A Recent Conversation on Blogging for The Vermont State Colleges


Ah, I’ve been away from the blog too long.

I have several posts waiting for me, posts stirred by comments from the likes of Terry Freedman and Lanny Arvan, on topics ranging from a clearer articulation of what I mean by teaching in a syllabus-less classroom to a clearer articulation of how, exactly, I see images in my classes. I am afraid that the frantic pace at which I am moving these days between teaching, talking and family have made my posts a little thin, a little less carefully developed than I would like them to be. Oh well–at least I’ve been able to show my last few posts and the resulting comments to my students as models of useful blogging conversation and feedback.

So, no, today I am not going to blog back to Terry or Lanny; I’m not going to talk about Chris Sessum’s wonderful new post on “relationships of knowledge, teacher learning, and practice”, or the interesting Skype show I participated in two nights ago about assessment of student blogging over at languagelabunleashed, or even the fascinating group of students I am lucky to be teaching this semester or the new group of world bloggers embarking on their study abroad ventures. Soon, I hope, I’ll get to those posts. For today, I’ll share the slides and text version of the talk that kicked off an afternoon-long conversation a couple of days ago with a spirited group of teachers and administrators from the Vermont State College System on the other side of the splendidly autumnal Green Mountains. And if I can get the audio sounding okay, I’ll post that, too.

I’m not covering new ground here–it is a talk introducing my classroom work with blogs and urging the group gathered to think first of the goals they and their students have for their learning, and how the new literacies affect how and what we teach.
The text served as a guideline, but in the actual talk, I departed from it frequently, pulling in additional examples both from theory and practice.


Slide0001.gif It is a real pleasure to be with you at VTC today, and I especially look forward to hearing about your experiences within the Vermont State College System. Crossing the Green Mountains at the end of September is in itself reason enough to make my way here from Middlebury; having a chance to discuss teaching and 21st century classrooms with colleagues from other institutions in Vermont is an even better reason. We need to hear from one another up and down the length of this state, sharing the challenges, the concerns, the discoveries we are making about teaching and learning.

We are fortunate, I think, to be teaching at a time of such change, when the walls of our educational systems may be increasingly permeable to positive change even when they appear to be growing ever more solid, holding steady and true to tradition as everything shifts around us. As learning theorists tell us, learning happens at the edges of chaos, in a cycle of disruption and repair, disruption and repair. (I highly recommend Dawn Skoczewski’s Teaching One Moment at a Time: Disruption and Repair in the Classroom for a fine summary of these theories and their impact on one teacher’s understanding of her role in the classroom). But of course we feel strapped for time and baffled by the array of tools and emerging technologies peppering the Web. How do we steer our course and help map that of our students?

(A few minutes on intros of the audience)

I grew up in New Hampshire, attended college in rural Massachusetts, lived in and traveled to many far off places before settling in Vermont some 25 years ago. I taught English in a rural Vermont high school, then at CCV and now, for the past 17 years, at Middlebury in the Writing Program and English Department. I have taught students from all kinds of backgrounds and perspectives, and in three very different kinds of educational institutions.

I am not a techie. I am a teacher of writing and literature. Six years ago if anyone had told me I would be circling the globe talking about technology in the classroom, I would have laughed. Just look at me now, five years into classroom blogging: I have my own reflective-practice blog which has led me to a new community of colleagues in cyberspace and has deepened my own learning journey; my students all keep blogs, make digital stories, play with images, and podcast as they explore what it means to write effectively in the 21st century. I think my journey into the heart of Web 2.0 technology has a lot to do with teaching in a rural state, even at an affluent institution, far removed from the rest of the world. Initially I was attracted to blogs because they could bring my students to the world and the world to my students, building empathy and understanding, communication skills and connections. I was concerned by my students’ willingness to hand over their whole learning plan to me as though I could wave a wand and make them learn what they needed to learn, while they actually had very little to do with it except to complete assignments and to take tests and to show up in class. I think where I teach has made me pay attention to the range in opportunity, in access and in participation of students in our state. And as I watch the world take to the internet, it has made me think about how and if the Web can enhance the lives of our students by making them critical consumers of media, active producers of content and active participants in local communities and global society.

To set a context for this afternoon, I have put together a presentation of some of my thinking and work for the first hour that will open up into what I hope will be a lively and useful discussion in the second hour.

Now–because I’m a writing teacher, we have to open this exploration by writing…
We’ll come back to this exercise at the end of this first hour.

I went to high school in the early seventies, a time when the world outside the classroom walls was in turmoil and yet few of my teachers brought Vietnam or Cesar Chavez or radical student activism or Black Power or Watergate into the learning—we were left to puzzle over the events of the world with our families or among ourselves–and considering that we were at a boarding school, we were largely left to sort things out on our own. And we didn’t have the internet. That disconnect between what often happens in school and out has deeply informed my teaching. I believe we should always be thinking about how we are engaging our students with the world around us as well as the world of the past. We should be talking with one another about the mix of old assumptions and expectations and new ones competing for our time and attention in the classroom. How are the old allegiances to discipline-based subject matter and familiar, lecture-based teaching approaches intersecting with new ways of learning, new ways of knowing, new literacies that are emerging from new ways of communicating, especially in the hands of this new generation of digital natives who, as first-generation inhabitants of any world often do, cling to deeply held expectations of the classroom. In spite of their embrace of an online world, they are deeply conservative when it comes to the classroom–at least initially. Incoming college students are immersed in the legends of the university. They’ve heard their parents’ stories of charismatic lecturers, and of running the gauntlet of an impossible homework load. They’ve watched the movies of crazy partying and dotty but brilliant teachers. That’s what they’ve come to expect of college. And yet they also want instant, informal access to us by cellphone, IM, email.

I don’t want to give them either of those things.

In a 2006 presentation, the Pew Center for American Life and the Internet reported:
” If you add up all the possible ways that teens might have created and shared content online, some 57% of all teen internet users have contributed a creation of theirs to the online “commons.” I’m talking here about things like art work, photos, videos, audio files, or pieces of creative writing. ”

How about rural teens? Are Vermont students less likely to avail themselves of online learning opportunities? How many of them own computers? Have broadband access? We also know from studies that who you know influences your online fluency, your ability, in particular, to use the internet for research, far more than anything you learn in school. Internet skills are learned peer-to-peer rather than in classrooms. Do we want that trend to continue? Why are we preoccupied with the perils of MySpace, predators on blogs, plagiarism, nettiquette yet we do not discuss them in class?

As James Duderstadt, former President of The University of Michigan has pointed out:

“The traditional classroom paradigm is also being challenged, not so much by the faculty, who have by and large optimized their teaching effort and their time commitments to a lecture format, but by students. members of today’s digital generation of students have spent their early lives immersed in robust, visual, electronic media–home computers, video games, cyberspace networks, and virtual reality. 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…They learn in a nonlinear fashion, skipping from beginning to end and then back again, and building peer groups of learners, developing sophisticated learning networks in cyberspace. In a very real sense, they build their own learning environments that enable interactive, collaborative learning, whether we recognize and accommodate this or not.” (pp.42-43)

How do these divides affect our classrooms? Our teaching? What we hope our students are learning?

How do we meet the demands of our departments to move our students along the curriculum; how do we meet the desires of students who want to use computing but also want us available, in person, in class or online?

How do we engage with the new literacies? How we we stay abreast of developments in emerging pedagogies? How do we find the time?

With these new pressures in mind, how do we envision the dynamics between learner, the classroom, the subject matter and how does this have an impact on traditional classroom structures?

Do we, even when we are using elearning platforms, hold to a dynamic that keeps the students static and ourselves active?

Are we paying attention to the news that “…our educational discourse is largely stuck in a time warp, framed by issues and standards set decades before the widespread use
of the personal computer, the Internet, and free trade agreements. But we can no more afford to isolate ourselves educationally than we can economically or in terms of national security.” Vivien Stewart and Sharon Lynn Kagan in PHI DELTA KAPPAN 11/05

If we remember what John Dewey said well before the advent of computers, and now that we have online communications and identity formation, we have an opportunity to put into actual practice learning as conversation with the subject matter, with others, with thinkers who have come before us.

Then we will consider the learner’s connections to prior learning, to cultural backgrounds, to self, to the world, to the workplace and to us as interconnected, constantly evolving influences on the learning. We will no longer isolate our classroom discourse, or our students.
As Paolo Freire tells us, “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.”

For example, from George Siemens’ we learn of work at the University of Manitoba, where a group of educators is experimenting with a Virtual Learning Commons in which students find other students interested in learning about the same things. They can connect with one another around these topics instead of waiting for instructors to tell them what to do and when to do it.

In other words, how are we addressing this concern that the business sector is voicing—


Instead of keeping these separate, social computing—and specifically, as we’ll see today—blogs
…through their connectivity and their transparency merge these tasks; students learn new literacies and the discipline as they are doing the discipline in new ways.


Blogging gives us a canvas on which to paint the course with our students over the semester–we can still accomplish much of what we used to (teaching the discipline) while making the learning experience a dynamic and effective one in 21st-century terms: by engaging them more actively in their own learning through constructivism, by setting the stage for powerful peer-to-peer learning through connectivism; they gain skill as creative thinkers, collaborating learners and effective communicators in a world demanding such.

The blog keeps the course organized and connected, piece to piece, semester to semester, allowing students to learn from those who have come before them–not just the “experts” writing the textbooks, but their own peers through trial and error, through, feedback, through modeling. They see themselves as part of a great learning adventure that goes beyond one classroom or one semester.

The central column of the blog invites informal sharing of discoveries made within the class experience and outside–they can bring into the community discussion their own expertise, prior learning, cultural perspectives. They can converse here about what interests them about what we are studying. This kind of discussion weaves the threads of collective intelligence, a community of reciprocal apprentices (Levy), and it helps students to think beyond the strict confines of the syllabus, seeing connections to themselves and the world. They are also practicing a direct means of expression that is far more informal in nature than the kinds of discussions that unfold about the course material. The teacher gathers these pieces into teaching moments–pulling up a blog discussion in class to discuss levels of discourse, content, experience, community.

The Motherblog, as it is open to the world in my classes, brings the world to my students and my students to the world. I often invite experts in the field to participate on the blog for defined periods of time before and/or after visiting class, or strictly on the blog to discuss their work with the students. Students have found this real-world context enlightening, exciting and surprising. They feel as though their own ideas matter when an expert says, “Wow, I’m learning something interesting from you. This conversation has been valuable to me in my thinking.” Sometimes people find their way to the blog unannounced–we can affect the general reader who wanders in. We have had writers find us discussing their work, and they have pointed us to other work. And we have also ventured out into the blogosphere, engaging in conversations on other blogs–dispatx, for example, a virtual artist’s collaborative based in Barcelona, has an open process and seeks comments. My creative writers responded to their work; they, in turn, read the student blogs and left them invaluable feedback–artist to artist.

Students also keep their own blogs which are dynamically fed to the Motherblog so that the first twenty words of the most recent post show up under their photo on the Motherblog. They have easy access to one another’s work, providing them with myriad opportunities to learn from one another’s struggles and successes. Student feedback is positive about this kind of transparency. They want to read each other’s work, to feel solidarity with their fellow learners, to learn from one another, to teach one another. I have found that “publishing” the work has led to more care going into the work, deeper thought, more attention to the expression.

After they have posted new work (be it draft or final), I am almost never the first to leave a comment. If I comment too soon, then the rest of the class feels it isn’t quite so necessary to comment, and they will wait around for me to respond. I would reinforce my special status as ultimate expert, perhaps inadvertently preserving the factory-model of education. Too much teacherly presence too soon effectively shuts down the conversation.

If, rather, I wait a bit and let others comment first, I can join the conversation instead of dictating it. And as in this example, when students do not leave particularly helpful feedback, I can model a comment and then show it to the class. (And I can show them how commenting works on my blog to push my thinking and writing).
Sometimes I do not comment at all during the process, letting my comments come outside of the blog so as not to dominate it.

Individual blogs become portfolios of their work within the class, and sometimes beyond. This student has linked papers she wrote in another course, and a blog from another course. The rich connectivity of blogging encourages ongoing learning and contextualizing of the current class. The portfolio becomes a dynamic document that can show graduate schools or potential employers their development and growing expertise. I have had several students parlay these blogs into internships, awards, acceptance into grad school, and employment.

Blogging is a terrific tool for developing ongoing reflection on the discipline, the learning and the self (for you as well as your students), putting into practice E. M. Forster’s contention, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” Writing about the learning deepens the learning, solidifies it, and builds writing skills.

Blogging’s flexibility and ease of use also provide opportunities for embedding multimedia projects or collaborative work, incorporating visual and media literacy skills as students learn to amplify their learning through other modes of expression than textual language. If it had been easy, inexpensive and POSSIBLE to incorporate sounds and image files into our scholarly discourse from the get-go, would we not have moved in that direction long ago? Right now the students are experimenting with and exploring the possibilities of using visual and auditory pieces within scholarly discourse, engaging their creative as well as their critical thought processes as they do so. With the proliferation of Creative Commons licensed image and audio sharing sites such as Ourmedia and Flickr, students without access to cameras and audio recorders can still create multimedia texts without violating copyright standards.

Digital storytelling, a narrative form combining image (still or moving), music and a narrative voiceover, gives students a chance to connect the learning to their own lives, by exploring the subject matter while doing the discipline. Dan, for instance, was in a first-year seminar on contemporary Ireland in which I asked the class to think about their own cultural roots before they examined another culture (lefthand movie). Eli was in a creative writing class thinking about how words work, how they convey their meaning, and how we can find our own intense, passionate relationship with them (righthand movie).

On podcasting

If students own iPODS, they can easily purchase an iTALK to record interviews in the field, their own reflections on the work, presentations, summaries, etc, to build their oral skills of communication, to examine the differences between oral and written discourse, and to engage with their learning community voice to voice. I have found that many learners use the iPODS effectively to grow their ideas when they are writing papers. Instead of using their iPODS as receivers of information and entertainment, I want students to be active producers as much as possible in an environment where they receive feedback as part of the process of learning the discipline.

And the students respond positively although in the first throes of a new course, they are often in freefall, uneasy, disoriented. And I say that’s a good thing, telling them about learning theory and disruption. Many resist and dislike the public nature of blogging at first–and I say in response, who says you are supposed to be any good at any of this now, at the beginning of a course? That’s why we are here–to learn, not to impress. They all bring different experiences, gifts and expertise to the table–some will take to blogging, others to speaking, others to digital storytelling, etc.

Now, this takes careful planning on your part. It is time-intensive at the beginning as you think through the ways in which your classroom goals intersect with the new demands of our times, the new literacies, and how you can imagine using some of these tools and others we haven’t even covered, such as wikis and Skype, to accelerate inquiry as well as to deepen your experience as teachers and theirs as students. Go slowly. Take a look around at what others are doing. Try one approach, one discrete exercise with one of these tools; see how it goes. And realize that you, too, might feel disoriented at first when you take away the familiar structures. Try out a Flickr account for yourself; try blogging your teaching practice–feel for yourself what you are asking your students to do.


So as we send them down the road to active, responsible citizenship, we want them to feel that their contributions are important, that they are not in this endeavor alone…

And that their learning in this class is not isolated by time or place…

But connected and webbed, grounded in the literacies necessary to our time, creative, collaborative, expressive—a meaningful and effective experience from their perspective and ours.

Now let’s return to the writing we did at the opening of the session–what would you add to that card now that you have heard this introduction to thinking about learning communities, blogs and digital stories? Do you have questions? Concerns?

Here are the slides themselves (I realize resizing them has made some of them difficult to read): The Slides