Creativity and Discomfort in the Classroom and on the Web

These past couple of days I have been torn between writing a quick post in response to the NYT article about students emailing their professors inappropriately, or pointing out (as usual) the ways in which online relationships are having a positive impact on my students’ learning experiences, or to highlighting posts from around the blogsphere about classroooms and creativity. The more I think about it, the more I have to write about them together — the tensions arising in email and classroom behavior are whiffs of actual positive if currently painful shifts in classroom dynamics and learning environments, and point to opportunities that if we keep our heads, are profoundly creative. And so, I admit, I rather enjoy the growing pains.

The letters appearing in last Thursday’s NYT in response to the article outlining some of the most extreme cases of students emailing their professors remind me of conversations I have had with my sister-in-law epidemiologist/doctor about how students sometimes jump onto listservs and discussion forums with world authorities on, say, malaria and ask the most basic–read that dumb– questions that could be answered by picking up any textbook. There’s little sensitivity on the part of these students to the context, the level, the chemistry of the conversation. It’s somewhat the same thing when we sit in the airport just to have the person sitting across from us dive into a cellphone conversation loudly and publicly. It chafes. It irks. And it’s fascinating if you think about it, how people pull up and over them a scrim of insulation even in public, online or not, that detaches them from old norms of etiquette. Yes, we have a whole new generation in our midst that expects immediate answers, click-and-receive right NOW consumerism. So what do we as educators do about this? Tear our hair out? Complain? Distance ourselves from such behavior by barricading ourselves within our own righteousness?

On the one hand there are teachers who somehow seem to expect that students just naturally should know something about email etiquette and the parameters guiding student-professor relationships. I was relieved, then, to see that most of the letter writers got right to the heart of the matter–if you choose to use email as a means of communication with your students, you have to set guidelines, just as you do phone calls, just as you do classroom etiquette. Some students may choose to ignore those rules–that happens. It always has happened. When I was a first-year high school teacher many years ago, I remember having a couple of fist fights break out in my rural classroom; I remember a student swearing at me to my face in front of the class. I remember a parent threatening to sue me if I didn’t pass her son in tenth-grade English. It happened. It was awful, but after a while, I figured out how to turn those low spots into learning moments for the entire class, and really interesting things started to happen for us all as a result–that’s what we’re here for, yes, to get them to think creatively and critically about themselves and the world? No matter our discipline, no matter the age group?

And then there’s the letter posted by an adjunct professor from Brooklyn College:

While I agree that e-mail is a double-edged sword, there are instances where it can be very helpful.

One of my students last semester had oral surgery that left his jaw wired shut for much of the semester. During that time, the class was reading Plato’s “Republic,” and my silenced student was bursting at the seams to express his reactions to the text. He sent me a long, thoughtful e-mail message, and I encouraged him to continue e-mailing his comments (to which I responded) for as long as he could not open his mouth in class.

The resulting e-mail exchange proved very enriching and rewarding for me as a teacher and, I presume, for this young man as a student.

A thoughtful response by someone who is a caring teacher through and through. But I also felt, what a waste–the entire class could have benefitted from the written exchange between these two–a blog, a blog, I yelled at the article! That lovely learning moment would have rippled out and potentially touched all the other learning moments of the course and all of the learners through linking, connecting and transparency, through inviting the conversation instead of transacting the simple exchange. This kind of conversation creates opportunities for deep and appropriate connections between learners and teachers. Take a look at my previous posting here, for example, and the comments it generated. Of the five comments thus far, one is from a professor-blogging cohort in Ohio, one is from an artist in Barcelona, and three are from my students blolgging from abroad. Look at how these twenty-year-olds are taking their current learning experiences in other classes and out in the world and applying them to what I bring up in my posting! If we kept to the old distances between professor and student, would Piya be deepening her understanding of Barthes by proposing how my post might reflect the theory? Would she even read what I write? Would poet Oliver extend and push her thinking if not on the blog? The Brooklyn prof and his student conversing on a blog could have sparked classroom discussions that would have taken all the students much further in their inquiry than they can go without these kinds of written exchanges. The teacher can at once delineate the appropriate kinds of interactions within the learning group while creating a dynamic, resilient learning collaborative where the students become far more interested in what they are learning than in any grade. My students call me Barbara. They email me. They do not abuse the privilege–they are incredibly respectful of my time, space and role. They push me on my blog–respectfully, fondly. And it isn’t about death of the teacher–it is about the birth of a new kind of teacher. I am still here setting up situations, designing assignments, asking questions, giving feedback–but so are the students. I spend time with them thinking about voice, audience, writing situation. Every discipline has its own demands, and our students need opportunities to learn and to influence the discourse, both informal and formal.

…Which brings me to the notion of the age of the classroom as studio, (as brought up byDave Warlick citing Richard Florida’s talk about the creativity age: “The classroom should look more like a studio.”). Our students are experiencing the tension between old classroom models and new, between the time spent together and the time online, between the teacher as authority and the teacher as guide, between learning as individual’s endeavor and as social activity. I see this tension as marvelously fruitful for a teacher: on the one hand we still have the luxury of sitting in classrooms, talking with one another about the subject of inquiry, learning through discussion, through example, through demonstration and, yes, through the occasional lecture. But my students–even those initially anti-blog–are already seeing the benefits of the blog: they are being inspired by one another’s writing; they take comfort in reading reflections from their classmates that match their own misgivings; they see their own growth from draft to draft right there on the blog; they are giving and getting thoughtful, meaningful feedback. Instead of speeding up the inquiry, the blog is throwing them deeper into each assignment, asking them to think and write and respond with care. They know they are being read by artists from dispatx, some even getting feedback and links at this early stage. They are learning from one another, from me, from experts, and–from the emerging learning expereince itself. Pretty remarkable in a couple of weeks.

And then there are my world bloggers who continue to surprise and delight me with their observations and revelations– Lizi is discovering precisely why we have study abroad programs at all:

In an essay entitled “Compression Wood,” Franklin Burroughs says of language:”But when you are using it all the time, talking to yourself even when you are trying to listen to somebody else, language doesn’t seem revolutionary at all. It seems like self-generated static.” Russian, hard as it may be, turns conversations and words alive again. My fear of speaking infuses the revolution back into language. The tool turns tempting again.

And if it is true that language does determine thought, and that the staleness of language prevents the expression of new perceptions, then the resurrection of language must yield fresh, if not new, thoughts.

Being abroad has renewed my tools–place, language, thought. I feel like Tolstoy must have felt as he fled his wife dressed in peasant clothes: free.”

That she can and would articulate such a moment means to me that she is deeply engaged in her learning and reveling in the experience.

Lizi in Siberia and Amanda, who has recently started blogging from Scotland are pushing one another blog-to-blog to write honestly and openly, as well as providing comfort and encouragement when things get rough. They are living the experience creatively. Jean Burgess (who, by the way, keeps an absolute must-read blog) has a recent post on dispersed creativity which speaks to what I think it is that my students abroad are actually doing, albeit inadevertently (unlike the deliberate work of an artistic collaborative such as dispatx) when she quotes Fibreculture Journal: “Distributed aesthetics, then, concerns experiences that are sensed, lived and produced in more than one place and time. ”

What we teachers feel as upheaval in these new fluid classrooms is learning how to work with distributed aesthetics as well as the safe, predictable deliverable goods of the syllabus, the text, the classroom rules. It’s bumpy, but seeing what my students here have already accomplished in two weeks and across the globe over lonely months as far as opening to their imaginations, to one another, and to learning–it’s why I’m in this work.


Influences on a Vermont College Classroom: An Australian Conference, a Virtual Arts Collaborative coming out of Barcelona, and a Student Blogging from Cambodia

On the long long journey from Australia to Vermont a couple of weeks ago, I pitched my creative writing syllabus on its head (the course, Introduction to Creative Writing, covers nonfiction, fiction and poetry, and is required for anyone wanting to do a creative writing project senior year). Now to be sure, my sections of this course are a bit different from most. I have an extra workshop evening every week built into the schedule because the online work makes the students crave even more together time to talk over the talk on the blogs. I am also the kind of teacher who is always switching texts, playing with assignments, alert to the needs of a specific learning collaborative. Although I let the students know right from the get-go the general parameters of the course–the individual units we’ll cover, the books they need to purchase–I never post more than three weeks of assignments at a time. How do I know before I meet them, see what they know and how they write, and–most importantly–how they interact as a strong, open learning community, how I might best guide them? I believe wholeheartedly in having a huge stockpile of exercises and assignments in my pocket, and then ditching them all for something that evolves, that emerges from the learning community and the learning moment. We did just that in Thursday’s class during a lively discussion of what Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” has to teach us about writing–we launched into a five-minute story writing exercise I made up on the spot to try out some of the devices she used. I believe that if we teachers listen hard enough to our students, and we teach them how to listen to themselves, they will guide the teaching and learning process themselves, both on their own as individual learners with differing needs and styles, and peer-to-peer (something they MUST be able to do in the workplace). So I am comfortable viewing the course as a living organism that will often take us places unanticipated at the beginning of the semester or even at the beginning of the class hour. This is an essential characteristic, I believe, of a successful blogging teacher. That being said, I have typically opened the semester with creative nonfiction, moved to fiction and ended with poetry. It made sense. For many many years.

But after being inspired and moved by presentation after presentation at First Person: The International Digital Storytelling Conference by the work people are doing bringing digital storytelling to communities often without voices in the world, I knew I had to move digital stories and real blogging (versus posting your assignments to the blog) right to the opening days of the semester. The process of creating digital stories fosters a powerful sense of belonging to a community as well as giving participants a sense of their own voices–take a look at the stories from the project Amy Hill from The Center of Digital Storytelling presented out of Silence Speaks; or look at the extraordinary work coming out of the Museum of the Person. What I love about these projects is their focus on the story and the person rather than on the art or the achievement–the urge to share, to communicate, to remember publicly, and the lack of self-consciousness. We need to inject a bit of that urgency of expression into higher ed, a world framed by the need to master material and skills, each ultimately alone in this endeavor to succeed.

College students are told repeatedly to aspire to greatness, to achieve, to excel, to “get it right.” They do not pause very often to examine themselves and their own stories and thier imaginations and how they affect those around them. And yet, when they do, they often connect even more deeply with their learning and their life goals–they keep the parts of themselves balanced, in perspective. And so, to place experimentation, imagination, and community right up front in the course, I have plunged us into digital storytelling and blogging from the opening day. I have resisted setting up many guidelines for the stories–I want them to feel their way to their stories from this moment here in time. And right now, many of them are surely thinking that I have lost my mind–they look for the due dates; the detailed, clear instructions for success; and they really wonder why we aren’t just sticking to notebooks and keeping their creative writing, for the mostpart, private, between covers where for many of them it has lived since they were children, or slipped to the professor only when absolutely necessary. Ha! I am most fortunate to be able to distribute cameras and iPODS to my students for the semester, which I have done, and they are now drafting 100-200 word scripts–voiceovers–and taking photos and recording sounds. They are moving into image worlds and sound worlds with an alertness and a playfulness, and then we will press image and sound and text up against one another to see what happens. Through this process, they will find themselves growing close to one another, develop their media literacy skills, crack open the imagination and dare not to achieve greatness, but understanding. It’s about the process, baby.

And we will blog–sharing the bumps, the pleasures, the questions, the discoveries. Already they feel self-conscious about posting, but that they are writing about that self-consciousness in their opening posts shows a willingness to speak honestly. Even i this opening week, the comments they leave one another illustrate already what the connectedness of social software can do for our students–they do not feel isolated in their learning, and if they feel a connection with others, well then, they will engage with the learning opportunities the group offers. We are trying to guide these students towards active citizenship, yes? Already students are asking one another to look at photos snapped and first inklings of stories–they crave feedback and connection–in person and virtually (more on that another time).

At the same time, we will look at another artist collaborative–this one purely virtual, undertaking group projects that will unfold in plain sight, drafts and ideas posted to blogs where the world may venture to question, comment and suggest. These are professional artists–writers, visual artists, musicians–and we will learn from their journey, daring to leave comments even from our more tender position of the novice-apprentice. My students will learn by looking at the work of experts–the process of creating. I’m interested to see how dispatx’s new project–the first they’ve done with the blogging component–turns out, how we might help them and they us.

And finally, the new course blog looks to me quite different from the old ones–I have linked bgblogging to the Motherblog, and started a new bgnotes side blog (more on this in an upcoming post) as well as helping the students dive right into the very very public pool. It has been watching my students valiantly blogging from abroad with insight, thoughtful reflection, and honesty, that has helped me in large part develop my thinking on classsroom blogging. I have a couple of posts steeping about them, but today I bring in Remy’s postings about how this trip and blogging and the responses he’s received (most responders have, interestingly enough, chosen to write him emails rather than post their comments) have made him look at truth, fact, point of view and story with new eyes. The feedback he receives follows so quickly on the heels of his posting that he can see right away how his writing is received, how his ideas hold up, and how he may need to retract, revise, reconsider. And there’s no teacher, no authority telling him he’s right or wrong. These are discoveries he’s making on his own through the traveling and the blogging. He articulates quite forcefully the role blogging is playing in this remarkable journey here and here and here.

And so here I am, a veteran teacher who could pull out the same old syllabus year after year, instead discovering, discovering, pushing my teaching through learning from my students, from the online world and from my own travels… and if we don’t grow in and through our teaching practice, why do we teach at all?

Moving back into classroom blogging means finding a blogging reading and writing practice for myself

As I run pellmell into a new semester, I find myself needing to look outward to the conversations going on in the edublogosphere in concert with my focus on the day-to-day goings on in the classroom. I cruise through the stories and observations of the week, from Ewan McIntosh losing his blog (argh!), to Will Richardson contemplating his future (There’s a whole new level of energy in his blogging–if that’s even possible– even with his grueling travel and work schedule during these last months in his current job), to the reflections coming out of ELI (especially about Bryan’s presentation–I feel honored that his instructional technologist character includes bgblogging in his blogroll–now I KNOW I’ve arrived if my real world blogging has hit the rolls of the virtual character bloggers!) and Northern Voices recaps here and in an Edtechtalk skypecast with Doug Symington, to the planning going on over at the 2006 BlogHer Conference. It is a busy blogging season indeed out there and not so easy to stay up with when I’m also immersed in a fulltime job as teacher that only has to do with social software and digital storytelling because I choose to teach writing and literature classes this way, not because I teach technology or new media studies.

But read blogs regularly I must, yes, to stay up with the developments in the software–and more importantly– with the thinking about how the new connnectedness changes our educational landscapes, but also, and crucially for me as a teacher, to keep myself thinking clearly about what I am trying to accomplish in my classroom, how and why. It’s what I do before thinking about the week ahead in the classroom. Reading about the new world of EFL teaching through Barbara Dieu, Aaron Campbell and Marco Polo, although not at all my field, informs my teaching through their inventive ways of connecting learners, connecting with one another, and thinking creatively about teaching in second languages. The same goes for Barbara Sawhill’s language lab unleashed. Closer to my teaching home are the essays of Chris Sessums or the classroom stories of James Matthew in Vancouver–always thought-provoking.

And then there’s the inimitable Geeky Mom who somehow manages to weave personal entries about home and family life with what’s going on in her dissertation and in her teaching life. She has two recent posts that really speak to me–“In which I describe my own misbehaving, a post that has me thinking about the ways in which we must, even on the college level, keep guiding our students towards media literacy–the ethics and etiquette of posting to the web, something I’ve blogged about before, and want to return to soon, and which I must keep ever present in my thinking as I walk into the blogging classroom; and a post from a couple of days ago–“Finding Balance: Parenting and Working which touches upon gender issues still nagging us. I’m really noticing how women seem to be blogging the quiet details of life, the classroom experiences, or attending to thier classroom blogs rather than also bursting out into the larger edublogosphere with the big picture. There are plenty of important women theorists: (Jill Walker, danah boyd, Liz Lawley, Lilia Efimova or Kathy Sierra, to name just a few) and plenty of classroom users of technology, but relatively few Anne Davises or <a href=”Laura Blankenships who are writing from within the teaching classroom about the larger issues of education. Interesting. And I hope to do more looking into this phenomenon soon to see if I’m even right about this observation.

And so I no longer sleep in on Saturday mornings–I get up at dawn to read the week’s blogs, to mull them over, to mull over the book reading (right now W J. T. Mitchell’s What Images Want)and the digital storytelling work and classroom explorations and revelations of the week and the web artists (to whom, I think, edubloggers should be paying much more attention for the way they are thinking about collaboration and creativity on the Web–more next post). And if I’m lucky, I bring the lessons gleaned from that reading right back into my teaching and thinking about learning ecologies. Today it means I’ve got two posts brewing–but I’m trying out a new shorter post kind of writing to see if I can actually write less-than-extended essays which, I am sure, bore most blog-readers silly, so I’ll leave this musing here, and return soon to write about the actual impact my reading and writing and conference-going practice are having on this semester’s classroom experience.

Vodcast of Digital Storytelling Talk for First Person Conference

If you’re interested in hearing & seeing a version of the talk I gave in Melbourne on digital storytelling in higher education, you can now, in addition to reading the text version (which includes all citations and links to the original files of all sorts). Here is the vodcast–be forewarned–it is 20 minutes long! I do know that ACMI plans to link the audiocasts of the talks off their site at some point. (Also, to keep the file size manageable, I’ve compressed it to a bit of a tinnier sound than I’d like… And so, I am also adding the audio file on its own.)

Start with the Introduction, and then watch the digital story. Originally the voiceover consisted of me talking live at the conference, so I am sure the recording will come off as much less interesting than the real thing. Give me a group a people, I say, and watch me get passionate about a topic!


Digital Storytelling and Higher Education: Context, Community and Imagination

Audio version only (with long silences where the digital-stories-within-the-digital-story play)

Back from Australia…

I’m suffering a bit from the effects of winging to Melbourne and back for a weekend, but was it ever worth it. I met people doing truly inspiring work with digital stories and communities, and had the pleasure of presenting on digital stories the first day, and then on a blogging panel with Adrian Miles and Jean Burgess, both of whom have done significant research and presenting in the field. Reflections about their presentations, my own and the conference in general will find their way here over the next few days, but right now I am busy pulling up spring course blogs and catching up on the million things I missed in a week.
(I mean, leave the country for a second and all kinds of things happen in the edublogosphere, such as Will Richardson quitting his job!).

For now, I am posting the text version of my first talk, “Digital Storytelling and HIgher Education: Context, Community and Imagination.” I’ll post the audio version soon, too, and then the vodcast.

First Person: International Digital Storytelling Conference Melbourne, Australia, Feb 3-5, 2006

Saturday, February 4 Panel—Storytelling and the Digital Generation

(My presentation consisted of a twenty-minute digital story running behind me–at least the images and soundtrack, did. I was the voiceover, in real-time, in person.)

Introduction (Before the digital story kicks in):

I’m about to experiment here with a digital story of sorts as presentation—some of the examples you will see are excerpts from longer works. I’d like to thank my students for sharing their work. (If you are reading this text without watching the visuals, know that there are stretches of silent voiceover when the visuals and soundtrack tell the story without my voice. I place in bold font where significant slides and excerpts from my students’ digital stories fall. –I hope this makes some sense!)

I teach in a well-known liberal arts college (a small university) in the U.S., a school known for its writing, languages and international programs. Its students go on to hold prominent positions in government and the professions, though many graduates go on in nonprofit work. This is not the first place people think of in terms of digital storytelling as social activism, or groundbreaking work with communities. And yet it is precisely the kind of place where we also need digital storytelling—to open this generation to the relationship between personal context, imagination and civic responsibility in order to combat the racism, social and economic injustice that John O’Neal and Joe Lambert spoke of earlier. It is not enough to work with the communities long without a voice. We must also shift the power dynamic by opening the hearts and minds of those who traditionally have walked into positions of power.

Continue reading

Blogging from the Southern Hemisphere

Today is the final day of the remarkable First Person: The International Digital Storytelling Conference co-sponsored by The Center for Digital Storytelling in Berkeley and by the conference host, The Australian Museum of the Moving Image in Melbourne. First off, I have to say that a blast of Aussie mid-summer has done this Vermont girl a world of good. Add to that this splendid, beautiful city (ah, the parks, the parks!) and the fabulous museum itself–well, this conference has a whole lot going for it without even attending a single session.

But of course the conference itself is wonderful on many, many levels, and as usual, I am learning far more than I am teaching. Leaving my own realm is always inspiring and invigorating–meeting people (most of the conference attendees and speakers come from the Southern Hemisphere) who share the same outlook and hope for the world, who think about education and community very much as I do, and yet bring to the conversation quite a different set of experiences and realities reassures me that this work really is evolving in significant ways. We’ve seen digital storytelling projects in indigenous communities, across the African diaspora, in schools, hospitals–you name it. What connects us all is the sense of the transformative process that digital stories gives us in our work with individuals and communities.

I will post reflections over the next days, as well as my real-time digital story (a twenty-minute digital story played behind me as I narrated it live–yes, I’m crazy, but fortunately it went without a hitch) for my talk yesterday on digital storytelling in higher education (I will post it as a vodcast, I hope), and the notes and slides for my talk today on blogging as community storytelling, but for now, I do want to note a couple of interesting sites and projects people have shared over the past day:

UsMob–a Choose-Your-Own Adventure series meant to honor the voices of Aborigine children as well as to educate all of us.

Youth Internet Radio which connects youth from all over Queensland through radio production.


More to come…