More Thoughts on Teaching and Learning: Lessons Learned

Last evening, I tuned in to Jay Cross’s Macromedia Breeze/Skype presentation to the Finnish eLearning Roundtable, the kind of online presentation during which I can scroll back at any time to any slide, to listen to him again,or to reconsider the visuals. It is how I would like to attend most conferences—in my living room, in my own time. It’s also the way course lectures could/should be delivered (that delivered is the verb we use with lecture grounds the whole idea of a lecture being something we should “open,” like a letter, when we so choose).

I watched the slides of Jay’s talk click by one after another, presenting the reality that change is speeding up so fast that we have no choice but to adapt and evolve and learn or perish. He defined learning as

“…the natural process of adaptation which enables people to participate successfully in life, at work, and in groups that matter.”

He talked, too, about formal vs. informal learning—about how it is through the informality of Web 2.0 activities that we could be preparing ourselves and our students for the world—it brought to mind Howard Rheingold’s work, James Martin’s Institute, and the conversation across edublogs about what Will Richardson is calling Connective Writing, and the countering fear some administrators, teachers and parents have of blogs/wikis/podcasts being in school at all. Control Vs. Connection, Conversation, and Reflection. How both so simple and so daunting it is to teach effectively right now as we ride “the knee curve of change,” but how hopeful to see so many teachers moving to social software, writing and talking about it in these blog communities.

A classroom is no place for lectures.
A classroom is no place for lectures.

A classroom is where we should be unteaching unclasses, much the same way that conferences are evolving into unconferences—conversations and recaps, reflections and ongoing dialogue, group projects emerging, re-examinations, mini-lessons and mini-presentations in a series of interlinked spirals flowing through and around the learner. Take Brian Lamb’s post today, the Quickie Folksonomy Screencast in which he gives us a spin through some basics of tagging, and how in dispersed learning communities tagging can add a personal dimension to the community. Add such connectors and conversation outside of class to a group of students who have the luxury, too, of being together in the same physical space engaging with the materials and the processes of the discipline– and, well, imagine such an Economics, Sociology, History, Chemistry, English classroom…. We tap into what Chris Sessums writes about in his December 5 Post: Taking Back the University.

I walked away from Jay’s presentation thinking that I’ve got to do a better job in my own classroom. I struggle to find the balance between all the pieces, all the responsibilities facing us as teachers of writing. This semester my students made huge leaps in their writing; the visual, connected nature of the blog helped—they could see their progress and that of their peers; the podcasts, the image work—it all worked very well indeed. Read Hana’s final reflection to see how she consulted the work of her peers for guidance, inspiration, and a roadmap. And today I received an email from one of these students, already home for the break, who was showing his old teacher his blog. How powerful.

But I did not teach them the grammar and purpose of connecting to one another in conversation, through comments, trackbacks, tagging and blog discussions—I just let that magnificent and central aspect of classroom blogging slip right by us for the first time since I’ve taught with blogs. In part, I wanted to see what would happen without it. And yes, they progressed very nicely as individual writers without the connection–as they should– as they have, though more slowly, without computers.

In the past, that would have been enough. But not anymore. It can’t be. They did not discover the whys and hows of connective writing, not really, and how feathering into the world and into one another’s writing online would have given them an entirely new sense of an academic community, of writing, of the the future and their place in it. And if we heed Jay Cross’s words, we cannot ignore the new literacies.

Two recent stories involving former students speak to the power of publishing out to the Web (even a couple of years ago before the explosion into the Web 2.0). In a creative writing class, a student wrote a poem about a Holocaust survivor, someone real of whom she had read—the real person died a few months ago, and when his granddaughter Googled him out of curiosity, she came across the poem. She emailed my student, telling her how true to her grandfather it was and how it had moved her. My student was amazed. And just today, I received an email out of the blue about a piece a student had written two years ago, the emailer wondering if he was still writing and wanting to know more about the piece. I forwarded the email to the student, who was delighted and —yes—amazed. And the World Bloggers–these students blogged with me (for the mostpart) some two years ago–before I was doing podcasting, tagging, much image work–and look at them grappling together with the thorny issues of studying abroad. What I focussed on in those classes was connecting through comments, discussion and trackbacks–. They spent time examining the dynamics if the group and the learning through our blogging.

And of course, one of the problems we teachers-using-blogs face is the timeliness, the present-ness of the blogging experience when our students come and go so quickly from our courses. Comments left weeks later don’t always get noticed—commenters don’t always return once they leave a comment to see if the dialogue has continued. The learning moment shimmers and vanishes, a new moment taking its place in quick succession. Until we figure out how to create a more fluid learning landscape where our students can experience the rat-a-tat of in-the-moment learning alongside slower, letter-like correspondance, we’ll struggle a bit to make the blogging work as well as it might.

Another problem is that we have trained students so well to believe that the last place they see the power of connection, it seems, is within the classroom. And that is, I believe, because in some ways it is the only place where they have little authority and they accept that role with rather startling willingness–it is the job of the teacher, they’ve been told, to tell them what to do and how to do it, what’s wrong with their papers, and what’s wrong with their thinking. This is how we tend to teach.

The Web invites us to do otherwise. But until we help them understand the grammar of connection, of the various kinds of connection, we cannot expect our students to be ready for the kinds of convulsive change we are experiencing in the world of knowledge production and collaboration. This is where the writing classroom can, instead of being marginalized as it is in many academic quarters, play a central role in the future of education.

And that is exactly what I need to return to next semester–to the connections as well as the elements–and to do so means slowing down some, and then watching the students explore, invent, and create things I couldn’t possibly have predicted.


Reflections on a Semester Winding Down

Classes wrap up this week, and judging by the sleep-deprived faces floating about the library, the end can come none too soon. Across the country, on campus after campus it’s happening–the exam-period zombie dance. Assessment and evaluation, assessment and evaluation, assessment and evaluation: it’s about making it through those last papers, those three-hour exams, and out the door for break. Freedom!

Isn’t there something odd about this? Shouldn’t they leave craving the next course, the next opportunity to hang around a bunch of motivated fellow thinkers and work through some relevant, interesting problems together? There’s got to be a better way to end a semester, a more creative, satisfying, rewarding way to move out of a course (if we have to teach/learn in a course system at all). To that end, instead of wearing everyone out, making sure they don’t want to see another book for weeks by backloading the semester with term papers, projects and exams as we are wont to do in American higher ed, I’ve removed the final BIG project/paper/exam from my syllabus. And I am not relying on the portfolio alone which gathers together the semester’s work but does not necessarily take it to a place where students are jazzed about the next step. Instead, my students are playing around with bits and pieces from the course in personal narratives and revisions, both pushing into territory they’ve never before attempted to enter in their writing, and seeing how far they’ve come by looking back–not to be tested on the material, but to reflect on how they met their objectives and those of the course.

And from the one-on-one conferences I’ve had with them this week, I do see them engaging with their writing enthusiastically and successfully. Many of them have taken risks in this last piece and far exceeded their own expectations. They are not worn out.

I’ve asked my first-year students to write detailed reflective narratives on their journey through the semester, to be posted with the bit-and-pieces project on Friday. Narrative reflections are essential in my classes, just as regular, ongoing self-evaluation is throughout the course–the more closely I get the students to examine, understand and appreciate both the conventions of academic writing and their own processes and outcomes, the more they will see how their own development approaches those conventions, the more they will focus on learning instead of on grades, the more they will internalize the learning, the more they will learn, and the less I need to TEST or evaluate them through major final works. Know thyself. As Carol Rolheiser and John A. Ross outline in their article, Student Self-evaluation: What Research Says and What Practice Shows, “Research indicates that self-evaluation plays a key role in fostering an upward cycle in learning.” (p.3) And as they also say, the key to making student self-evaluation work, is “teach[ing} students to do so effectively.” (p.4)

In those reflections, I know that they’ll write about their reluctance (read that, resistance) giving up the iPODS and digital still cameras they have had on loan all semester, but they will also take detailed, patient looks back at the arc of the semester, thinking about how close they came to meeting the objectives they set up in September. The value of this last-of-many written reflections is pretty obvious: to take stock of what and how they have learned should give them a sense of accomplishment and confidence and new goals; and to articulate the many strategies they have tried out reinforces them, creating a kind of self-produced blueprint to take with them. I don’t want them to abandon the techniques they’ve worked so hard to develop or the connectedness they’ve experienced within our writing collaborative. And of course, this is the toughest part of teaching in a department-discipline-semester system: moving between the courses and the semesters, carrying the learning–the excitement for learning–forward into the following semester as well as across courses. Helping them to see the writing workshop as just the opening of the door is challenging– at this point in the semester, I am worrying about what goes on for them beyond this time and space of WP100.

Last evening I did what I always do at this point in the semester–I started telling stories about my students. My family indulges me, first of all because my students are so interesting, and secondly because they know they just have to let me do my storytelling if I am going to be able to move out of this semester and into the next. Telling the stories keeps them present, and has me, well, yes…reflecting…

And so, as fellow learner in this classroom, I need to write a reflection of the semester, of the lessons I want to take with me about classroom adventures with podcasting and blogging, stories-without-words and digital stories; with conferences and workshops; with interactions in the blogosphere–the fullness of the work as one bit overlaps and folds into another. (Those former students of mine who read this blog will, for sure, be snickering to themselves right about now as they see me write the R word over and over again. They’ve been there.)

Reflecting on the work outside the classroom will take me into another post–but here–while it’s fresh, is a quick overview of the semester’s technology-related lessons:

In the Class
Interweaving podcasting, writing and image-work (I suppose in some instances we could call this digital storytelling, but in others, I have the students keep the media absolutely separate, or paired) as a process of writing both made writing fresh for essay-weary students and cleared up some of the mysteries of writing.

Sound work
In the past I have had students record pieces they had written or poems of their classmates–but I had not had them use the iPOD (and iTALK) to record reflections, responses, analyses, oral versions of papers, bits and pieces of their papers as they were being written. (Here’s the post that details some of the uses and examples from the semester.) Duh. This use now seems to logical, so obvious to me. After all, I used to advise auditory learners to use a tape recorder as they wrote their papers. Listening to what we say and how we say it is a revelation. Being able to return again and again to snippets that we record–as we write–trying our ideas out with words into the air as well as on the page? A brilliant help to many students. Moving between iPOD and pen and computer can jostle ideas from the brain, help with clear articulation of thoughts, and makes sense to this generation that increasingly moves quickly between the tools many of them routinely use. They heard how they stumbled over the rough parts of their writing; they heard the flow of thought and grammar. The key was to keep the audio excerpts brief–we weren’t after radio talk shows here; we were using our voices to develop our writing.

I’ve been having my writers write without words a la John Berger for years now. Being able to do it on the Web allows for sharing (and thus collaborative learning), for archiving, and for eventual inclusion in text-based or digital-narrative essays.
The visual learners, of course, benefitted greatly from assignments such as stories-without-words, and finding images that express something about the meaning they were trying to convey with language. Taking language away helped students to understand how words actually work–something quite difficult for many students to understand–to really understand–in this language-swamped world. They also felt that working in images often helped pull ideas, still murky and disconnected, into the light, returning them to sharp, striking language and clear thinking. The non-visual learners initially found it challenging to do this kind of work, but they, too, found it both interesting and beneficial to be pulled out of their own comfortable ways of approaching subjects. Here’s a post from September when I am thinking about how to use images in the classroom–it’s helpful to go back and see what I wanted to do and what I actually did do.

Blogging and Not Blogging
With this first-level writing class, I dispensed with some of the more intensive blogging that I do with other classes. I pared down the on-line responding and discussing, but wish I had not done so–they missed out on learning about getting their ideas across quickly and succinctly from active written discussion; and they missed out on how working that closely together builds an incredibly strong learning community (reading one another’s posts and looking at them together in class helped). Trouble is there’s not enough time and these kids are pummeled by homework in their classes. Balance, balance…

Near the end of the semester I had the students leave their computers altogether for assignments: with paper and pen, copying out beautifully written paragraphs to feel the words unfold in the own hands. And then they had to play with words, write paragraphs of their own following the sentence patterns of the copied paragraphs.. only then did they return to computers, posting the two versions, sharing this work and archiving it. This is still one of best writing lessons in my repertoire, and it is, of course one of the oldest. And it is the one that worries them–“Isn’t this plagiarizing?” they ask. A wonderful teaching/learning moment.

Notes for the Next Time Out
~~Pull in a high school or elementary-school classroom for a collaboration between grades. Let the younger students help loosen up the college kids and reconnect them with the fun while the younger kids benefit from having a writing buddy who will also be a terrific source of information about college.

~~Pull “experts’ from the outside onto the blog to talk with the students about Vermont when we get to the research about the area.

~~Help students realize that their readers would rather be moved by what they read than dazzled. Go back into Bloom’s Taxonomy–in the affective as well as cognitive realms, much as Mike Arnzen has recently done.

~~Have this group of students really blog rather than merely post writing to the blog. Practicing the more informal voice of the blog as well as blog conversations and tracking back to one another’s posts would provide additional opportunities for community-bonding, writing practice, and self-review as the students see how their ideas and responded to by their peers.

~~Try out a wiki for the building of collaborative research projects.

And keep to the side of things as much as possible, letting the learning collaborative evolve authentically.

2005 Edublog Nominations

The 2005 International Edublog Awards Nominations have been announced, and I am honored, delighted, and well, just plain old floored to be on the Shortlist alongside some of my heroes and mentors in this work, including Will Richardson, Stephen Downes, Adrian Miles, Dave Warlick, and George Siemensamong many others.

To my surprise, bgblogging has been nominated in the “Best Individual Blog” category, and my spot on EdTechTalk with Dave Cormier and Jeff Lebow made it into two categories, “Best example/case study of use of weblogs within teaching and learning” and “Most Influential post, resource or presentation.” What is particularly rewarding is being nominated with Dave and Jeff–their work in bringing educators from all over the planet for lively discussions has gone a long way towards giving a wide range of educators a real sense of community.

I’m also quite astonished to be nominated next to Will Richardson, whose work has really made a big difference to teachers of all grades–he has a way of including everyone while pushing the thinking; Stephen Downes, who has had such a profound impact on edublogging, and Ulises Ali Mejias, whose work I am just coming to know.

When I first started blogging with my students in the fall of 2001, I had little inkling that by the fall of 2005, my own blogging, and the reading of the magnificently inventive, insightful, and bold edublogs out there would be as instrumental to my teaching as the work with blogs and multimedia narrative and podcasting with my students has been inside the classroom. I had no idea that this new kind of community would form between educators online–not strictly through discussions, but through reading one another’s posts, looking into one another’s classrooms, hearing one another’s podcasts and then synthesizing the learning and weaving it into our own teaching practices. To think of where these next four years will take us…wow…

Learning from Teachers Outside My Realm

snowsumac.jpg redsea.jpg lastleaves.jpg
For once I found myself with a free hour just when Worldbridges was about to go on with the latest Edtechtalk, with guests Bud Hunt and Bob Sprankle, both inventive, grounded and clearly gifted teachers using technology in elementary and high school classrooms. I don’t get much chance to connect with colleagues in the lower grades–there just really aren’t many opportunities, or at least before now there haven’t been…

Since last April, Bob’s third graders have been making weekly podcaststhird graders. (In third grade I was copying letters, practicing times tables and trying to avoid getting into trouble with my oh-so-scary teacher. ) I love the way he has kids summarizing highlights from the week (Word-of-the-week ‘s use of interviews was terrific, for instance). Bob talked a bit about how devoting time to the weekly shows has helped his students develop their speaking and writing voices, understand the flow of sentences, and consolidate the learning for the week. It’s such a great and easy idea–what a natural in the elementary school environment! Imagine what students reaching my doors are going to be able to do and want to do if they are podcasting and making on-line newsletters in third grade. College teachers had better wake up!

Bud is an avid blogger and sponsor/keeper of a wiki being built by his students and anyone else who wants to contribute useful entries about blogging and blogging protocol, such as The Sample Blog Acceptable Use Policy. Here’s an example of a community-generated set of guidelines and examples, another model other classrooms could either add to or try out for themselves. His students are using the process to help others approach blogs and wikis–authentic, efficacious learning.

For me the highlight of the discussion came with the question (Jeff’s?) about what was the value of reflective blogging to the teachers themselves. Bud, Dave and Bob all concurred that blogging has transformed their classrooms–the way they approach teaching has shifted as they spend more time talking and learning and articulating their goals. Dave (I think it was Dave–it’s not so easy on a teleconference/webcast to tell who is speaking at any given moment) also mentioned the power of community, how he feels as though he has colleagues and peers through these connections. He listens in his car to podcasts and feels as though someone has reached right into his space and taught him something. I agree with the flow of ideas and comraderie in this connecting blog-to-blog, oidcast-to iPOD, chatroom-to-webcast. I commented on how keeping my own blog has made reciprocal apprenticeships (see Pierre Levy’s Collective Intelligence) in my classroom a reality, including me in the learning circle. Ever since my students first wandered onto my blog, leaving me some pretty remarkable comments, I have realized that indeed I am a guide and a mentor, a little more experienced, but truly a fellow learner. Of course the fact that I have to evaluate them creates a tension here and something I’ll blog about soon– ways of evaluating student work within a learning collaborative. For now, there’s some interesting discussion going on over on my students’ Blogging-the-World blog about their feelings about evaluation and grades. Conversing with a skype-room full of interested and accomplished teachers was both fun and instructive.

Just as when I was studying fiction writing I would hang around with the poets to hear how they put language together instead of my fellow fiction writers who were covering the same ground as I was–I think I should spend more time on the blogs of of high school and elementary school teachers–I have a lot to learn from them. It’s a bit like the collaborations I had my creative writers do with a local fifth-grade classroom–ostensibly it was my class doing the tutoring and mentoring, when in reality they were the ones reaping the enormous reward of being sent back into a time in their own lives when they had let their imaginations roam, when language was fresh and full of play.

We should do something about getting teachers from across the educational spectrum using social software and other Web technologies together in an un-conference conference, both via webcast and in person–I don’t know of any such get-togethers that are aimed at K-16 teachers, REALLY for us all to sit down together. At least we have venues like Worldbridges bringing us together, in a relaxed conversation, to learn from one another, share, and find this sort of community free from the kinds of boundaries we often find in other parts of the educational world.