Thoughts as the semester opens…

Evening after evening as I chopped vegetables for dinner, I used to listen to All Things Considered and think that of all the media outlets, NPR made some effort at carrying NEWS, at finding out what’s really going on. But lately, I’ve been getting restless as I listen to yet another broadcast of what sounds just like what they had covered the night before instead of a ferreting out of what’s really going on–where’s the piece about the government requiring Iraqi farmers to purchase their seed from American companies instead of carrying seed over from the previous harvest, for example? Did NPR’s November 24 spot do more than give the story a quick soundbyte?

And so, I find myself more often than not, checking the Web for news or flipping on the iPOD instead of doing what a historian’s daughter , a political activist’s sister, and a resident of the sometimes proud state of Vermont used to do. And then a couple of weeks ago when I decided to give NPR another try, they did a little piece on podcasting. And at the end of it, I felt as though they had just coasted across the easiest, the top-layer of podcasting. Really. Why did they even bother except that it filled time, was hip and diverting.

Fortunately, not all is so bleak– listening to my students, past and present, and to my two teenaged daughters, I see how exciting and efficacious learning about the world and its current state can be if it’s done thoughtfully. Last week I watched my fifteen-year-old stuffing the last few items into her backpack for a four-month journey to South America with The Traveling School. She has propelled herself through high school at a ridiculous speed, careening through four years of high school Spanish and English and history and science and math in two and a half, learning little. Bored. Fed up. Restless. Schoolwork so empty, so driven by meaningless standards, and so cut off from her life–what she’s thinking about and wondering about–that the only goal is to get through school as quickly as possible. And so off she went with nine other girls and three teachers, learning about the world as they go.

And then there’s the phonecall today from my older daughter at Barnard College who was so jazzed about her “reacting to the Past” class that she just had to call. History is taught not through lecture but through role-playing experiences. To hear that kid talk about Rousseau…wow…

And then there’s my student Piya who took her blog to India and narrated her journey, examined the ideas and circumstances of the culture, and received replies from an incredibly varied readership–her peers at college, her professors, her family, and other readers interested in the Indian diaspora.

But these girls are lucky–and privileged–to be able to seek out these kinds of meaningful learning experiences. And as many point out to me, especially those involved in public education, I teach in a magic cocoon of a place, with the luxury of small classes and prepared, motivated students excited about their studies. True true. But I feel we could be doing so much more here where I sit, too. After all, didn’t the folks who run NPR and the other so-called independent media go to these kinds of schools? How can I promote more deep critical independent inquiry in my students while encouraging them to develop community awareness? How can I equip them with the skills to use writing to communicate their ideas, discoveries and experiences to the world–to speak out?

One way is to keep exploring the possibilities of integrating technology effectively into the classroom–not the gloss and shimmer of the hip and the new but the educational and community-building potential of the tools. I am excited by the kinds of experiments Héctor and I are undertaking this semester exploring collaborative memory and knowledge making through narrating the courses on a wiki shared by our classes, and podcasting student presentations to create an ongoing, living archive of the learning as well as a powerful self-evaluation tool for our students. I can explore ways to use these tools to engage learners, to extend the reach of the classroom, to help make the learning meaningful. But they have to get out of the classroom itself. And sometimes the only way that’s practical is virtually.

And so these are my notes to self as I begin the new semester–use the tools carefully and with pedagogical purpose in my classes, reflect often on the experience, collaborate frequently with colleagues here and at other colleges, and experiment fearlessly.