from Shirl McPhillips highlights the pleasures and challenges of using a strict poetic form:
Now is the time many classrooms are being cleared of clutter in preparation for summer. In an encore video, Gail Boushey and Joan Moser (“The Sisters”) declutter a new teacher’s storage area:
That’s all for this week!