Parallel, Transparent & Collaborative Blogging in the Liberal Arts Classroom: First-years, Juniors and A Teacher

Recent moments on the three blogs absorbing my blogging energies these days and a lecture by James Martin have me thinking about why it is I have my students blog so publicly, why I encourage them to read my blog, and why I’m trying so darn hard to get people to see that the most important function of classroom blogging is the connecting, the discussing, the collaborating it fosters. I’m referring to three very different blogs I’m using: this bgblogging blog on which I try to spin out some of the technology-related ideas that stir during my teaching week; the Blogging the World blog on which a clutch of juniors, experienced classroom bloggers, are blogging from abroad,outside the classroom experience (yup, their blogging is completely voluntary and part of no course requirement); and my Writing Workshop blog on which my class of first-years, all of whom are uneasy about writing in the first place, are posting just about everything they write for the course, including podcasts and wordless stories. A comment left on bgblogging; the elegant, confident posting on the Blogging the World Blog and the responses it is generating; and the first attempts at blogging by my first-years have me convinced that sustained blogging over the years, not just in the classroom, but after and outside the classroom experience, as a way to reflect on and discuss the connections between the lessons learned inside the class and the world outside our walls, is perhaps the most promising way to use blogging and other social software in a liberal arts institution. And coupled with the kinds of classroom-wall-toppling learning practices as engaged in by the students of Hector Vila, we could really be moving forward into a twenty-first-century educational model.

If we want to encourage our students to use blogging as a powerful communication tool, we have to teach them the difference between blogging as daily diary, and blogging as a way to dig deep into ideas and to grow communities of discourse, of knowledge and of action. So, of course it isn’t simply a matter of handing blogs to students as they enter our institutions and saying, go ahead, write; you have to give students a chance to grow in this work within a learning community–the new wall-less classroom–and then turn them loose to develop their own blogging practices within a supported framework. The institution and its faculty must mentor and model this practice of reaching out in the world to discuss and share ideas, ask questions, and work collaboratively. In other words, it is in the second-wave blogging, the blogging that my juniors are doing out in the world as a way to express, explore and understand the world in which they have been thrust that will teach them huge lessons about the role of communication, of technology, of community in bringing about change in this stumbling world. Indeed, I think that they are achieving what George Seimens, in a recent post, is calling learning ecologies:

Instead of designing instruction (which we assume will lead to learning), we should be focusing on designing ecologies in which learners can forage for knowledge, information, and derive meaning. What’s the difference between a course and an ecology? A course, as mentioned is static – a frozen representation of knowledge at a certain time. An ecology is dynamic, rich, and continually evolving. The entire system reacts to changes – internal or external. An ecology gives the learner control – allowing her to acquire and explore areas based on self-selected objectives. The designer of the ecology may still include learning objectives, but they will be implicit rather than explicit.

So what were these blog moments and how do they connect?


Over the past two weeks, I have slowly been pulling the Writing Workshop Blog to life. And the catch-word is slowly. From the first day the students are up and blogging, but not yet expected to do more than to make a mess of things, including getting hung up posting images and podcasts. No one has to leave comments. We take it slow while we’re looking closely at the writing. (For anyone who wants an in-depth discussion of how I use blogs in the classroom, you can take a look at the paper. I wrote last year for BLOGTALK, or at any of the talks linked off the homepage.) The biggest hurdle at the beginning of the semester has to do with the public nature of the blog. It’s scary enough to hand your writing to a professor or to a peer workshop group much less to put it into the public arena where anyone happening by might find it. The students are shy, self-conscious, some of them still figuring out how to write in English. They have been conditioned to succeed, to achieve, to excel, and they feel that showing their work like this exposes a weakness, a flaw, a secret. They don’t altogether buy it that they are here in college to learn, (I’m not sure they’ve really thought about what that word means except in the most literal sense of acquiring a body of knowledge to be tested on) not to produce shiny objects, one after another that demonstrate their worthiness according to some unfathomable scale. After all, they spent the last ten years or so in the mad race to get to college, spending more time, perhaps, compiling resumÔøΩs than exploring the processes of learning and of expression. Publishing their work to the Web takes some getting used to. Absolutely.

Some educators, wondering why ever I would have my students post to the world even their first messy drafts, think that in so doing, I’m encouraging them to post any old thing, thereby espousing messy thinking and sloppy writing. Some don’t like the exposure of having their students’ “flawed” work on the Web–it opens them up to criticism that they are not doing their jobs. They worry that people will think they do not hold their students to sufficiently high standards, or even, perhaps, to any standards at all. These same educators sometimes ask if I am worried about protecting the intellectual property of my students, if I have concerns about other students ripping off their work. And some of these educators think it inappropriate for other students, let alone the world, to see the novice’s work–it takes away, they contend, some kind of freedom the student has to make mistakes if their student attempts are put out there in the world. The argument is that the student writer will seize up under the gaze of the world, play it safe, try to please. And some worry about potential employers Googling the kids years down the road and finding some of these flawed pieces of writing.

Well, I’m not bothered by any of that. In fact, I can think of only one good reason for not publishing student writing to the Web at all stages of its development: the student is writing about something too delicate, too painful, too private or too hurtful to put out there. My students always have the option to keep their work off the blog for those reasons.

Why, then, have them publish to a blog open to a public readership?

~Writing for an audience beyond the walls of the school gives students valuable experience with real world writing situations. They carefullly consider tone, diction level, organization, and content when they know they are being read. The writing improves dramatically and quickly once they realize that it’s really out there in the world.

~Writing for a real audience versus a forced one leads to efficacious, authentic learning. Student writers see the effect they can have on their readers, and that in turn spurs a deeper engagement with their own writing and learning. As students link and refer to significant discussions going on via the Web related to the subject matter in class, they contextualize the learning in the greater conversation unfolding beyond the Academy. They can be a part of something far bigger than themselves. They experience the power of writing, of their writing. As a result they put more energy and effort into developing their writing skills.

~Collaborative blogs build communities, and if there’s anything I’ve learned over the course of many years of teaching, it is that the most effective, enduring classroom learning takes place within a committed learning community. As usual, I refer here to Pierre Levy’s notion of collective intelligence, knowledge spaces, and reciprocal apprenticeships. (Read his book, Collective Intelligence) Students publishing together, by linking dynamically off a Motherblog on which they engage in freewheeling discussions enhances the building of such a community. So often we champion the individual’s achievement, isolating our students from one another, privileging the individual’s pursuits and pleasures over the community’s well-being. In this century, in particular, it is going to take all our efforts, in concert, to tackle the pressing problems facing us, as James Martin outlined in his talk.

My previous post,Thinking about Images in a Writing Course, brought a wonderful response from a student who blogged in my creative writing course two springs ago and is now part of the Blogging the World Project, keeping a lively blog to which I’ll return further on here. Students who have blogged in my classrooms feel comfortable venturing onto my blog and posting comments, engaging me in discussion, asking for more, questioning, probing. They are all about learning in the full sense of that word.

Another comment on that post asked me why my Irish blog hasn’t been updated in ages. My first response was regret that I hadn’t been able to keep that group of students blogging there. But actually, it’s okay for classroom blogs to circle in and out of existence depending on what I’m teaching any given semester. At least for now–until we see the importance of getting our students to see the connections between their explorations one year and their discoveries the next. The blog remains as a valuable archive for me, my students, anyone wanting to see what a group of American students thought about things in contemporary Ireland, and how blogging could work in such a course. And, indeed, people are still taking a look at that old blog. The students benefitted from that one blogging experience, but have moved on from their study of Ireland. That’s fine. For the moment.


And then, finally, there is the sophisticated blogging the Blogging-the-World bloggers are doing. With a few notable exceptions, when I look at most Study Abroad blogs, I am usually left pretty uninterested by the lists of look-at-this-cool-thing-I did today, largely descriptive or narrative writing pointed at the self. What is unfolding on the Blogging-the-World blogs is way more exciting than that. The opening posts of the students focussed, almost without exception, on the disorientation they were feeling as they tried to sort out how they fit into this new place. But even these entries go beyond the obvious, and spark interesting discussions off the comments pages. And then, about a week ago, they started opening up, shifting focus, and really looking around them at the cities they are now inhabiting, and the distance between their expectations and reality. Lizi, in “Culture Shock, Part 2” explores what happens when you are confronted by what you had assumed you would NOT really see (the stereotype) but find, in actuality, around every corner. Piya chronicles glimpses of the stories of the people and places she encounters. Zoey has been riveted by the politics of Berlin, taking her own course on the political life of the Berliner. Amaury on his own blog and on the Motherblog is trying to make sense of Rio. They have all lifted their heads from their own particular stories to look at the stories around them.

And they are generating some interest, already–their parents and friends are leaving probing comments, connecting the fullness of the experience to the people at home, and helping the bloggers to blog even more fully. Others have discovered them: Zoey has German bloggers discussing her posts in her comment section (in German); Amaury has attracted an entire classroom from Brasilia onto his Motherblog posting. Some of the Brazilians are moving over onto the other blogs, and on it goes. The students feel the rewards of getting a response–they’re not just blogging into the wind, in other words, they’re blogging with an emerging community; and they in turn, are fired up to keep digging through the experience, and using writing (not private in-the-journal writing, but communications to the world about this experience) to reflect, to connect, to explore. Their previous in-the-class blogging experience prepared them to post these kinds of entries, to see social software as truly social, and to dare put their observations and musings out there into the world and see what comes back.

And it is the Motherblog that keeps them linked within a community–they venture back and forth onto one another’s blogs, taking comfort in their peers’ experiences, pushing one another, and learning from one another. And I’m rarely on the blog at all. Isn’t this what we’re after in a liberal arts education? The students naturally, on their own, gravitate towards the learning ecology. I’m keeping these second-wave bloggers in mind as my young first-years wonder aloud why we’re doing this public blogging thing. I want them to read the Blogging-the-World blog, and I want them to look down the road at where they might be in two years. If I teach them the grammar of the blog well, and they take to it, they can use the medium (or whatever other tool will be in play by then) to make their learning real, active, and worth crowing about.


Thinking about images in a Writing Course

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In my teaching, I find myself thinking these days about visual images almost as much as I do about words. Five years ago that wasn’t the case at all. Yes, I majored in art history in college and teach an arts writing course, and so I’ve long been pulled to the grammar of an image, but in my teaching of writing, I stuck pretty much with language on the page. These past four years have seen me not only inviting my students to consider the image as a viable writing tool, but insisting that they use them, and explore what an image does and how it means. Why?


The last couple of days has seen a convergence for me of image-rich, image-tense, image-dominated moments that will help explain:


I bought my first digital camera this summer and have been taking it out with me on dawn walks with the dog through the Vermont countryside. I forgot how having a camera in tow makes me experience a simple morning walk so differently–it isn’t the same experience of feeling the morning on my skin and eyes and ears in equal parts. With the camera I am more alert to the individual details of the scene–and it is more a scene–than when I’m just walking. I am more attentive to everything going on in the visual plane rather than to the full experience. I don’t lose myself in thought quite as often. And so each morning now I ask myself if it’s a camera morning or a sensation morning.


Echoing in my head, too, is H�ctor’s recent description of visiting the sites of D.C. with his young son this past weekend. People were snapping photos as though their lives depended upon it. They never brought the little boxes from their faces, as he described it, and he wondered what this was doing to people’s ability to SEE, to look closely at ANYTHING anymore. The snapping away was indiscriminate, and distanced the snapshot-taker from the experience of actually looking at the Washington monument, taking it in, experiencing it. Do people not really want to have experiences anymore–do they just want photos to email home?

And then last night, late, we watched an episode of Six Feet Under, the one in which Claire (and Russell–there’s a little exploration of intellectual property brewing here, and collaboration, and artistic license) creates photographs of people on whom she has laid papier mache masks covered with collages of torn bits of photos of their faces. For one thing, this is the only television show that interest me at all, and I’m thinking of using this episode in my class to talk about what all these photographs–the taking of photos in particular–are doing for and to us as artists, as writers, and as dwellers on this planet at this time.

…Which got me searching back into an old post looking for the quotation from Susan Sontag. on how images are being used today: “a shift in the use made of pictures–less objects to be saved than messages to be disseminated, circulated.”

I also bought Ron Burnett’s How Images Think, a book that wouldn’t have been high on my list just a few years ago and now sits on my desk atop several must-read novels and collections of poetry and essays, next-in-line (and I can hardly wait for the weekend when I can start it). Today I wandered over to his blog (because that’s what I seem to do nowadays, see if writers who interest me blog, and if they do it well. Ron Burnett has a beautiful blog which is part of his
CRITICAL APPROACHES TO Culture + Communications + Hypermedia website
. Much to explore there. In his latest post he announces a new book he’s writing, The Age of Six Feet Under. Ha.

All of which brings me to my students, of course, as most posts do, and what they’re up to. On the Blogging the World Project blog, many posts (on the students’ own blogs linked off the Motherblog) focus on the feeling of disorientation and disequilibrium that comes with living for some time in a place quite different from your own. Those first posts covered impressions of feeling, I would say, and the ones coming now are more visual in their content and theme as they begin to post photos and remark upon what they are seeing. I’m going to be interested to see what posting images to a blog and hearing back about them does to and for the experience of being abroad. How will they use the pictures? Piya uses them poetically in this post and this one, Zoey as punctuating illustrations that really help us to see what she’s talking about. I’ll have my students in Writing Workshop follow along, watching the way in which the bloggers abroad use their images. Will it be like the snapshot takers in D.C.; will it be like Julina last year in Artswriting? How will they choreograph the screen, and what impact will it have on our reading their journey and on their experience of it? Will there be writing only blog days and image-rich blog days?

Fall Semester Opens

Although he works with the business and governmental world, Lee Bryant of articulates the kinds of realities and potential of social software serving collective intelligence that I am working towards in my classrooms. The slides from his recent speech at Our Social World conference are case in point. Wish he were working in higher ed…

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Today the semester opened–I meet my students tomorrow– and I’m in the throes of pulling up yet another new couse blog as well as working to get theBlogging the World Project settled and moving along. Every semester it gets easier and more complicated.

With fifteen iPODS on loan to my students from the college for the semester, I will have a chance to try out some variations on the podcasting theme–as a way to work on writing and critical thinking, the students will record a number of 1-2 minute talks on issues raised in the reading, on the blog, and in their writing. We’ll embed them on the blog to create an archive of presentations, and we’ll play around with audio responses as well as text comments. We’ll play around with images more, too.

Of course none of this blogging, podcasting, and multimedia writing will take away from our time sitting in a classroom together, talking about writing. We don’t stare at a projection screen in my classroom–we sit in a circle, write and discuss. I know that this concern remains an obstacle for colleagues who use technology reluctantly–if our students are plugged in at all moments, no matter where they are, how will they find the room–the mental room–to think, to see, to hear? How will this generation of students do more than connect–and superficially at that? Will they learn the pleasure of the wrong turn, of getting lost, and then of finding new routes? I worry about that, too.

But if I can teach them how to slow down with their fast connections–to see blogging, for instance, as an opportunity to think deeply with a group of fellow explorers, to draw people into conversation about topics that matter to them, well, then, that serves my pedagogical outlook quite nicely. Let’s use classroom blogging to encourage creativity in our budding scholars, boldness and deep critical thinking skills, an awareness of the world and a commitment to change by connecting these writer/thinkers to one another through their work, through their writing as well as in the dorms, in the dining halls and on the athletic fields.

Taking a look back to my posting at the start of last semester, I see myself mulling over many of the same concerns and ideas:

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 H�ctor 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.

Here we go…

Katrina, Blogday and a Handful of Students

When BLOGDAY came and went without my posting links to five blogs I read, it crossed my mind that I was, indeed, a contrarian who liked blogs as long as no one else liked blogs, or that I only liked serious blogs. Fortunately although perhaps that describes the way I was at sixteen rather all too well, thirty years further down the line, I really don’t think that’s it. Although I was interested in seeing blogs linked to from around the world–the little blogs rather than the same old A-list blogs–I found myself feeling that it was a bit of a chain-letter moment that would vanish as soon as it was done. After all, tagging and bookmarkingfolksonomies— already offer interesting and connected ways of finding out who is blogging about things that might interest me. I follow the trails through, for instance, or Bloglines or FLICKR, and most of the time, the journey is well worth the time. I appreciate the threaded texture of a readership that responds, blogs and links, as well as the opportunity to discover blogs new to me as I also see old favorites, on someone else’s blogroll or via feeds. Often I click on a story as much to read into the links, well past the original blog, sometimes even forgetting altogether where my reading originated. The out of the blue listing of five blogs lacked the kind of depth of contact that I have come to value and expect of blogs. I’m not really interested in blogs-as-diaries, truth be known. (Not with the many books waiting by my bedside for me to read!)

So, I didn’t connect to five blogs, and I’m okay with that. Call me curmudgeon. At least it’s got me wanting to blog ever better…

The maelstrom, the tragedy, of Katrina, too, makes me want to blog more carefully and yet boldly–to encourage my students to dare speak out, repeatedly, when things go awry in the world and when something touches them, or inspires them. A story on NPR tonight covered a blog set up as a forum for victims of the hurricane and those in search of the missing. Apparently some people were rescued as a result of the postings coming via text-messaging from those trapped in attics who still had cellphone battery life and coverage. Who would’ve thought… Of course, a blog, in this case Doc Searls’ Weblog pointed to Nola Blog right from the start as covering the hurricane far better than some traditional news sources.

Forging connections with one another and the world. Communicating the news and insights. Creating knowledge. Collaborating. This is what we work on in my classes with the blogs. And at the opening of this fifth fall of classroom blogging, I aim to urge my students even more to write to effect change, to call out to the world, to articulate a response to what others have to say. Perhaps that’s all we have–connections to one another–reaching out beyond ourselves in authentic ways. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll save ourselves or someone finding our blog along the way.

Of course all this blogging talk leads me right back to the f2f world. Take my students–those here before the start of the school-year for the Middlebury College program I direct, The Project for Integrated Expression,, a one-week intensive workshop about community and activism and making the transition to college life. One of our program assistants hails from New Orleans, and as we watched her city battered first by wind, then water, then human incompetence, she threw herself into the work. Each day she worked a little harder than the day before, and grew quieter. On the final day of the program we heard that the state of Vermont would be gathering provisions, that day only, to send down to the gulf states.

Eight of us hopped into cars which we filled at our independent grocer’s and our natural foods co-operative and then headed to our county’s drop-off spot. As we reached the end of the long line of cars waiting to enter the high-school parking lot, our Louisianian smiled– from deep down into herself she pulled about as big a smile as I have ever seen. Car upon car, trucks, vans–even a motorcycle idled patiently, waiting to move to the stations set up to unload, sort, pallet and load the cans, boxes, bedding, toys into tractor trailers. People worked quickly and quietly, together.
And we had no camera. With my trusty cell phone I snapped a few bad shots of the remarkable outpouring from this small state.
These students had been on campus for all of seven days.

The following day I took a look at the blogging my students are doing, from abroad and was struck by how they are all reeling from the initial shock of the experience abroad. And how alone they feel. Blogging might relieve some of that feeling of being set adrift, especially when they receive thoughtful and thought-provoking responses from such bloggers as Ewan McIntosh,an edublogger from Scotland (whose summary of Katrina wiki and blog coverage is excellent and comprehensive)–as they try to sort out the bombardment of sensations they are experiencing in Russia, Brazil, Italy and Germany. I hope they realize that they aren’t just blogging into the wind!

Here blogging makes considerable sense– my students, even in these early days, find comfort in putting into words, for their readers to take in and respond to, the disorientation they are feeling, the first tentative explorations of who they might be in another place. Instead of blogging-as-diary, the students are trying to lift their heads from the moment to see if others are sharing their sense of the experience. The blogging asks them not to privilege their own experience but to contextualize it and connect it.

And so I move into the fall semester–and yes, the first leaves have turned–

I’m determined to remember these lessons: whether in a high school parking lot packing boxes with tins of tuna, or hearing about bloggers from New Orleans trying to lend a hand, or watching my students exploring the disequilibrium of leaving our home communities.