Creativity and Community in a Web 2.0 Classroom–Not As Easy As It Sounds?

This has been a busy week back from BlogHer –the many meetings, phone conferences, workshops filling my days have revolved around incorporating Web 2.0 tools effectively into different sorts of learning contexts, a conversation I’ve been having for the past five years, but more urgently now. And it has been an unsettling, disturbing week with the tragedies of our policies in the Middle East bearing their explosive fruit, and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth reminding me of our horrendous domestic policies, too, making the calm of this Vermont summer surreal in its beauty and saneness.

And so in the spirit of James Martin, whose work inspires me to remain optimistic that we still have time to save this beleagured planet, and alongside so many committed colleagues online and off, I throw myself into trying to push ahead educational reforms classroom by teacher by conversation by blogpost by workshop. During this one week of conversations alone I have been asked again and again and again to talk about what brought me to blogging in the first place and how it is I know that blogging has directly affected my students’ learning experience. Especially now that social software is under threat, people want to hear about my journey to blogs, about how I was looking for a way to bring the world to my students and my students to the world through links to conversations beyond those in the classroom, and how I was desperately searching for ways to enliven the classroom dynamic and student written expression–to add authenticity and context to classes focussed primarily on something very few of my students had any real interest in–formal writing. Over the years I had noted an increasing rigidness in my students’ engagement with their learning–it seemed to me that they sought easy-to-follow rubrics, clearly defined processes that would help them arrive at the “correct” answer , the “well-written essay,” the high grade as painlessly as possible. I turned to blogging in part because I suspected it might help me shake things up. I had noticed that these same students were engaging in some really pretty creative work outside of class–online–making movies, chattering away on IM, writing ‘zines, playing around with music clips and multimedia expression, just for fun and as a way to communicate to the world. I was also alarmed by how in class students stayed almost indifferent to one another as members of a group experience unless I the teacher asked them to engage with one another-class discussion, even when lively and heated, seemed just another hoop to jump through with little resemblance or relevance to the discussions they had outside of class. School was just something you did on the way to real life. Sometimes students didn’t even know each other’s names even though they sat next to each twice a week for twelve weeks. When I asked them why, they’d shrug. It seemed like too much trouble to get to know people’s names just for a class. Something was going very wrong even though they were learning to write academic prose quite competently.

In the five years since I first played around with blogs, I’ve seen a shift, a righting of the listing vessel of my classroom; indeed, something quite wonderful has happened to the learning culture–now in no way do I want to ascribe these successes to blogs themselves but to what has happened to the class when we engage in the kinds of co-created collaborations and connected reflections blogging facilitates. We have found ourselves immersed in a creative learning community building strong ties to one another, and a real sense of the worth of our classroom experience. We have experienced all the bumps of a close community–personalities rubbing each other wrong, miscommunication, mis-steps on the part of the teacher–yup, and still every class gives off an energy, a buzz, a lasting engagement. And I have become a much better teacher for it. I think that last statement has surprised some people this week–they were thinking about how blogging affected students, but not necessarily how it has touched the teacher except in as far as time and skill are involved.

Could we have done all of this without blogs? Sure. But not as deeply, not on as many levels, and not as lastingly within a very brief twelve-week semester. Blogging accelerates inquiry by linking us to a wide range of resources and thus the greater conversation within our discipline as apprentices and experts, and it provides a place for the class to engage in discussion, in reflection and in learning construction outside of class. Class never ends. Learning spills into the hallway, out the door and across the campus often in a much more leisurely, thoughtful way than it has in the past. Hyperlinking allows a student to connect statements made three weeks ago to things she’s thinking today, bringing to light the development of ideas, of skills, of practices, and grounding them in the rest of her life. Hyperlinking allows associative, non-linear ways of organizing ideas, helping students make new connections. The mix of media invites in multiple literacies–all of which can be explored, examined, compared, and connected around the clock. Students can see their own points of reference and how they intersect with those of their classmates and teacher. I know of no other way to make the learning outcomes this rich, this real, this lasting.

The talk about how DOPA could eliminate blogging practices from public schools has pushed me to try to articulate what social software really helps me to accomplish. It has pushed me out of my own head and experience to that of others to help me express what I have learned. And it is this connecting of my use of blogs to the wider realm of thinking on learning and teaching that keeps me growing my own practices. I do not sit still; I am a student in a limitless classroom with many teachers.

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And so, because this is what I always do when I am puzzling out my own take on things, I turned to my reading practice. First off, and because it is easier than choosing between the two dozen books awaiting me on my desk, I turned to the blogs where I found Lanny Arvan’s mention of the geeky girl’s dilemma. It reminded me of how one of my daughters didn’t feel safe in the halls of her middle and first year of highschool as someone who loved science and studying, and how she convinced us to send her to boarding school, and how my other daughter felt that school was plain old deadening and so propelled herself through high school as quickly as she could, seeking instead enriching experiential, inter-cultural learning programs, first in South America and then in India where she couldn’t get enough of this real-world education, exclaiming during phonecalls home that there was so much she needed to learn about the world. How my older daughter this past year came to understand that only her intellect was being educated and valued in the rigorous prep school and elite college she now attends and so she took spring semester off to explore other parts of herself–the artist, the musician, the worker, the volunteer. Lanny’s post got me thinking about how race, gender, sexuality, kinds of intelligences, and past experience all wrapped themselves up–but invisibly–in the classroom dynamics in my pre-blog years, and how blogging led us to talk about these essential things, and about each of us as learners and teachers. How it was that I accepted so readily in my own youth that academic skill was equated with intelligence, and how that permeated my classroom whether I knew it or not, which brought me to Ken Robinson’s Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative, in which he writes that we often confuse “academic ability with intelligence” (p.7) and

“Graduates don’t communicate well, they can’t work in teams, and they can’t think creatively” (p.4).

Hmm….I would have said the same about my students five years ago. But not so any more. Once they are given the opportunity to engage in a collaborative classroom that gives them a stake in their learning, in which the teacher plans carefully, works alongside reflecting and learning and collaborating in the messy up-and-down creative process of learning, helping them to frame questions and daring to explore the complexities of the subject from a variety of positions instead of directing, lecturing, and dictating, well, they quickly gain skill in communicating well, working in teams, and thinking creatively.

A conversation with Barbara Sawhill a couple of weeks ago brought me to my third reading, one of the best books I have ever read about teaching, Dawn Skorczewski’s Teaching One Moment at a Time: Disruption and Repair in the Classroom. This book should be brought without delay into every teacher ed curriculum and read by anyone wanting to explore and grow a teaching practice. I don’t think she mentions the word technology once in this book, but she sure does think about creativity and community and what makes a classroom a safe and effective environment for learning and what gets in our way as teachers. She grounds her examples in writing pedagogies, nonlinear dynamic systems theory and infant research– I found myself writing down line after line and thinking about how what she has to say about being present in the moment of the classroom leads to all kinds of revelations about how we are teaching implicitly as well as explicitly. She quotes Freire several times:

“‘The teacher is no longer the one who teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach,'” (p.23)

another way of putting what Pierre Levy calls “recipriocal apprenticeships.” This is precisely what opening the classroom to dialogic practices during class and outside of class brings us–and it is, I contend, the outside of class interactions on the blogs that lead to many of the most valuable revelations. I also find much in common with what she says here:

“Looking outside our own discipline, we see ourselves from new perspectives, uncover the teacher’s presence in the classroom from another angle, and expand the possibilities of how we interact with students in the future.” (p.8)

She brings up the messiness of such a classroom and how what I’ve called “glorious failures” (from Forster), she calls the principle of “disruption and repair” –that moments of tension, of mis-stepping in classes are precisely the moments that can lead to important group learning about the community and its individuals, and then to more effective engagement with the subject matter. When she writes about Thomas Cottle’s notion of

“‘intersubjective understanding'” or ‘mutual otherness’ as key to identity formation and learning; all ‘teaching’, by definition, occurs within the relationship, within the connection of our mutual otherness, and thus it lives in a remarkable zone conjoining the physical and metaphysical worlds,” (p.9),

I think about how asynchronous conversations and long reflective, hyperlinked postings back and forth between classmates, and within each student’s ongoing reflections to self, have helped my students and myself to such realizations. We can bring into our classroom meetings what we have written on the blogs, and sense our own position vis a vis the group. We gain in self-awareness as we grow in intersubjective understanding. She also explores the theory of the contact zone, the need for humility and flexibility, for us to examine our own cliches and not just our students’, and a great technique she developed for classes that aren’t going well, called the “freeze frame” — the class stops the discussion and takes a look at itself and how things are unfolding in the moment and why. Well, it’s an inspiring book, and it articulates so beautifully and grounds in a lovely weaving of theory what I am trying to do integrating social software into the classroom. It’s a complex, complicated business bringing these tools into our teaching, but if we do it thoughtfully, carefully and boldly, we can enhance our abilities to know ourselves, and to foster creative thinking and collaboration and community in our classrooms in the ways that Dawn Skorczewski and Ken Robinson urge us to do.

Final reading tip for today? Back to the blogs we go– For an excellent view on how these online collaborative groups work, check out Nancy White’s Fulll Circle Associates Blog and her Blogs and Community five-part series. Great stuff.


3 Responses

  1. Thanks for a beautiful post about the meaning and purpose of blogging in your classroom. Thanks also for the link to Nancy White’s blog and her helpful shorthand for how to think about blogs.

  2. excellent post, and one that has helped me get a further along in the process of thinking about not only my own blogging, but also how i might integrate blogs into my fall writing class. i shall be bookmarking and returning to this post!

    many thanks!

  3. Those interested in creativity, education and educational change might also be interested in this new book, “Education is Everybody’s Business: A Wake-Up Call to Advocates of Educational Change” (Rowman & Littlefield Education). It’s by educator Berenice Bleedorn ( ), who was the gifted consultant for the Minnesota State Department of Education, a professor of creativity in both the business and education schools at the University of St. Thomas, has taught creativity to inmates in the state prison, and writes and speaks about creativity throughout the world.

    This book really makes the case for the deliberate teaching of thinking – creative and critical – in education. It also links the importance of education to a thriving democracy. A great idea in the book is that “democracy deserves the best thinking possible” – which offers a great place to begin one’s thinking about any number of political issues in the world today. Some other good quotes from the book include:

    * Children and youth are all much smarter than we think. They are smarter than the standardized test scores tell us. They have a longer tomorrow than adults, and most of them think about it more than we realize. Students have a right to understand what is happening to the world that they are inheriting.
    * The hope is that educational programs will become better designed to make the best possible use of the natural power of the human mind to grow and develop and to be significantly active in service to a cause beyond oneself.
    * There are no limits to the intellectual resource of the human mind when it is provided with an atmosphere for personal growth.
    * The idea that `Creativity=Capital’ is not a facetious one. The capacity of the human mind for creativity and innovation is unlimited. Harvesting the creativity in a business translates to money in the bank.
    * Creative thinking can be taught if learners can practice the art of being serious and playful at the same time.
    * The educational problem of a disparity between average achievement scores of white students and black students may have some of its origin in the nature of schooling that neglects programs that identify creative talent and fails to provide for its appropriate expression in problem solving and other creative thinking activities.
    * Educators have not only an opportunity but an obligation to open the “doors of perception” for all students. The enduring purpose of education is to provide students with a perception of the outer reaches of their talents and possibilities and, ideally, to give them a reason to continue to learn and contribute to their society for all of their lives.
    * The mandate is undeniable. The future of the environment can be guaranteed only with the determined effort of all the players in the world drama in every society, and there is no time to lose. It is a perfect project for the integration of schools and society, the community and the education profession. It is a time for personal action and resolve.
    * Initiatives from concerned citizens and business interests have a vital place in developing educational outcomes that can be competitive with the rest of the developing world and can continue to contribute to a better life for all.
    * Paradoxical thinking is a prerequisite for a society and world steeped in a diversity of cultures, religions and ideologies if we ever hope to achieve a more sane and peaceful world. If complex thinking were taught, practiced and modeled during the process of education everywhere, the people of the world would understand more and fight less.

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