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?