Blogging and Place… Three Recent Contacts and Implications for the Classroom

smallerlydia.jpg A Willa Cather-esque Scene (think My Antonia) of Lydia, my husband’s grandmother, who traveled out to the Dakotas, alone, as a would-be homesteader around the turn of the 20th century, just to be told women couldn’t claim land. Undeterred, she got a job with the telegraph company and eventually married a homesteader.

As I finish up a couple of talks for next week’s visit with Lanny Arvan and his Learning Commons and Gail Hawisher and her students at The University of Illinois, I keep thinking about the place itself. That part of the country’s center. How flat it is out there–flatter, perhaps, than anywhere I’ve ever been (Lanny has told me that it is flatter than Wisconsin, my husband’s home state–and that’s as flat as it gets for me, New Englander that I am). I find myself both excited and apprehensive about that fact and how it will make me feel.

Such thoughts sent me back into my Willa Cather, to the opening description in O Pioneers!:

“One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away. A mist of fine snowflakes was curling and eddying about the cluster of low drab buildings huddled on the gray prairie, under a gray sky. The dwelling-houses were set about haphazard on the tough prairie sod; some of them looked as if they had been moved in overnight, and others as if they were straying off by themselves, headed straight for the open plain. . .”

It sent me digging around for this photo I wrested from my husband a long time ago, a photo that speaks to me with its smiling Lydia amid the emptiness, her companion looking off –where?–and the shadow of the photographer. The whiff of stories. The pile of lumber. History. Railroads. Migrations. The vast flat plain and sky–flat, empty, flat. No Rockies backing it, ending it–just the horizon. And so I’ve selected a window seat on the plane…

And it makes me think about my camera and whether I should try to get out into the country. It makes me think about Nancy White and the way she travels in Australia, pulling photos she takes that day in whatever place she is in, into her Flickr-based talks. How aware she is of her surroundings and how they have an impact on what she blogs (she even has a blog just for the trip) and on her talks. And it makes me think of my former student and friend from San Antonio who has moved to Jerusalem with her new, French husband and what a mosaic of places inhabit her being and how her connection to so many perhaps contributes to her gifts as keenly perceptive and observant and sensitive writer. And it pulls me to Steven Berlin Johnson’s new website, outside.in, because it’s a wonderful idea–to gather the stories, the concerns, the talk of a place, the geography of a place ,

“So what is outside.in? In a phrase, it’s an attempt to collectively build the geographic Web, neighborhood by neighborhood.” from SBJ’s description

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To get us involved in our communities, get us talking, sharing, thinking aloud and together– This is what I am trying to do in a way with my students and blogging together on Motherblogs as well as alone–to share, collect, build and consider the learning going on in our classroom and to connect it to the places and events and people around us. It is essential for students to think about the place, the actual geographic place they are in at college, just as it is essential, as Bill Shutkin of The Orton Family Foundation said the other morning on his Vermont PublicRadio commentary, for a community to think about how a school defines its town:

A school is a community’s premier symbol of its own survival, of its ability to reproduce itself over time as a living, breathing, thinking place. This is why a community that loses its school often feels it’s also lost its identity. It’s like losing a vital organ or worse, its soul.

To see a school disappear is, for a moment, to see a community’s life flash before its eyes.”

To that end, my group of first-semester first-year students will research and write about our Vermont county in the next course unit. As part of the research, I’ve asked them to get outside and observe the place, and they’ll take pictures and record the ambient sounds. Perhaps we should set up an outside.in account… as a gathering spot for our materials. I like the idea of such a site better than a wiki because the fluidity of a blog, the storyness of it as it unfolds, post to post, feels like people talking, breathing, interacting, each post somehow preparing the way for the next and linking back to the past posts. As long as people read one another’s contributions, that is. (And that’s a real issue in all human communication–listening–if only those in power would listen to one another and to those without power…)

Awareness of place and discovering it more deeply by writing about it drives, in part, the Blogging the World project, as students on study abroad programs learn as much just being absolutely alert in a place as they do in books and classrooms. Imagine what happens when learners connect the three… Read, for instance, the remarkable blogging of Emily on Paris (she’s blogged her hometown, New Orleans, and her school home in Vermont as well), how being in those places conjures up the realities, both harsh and wondrous, of history and culture, of people and events and literature and self. twoshadows.jpg
Read what happens to a professor and his students (all international students grappling with what it means to go to school in the US, in Vermont) when they read and respond to her blog in light of what they are reading and wrestling with in their course and experience as new students in a foreign place.

And away from the real place, here, Vermont, where as close as I get to Illinois is our neighbor’s field, at least in mind’s eye, cornfield.jpgI move through the books into that other place, to reconnect to memories of the Great Plains, memories quite vivid, but of a young girl on the coast of Maine, reading, reading hammockmaine.jpg of other places, of that other place:

“I wanted to walk straight on through the red grass and over the edge of the world, which could not be very far away. The light air about me told me that the world ended here: only the ground and sun and sky were left, and if one went a little farther there would be only sun and sky, and one would float off into them, like the tawny hawks which sailed over our heads making slow shadows on the grass.” Willa Cather My Antonia

If I hadn’t gotten myself entangled in the threads of this blogpost, would I have pulled Willa Cather from my shelf? Would I have rooted around for the photo of Lydia and the ones of the cornfield and the hammock and the shadows? Would I have thought about the correspondances between what I read on Emily’s blog and what my old student must be experiencing in her new home? Would I have slowed down enough to think along these threads when a million other things clamor for my attention? I don’t think so. Blogging this post has pulled me into my most alert, alive sensory thinking and remembering, and as I drive home tonight, I’ll keep the radio off, look at the last leaves on the trees, breathe in the cold wet October, try to hear the geese pouring South and feel this place.
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Flying into Fall: Productive Anxiety* and Creative Tensions

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The beginning of every school year takes me by surprise–I am invariably charmed by my new students one by one as I hear their stories of home and culture, and connect with their learning journey, and welcome them to our classroom community–but I am also reminded of the previous semester and the learning collectives that grew into examples of Pierre Levy’s collective intelligence, each class distinct in character, in attitude, in outcomes; each semester teaching me something new about how to teach with and without computers; each new online learning experience sending me back into learning theory and media theory and current takes on composition theory so as to ground the work, to question what I am doing, and to assess it. I miss the old semester; I delight in the new. And so it goes.

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And now, a month into the semester, I feel the many tensions a teacher feels just about now if she believes in problem-posing, student-centered learning helped along by social software and digital media:

This class is not like any other I have ever taught.

I have to learn how to teach all over again.

What worked last time out might not work now.

I have to help my students survive in this academic culture while trying to bring about change, and sometimes that means that even in an institution that affords me incredible freedoms as a teacher and encouragement in my explorations, I have to teach forms and approaches rarely used outside the halls of the Academy–why do we, in our undergraduate institutions, insist on preparing all of our students for careers as old-school academics?

I try to remember that, as Stephen Downes put it in the wrap-up to the UK edublogging conference this past June, “To teach: be the person you want your students to become.”

For me that means being alert and responsive to the needs of students, helping them light their own fires of learning. That means staying up with developments in my field. That means playing around with digital media in my own work. That means spending the first two weeks of every semester exploring our educational and cultural backgrounds, our individual goals, ourselves as learners, our roles within the collective. We look hard at our deep learning experiences inside and out of classrooms; then we write personal narrative essays out of those experiences, connecting as we do to the larger conversation about learning. I design assignments and experiences for the collective which the group shapes and revises as they get accustomed to having a real hand in the course design. We read one another’s work and get excited (hopefully) about what it could mean to be a part of this learning collective.

And that means that some of the things that I take for granted, that I have prepared for and with the students, need to be shifted, tweaked, or thrown out altogether.

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Blogging, for instance, doesn’t always work out quite as I envision. Or at least, some groups take to it, others do not–at least the kind of blogging that asks for conversation, for deep connecting with the material and one another in lively intellectual interaction. Sometimes a group will want to talk in class but work as solo artists on their own blogs. Other groups–and these are usually the ones who are taking my courses because they have announced themselves as writers–can’t wait to talk to each other through blogging–through this kind of exchange. Because I teach a range of courses, this seems absolutely right to me. The flexibility of the online tools allows us to configure and pool them according to the emergent practices, goals, and chemistry of a learning collective. Sometimes we’ll work more in audio, other times in image…sometimes we’ll write the long solo post, sometimes shorter, conversational bits. It’s impossible to predict exactly what we’ll do until we’re doing it. So my class blogs look and feel quite different one from another. And I find it much easier to describe to people what we’ve done than what we’ll do.

I also get asked about reluctant bloggers, how to “motivate” them. I don’t. It’s up to me to show students how these things work and why–I make the pedagogy transparent, exposing them to learning theory and composition theory and new media theory–to get the intellectual juices flowing and the collective engagement moving, to give them a chance to practice some approaches that can feel antithetical to what their expectations about what the college classroom would be like.

But I can’t make them like it or even do it. That’s their responsibility. Their commitment to make. Yes, I want all my students to have this experience connecting with one another, with themselves, and with the world through social software–but they don’t all have to take to this kind of interaction at all. As long as they gain skill in the use of this medium for this kind of deep learning, they can choose to use it or not as they see fit in the future. I’ve learned not to be disappointed when any one group doesn’t really take to blogging. And so far, this group of first-years are moving into blogging versus posting drafts and assignments to blogs, quite slowly. They love being connected to one another; they crave the feedback, but it takes longer for them to see conversation-in-writing as part of thinking-and-learning.

And so that pushed me last week into getting more creative and to put pressure on my reasons for using blogging with this group. I came up with an exercise in collective intelligence ( a bit like Open Space work with lots of stickies and newsprint stuck to the walls) to demonstrate the power of conversation to find, grow and complicate ideas through connecting, questioning, and finding relationships between their thinking and that of others. They were floored by the difference between the ideas they had come up with on their own the night before and what happened to those ideas once pushed up against those of their peers–they had to clarify, build, and defend their stances. We talked about how doing the same kind of collective, connected work online while they were wrestling with reading and writing could help them deepen and contextualize their ideas, and in turn to get pretty darn excited about what and how they were learning. We’ll see over the next few weeks what this blogging-as-conversation experience will do for them as learners across disciplines and media and how it will help them as writers in traditional modes.

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Meanwhile, last spring’s creative writing class, an avid blogging group during the semester, is finding their way back to one another, to their own blogs and to the group blog. They miss the collective. It’s interesting that when they are away over the summer, they are too busy to blog, but when they are together, back on campus, they want that kind of deep, connected interaction.

And the Blogging the World group is up and running from Cairo, Damascus, Paris, London, Florence. One student now in Cuba, who blogged in class but is NOT from his semester abroad, explained to me, when I commented that his email missives were so compelling that I wished he had a blog so that more people could read about his experiences, that he wants to make sure that people do read him–and so he likes to flood email boxes instead of leaving it up to his readers–the ones he values– to find him on the blogs. These are readers unlikely to use RSS or bookmarks. Interesting. He’s afraid they’ll forget him (out of email box, out of mind…) And because we have filters here that do not allow the email pinging with blogposts, he makes an interesting point.

A few returnees from study abroad are missing the blogging but finding it more difficult to blog reflectively (outside the parameters of any course) about learning here (too self-indulgent, one blogger told me–too isolating, said another, if others aren’t doing it as well, which of course goes to the social part of the software). All this pulls at something I’ve been thinking about (and will lead to a fuller blog entry eventually) about how people don’t read far back into the blogs, or at least my blog–and when I feel I’m repeating myself, others respond as though I’ve covered some brand new ground. Maybe it’s time for a wiki for some of the old posts, pulling them together into something better organized and tagged–something people will find useful….These posts here are about the moment for readers if not for me so much. It’s only when they move back over to their own blogs and pull apart something I’ve said, connecting it to their own growing web of thinking that it becomes anything more than of the moment. The undulations of blogposts across the edublogosphere. Fascinating.

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These are productive anxieties indeed.

*I was much taken by the way Edward Ayers uses the term, Productive Anxiety, to describe how his students feel in his classes where they write narrative histories they should imagine were written for the cellphone.

Revelations in Dallas

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And no, I didn’t get to take in the Kimball or the Dallas Museum of Art or the Sixth Floor Museum–just the sprawling Dallas Convention Center and the historic Adolphus Hotel and the shuttle between the two. That’s what happens when you attend only the first couple of days of a huge conference. But in that convention center I met some great people and learned about some impressive projects going on in classrooms in Virginia, Nebraska, North Carolina, Minnesota and Michigan.

It was a real pleasure to spend Monday with the marvelous Bryan Alexander and the nearly 50 participants in our EDUCAUSE workshop on Social Software in Teaching and Learning.

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Bryan telling stories…

The biggest challenge for me was the range of experience with and exposure to social software among the participants. While a few attendees had very little knowledge of blogs and wikis–though you wouldn’t think so from this shot I snapped after Bryan asked, “Who has ever edited a wiki?”
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–we also had a Dutch team teaching social bookmarking to seven-year-olds and embedding video of us into the wiki almost in real time. Knowing that we only had a day, and being a believer in student-centered learning, I felt the pressure of getting everyone talking and thinking deeply about their learning and that of the students in their schools. Bryan’s wonderful session wiki helped immensely as it gave our most advanced participants an opportunity to contribute, and contribute they did, adding content to the wiki as we spoke. Inspired by the incomparable Nancy White and her use of Flickr in presentations, I used a Flickr slide show as part of the introduction to my teaching and learning. From now on I plan to use the combination of the two–and invite attendees to contribute to both as I’m presenting–this approach creates an interesting relationship between presenter/facilitator and attendee/contributor, closing in on the kind of interactive conference session I’m after that includes collective knowledge building through the wiki and Flickr as well as discussion following brief presentations. Keeping the presenting part to a minimum is tough, though… And of course, the network connections have to be reliable… The workshop went well, I think, combining Bryan’s looking ahead and deeply with my looking into the classroom. Not surprising at all were the many questions about privacy, assessment, and motivating faculty. Yes.

Other highlights of my brief stay in Dallas included two excellent conference sessions–one so inspiring that I haven’t stopped talking about it all week. In “Time, Space and History” prominent historians Edward Ayers of The University of Virginia and WIll Thomas of The University of Nebraska showcased their Aurora Project (watch their presentation here). Daring to consider historical scholarship in four dimensions through digital means (GIS, xml, coding, visual patterning, ect.), and inspired by the work of weather visualization and analysis, these two noted scholars are portraying the individual and community stories of Reconstruction and the expansion of the railroads against the larger sweeps of history, showing time as well as space as they “weave together the patterns of a multidimensional history” instead of continuing solely with monograph-based historical scholarship.

Students in Ed Ayers’ classes contribute to the project in real ways, including examining historical primary source documents, county by county, and writing brief historical narratives from the documents. Each student writes ten of these page-and-a-half narratives–“Imagine writing history for a cellphone,” Ayers explained–which are reviewed by grad student TAs before being published on the project site linked to the GIS maps, graphs, visuals of all sorts. They spoke of the “productive anxiety” students feel when asked to do something that they have never done before, that no one has done before. The professors tell their students that they are making it up as they go–how many teachers say such things in class? These students are learning the discipline as they are doing it. They are developing the discipline as they learn it. Fantastic! This is how we can weave together the best traditions of classroom learning and the new opportunities afforded by emerging technologies. It was a riveting talk exemplifying authentic learning.

The second session of note, “Gaming as Pedagogy: Teaching College Economics via a Video Game” showcased a visually enticing computer game created for a mid-level economics course at the University of North Carolina- Greensboro as a way for students to apply what they learn while being engaged by the stimulating environment of a computer game. I can see its appeal and its usefulness to assess understanding in a choose-your-own-adventure kind of setting, but I don’t much like the fact that the only options available are set out for the students–they have to choose one route over another, one decision over another, but are not able or asked to give their own reasoning. They click and move on, click and watch, read or mull over, click again. They are applying their learning, sure, and it’s fun, absolutely, but they are not contributing here; there’s no asking the students to articulate for themselves what they have learned. They aren’t doing the discipline I guess, but playing it. The students sure love it, signing up in droves for the section that offers the game. To see a sneak preview, check out their site–they definitely win the award for coolest hand-outs (creature mask, demo disk, and beautiful promotional booklet).

I also found myself at a poster session on Media MATRIX which is “an online application that allows users to isolate, segment, and annotate digital media”–very interesting examples from political science and history classes. I plan to spend some time trying it out and perhaps inviting my students to use it in their research papers later this semester. Promising.

Hearing at the NITLE reception more about some of the extraordinary online work going on at Carleton College, including a full-semester multimedia and blogging course on the road that I had learned about earlier from Sarah Lohnes has me absolutely green with envy. This is how I want to teach!

It was quite extraordinary to see the kind of creative, powerful work being done across the country, and so I returned to Middlebury both inspired and refreshed, ready to keep pushing forward with these ideas, ready to get back to my own classroom, ready to get back to Vermont. geese adirondacks