Memory, Experience, and Online Conferences

I’ve steered clear of them, I have to admit–online conferences, that is.

I read the descriptions, which usually sound interesting, and what’s better, you can come and go at will, deciding what to follow and what to ignore–you can surf the sessions, in other words, until you light on something that holds your interest. In other words, you won’t embarrass anyone by ducking out of a session, and you can alway come back at leisure if the sessions are archived. You can return again and again, in fact. Most significantly, (at least in theory– if the online conference costs are minimal) online conferences bring together people from across the world (again in theory — if the participants have online access and share a language) in dialogue about shared interests and research, giving participants access to speakers, information, and opportunities to discuss the subject that in the past may have remained out of reach. The conversation can be shifted to embrace multiple cultural perspectives. In the best of these formats, no one person is the show or dictates the conversation. Sounds pretty ideal.

But I still don’t like them.

For one, I find it difficult to juggle various channels and chatrooms, listening & watching & responding, asking questions, attending to side conversations all at once. I really don’t like listening and talking at the same time, and chat rooms can get distracting. There can be too much to absorb–I can’t hold onto it all, or remember who said what. It can feel like a perpetual waterfall of interruptions. Hmmm…sounds like the kind of environment that feels natural to my daughters. My students. It’s what I read in the literature about emerging childhood literacies. I am fascinated, and I enjoy giving these settings a shot, but I feel completely wrung out, strung out after such a conference (even more than I do those BIG cattleshow national conferences). I inevitably have to go back and read transcripts and watch the screencasts, so I can think about the things I have heard without distraction.

I am, I realize, contradicting a statement I made earlier this year in reference to a Jay Cross online presentation–and yes, I do like having screencasts linked to from my own blog entries, and lists of conference presentations and transcripts to study. Maybe I just need more practice. But, I wonder, if I have a hard time navigating these conferences, what about people who don’t normally spend as much of their lives in the blogosphere as I do? Perhaps conference pods could be set up so people could get together locally to discuss and participate in online conferences much as my husband as a teenager in Milwaukee would go to a movie theater to watch European soccer matches, where he would shout and swap soccer stories with the other fans. He did not watch a screen in the isolation of his own living room.

And much as I hate to admit it, I miss seeing people in their rumpled conference wear, or like Will today as one pair of jeans in a sea of suits (ha–good for you, Will, though my guess is that Dave Weinberger was right there with you in attire. In an online conference, would you have sniffed out their suits, and they your jeans? Probably.) I miss the experience, the story of the in-person UNconference–the meeting, conversation, the face-to-face talk that used to happen between sessions but now happens in the kinds of professional get-togethers I try to attend these days. I find myself at the end of a technology saturated school year looking forward to these conferences, meetings, workshops and retreats I’ll head to this summer. I want to see the people. I want to go from the blogs to the in-person conversation to the blogs again.

Another set of contradictions: This morning, I found myself inordinately joyful to hear my sixteen-year-old daughter’s voice on the phone, from Ladakh, after a week–just one week– of no contact as she was out in the mountains, out of range. Although when I traipsed across the world, I never spoke to my parents for months and months, and postcards and aerogrammes limped continent to continent finally to reach them when the news was weeks old, I have grown accustomed to reading her emails and hearing her voice from across the world frequently. And this morning I realized how much I count on it, how it is so much easier for me to let her go winging her way about the world because I know she can pretty much contact us from wherever she is–I can hear her voice as though she’s in the next room, instead of in a place about as far from here as you can get (in so many ways). This morning she spoke about how she’s learned so much about the pressures and pleasures for the Ladakhi of modernization, and the beauty –for a plugged-in girl from the USA–of quiet, of sitting around with her host family night after night swapping stories, knitting, even just sitting there close to the warm stove, looking at the stars out the window. They inhabit and share memory and experience, turning them over and over. Every night. They may yearn for cellphones, we for silence and relief from the clatter of machines. My daughter gets that tension and sees how crucial media literacy education is for those moving towards technology, and for those trying to get away from it. We hang up the phone, and I marvel at her, and I laugh at myself for writing this post whining about something like online conferences when there are so much more interesting things to think about in the world.

But of course it is all so much more complex than all this, and something keeps nagging at me about my online world, and so, as usual, my conflicting thoughts have pushed me back into books, books this time covering new research and theory about early childhood and digital literacy, the Web as community conduit, and storytelling in the information age. In my search for some answers, I find myself once again reaching for that word, BALANCE.

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I dove back into Pierre Levy’s Collective Intelligence and Dave Weinberger’s Small Pieces Loosely Joined, Popular Culture, New Media and Digital Literacy in Early Childhood (Ed. Jackie Marsh, 2005), and Stuart Selber’s Multiliteracies for a Digital Ageand Adolescents and Literacies in a Digital World. And I also journeyed back into Charles Baxter’s 1999 essay, “Shame and Forgetting in the Information Age”.

In his section on backpacks (pp. 181-191) Dave Weinberger includes these snippets:

The Web…exists only because its 300 million denizens are reaching out to others. The Web is possible only as a group activity… The Web..is thoroughly a creation of subjective human beings and is built not of atoms or facts but of human interest….The Web is a revel of values and viewpoints. The Web…is a multibillion-point reflection on the world, on its inhabitants, and on their reflections about the world. It is a fractal image of the world outside our own minds. ..The Web helps us to embrace without embarrassment who we really are. It returns us to ourselves. It arches over the alienation we’ve been taught to take as a sign of tough-mindedness. The Web’s movement is towards human authenticity.

And I know he’s right about this and why I am not giving up on trying online conferences–and of course this is counter to what many people think, those who associate the Web only with the avalanche of information giving us “information-nausea” (Baxter). And it does do that–which is why I turn from online conferences, and say, enough–this goes beyond what I can or want to absorb on screen. Charles Baxter sees the deadening, not the “movement towards human authenticity”:

Remembering data and remembering an experience are two very different activities. It is possible that the quantity of data we are supposed to remember has reduced our capacity to remember or even to have experiences; this turn of events was predicted by Walter Benjamin in the 1930s.
What meaning does forgetfulness have in an information age?…The signs of anxiety over forgetfulness have been turning up everywhere lately…The phobia about forgetting has entered the run of daily conversation….Time and again, I have seen friends and colleagues lose their trains of thought in meetings and then blush and stammer and apologize, as if their professional standing had suddenly been endangered.
Many people seem to believe that remembering is simply a matter of willpower.

Do we bloggers sit around a stove and tell the stories of our lives and our ancestors’ lives? Is it helping us to have experiences and to remember? Blogging has made me not want to give up blogging, but to combine it with even more in-person talk. I want both. As Guy Merchant writes in “Barbie Meets Bob the Builder” in the Marsh-edited volume, the computer and the Web have transformed writing into “a rapidly changing social practice, in which a wider range of technologies are now at hand.” (p.186) Blogging is a kind of swapping-stories around the virtual campfire–but I can’t see the faces. Victoria Carrington, in “New Textual Landscapes, Information and Early Literacy” from the same volume, writes:

…the textual landscapes in which children are learning the practices, skills and knowledge that determine the kinds of literates and citizens they become are no longer confined to the parameters of family and school, nor are they print-based. However, a more fundamental shift is taking place. While the passive, unworldly child was expected to merely inhabit the textual landscapes created by others, children developing literate habits around new communications technologies, popular culture and expanding access to de-segregated information are already active participants. . . The next generation of instruction and theoretical models for early literacy education must take account of the pivotal nature of information. Each child’s role as analyst of information from multiple sources must be focal, as well as serious attention paid to ensuring that s/he is scaffolded towards effective and ethical production and dissemination of infomation. . .Where more traditional models of literacy prepare children for somewhat distant future at which time they will participate in meaningful ways in the ‘real’ world, a model of literacy matching the needs of contemporary children must take as a first principle that children are already active participants and risk takers. (pp. 23-25)

This is much what edubloggers are saying across the blogosphere as they chonicle their efforts within their local institutions to put pressure on our entire educational system, pushing and pulling it towards the realities of a twenty-first century world.

Beach and Bruce in “Using Digital Tools to Foster Critical Inquiry” in Adolescents and Literacies in a Digital World, point out that

While adolescents may continue to use media to construct themselves according to the values of a consumerist, narcissistic world, we would argue that their emerging participation in digital technologies portends the possibilities of alternative ways of constructing identities. Many adolescents are turning away from the represented worlds of broadcast media…to participate in shared communal experiences mediated by digital tools.

We teachers can’t turn away from the online world–not even, as Stuart Selber argues persuasively in Multiliteracies for a Digital Age, in Higher Ed English departments:

Humanists often have stranged or uncomfortable relationships with technology, yet neither indifference nor paralysis are acceptable options nowadays. In fact, an important role for English departments is to help postion human-computer interaction as essentially a social problem, one that involves values, interpretation, contingency, persuasion, communication, deliberation, and more.

I want students to see me puzzling this out, in class and on the blog, feeling a tension between the worlds. Sharing, participating, narrating–experiencing a new world. Hmmm….sounds like what we want to do in English classrooms. We need not lose the in-person when we move online, just as we do not put away our books when we take up blogs. I see this in my own students on our course blogs. They honor writing traditions as they themselves move beyond them. We have moved in closer to one another as we have moved out into the blogosphere. We want the comfort of one another’s body language, facial expressions, and talk. But not apart from the blogs, perhaps because of the blogs. This social-software and digital-storytelling-in the classroom adventure I’ve been on for five years keeps shouting out lessons of balance. I am delighted by the irony, once again, that blogging and storytelling have compelled me to use the classtime ever more meaningfully. We are glad to be together, and we know one another better than classes in my pre-blog teaching days. We run to the blogs and to the class.

I couldn’t have predicted quite this when I first pulled blogs into my courses in the fall of 2001; I did so then because I sensed students were feeling the parts of themselves being spilled into separate boxes: the person in class, and the person outside of class. The two didn’t have all that much to do with one another. I thought that to bring the world to my students and my students to one another would erase those lines. It made absolute sense in a seminar on contemporary Irish literature (The original blog is now offline due to an abrupt switch from Manila to MT) to seize opportunities to invite into a virtual classroom space experts I could not afford to bring into our rural Vermont physical space. It made sense to have all of the work of the course on view, connected, in process–a working laboratory of developing skills in critical and creative thinking and, hence, writing. Students should learn from one another as well as from whatever I had to tell them. It worked. Even better than I had anticipated. Along the way, the visual transparency of the medium–how it allowed students to examine, follow, appreciate and understand their process and growth– became just as important and led me to make adjustments in the syllabus and in the way I conducted class. Assignments grew to include online workshopping and knowledge trees–the more we knew each other as thinkers and writers and community members, the stronger our learning collaborative would grow, and the richer the learning experience. I pulled in a wiki from time to time–though I could certainly do more with them–and podcasting, multimedia writing and hypertext essays. This was a natural learning curve, a developing use of social software in the writing and literature classrooms. But I didn’t anticipate that I would add another class meeting every week, more one-on-one conferences with me–I had no idea that we would move from blog to class to blog to class to blog as we did, pretty seamlessly.

And here on bgblogging I’ve been writing about those outcomes, those experiences as they unfold on my class blogs, and as I wrote in my previous post, I have found my own blogging informed by my teaching but also by the experience of participating in a blogging community. No longer was I working in relative isolation with my students–not only was my students’ work an open laboratory for them and the rest of the world, but my teaching was and is for me and others. Blogging has sent me back to writing letter-like essays, but it has sent me out into the woods with my camera, and across oceans to meet people face-to-face.

Yes, the experiences online are valid, rich experiences, but they make the in-person ones all that sweeter. And so just as the more I move outside my classroom into the world of community applications of social software and digital storytelling, the more I move back into my classroom, the more I blog, the more I want my conferences in person and not online. It’s a fascinating balance, and one that’s sure to shift as I continue to explore it.

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April’s Balance–Springing Forward While Hanging Back

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I’ve been busy, crazy busy, these past few weeks trying to balance old and deeply felt commitments to my classroom teaching and college work–the work of my pre-blogging life–with this new, and often surprising immersion in all manner of blog-related projects that have come my way. Looking outside at what feels like the moment teetering between winter and spring in Vermont–fresh snow on the mountains, blush of green in the copses; maple sugaring going on in the woods, college students on their bikes–reminds me of what’s going on in my life inside the office and classroom.

As I have mentioned here several times, I am not a techie—I am a teacher of writing, all kinds of writing, and of Irish literature (when I get the chance). I have more than twenty years of classroom teaching experience: on the high school and community-college levels and for the past sixteen years on the undergraduate college level here at Middlebury College. I love nothing better than to sit down with a group of students and crawl around with them inside a paragraph by Flannery O’Connor or Colum McCann, reveling in the lessons about point of view, characterization, and narrative arc (yesterday’s class), and then sitting back to see how these talented young writers will put the lessons to use in their own creative works. Twice a week the nineteen of us sit on comfy chairs in a tight circle in one of the college lounges, my favorite place to teach writing because we have no desks, no computers, just each other and a flimsy portable chalkboard. We talk writing and we do exercises. We move around into small groups and pairs and the full community. It’s what I love best about teaching–that time with the students.
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Not the place one expects to find the Barbara Ganley of bgblogging.

But then I walk back across campus, back to my office in the new college library, and many days I fire up my computer and plunge into a very different world of conversation and writing.
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I move from the intense interactions of my lively classroom to the intense interactions of a different, but just as lively classroom. And on days like today, as I read news of Bryan Alexander and me having our full-day seminar proposal accepted by Educause this coming October in Dallas, I marvel at how an English teacher like me found herself in a place like this. How is it that I am better known for skills and approaches I hadn’t even dreamed of five years ago–me who in many ways was a late-comer to technology–than I am for classroom teaching, where my formal training and years of experience lie? Ha.

I am getting a huge kick out of how remarkably multi-faceted and international in scope my days have become: how I move easily between talk with one student about how hard it is to end a short story and blogtalk with another student in Siberia or Antartica and reading news about a couple of conferences far from Vermont and virtually, a couple of meetings about digital storytelling, a project in Africa for which I have just agreed to serve as an advisor, and so on. And it occurs to me, that this feels an awful lot like like emergence at work (though some would say it looks like madness personified) within my own teaching realm (I usually write about emergence in the classroom, but not in my own growing online work). To think that these projects largely spring from a reflective practice related to my teaching of writing and how in my search for effective ways to bring the world to my students and my students to one another, I stumbled upon blogs some five years ago (thanks to Sarah Lohnes and Hector Vila) and then, a semester later, digital storytelling.

Who knew then that I’d be helping a couple of Australian teachers with their first classroom digital storytelling project this spring from across the planet, or that I’d be serving as an advisor to a project in children’s radio and storytelling in South Africa, or that early June will find me in London at one of the UK’s first edublogging conferences, giving one of the keynotes (to be on the same program as Stephen Downes has me both delighted and, well, nervous–he’s one of my heroes in this work, after all), or that a couple of days later I could well be participating virtually with a masterclass of teachers learning about technology in Australia, or that in July I will head to California to offer a session with Barbara Sawhill and Laura Blankenship at BlogHer, or that in August I would be participating in the Center for Digital Storytelling’s facilitators’ retreat in California? And now I hear that Bryan and I will head to Educause. I shake my head in wonder.

I am really looking forward to every one of these opportunities to talk with blogging & storytelling cohorts about how this work can shift perspective and balance in education and in communities–and how it has affected my students and their whole notion of what an education can be, and how it has affected me in and out of the classroom. (I used to blog about the blogging classroom pretty exclusively; now I also weave in conversations in the edublogosphere and also at workshops and conferences–more signs of emergence) I love the range of opportunities we have in this work–how talking alongside my two blogging buddies with BlogHer bloggers will be enormously interesting and valuable; how learning from other digital storytelling facilitators will help me grow my practice as teacher, artist and activist; how presenting with or on the same program with the likes of Bryan and Stephen will push me to have something worthwhile to say. I am blown away by the reach of this work and by how it has informed my teaching, and my teaching this work.

And so I’ll head back into my comfortable low-tech classroom tomorrow to discuss and play around with dialogue in short stories, listen to what the students have to say about capturing conversations on their iPods and transforming the snatches into scene fragments–probing the difference between real talk and story talk– and then I’ll come back here, probably take a look at the conversations on the creative writing blog, check the blog my daughter in India posts to from time to time, take a look at a student’s digital storytelling about road building in Laos and its effect on local communities, and then check in on what’s stirring in the blogosphere, and think about the difference between classroom talk and blogtalk, and how they influence one another. April’s a good month.

Blog Reading: Moving Beyond the Walls of Higher Education

I found it interesting to read on Clarence Fisher’s blog that he’s pulling some edublogs from his Bloglines account and adding blogs outside the education world:

The information tools we’ve used this year in my classroom have been the main focus of this change, but I also need to better understand content, curriculum design, informatics, programming, scientific development, geographic literacy, game design, etc., etc., etc. A basically endless list. Education in a constant state of being in beta. This need for a clearer understanding of societal change has been the major driving force behind the change in my reading habits. Hopefully it will allow me to become better at what I do; teach kids.

I agree that it is essential that we look beyond our classroom walls to the wider world, especially when we are–at least we think we are–preparing students for lives of learning and living within that world, especially as rapidly changing, complex as is ours. It is particularly important, I think, for those of us who are pehaps the most removed from it in our institutions of higher education to get out there. Literally and bloggerly. That’s one of the reasons I so appreciated meeting people like Roland Tanglao and Suw Charman and Lee Bryant at Blogtalk a couple of summers ago–for their perspectives from outside these walls. It is also why forty hours on planes to spend a mere four days in Melbourne at The International Digital Storytelling Conference was so valuable– artists and activists sat side-by-side with school teachers, professors and museum educators as we considered the ways in which digital stories could change our lives and our communities.

I also read the BlogHer blogs: arts journalism blogs and artist blogs, news blogs and political and activist blogs, former students’ blogs, and of course, foodie blogs. What a pleasure to meander about the world of ideas and arts and action. What a relief.

But I also read a wide array of edublogs:

The second-language teachers (yes, I know I mention them often) such as Barbara Dieu, Marco Polo and Aaron Campbell–all of whom are blogging from places about as far from where I am on the planet as you can get. Staying up with their thinking and their use of technology pushes me to approach teaching anything–creative writing, Irish literature, composition– as though my students are learning a new language.

Elementary and secondary school teachers: I learn from Bob Sprankle and his kids in Maine and and teachers and kids in New York City and others teaching in primary school, a place where there tends to be more creativity and joy than what I see in the upper levels (as well as frustration, to be sure). And of course I follow the secondary school teachers such as Bud Hunt and Vicki Davis and the blogs of teachers of teachers and of those thinkers in the field I mention here all the time. Their blogs offer me a window into what’s going on in creative classrooms across the grades in spite of the stresses of the system–and knowing where my students are coming from helps me to understand them as learners rooted in place, time, circumstance and culture.

Reading widely around the edublogosphere keeps me in touch with the fact that my job as a college teacher is to put students in contact with my subject matter and with the realities of the world in ways that promote their growth as community-centered, involved, self-aware, open-minded, skilled citizens. I am much more fluid in my teaching, sensitive to the nuances of the classroom and the course blogs because of what I read from the teachers of the earlier grades. I want to know if blogging is being co-opted by the privileged. I want to know who is being left out. I want to see how it is working in as wide a variety of schools as I can, for as diverse a range of students as possible. When was I able to have such an open laboratory spread out in front of me before the advent of blogging?

For similar reasons I also make a habit of cruising the blogs of my counterparts in Australia, Scotland, The Netherlands, Norway, South Africa, Egypt–wherever I find them–to follow the development of the thinking about technology and about teaching and learning in other systems, in other cultures. Again, looking at education but from a different angle has helped me to question and deepen my own teaching practice. It keeps me honest and fresh and startled and open and self-aware (hmmmm….just what I am hoping my students are feeling….)

I also cruise the high-end researchers’ and thinkers’ blogs in educational technology to stay current with the research and tools. And then I look at those who do a little of everything, like Mark Bernstein, for one, whose blog is a pleasure to read because you never know if his latest blogpost will be about hypertext or Tinderbox or cheese sandwiches, or the bit of veal stock in his refrigerator or a movie.

I read as much as I can, online and off, and then I try to bring back to my students the bits I’ve carried away with me, to give them the incentive to turn their collaborative course blog and their individual blogs into powerful vehicles for their particular education within this course, and their general sense of connectedness to fuller, deeper, and wider conversations in the world. It took me a long time to find the blogs that teach me and delight me and surprise me. It has taken my students six weeks to blast open the blog, to question openly assignments I give them, and to grapple together, in writing, via blogging, what they really think of this work we’re doing. It is at this point in the semester–when they are pushing back at me–that I realize how interconnected all this work is online, and how much I benefit from all kinds of blogs as well as all the books lining my walls.

Looking Again, and More Deeply

A Lesson:

In my previous post, one of the points I touched upon had to do with CAST and its Universal Design for Learning. I don’t know much about it except what I have read and heard, having never actually seen UDL in use in the classroom. I mostly based my response on what I heard onlanguagelabunleashed’s interview with David Rose, CAST’s founding director. While I much admire CAST’s principles and mission to make classroom learning accessible to all students no matter their learning needs–a movement they have really led in this country– I did wonder aloud about whether you could really pull it off in our current educational system–do teachers have the time and energy to bring one more thing into their classrooms, especially if it means more for teachers to learn and to orchestrate.

David Rose left me a comment that has made me rethink that part of my post–and remember how easy it is to blog poorly. I realize that I was writing merrily away on my blog about something before I really took a careful, measured look at it. Whoops. Not my style. Sorry about that, David.

And that’s both the beauty and the bother of blogs: the beauty because we’re in conversation, and I can post my reaction to an interview and have it changed by David’s response; the bother, because I or anyone can say whatever it is we like without perhaps thinking deeply or doing adequate research. While I still hold that our teachers are overwhelmed, I don’t know enough about what a UDL classroom really looks like (I’d love to visit one in action) to make the kinds of statements as I did in my last post. Lesson learned (and an important one for my students to note). And of course the truth is that I try to teach from all angles, to every learner, so I’m sure that my classroom looks a little like what CAST is pioneering, just without the help of useful tools– with me working to get a bunch of college kids to draw, dance, speak, write, look, listen, and move as they circle in to their own ways of learning. Ha. So I’m glad to have my thinking pushed and my writing held up to scrutiny like that. And I have a lovely example to show my students about what NOT to do–and they will, I am sure, love the fact that I was the careless one. Ouch.