Opening the WIndows

As I sit in my office this early spring evening getting a few things done before my final creative writing workshop of the semester, I can hear waves of drumming as high school marching bands from all over the state of Vermont parade down our main street as part of the All-State music festival hosted by our local high school. And much as I would like to throw open the windows in this state-of-the-art new library I am lucky enough to have my office in, I can’t. The building’s hermetically sealed, and all I’ve got is the low throb of hundreds of drums in an odd cacaphony coming through the thick glass of my window. On the one hand it makes me think about how last weekend I sat for an entire afternoon at the Metropolitan Opera partaking in a glorious production of Faust–about how it took all afternoon–two intermissions during which we leisurely walked the opera house, checking out the divas’ gowns and fans and cigarette cases in the museum cases scattered about the building, and taking in the finery of the women and the scene. We just don’t do that sort of thing much in our culture–spend an entire afternoon experiencing art with a group of strangers. How often does the woman sitting next to you offer you her opera glasses?

It also makes me think about Aaron Campbell’s latest posting, how he points out that many edubloggers are taking note of how students are feeling trapped by the smallness of the classroom experience:

How many students out there feel as if they are in imprisoned? Would an educational institution encourage the pursuit of a particular activity if it led to integration, fulfillment, and a sense of freedom? Where is the space for such pursuits in educational institutions? Why do we shut people out of these experiences through rigid curricula and imposed educational goals? Who creates standardized learning criteria and why do we place such a premium on their achievement at the expense of happiness, wholeness, freedom, personal growth, and creative and emotional expression? What kind of society are our institutions contributing toward?

I think we teachers are feeling a bit trapped too, at least I am, by the confines of the semester system and the separation between courses and disciplines, and by having our students pulled in a half dozen directions instead of synthesizing and reflecting on the experience. I watch my students and myself work at breakneck speed just to get everything done instead of pursuing Aaron’s “happiness, wholeness, freedom, personal growth, and creative and emotional expression.”

And yet–I also see how this blogging experience placed within a constructivist pedagogy does contribute to my students realizing that there is something more and they want it–they want to hear and feel the wonderful, crazy sounds of 40 marching bands, and to spend the entire afternoon listening with strangers to one glorious opera. They take the time to jump on our creative writing blog to see what their peers are writing within their individual blogs, and what’s happening on the main Motherblog. They’re planning another writing party. Perhaps our collaborative, relaxed blogging on the Motherblog gives them some of that reflective practice–as a group. I know that it spurs them on to find Aaron’s threads to embroider.

This is very much on my mind as I focus on the student perspective on blogging for back-to-back conferences and for a CCCC proposal with colleagues spread out across the U.S. and Europe–what happens to our students once they’ve had the experience of a collaborative learning environment networked with blogs, open to multimedia authoring, and podcasting, and most importantly, that positions the students squarely in the middle of the classroom with one another? More and more I am seeing them ask for other ways of being in college–of creating their own hybrid majors, of going off for a few weeks in the middle of things to do a research project in the field, writing a grant with a faculty member to go off in the summer to explore something brought up in the class– proposing all manner of independent study projects. My students come out of these blog-centric classes clamoring for this kind of fluid though rigorous educational experience. They still want classroom time and traditional learning experiences as well–they are, after all, first-generation inhabitants of cyberspace, and thus they migrate between the old and the new. Comfortably.
I’ve written about this new kind of student before, several times, but at the end of the year, I keep finding myself coming back to ways I’d like to keep opening the windows in my teaching, allowing my students out of this sealed academic world and into the streets with their own lovely cacaphony.

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