Pulling Up A New Course Blog and Other Semester Openers

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This is the sixth fall semester I’ll have my students blog, write hypertext essays, write with images, create digital stories–the original blogging crew entered my classroom for the first time on September 11, 2001. Imagine. And how the world has changed since then… not to mention my classroom and my syllabus and my professional interests and even expertise. What a five years it has been…

And so as I pull up a new motherblog, I’m also pulled over to my own blog here to post about the new way I’m intending to open my class thanks to Jane Love from Furman University, my wonderful new online collaborating colleague whom I met at the digital storytelling gathering in California three weeks ago; and to the new Blogging the World elgg platform that my online collaborating colleague,Todd Bryant from Dickinson College has set up (not ready for reading yet, but it promises to be a real improvement over the old one); and to the many projects brewing with my frequent collaborator and co-presenter, Barbara Sawhill from Oberlin including the blogging pilot project I’m doing with Vermont and NH teacher ed programs as a way to provide support and connection for new teachers who can feel isolated and alone; and to the workshops/talks/presentations from Dallas to Illinois to Vermont punctuating my semester; and to the digital storytelling initiatives and collaborations I am immersed in with online collaborating colleagues from The Center for Digital Storytelling and Creative Narrations among others. To think that the only thing on my mind when I first introduced blogs into that Irish lit and film seminar was how to bring my students to Ireland and Ireland to my students. Wow.

I am also looking ahead to my spring semester leave when I will go offline and out of the country (at least that’s the plan) for three months (April-June) to read, to think, to write, to take stock of this work. Instead of going on leave to write a novel set in Ireland (my last leave), I’ll be working on Web and digital storytelling projects internationally and writing about my teaching and learning journey on the Web. And six years ago I didn’t even LIKE computers.

Now because of the Web and what it has brought me, I sit on the brink of the semester (on my baggage as it were) in awe of where I’ve been, of where I am right now, of where my students are, and where we’re going. I have a new set of exercises to try out with my students as a way to think about who we are as we move into this learning experience together and what we want to get out of it. This makes me think about Gardner Campbell’s recent post, “The One, the Many, and the Other” about the dangers of thinking about community rather than the people in it. His quotation from Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one to mull over as I start this semester: “He who loves community, destroys community. He who loves the brethren, builds community.” One of the ways to focus on the people within the learning community is to help them develop skills of conversation, the give and take of listening and expressing within a group. Dave Pollard (who always has something thought-provoking to read on his blog) has a terrific post, “Ten Steps to Great Conversations” which could be entitled, “Ten Steps to Setting Up A Great Classroom.” Both of these posts I want to share with a young teacher, one of my former students, who has just started teaching at a local secondary school. A couple of days ago she was expressing some confusion about the school community as a whole–its culture– but as soon as we started talking about her students, her passion and enthusiasm took over. Our talk quickly got productive and interesting: swapping ideas about exercises and approaches that would help her students fill the room with themselves, and listen to one another, and value each other’s contributions to the learning journey, while challenging themselves to grow as thinkers and writers.

I suppose I am writing this post in part to reassure myself that walking into a writing workshop with only the broadest strokes of a syllabus and only the backbone of a motherblog on Tuesday makes sense pedagogically rather than being a sign of me getting lazy after all these years. It’s quite harrowing when I really think about what I am about to do –construct the syllabus with the students as we go and remove grades as much as possible –because it runs counter to what everyone around me does. I am about to pitch the teacher’s safety net–a tight syllabus–out the window. I am about to pitch fifteen students into freefall, into discovering with me what it is they need to learn and not what I, without having met them, think they need to know about writing for the college classroom. That involves my asking them challenging questions, and helping them to be deep readers of all kinds of texts. I’ve been moving towards this class for five years now, and it will take all my skill as listener and facilitator, as teacher, to pull it off. And that’s as is should be. If I’m not growing and challenging myself every semester to be a better teacher, then how can I ask my students to challenge themselves?

Fortunately, I am getting a little help from my friends… across the country … in this case, Jane Love, who also invites her students into the course design process (in a very different course) and has shared with me a deep-learning exercise she learned from Rita Pougiales at Evergreen State in Washington. Jane has kindly agreed to let me share the exercise, and I’d be interested in hearing whether anyone else does something similar or plans to try it out. I’m adapting it to suit the first day of my writing class; then Jane and I will share with one another our experiences with our classes as they move out from that exercise over the semester. We’ll have access to one another’s discoveries, both the successes and failures, as we go, and learn from one another. My new safety net, then, is not my syllabus, but the sharing of ideas and feedback with colleagues spread across the planet. And that’s very exciting indeed.

“Let the wild rumpus begin”!

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2 Responses

  1. I am very interested in reading more about your responses to student writing and how you use blogs in the process. I teach seniors in Birmingham, AL and have met some opposition to blogging in my classroom as well as some questions on how I respond to my students’writing. I have bookmarked many of your linked sites and am anxious to watch your process. Thanks for the posts.

  2. I should like to know more about the methodology. From what you’ve written, Barbara, I profoundly disagree with it, as I argue here:

    http://terryfreedman.blogspot.com/2006/09/freefall-or-free-for-all-do-teachers.html
    Cheers
    Terry

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