How Former Students Are Using Blogs

A couple of days ago, I noticed that someone from Burlington, Vermont had linked to my blog. I was delighted and a little surprised because people from my state almost never read or link to my blog. So I took a look and found to my even greater surprise that it was my daughter firing up her first blog (as opposed to Livejournal and Facebook and MySpace). Her first post struck me as really very interesting–about why she was moving from Livejournal to blogging–that she wanted to talk rather than rant, that she sought connection and conversation instead of a public journal. Her reasons for wanting to try blogging outside of a classroom mirrors that of many of my students who go on to blog beyond their formal learning experiences.

One interesting tension they find is the pull of just being in the experience and the pull of reflecting on it as close to the experience as possible, or even at a distance. And the disappointment when readers (or at least those who will comment) don’t come. Remy has written a recent post about that tension as a writer about travel–whereas edubloggers tend to go offline (as I am about to do) when they travel, seeing it as a time to get out of the computer altogether, my students are playing around with blogging as a way to chronicle their travels as they’re having them for their own benefit and for those at home, and as a way to extend their thinking and learning about their inter-cultural experiences. As he writes in Blogging technology vs. time vs. perfection:

I am still feeling tugged at by my blog in ways that I had been while traveling – I am concerned with time… translating rather than experiencing. While traveling I wanted everything to be perfect – the pictures, the layout, the media, the feeling that I could travel, in that moment, with people who lived on the opposite side of the world. I wanted to use all of the presently available multi-media resources to their fullest so that it was as if people reading my blog were side-by-side with me as I went out and had my adventures. Down to the smell. I idealized blogging, rather than understanding it as a component of travel.

Here are some examples of students and former students, who blogged with me, taking blogging outside the classroom–

Mike –blogging as part of his job with th Appalachian Mountain Club

Lizi

Katie

Drew in Africa

Dena in the D.R.

In thinking about their practice, these bloggers are making important observations for themselves about levels of living and thinking, about when to be online and off, about why blogging might serve them and why it might not. As I sit here in a little bookstore with wifi up on the coast of Maine getting online for the one time I’ll do so this week (have to prepare for a conference), I once again am drawn to the experiences of my students as they venture away from the classroom to see whether the kinds of blogging we do there will feather out into their lives online outside academia. But I’m not going to think too hard on that one today–I’ve got to get back to the important work of Maine:

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Lessons Taken from the Gathering of Digital Storytellers

Spending two days with a group of digital storytelling facilitators working largely outside of the world of formal education but squarely within the world of social activism was not only refreshing but useful. I learned a lot about how people outside formal ed are thinking about technology, and how they are promoting informal learning and personal empowerment. I found myself really trying to sit back and listen, to learn, to take in more than trying to push the conversation in any particular direction. Ha–Ms. Passionate staying on the quiet side!

I found it very interesting how the stories’ dependence on technology didn’t provoke particularly interesting discussions about technology or pedagogy. The facilitators were interested in learning about software and shortcuts, ways to make the work-with-technology easier and ways to keep up with developments about hosting sites and such–but really, they wanted to talk about their projects and the communities they were serving, showcasing the impact digital storytelling was having on their communities. There were lots of questions about next-steps–how to grow the movement, how to convince their own organizations or funders to support the work, and how to share the work. There was some tension between the process and the product, between the creator and the audience.

Of course I jumped into informal between-sessions conversations to talk about ways in which social software might ease that tension, and might well deepen the experience for the storytellers, and extend the reach of the work’s impact. Initially I met with some resistance to social software–blogs were seen as a waste, a distractor, or a isolating factor by some. I heard young people in the group apologize for using MySpace. This morning, an article on the front page of the Boston Globe made me think of that reluctance to think about how perhaps online tools might well help them solve the very problems expressed. Entitled It’s lonely out there: Connections fray in wired America, study finds, the article by Scott Allen opens with the following:

Americans don’t have as many close friends as they used to.
We’re networking on myspace.com, sharing photos and text messaging on our cellphones, and blogging at all hours. But a major national survey being released today shows that the average number of people with whom Americans discuss important matters has dropped from three to two in just two decades, a steep falloff in confidants that startled the researchers.

The study by sociologists at Duke University and the University of Arizona provides powerful evidence for the argument that the country is becoming increasingly socially isolated even as cellphones, the Internet, and other technology make people more interconnected.

Hmmm… Even though he doesn’t come right out and say it, the writer sure is implying that it is because we are on blogs and MySpace and wikis that we do not have strong connections with the people in our lives. This is, of course, nothing new. Book after book after article after article take this position. And indeed, if people are aimlessly wandering around about on the Web or on the streets, bored, restless, they aren’t going to be connecting with others in ways that build strong bonds and a feeling of belonging and wellness. On the heels of the conference, it helped me see why social activists hesitate to try out the Web’s connectivity through their own practice , even when they use the same words–bonding and bridging—that I do, and even when they are actively using digital media technology in their work. Blogs are getting slammed out there in the media–

So when I got up to talk with my student, Remy, I hoped to convey a sense of how blogs, for one, by giving people a place to establish a linked reflective practice (linked to one’s earlier posts by referencing them and by literally being a scroll or click away) help weave a powerful narrative of a person’s relationship with the work and the community of practice. Blogging as a meta-practice can deepen the experience for the community members by grounding it in their own lives, their own experience, their own reasons for coming to the community of practice using digital storytelling. Blogging as a meta-practice for facilitators can help clarify, chronicle, contextualize, situate the experience of facilitating for themselves and their organization.

Again (or as usual) I’ll quote from E. M. Forster: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” So, why, some might ask, does this expression have to be on a public blog? Yes, the linking aspect makes sense–but why not keep one only to be read by oneself? Well, that’s certainly a possibility, and when the context is extremely sensitive or vulnerable, that’s understandable. But with a public blog–and what I’d advocate (again as usual), is linking individual blogs from the community off of a group blog or something like drupal, where other kinds of interactions and publishing can go on– sharing the reflection means that you are reaching out to others–your community of practice directly by and the world beyond, to learn from them if they swing by and converse with you via comments, or to teach them through your own stories, experience and reaching-out. And that kind of sharing in an age-old letter-writing manner can help grow ideas for the organization through collective intelligence, deepen the bonds between the members, reach out to other communities. Informal learning can take place, developing of a strong personal and group voice, and a sense of looking out into the world and trying to make a difference. Community engagement can be positively affected. And blogs are great ways to link to digital stories–stories that can be embedded within text, or coupled with images, or open to comments.

And then I handed things over to my student Remy, who did a splendid job being a case study, in essence, talking about how he started by reading blogs, and then tried out blogging in fits and starts until the practice really informed his digital storytelling–the writing and using images and working ouut his ideas and getting feedback from his readers. And then he showed his stunning digital story (which he should have up and running on his blog soon)–he learned a tremendous amount being at the conference as a presenter as well as a participant.

After our talk many people joined us to discuss how a Web community might enhance their own experience, give their constituents more opportunities to develop a voice, and be an important tool in strengthening their communities while reaching out to other groups and individuals. But there wasn’t enough time–we were last up during at long two days. There simply wasn’t time. And so we’ll continue that conversation here and on the blog from the conference (interesting that there’s a blog but it really isn’t being used by the community except to access information) and in other venues that we’re developing.

A couple of highlights from the gathering–presentations by:
Shira Golding, Director of Education & Outreach, <a href=”http://www.artsengine.net/index.php”target=”_blank”<Arts Engine Here are my notes blogged from her session:

Arts Engine was founded by documentary filmmakers working on social issues; they wanted to make an impact with their films and realized there needed to be a much broader network for the makers and the users of film. They house MediaRights.org–a powerful resource and tool for filmmakers for social change and people who want access to films. The films here include digital stories. It is community driven for the most part. Arts Engine doesn’t curate the films. To do so, they started the Media that Matters Festival, a festival working year-round and through as many platforms as possible; it streams online (you can see photos through Flickr or the films on Google Video) On the website you can view the films, learn about them, and be linked to context of the specific film–places to learn more about the issue and to take action. They also realized that online interaction can only take you so far–they also have a traveling film festival and a DVD and tools available for people who want to use the films to make an impact (including posters, press releases, programs, etc., evaluation forms)–to watch within a community.

Concepts needing to be discussed by this movement–
Process versus Product: You can get swept up with the product when you’re talking about distibution and outreach. We can’t forget process. Taking a moment at the beginning, during the process to talk about audience–who will view it and why?
Marginalization vs. Integration: We have to think about digital storytelling as part of a larger form, independent media, instead of a wee, lesser form. They do this with Youth Media as well.
DIY vs DIWP: There is an attitude in independent media that you can do it all yourself; you have to open up to making it with partners–community groups, etc to reach your audience with the most impact.

The Story Development Process Josh Schachter of StoriesMatter and Cheryl Crow of Bridges to Understanding–Josh really gets the media literacy aspect and how to listen to the those doing the storytelling, letting them take the lead at every turn. Inspiring work. My notes:

Josh: Has been working with teenagers and their community stories in image and text; the Tuscon newspaper carries the stories. He’s worked on US/Mexico border to teach photography–what’s it like to live by the fence, etc.

Cheryl: Bridges to Understanding in Seattle –giving children who didn’t have a voice a voice, linked kids in the Amazon with kids in Seattle. The focus now is middle school and elementary students posting their digital stories to share with others around the world. It’s moving towards being an issue-driven model rather than sharing of personal stories.

Josh: He focuses on visual storytelling. He showed a story by a student on a reservation–the process took three weeks. Josh had to learn a whole new form of communication and teaching–the community didn’t want to talk about the issues.
“Why do we even take pictures? How are they used in society? Are they the truth?” These are the basic questions he starts out every class with. The essentialness of teaching image literacy. Every photograph is a self-portrait.
Taking metaphor and turning it into matter–hope, sorrow, confusion, for example. He gives students an image scavenger hunt–he gives them abstractions, and the kids have to go out and take photographs of time, memory, etc.

Then he goes into composition and lighting. And the moment in time captured (he uses film clips and has kids take a freeze frame that expresses it and talks about how the meaning would be changed if they had shifted the frame by a second) .

He talks with them about assumptions they have about people and subject matter.

Visual Variety: (Life Magazine’s formula for taking photo stories, too)

Strategies for getting students to the stories
–Take into account individual differences
–If fixated on text–force them to tell it in 5 pics or just spoken word
–Do interview exercises
–Find what excites them
–Have them tell story without looking at the script, poetry slam
–Screen clips
–Get peers to help
–Go take twenty pictures of the same thing
–Found objects within the community

Cheryl: How much do you prepare before you gather your visual data? What’s the balance between letting unexpected things arise and having a plan?
A worldwide project on the theme of water in their lives and communities– shows a short clip of a piece from Peru and one from New Mexico; the kids in New Mexico didn’t want to talk about water. On the photoshoot, the stories opened up and the kids got to talk about what they wanted to talk about.

So much potential here for social software. I’m looking forward to BlogHer where I hope to listen to bloggers such as Nancy White and Dina Mehta and many others working with activist groups and other nonprofits outside the formal education realm. Can’t wait.

The Question of Teacher Roles in Blogging-yet-Traditional Classrooms

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I’m trying to move from the whirl of the school year to the serenity of my summer garden to little avail. Today my young traveling daughter headed off to Europe and tomorrow I head to Boston for the Gathering of Digital Storytellers and then it’s on to Maine and then back to prepare for a half dozen other talks, conferences, and gatherings. There’s little time left for thoughtful blogging, and there are a couple of posts I’m really wanting to zero in on. So for now, I’ll take a step into what will probably run into several posts–thinking again about what it means to be a teacher following the model I embrace.

Several recent moments bring me once again to a topic I have blogged about relentlessly over the past couple of years and have thought about since I was a kid wondering if my third-grade teacher actually enjoyed being boring and controlling: attending the wedding of a former student of mine who has graced my life as fellow apprentice, through her example pushing me to grow in my thinking and understanding; seeing my newly graduated students fall into the space after school and before career, and watching them work out new relationships with their former professors, their peers, their families; preparing for the Boston conference where I will be presenting with one of my students, who exemplifies the kind of expert-apprentice I wish all our learners could be; thinking about recent comments I’ve received from three edubloggers I respect a great deal (James Farmer, Lanny Arvan and Terry Freedman), who have pushed me a bit on my position regarding the teacher’s role and issues of teacher presence and authority; and readingWill Richardson’s recent post quoting Donald Murray on learning how not to teach (and the comments following the post, which point out that these ideas are as old as the hills –look at Socrates– but now, because teachers are communicating with one another in the blogosphere and our classrooms are increasingly open to the world, there’s some question as to whether we’re just paying lip service to the idea of the teacher as learner and guide when really in our heart of hearts we’re performance artists and benevolent dictators). It’s a topic we just can never get enough of–and though we seem all to agree that teachers must be learners first–how that sentiment gets translated into the classroom experience is where some of us disagree.

Like many others, I’ve long argued for a learning community of apprentices and experts in which the students teach one another and themselves according to their learning curves, needs and interests; and the teacher within our current educational system serves as guide, consultant and facilitator who sets things in motion at the beginning of the course or year by setting into play at least an initial bit of content, and asks the first questions, perhaps, but does not dominate the classroom and control the experience. Stephen Downes certainly speaks to this point frequently, emphatically and eloquently (just a few days ago, in fact, and in his recent remarks from blog.ac.uk, when he said that the teacher’s role was to model and demonstrate. Period. He said, “Teachers should try to become the people they want their students to be.” Indeed!)

The tension we face right now is how to navigate between the demands of the traditional structures we find ourselves in (i.e. the teacher as local power-holder: designing the syllabus, dispensing knowledge through lectures and assignments, and evaluating through testing and grades–and in turn being evaluated on just how successful the students are according to prescribed standards) and the realities of the fluid, emergent knowledge spaces existing outside this realm in places with Internet access, where everyone is an expert and an apprentice connected within that space, where we might not need “teachers” at all, where learning doesn’t happen according to set schedules and syllabi. If we take the traditional role of designer-director-evaluator in our classrooms, how are we helping young people become active citizens in this world with its inequities, its fragility, its violence, its power relations, its potential, its connectedness, its beauty? How are we helping them learn how to learn and learn how to give and to act? To take responsibility for their learning and their use of that learning? And yet for many of us, the structures in place (disciplines, majors, departments, school calendars) make it incredibly difficult to break away from the lecture-absorb or call-and-response model of education, especially for student from ages 12-22. Who has the time? Who has the energy? Who has the nerve? And who has the skill?

Terry, Lanny and James have all talked or written to me recently about the importance of a strong teacherly presence in the classroom–and about how I give off the impression that I think the teacher should become invisible. In London, in response to my talkTerry Freedman wrote:

Firstly, by choosing to stay on the sidelines she is, in fact, exercising her authority. Certainly, as I understand it, her students cannot make the same choice: they have to participate.

Secondly, and probably more importantly, a good way to encourage mutual respect and non-authoritarian behaviour is to model it, and you can only effectively do that by participating on the same terms as everybody else.

Finally, this approach seems to ignore the fact that students often want to be given guidance by an authority figure, and this for two reasons.

Firstly, children are always testing the boundaries of acceptability, especially in terms of behaviour. To not point out when they have stepped over an invisible boundary does them no service whatsoever, given that the real world doesn’t work like that.

Secondly, and more relevant here, people don’t know what they don’t know, and therefore want and need someone to at least point them in the right direction.

I agree about choosing to stay to the side is something my students cannot do, and so in effect, I am exercising my authority. I talk about that contradiction with my students on the first day. And I also think he’s right about how a teacher can model and demonstrate and participate on the blog alongside the students–at least once the learning community as collective intelligence really takes shape. I talk to my students about why I want to stay off the blog as much as possible to begin with–they have been well trained to expect me as teacher to tell them what to do and how, and so as an ingrained reflex they immediately turn to my post as the important one. I’ve seen this happen. Until a group has the time to settle into what for my students is a new model of reciprocal apprenticeships, they will attend to my posts more than to their own. It’s not their fault. So I stay off to the side, but I still blog along on my sidebolog and on my own blog. It isn’t perfect. Some day, I would like to participate on the blog with them side by side from Day One, and I may well try it again this fall to see if Terry is correct, but until students are as much teachers as students, I doubt it will work. As far as his point about children looking for boundaries, I want my students to work together to sort those boundaries out–I ask questions, show examples, ask more questions, do a lot of shrugging. I have found that rules rising out of the group itself work a whole lot better than anything I impose. For one thing, the students have to think about what boundaries serve and why. They gain experience thinking about ethics and responsibility and integrity, on parameters and group dynamics. And when they make mistakes, we treat those as learning moments.

Then on my blogpostabout the London conference, in a thought-provoking comment that unfortunately in my jet-lag daze I deleted, Lanny Arvan also pushed me about the position of the teacher, and how in some situations and in some disciplines it was desirable for the teacher to stand at the front of the room and lecture and direct–as a form of apprenticeship as well as a way to convey essential material effectively. And James Farmer during the Masterclass with The Technology School of the Future, in discussing the diagram on Community of Inquiry from Garrison and Andersonjamesfarmer.jpg stressed the importance of the teaching presence–and as presented by Garrison and Anderson, I would agree with that kind of presence because it doesn’t have to be played by a single , specified individual.

Sometimes a great talk can stir debate and inquiry, and foster learning. Yes, I agree. But the problem is that too many teachers rely on this method as the primary method. We also focus on the impossible timeframes for our courses and measured amounts of material to be covered rather than thinking about ways we can assist our students to learn about how to learn within our field. We err on the side of the accumulation of what we call the basic materials of our disciplines–often through reading and lecture instead of providing ample time for messy learning curves or the relationship between hands-on authentic learning activities and deep learning. We do not have enough time for our students to go find examples of processes we study in the classroom out there in the world and to play around, to be imaginative, to see what would happen if they mixed A with B. We ask them to gather information and soak in knowledge rather than play around with it. And our students are stressed out. We are stressed out. As we know, with the Web, information and knowledge are easily accessible. But how do students learn how to play around with that information if we don’t give them opportunities to do so– collaboratively–discussing, conversing, arguing, doing, inventing, failing. This is the beauty of a school, it seems to me–that we have the potential to grow rich, diverse learning communities that reach out beyond their own scope to the complex world beyond.

So, yes, a teaching presence is essential, I think, as Garrison and Anderson point out–helping to select content and to set climate (and to model inquiry, I would add) but NOT having the exclusive rights over those roles. I think all the members of the learning community need to have a strong presence. If I had my druthers, even inthis system, I would only design the first part of the syllabus, which would be open-ended and exploratory in nature and creative in output, (much the way I opened my creative writing class this spring –and I think any kind of class can open with such a unit with subject-based themes laced through) and then with the students, design the rest, having them negotiate the topics and strategies and skills we should cover. I would also hand the evaluating task over to them as indiividuals and in conversation with me, to have them reflect upon and evaluate their own learning. In conference, we would discuss the the successes and glorious failures of the experience. I would never use grades. If I had my druthers…

Ron Burnett has written a thought-provoking article on his blog: The Radical Impossibility of Teaching, which I think is an important read for anyone talking about new classrooms and shifts in teacher-learner relationships. He makes many important points about the nature of learning and teaching, giving examples from his own classroom experience. And as a learner who is trying to understand my own learning journey, I circle back around to some earlier posts of mine which still convey my perspective on teaching (and I have many others I could point to–about the beauty of the Harkness table and about how my students influence me):

From July 2004:

And will the teachers end up unintentionally dominating the projects? I see this happen again and again–teachers think they are making their classrooms student-centered and project-based, when in reality they are still the pivot, the focus, the main attraction, and what they say goes. Will the teachers in this collaborative dare pull themselves to the periphery and let the students be experts as well as apprentices? Do they really know how to do this? Again, I have seen my children’s teachers think they are handing the reins to their students by saying, here, do some peer editing. But without modeling, without a sens of how this helps the writers and editors (i.e. without a reflective practice alongside the workshopping), it’s a useless waste of time and frustrating experience for the kids.

And here in August 2004, I wrote:

I want that for my students, too. I want them to feel their own, personal singular voice as writer and budding scholar and then explore how it interacts, intersects, connects with an outer world–the classroom community and the world beyond. This is how in 12 weeks our students can take ownership of their learning, and see how they have a meaningful impact on their environment–this is how they can learn far more than any combination of classroom discussions and lectures and traditional writing assignments. I’m convinced of that.

Blogging has a role to play in this new classroom: it invites the staccato dynamism of improv under the exacting, even skeptical, eye of the audience much as performance dance does. It invites interaction and community-building. It allows individual voice, and on a group blog, it demands collaboration. I see the group blog as one of those group improv pieces performed that evening, and the individual blog as Nora’s piece. The more the blogger listens to the other bloggers dancing on their keyboards, and the new media explorers, and the thinkers in their fields and then play with a snese of the spatial and thematic relationships the more interesting and useful the blogs will get.

There are differences, of course, too–important differences: whereas dance vanishes, leaving no outer trace after the step is done, blogging stays there, archived, to be returned to and connected to again and again. And we blogging teachers are lucky in this, for we can point to blog moments and say, here! Here, you’ve pulled us all in; here you have hit a chord–what is it and how might you hit another one? How will you keep that freshness and thoughtfulness?

And from my Blogtalk paper:

The weblog creates a classroom that is, at least in theory if not always in actuality, available everywhere and always, in essence following us about as we move through time and space. Such omnipresence also implies that if the teacher possesses sole managerial responsibility for the weblog, it could well smack of Orwell’s Big Brotherism to the students, with an authority figure free to enter their lives at will, dictating actions and responses, or it could smack of hypocrisy with the teacher intentionally creating a schism between descriptions of the class as community and the actual practice of a benign tyrant holding the reins, as is the case with course management systems such as Blackboard and WebCT, which are teacher driven and constructed with a traditional hierarchy. For the weblog to work as a facilitator of efficacious learning, it is essential that everyone has an authentic voice and an authentic role on it, that everyone has a hand in creating the medium as well as the message in an environment in which the reader becomes the writer, the student the teacher, the teacher the learner as we traverse boundaries of classroom and real world, our communities forming, shifting and reforming. The teacher has to do precisely what is most difficult and most essential: create a system of shared control, of checks and balances between teacher, student and technology. In a sense, technology mediates the teacher-advocate student exchange, fulfilling the promise of a Socratic education so important a hallmark of a liberal arts education. (Vila, 2004b). The teacher must have faith in the process of collaborative learning and in the students to assume their roles in reciprocal apprenticeships (Levy, 1997, 10).

Because emergent behaviors, like games, are all about living within the boundaries defined by roles, but also using that space to create something greater than the sum of its parts� (Johnson, 2001, 181), sharing responsibility with the students for the course weblog requires careful planning and preparation of those boundaries. Poorly designed collaborative work is doomed to follow the failed model that so many of our students remember with distaste from their high school days: one student shouldering the burden for all (Kammerer, 2003, wl.middlebury.edu/irishF03/stories/storyReader$1133). For cooperative management of the weblog to work, the students must share a strong sense of belonging to a dynamic learning collaborative, following the apprenticeship model of learning, in which everyone is expert and apprentice to one another (Levy, 1997, 10). Then, as Halavais has shown, “weblogs allow for learners to engage a larger social network, and to participate actively within that network, and to become localized experts” (Halavais, 2004, 1), a condition expressed in one student’s final course reflection: “During the first class BG talked about how we were both experts and apprentices, and I think that analogy is prevalent through everything we’ve done in the class. Dixie was an apprentice when BG taught her the formula for writing, but then became an expert . When I was reading Marisa’s final project for the feedback group, and started asking “so what,” that’s when it hit me that my analytical skills had improved so much. For that instance I went from Dixie’s apprentice to Marisa’s expert, and vice-versa when she helped me with my ideas” (Connolly, 2003, wl.middlebury.edu/irishF03/stories/storyReader$1151). Using the weblog as simple course management system as well as arena for assigned and spontaneous discussions, free-wheeling posting and collaborative explorations of the subject provides an effective framework for the course. Letting the weblog’s essential characteristics of the restless homepage and the “unruliness of the complex webs of links we produce” (Bernstein, 1999, 1) prompt us into synthesizing, reflecting and commenting pushes us towards excellence and innovation. Preparing the community itself for their reciprocal roles produces conditions ripe for students to grow intellectually.

And so yes, let’s dare do what we say we do–even within the confines of our current system–set the mood and the tone, model and demonstrate, converse, reflect, give some feedback, and then let’s get out of the way and give them time and space to explore. Let’s stay off the center of the blog and away from the front of the classroom. Or better yet, let’s join them in the exploration as fellow apprentices. Thursday I will do just that as I co-present with Remy, who may have a semester yet to go in college, but has a world of ideas, skills and approaches to share with the world. Check out his blog if you want to see a student weave magic with images and text, think deeply about blogging, and wonder openly about his place in the world. By taking his place next to me in the learning community, he will surely learn far more than sitting back waiting for me to tell him what to do.

Brief Talk about Using iPODS to Teach and to Learn

I’m not really covering new territory here–I have written a couple of posts about how I use iPODS in my classes (here and here), but in case someone might find this brief sketch useful, here’s the talk.

Exploring Pedagogies and Tools Series of Faculty Workshops at Middlebury College, June 9 2006

Teaching with Audio, iPODS and More Workshop and Presentation
Deb Ellis, Barbara Ganley, Gloria Gonzales-Zenteno and Jay West

BG’s Bit: Using iPODs to Teach and to Learn

With the digital natives coming to our doors plugged into their iPODS, why not use iPODS to listen to thought-provoking talk and to produce such talk about our subject matter?

A chemistry professor at Bryn Mawr podcasts her lectures and then puts them online on her blog, so students can listen whenever they like, downloading them through iTUNES

Colgate podcasts interviews with professors and administrators about their fields of research.

Many classrooms pull in audio, as Jay does, of music, historical speeches, writers reading from their own work, etc. to bring to life what was once an auditory experience, and to examine the role of sound and voice in expression.

That brings me to reasons to put the iPODS into the hands of the students themselves as a tool for research (as Deb has shown), for language learning (as Gloria has shown) and for developing skills of presentation and discussion, extending the process of generating ideas and critical thinking beyond the written word and group discussion, and for reflection as meta-learning.

Third-graders are podcasting shows and lessons grounded directly in the material they are covering for class, be it spelling lessons, science experiments, first ventures into history.: See Bob Sprankle’s classroom, for example.

Art history classes are going out into the museums and creating their own guided tours of collections.

Other classes are recording birdsongs, or scientific processes, debates, mock trials, all manner of formal and informal presentations.

In my writing classes, each student has an iPOD and iTALK to use however they want during that semester (I am all about integrating all parts of a student’s life instead of separating the formal learning experiences from the rest of life), but also to do specific things that will be embedded onto their blogs:
See this earlier post for an overview :

–Interviews as Research, and interviews of one another about their projects
–Talking about their ideas and listening back (precursor to dictating)
–Reflections on their own work and process (including reflections on their oral presentations)
–Lessons for the class recorded for future classes
–Summaries of the research—oral abstracts as ways to test the clarity of the thinking and the strength of a thesis. I have them do this privately and then publicly, recording both versions so they can see the difference between reading something aloud and having to memorize it or present it on the spot. (Not only does this help them develop their presenting skills, it underscores the importance of really knowing what they’re talking about, using examples, specific details, developing ideas in depth and then articulating them succinctly)
–Reading their work and that of others aloud to listen to how voice influences meaning.

I’m interested in students growing their skills as presenters and discussers; in examining the role of point of view and voice in their learning; in gaining an understanding and appreciation for levels and kinds of discourse; in seeing that learning is both a social act, as John Dewey and Paolo Freire tell us, and a solitary act –and how oral expression can be as helpful as writing to develop arguments.

That all of these files are archived on our course blog means that they can return again and again to their own recordings AND those of others ( the benefits of peer-to-peer learning), and they become archives for future classes to learn from as they prepare their own presentations and interviews and oral reflections. (Knowing that other people will listen to these files makes the learning relevant and real).

Some students have gone on to embed audio files right into their research papers, mostly in the form of digital stories or clips of the interviews as footnotes. My feeling is that students already know how to use iiPODS–all we need to do is tell them that like a pen or a computer, a paintbrush or a piano, this is another tool to use to help the learning process. I find that students will come up with ways more interesting and beneficial than you could have predicted–what you help them do is to dream, to ground the use of the tool within the course, to use it to reflect, and then to connect with one another by listening and responding.

Time to Act…


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Videoconferencing with James Farmer and The Technology School of the Future in Adelaide, Australia

What a remarkable week–going from the UK’s edublogging conference where I met some of the great eduboggers from that island to this morning traveling to Australia via videoconference for the Technology School of the Future’s Masterclass. Tomorrow will feel quiet when I’m talking about using audio in teaching to colleagues here at Middlebury.

It was great to hear James Farmer talk about how school blogging fits into a continuum of online education–I particularly liked his distinction between the merits of discussion boards and blogs, and will borrow from him to explain to people why I don’t use discussion boards in my classes. His primary objection to them is that they do not involve a personal presence, which is exactly what blogs do–real people are all over their blogs through the choices they make in terms of design and content. Blogs, he said, are about centered communication, centered, that is, around the individual. He drew upon Garrison & Anderson’s elearning in the 21st century, the diagram of effective communtities of inquiry with its intersecting circles of social presence, cognitive presence and teaching presence. He was persuasive in arguing that we have to stop thinking about people going out into online environemntts to interact with others; we have to think about individuals interacting with one another, about who we are as people and how we really communicate.

Here’s my talk:

Centering, Connecting and Creating: Transformations in Blogging Classrooms
The Technology School of the Future Adelaide, Australia June 8, 2006
Videoconference Presentation

The Presentation Abstract:
We’ve all heard stories about the remarkable outcomes teachers claim by bringing social software into the classroom. But enhancing the learning experience for our students is not simply a matter of “handing out blogs” like notebooks and then standing by to watch the miracle; nor is it a matter of setting up series of strict rules and parameters and methods. By thinking first about the nature of our learning community and our pedagogical framework, and how connecting students to themselves, one another, and the world makes sense in our classrooms, we can take powerful advantage of the connectivity and the transparency of the medium. And once we’ve seen the effects of blogging on our students, we’ll find ourselves blogging alongside them, and adding podcasting, skype, RSS, and digital storytelling into the blogging as ways to make learning exciting and effective for every student.

I’m delighted to be here today (even if it is a bit early my time), for a chance to listen to James Farmer, one of the real leaders in this work, and a chance to hear from all of you in a few minutes. I’ve found my own blogging practice greatly informed by Australian bloggers, teachers, researchers and theorists, and so it’s a real pleasure to join you.

At the UK’s first edublogging conference I attended last week in London, a conference for experienced edubloggers, I was struck by the interest in hearing practical advice about classroom blogging. So instead of focusing on research on social software and learning theory, I’m going to return to my roots—my teacherly roots and give you a tour through the blogging landscape that has evolved in my classrooms over the past five years. First off, you need to know that I am actually not very interested in talking about technology. Or at least technology in and of itself. I’m not a technologist; I am a classroom teacher trained in literature and writing, and before I brought blogs into my classes five years ago, email was about as high-tech as it went in my teaching. I am, though, passionate about learning and about helping my students prepare for the challenges of citizenship in this rapidly changing, complex world. And I have found that this goal demands that I focus on a set of new literacies as well as old, which in today’s world means a whole spectrum of visual, auditory, textual, quantitative, cultural, and network literacies. It means that students need opportunities to connect and to collaborate, to explore their roles in a community of practice as well as to understand themselves as learners, as humans. And that’s where technology—in particular blogs, in my case, and digital multimedia—come in.

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At the UK’s First Edublogging Conference: My Talk

Here at blog.ac.uk I’ve run into many of my blogging heros–Peter Ford, Josie Fraser, Terry Freedman, Stephen Downes, Ewan McIntosh…and some fifty dedicated, creative, bold implementers of social software across the curriculum across the schooling years.

I gave a different kind of talk than I have — without visuals (no digital story!) and it’s a good thing because it was an unusually sunny morning and no one could have seen anything I put on a screen.

Finding Our Way through the Edublogging Labyrinth: Losing Hope in Order to Effect Change

When Josie first contacted me about this conference, I thought I’d give you one of my impassioned talks with a digital story playing behind me, showcasing the inspiring work my students have done with blogs, digital stories, podcasting, wikis, RSS– progressive learning pedagogy in action. But the past couple of months have propelled me into a different sort of talk today, a more challenging one, one without the snazzy visuals.

First off, as this is an unconference, I’d like you all to write for a few minutes:
I ask you to think back to your own school years—jot down a memorable learning moment from your primary, your secondary, your university school years, and the past five years. As you write, I’d like you to think about the following– Were these private moments or shared? Did they involve the teacher? Your peers? Did they take place in a classroom? Were these pleasant moments or not? Why do these moments stand out for you? What do these moments have to do with your experiences in education now? What do they have to do with you joining this edublogging community gathering here?

We’ll come back to these in a bit. First I want to shift out of our personal pasts to the shared educational present.

Victoria Carrington in an essay entitled, “New Textual Landscapes, Information and Early Literacy” writes:

“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 information. . .Where more traditional models of literacy prepare children for a 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.”

(in Popular Culture, New Media and Digital Literacy in Early Childhood, ed. by Jackie Marsh, pp. 23-25)

We in this room surely applaud such a clear articulation of what we understand to be true. And yet, we also feel, what a couple of days ago Will Richardson of Weblogg-ed.com pointed to as the deepening divide between what students need and what schools allow.
He writes,

“We are still about control, not sharing. We are still about distribution, not aggregation. We are still about closed content rather than open. We are static, not fluid. The idea that each of our students can play a relevant, meaningful, important role in the context of these networks is still so foreign to the people who run schools.”

Up until a few months ago, I had hope that people would come around to see how it was not only possible and desirable but absolutely necessary to dismantle our factory-model of education as soon as possible. The assembly-line system of marching out knowledge in tidy boxes to be delivered at defined times in specified places produced generations of docile factory-workers and obedient, avid consumers. But our children, in spite of what they’re told and the obstacles placed in their path, have moved out of the boxes and into a fluid world where what’s evolving online is as vital as anything off. In a recent interview, researcher danah boyd said,

“MySpace is a cultural requirement for American high school students. Or as one teenager said, “If you’re not on MySpace, you don’t exist.”

Or as Henry Jenkins points out in the same interview,

“In some cases, teens and adults have developed different notions of privacy: young people feel more comfortable sharing aspects of their lives (for example, their sexual identities) that previous generation would have kept secret.”

As James Duderstadt explains:

“They expect—indeed demand—interaction, approaching learning as a ‘plug-and-play’ experience; they are unaccustomed and unwilling to learn sequentially—to read the manual—and instead are inclined to plunge in and learn through participation and experimentation…In a very real sense, they build their own learning environments that enable interactive, collaborative learning, whether we recognize or accommodate this or not.” (2003, 43)

Five years ago, as I first looked at the wonders of Peter Ford’s early work with blogs in primary schools and pulled my first classroom blog up, I was heartened by the thought that we had a chance to put into practice much of what John Dewey had advocated a century ago, and more recently Maxine Greene, Janet Murray, George Landow, and Jay Bolter and others. At last we teachers could approach learning as a social act involving the imagination and distributed intelligence as much as the individual intellect, the single-strand transaction between teacher and student. Artist and theorist Roy Ascott writes about how “the networks of cyberspace [underpin] our desire to amplify human cooperation and interaction in the constructive process.” Anthropologist Pierre Levy explains how knowledge spaces are now “based on reciprocal apprenticeship, shared skills, imagination, and collective intelligence.” Researcher Yagelski contends that technology and writing lead to “a connected and interdependent sense of self that undermines separateness, hierarchy, and anthropocentrism.” Student-centered, integrated, authentic learning would be the norm. For several years, I was sure that people would soon come to their senses. It was so obvious.

I was hopeful because I knew firsthand the transformative power of social software in the hands of students. I have watched my students find themselves as community-minded learners, students who heretofore had been self-absorbed performers, having understood all too well that really what schools asked from them was to perform well on tests, according to carefully detailed instructions—in fact, the students at Middlebury College are among the best in the United States at acing exams across the curriculum.

Before blogs, I was nearly at wit’s end with them and myself—their work was fine, more than fine, but it was predictable, safe, and dull—it would not prepare them for a rapidly changing world. And yet I knew that outside the classroom they were experimenting with multimedia, new dynamic languages of discourse on the computer, connecting connecting connecting. And yet they didn’t even know each other’s names in many of their classes. I thus turned to blogs for two reasons: to inject some of that excitement into the classroom, and to bring the wide world to these bright students, and to bring them to the world—I wanted them to connect to more than themselves, their families and friends and to examine critically their use of the Internet as a means of research, of creation and of communication. Even that first bumpy, stressful semester of blogging in the fall of 2001 (our school year opened on September 11) these students started taking charge of their own educations, bonding in a vibrant learning collective which led to efficacy-in-action and a heightened sense of perspective on what it means to be a responsible citizen. They conversed in cyberspace with experts in the field, received responses to their essays-in-progress, discussed and reflected on the ideas raised in class whenever it suited them. They watched their thinking, reading, reasoning, writing, and research skills develop. They were being taken seriously. They became learners.

Five years of blogging with my students, and the emergent practices of digital storytelling and podcasting have led to consistently exciting learning outcomes in the most traditional of academic environments. No one in the administration can complain about the accomplishments of my students. Things I measured: classroom dynamics, intensity and boldness of student engagement; things the school measured: level of student accomplishment all improved—grades went up due not to grade inflation but to significantly better work—according to rigorous and traditional rubrics. Even those students who didn’t like to blog, and didn’t do it particularly well found themselves pulled along by the group, absorbing the learning. Indeed, my students are winning college-wide research and writing awards for this new multimedia hypertext work; their blog posts have been published in magazines online and off; they have gone on to do exemplary independent blogging work for credit and not, engaging in community action, travel and creative expression. And I have left the teaching stage for the learning circle, blogging away about my own learning alongside my students. We have all been profoundly changed by this experience.

And because I’m not a digital native or even a techie for that matter, I thought my embrace of these technologies meant surely that many other teachers would be adopting blogs with similar success. And indeed many, such as yourselves, have. I thought I really had my head around this work. Innovative and caring teachers and students would use the connectivity and transparency of social software to pull the walls down between learners, classes, departments, disciplines, spaces and places. Positive change would come—it would have to come, all in good time. I had patience. I had hope.

But now things feel more urgent suddenly, as though we’ve reached a crossroads. Much is in flux. Much is under threat. My students have changed, for one thing,—these young ones are now true digital natives and what that means has collided with our present model of education, exploding into an alarming reality. Even when we try to keep up, we cannot, as Bill Sharpe has observed in “The Ambient Web”. He says,

“…just as education is beginning to reach the second-wave goal of providing a 1:1 PC–pupil ratio, this paradigm shift is rendering the PC out of date. Increasingly what is offered in the classroom bears little resemblance to the flexible, mobile and to a certain extent more ‘friendly’ technologies afforded by the digital lifestyle outside the school gates (Leadbeater, 2005).”

Some teachers, overwhelmed by the options and pressured by their institutions to produce immediate results in their classrooms measurable according to old systems, are turning away from social software out of misunderstanding, out of discouragement or out of fear. What is worse, I think, is then some use blogs, but to do old things—recreating an online version of everything already wrong with our educational systems—limiting online work to plugging rote learning, dispensing information, collecting assignments, maintaining control and power within the classroom, even when the students aren’t in class. This is scary stuff. Poor uses of technology are much worse than no use at all—students complain about too much time doing stupid stuff on computers, going through the motions. Our teachers even when eager and well-meaning are often ill-equipped to bring social software into the learning dynamic. This is an example of what Lawrence Tomei calls the “technology façade” which masks inertia or docile consumerism, a willingness to remain shackled to systems promoting inequality while pretending to move in new directions.

When you bring blogs into your courses—at least the way I am talking about—you have to move in new directions. There’s no choice but to embrace a connected, collaborative learning model, one that puts the students and the subject matter in direct contact with one another within a real-world context. We blogging teachers give up a whole lot of control. Authority shifts from the teacher in the center to the entire group in a noded network. You cannot always predict outcomes—what kids will write on the blogs, what they will learn, how the chemistry of the learning group and the interaction with the outside world will contribute to the experience. How terrifying, how risky—how like life.

We are facing a reactionary wave while we spiral towards a digital divide between generations, between cultures and nations, between haves and have-nots across the planet. The trouble isn’t that kids are surfing the Web; it’s that we don’t talk about the Web well. We don’t help kids become skilled, conscious, ethical users, creators and communicators on the Web. And then bad things can (if rarely) happen—take yesterday’s front-page headlines in the International Herald Tribune: “Mob Rule on China’s Internet: The keyboard as weapon.” Panicky, we get hung up on the sensational reports of predators, spammers, pornographic websites, shoot ‘em up games. We talk about kids being too plugged-in, that they’d rather take a walk in nature online than for real. We read the reports of increased cheating with mobile devices and Internet access—we are trying desperately to save our kids from something—but from what? Do they want to be saved?

Hmmm…it sounds a bit like what I wrote about for my primary-school memory. My English year. The school year 1968-9 I was 11, turning 12. I attended The Perse School for Girls in Cambridge, England that year while my father was a visiting fellow at Cambridge University. In school I took twice the number of subjects I had in the States: 13, ranging from religion to physics to geography to needlework. I was fascinated by the ancient, lidded desks lined in perfect rows in dim room after room; the long corridors with floors that creaked underfoot, the perfect uniforms; to an American girl, the place reeked of history and tradition. I learned all about the importance of neatness, of rules, of silence. I learned to detest Brussels sprouts and treacle pudding, prefects and snotty girls. I was terrified, bored, mystified and apparently learned so much that when I returned to the U.S., my school promptly accelerated me an extra year. And I did learn a tremendous amount. But not in the classrooms what the teachers hoped I would—it was out in the cloakroom where Belinda jarred me out of my American complacency by calling me a dirty Yank, and to go home. It was on the streets where teens were slinking around in psychedelic clothing. It was on television—where we saw the horrors of Vietnam, Russia invading Czechoslovakia, the student riots, American inner cities erupting. In our school with its shady courtyard reserved for games of rounders, it was as though none of this at all was happening. We copied from our roughs books into our copy books while the jagged glass high up on the surrounding walls kept all that out. In those days, you pretty much could. And we accepted that things were different in the two worlds, inside and outside of school. The two had nothing to do with one another.

We’re still trying to make it work like that. And the result, I think, of this insistence of keeping school apart from the world, is damaging that students are not, as Will Richardson pointed out, learning critical network literacy; they’re using technology lazily, impulsively rather than mindfully—a quick means to entertainment and communication and social spaces and identity formation—often with little skill, perspective and grounding. Recent research points to the skill level of those you know as predicting your ability to use the internet effectively to conduct research. (Hargitta p.270 in Howard and Jones) Kids are depending on one another, in other words, not upon anything going on in school to learn about the Internet. Research on the ability of people to cope in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina shows that those who had access to email and to people to contact online—and therefore access to information about resources and help fared much better than those who did not. Knowing how to use the Internet effectively played a role in coping with this tragedy.

There’s another significant reason why we cannot keep the two worlds separate: the digital natives cannot keep their digital selves out of the classroom. No stone walls and jagged glass, no uniforms can keep the world out—rumbling beneath my students’ now-cracking academic façade is another person altogether, a person who demands constant access to whoever he wants access to, and time and space are increasingly irrelevant. Studies show that kids make social plans fluidly, up to the last minute, touching bases by cellphone, sometimes never actually meeting up but staying in close contact. At my institution, a recent study concluded that students and parents are in touch by cellphone an average of 30 times per week—when I was in university, some three hours from my home, I called my parents once a week (if they were lucky). Now they text and call on the path between classes; they fire up a few messages as the professor gets going with the day’s lecture. And even when we think we are using communications technology in ways that work with this generation—leaving them phonemail messages, sending email, we find out that they do not check their email accounts; they do not use ordinary telephones. These are means of communication to use with older generations and figures of power as Lankshear and Knobel, and Thorne have pointed out in discussing these tensions between learning pedagogy and cultural practices and values integral to young people’s identities.

And when they do communicate with us on email, we get upset by the lack of appropriate etiquette, of respect and distance, students opening emails with “Hey, Barb—“ The email flap reached U.S. national press this year with professors across the country decrying the manners of this generation. Of course this response is preposterous. First off, it reminds me of fathers ineffectually demanding that our brothers cut their waist-length hair back in the late sixties. One generation giving way to the next. We are in the midst of absolutely new, convulsive change and the use of communications technologies affects the very fabric of what we do in the classroom and yet we wear garlic about our necks, and try to bolt the doors. As Henry Jenkins puts it,

“ Our responsibilities as educators should be to bring reason to bear on situations which are wrought with ignorance and fear, not to hide our eyes from troubling aspects of teen culture.”

But of course it is more troubling than a simple generation gap. A veritable avalanche of recent articles and blogposts has left me reeling: stories from edubloggers about the rift between what they know is possible and necessary for their students’ learning experiences and the system’s and parents’ resistance to change; stories of schools banning blogs and MySpace outright and monitoring all in-school internet use without consulting teachers and students; posts of experienced edubloggers backing off a bit, contending we need more evidence of which application best suits what educational goal; articles detailing fear that access to mobile devices and the Internet leads to appalling plagiarism and a lack of respect for intellectual property. Stirrings from governments and corporations of legislation and regulation looming, ownership of the Internet just around the corner. Fearmongering. More divisions, hierarchies, inequities– when positive change is within reach—or so I thought. A rising mess.

I have felt myself losing hope these past months that we can effect essential change in education. I have wanted to burrow down into my own practice with blogs and shut out the cacaphony. I have faltered even in my own blogging practice during the past month for fear of having nothing positive to say.

And then, a couple of days ago, the latest issue of the provocative American environmental magazine, Orion, helped me see a way out of this mess.

Writing about the state of the environment and environmentalism, Derrick Jensen writes in the lead article, “Beyond Hope” :

“Frankly, I don’t have much hope. But I think that’s a good thing. Hope is what keeps us chained to the system, the conglomerate of people and ideas and ideals that is causing the destruction of the Earth. To start, there is the false hope that suddenly somehow the system may inexplicably change. Or technology will save us. Or the Great Mother…All these false hopes bind us to unlivable situations, and blind us to real possibilities… When we realize the degree of agency we actually do have, we no longer have to ‘hope’ at all. We simply do the work.”

He’s right, of course. I have to stop hoping that anything can change; instead I must go about getting the work done. Inside. Where it counts. We edubloggers have to get our acts together, as you are doing here by gathering at this conference, forming communities amongst ourselves to lay out the direction. We’ve got to get the word out, show models, examples, proof—that means everyone of us needs to blog, to participate in such groups as teachersteachingteachers.org communicating about what we are doing in our classrooms and why—when things work and when they don’t; we must pull our colleagues aside and talk about the complex of new literacies and how they intersect with the old, about connected learning ecologies, about creating bridges and bonds within and between our communities. We must listen as much as we talk. We must reach out to one another. We must risk failure.
Every one of us in this room is deeply involved in the unfolding future of this next generation, and as James Martin of Oxford’s Twenty-first Century Institute has observed, it will be up to this transition generation to save this world or to lose it entirely. (Talk at Middlebury College)

Let’s face it. It’s hopeless for us to think we can change a behemoth like our educational system—it reflects, after all, the fine fix we find ourselves in, and because it very elegantly keeps those with power in power. And so what we do for the time being will continue to be tense, strained even—except with our students in the classroom and on the blogs. They can practice for citizenship at the very least in a learning culture that fosters empathy on the part of the powerful and privileged, and a voice and a say as well as important skills and connections for those clumped into the faceless middle or the marginalized reaches. As M. Scott Peck tells us, “It is our task–our essential, central, crucial task– to transform ourselves from mere social creatures into community creatures. It is the only way that human evolution will be able to proceed.” (The Different Drum) We can take a page from civil rights and women’s rights movements.

No, hope’s got nothing to do with it. And no, technology will not save us. Only we can do that. And to that end, I want offer some practical recommendations for anyone thinking about using class blogs:

First, it is essential to think about how blogging can amplify and strengthen the learning experience, to structure it in such a way that it is resilient to the disasters that can befall it; that it is of flexible and strong fabric that can receive the imprint of the group.
Because learning is both a social and solitary activity, it is important to have both collaborative and personal blogging spaces.

The MotherblogPicture 1.png
I set up what I call a Motherblog which serves as an aggregator (collecting and connecting the individual blogs of students, tutors and teacher, as well as resources from the outside world including the archived blogs from previous semesters) and as a place to converse informally about things related to our experience in the course. Although I still teach in a departmentalized, semesterized system, the archiving subverts the notion of isolated learning segments by carrying the blog’s accumulated wisdom from group to group, informing the new students’ experience by adding context, models, and inspiration.

In Stuart Selber’s Multiliteracies for a Digital Age, he writes that
“communities instigate and restrain the things that can be said” (56) We can use the transparency and connectedness of the Motherblog to show just how and why that works. By participating in a larger online world, our students can work along the borders of communities of practices where Etienne Wenger contends often the most interesting work gets done.

As one of my students recently reflected on her blog:

“I love the mother blog. I love having a space to swap ideas – to suggest summer reads, to rant or rave about personal universe decks. If individual blogs are a bit impersonal, the mother blog builds community. Adding my line to the list poem, I felt like part of something larger. And I love being linked to a range of works – writing by English 170 alums, students at other schools. These stories, essays, and poems are just as inspiring as anything in our handouts, anthologies.”

They become active observers of themselves not within a vacuum but within the close bonds of our learning community and as they make bridges to the world (linking to local and global communities through comments, discussion with invited experts, with collaborations with other schools).

Individual BlogsPicture 2.png

The use of individual student blogs linked from the Motherblog invites an examination into the blurring of public and private spaces, of transparency in research and writing. Learning to connect to and communicate online with individuals and groups effectively is essential, yes, but so is the opportunity for quiet messing around with one’s own ideas in one’s own space, connecting back to old work, reflecting upon the journey, making the learning personally relevant. On our individual blogs we can see the voices, the levels of diction, the depth of research as it emerges; we can note the germination and development of ideas, the informal thinking and the formal arguments—we can gain skills by seeing our own linked processes, and by looking at the processes of our fellow bloggers. Students engage the opinions of others in blog conversation and observe its evolution through a reflective blogging practice—two different sorts of blogging.

Teacher Input
To resist the notion of the teacher as authority and therefore the only voice that matters, I do not respond very much at all to their blogposts. They are responsible for one another. I read what they write and respond in one-on-one conferences, in conversation with them. I keep carefully to the side of the blog with announcements and with a link to my own blog, where they can read what I write about the learning experience from my perspective as teacher. And some of them come on my blog and leave comments, taking me on, even.

Visual Medium Exercises
I emphasize visual literacy through critical and creative assignments, some using only visuals—stories without words; and assignments balancing visuals with audio and linking–hypertext assignments and digital stories.

Auditory Medium Exercises
I also take advantage of the audio capabilities of the blog, working in assignments incorporating their speaking voice, reading and talking, so that they can hear the impact of voice on the written word, and take responsibility for their arguments.

Knowledge Trees
But the first thing we do in my courses is set up Pierre Levy’s knowledge trees: personal narratives which grounds students in the learning situation by asking them to write about their own perspective as based in time, place, family, culture as they relate to this course; they have to write about what they bring to the learning table in terms of skill and interest, and what they hope to apprentice to the group in—what they want to learn. From the get-go, they are to see themselves as individuals with a particular point of view within an evolving group experience. We focus on connected and collaborative techniques of learning—we talk about why we need various modes of communication discourse, and then we talk about how blogs will help us do that.

And that’s what I asked you to do, in part, at the beginning of this talk, to create the roots of your own knowledge tree, your own sense of connection between where you have come from as an individual and what you will contribute to this group. Let’s now open the discussion to you, to how you see this community serving you and vice versa. That can take the form of questions, of conversation. And I hope someone will blog this, so we can build from here.