Moving into a Semester’s Leave…

Due to some major spam cleaning by our IT guys, I have lost all the comments left since mid-November, and though I’m sorry not to have the questions, the pushing, the insights of my blogging colleagues as part of the ongoing archive of bgblogging, I’ve resigned myself to the ephemeral quality of some of this work. My relaxed attitude also must have something to do with the fact that I am moving into a semester’s leave–I’ll be able to think more about this work, to write, to take pictures, to plan future courses, to give workshops and talks in the U.S., Sweden and England–and already I feel how important it is to move out, from time to time, of the repeated cycles of my teaching year. How lucky I am to have this opportunity!

I’m not sure yet how often I will post here until next September, but when I do, I’m thinking my range of subjects might well include more than my concerns as a classroom teacher. And for those of you who might want to read about some of my thinking on teaching this generation in the liberal arts classroom, Sarah Lohnes has captured a bit of my experience (and that of two remarkable teachers, Doug Davis from Haverford and John Schott from Carleton) in an excellent recent article, “What Do Net Gen Students Have To Teach Us? Stories from the Connected Classroom ” for the NITLE publication, Transformations.

To kick off my time away from the classroom, I am taking a couple of weeks of vacation with my family, time to explore the lights–both natural and surreal–associated with this time of year:

sunonchristmas dawnsand
justatdawn christmasdawn

snowman santa grinch

How strange that cars, bumper to bumper, night after night, snake around this display in Ipswich, Massachusetts, where my brother lives, and not a single person outside my family walked glorious Crane’s Beach at dawn on Christmas…how strange…

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A Year Down the Road…the Edublogs Awards, Skyping with Students, And Some New Reading

Collin made a post a week or so ago in which instead of moving forward into new material, he circles back to posts from the past to think about how and if his thinking has changed in the interim. I often link to my past posts to weave the threads of connected stories (and to make my posts even longer–ha!), but I have never gone back to the same time a year past to see what I was thinking. And so when I heard that I had been nominated in two categories for an Edublog Award and felt even more surprised this time out than I had last year, I thought I’d go back to see what I had thought last December and what has happened since then. As many others have observed, the explosion of edublogging has brought new names to our shores, new insights, new energy. In the best individual blog category, last year I felt like an interloper in the big-ideas gang with Stephen, Will and Ulises my co-finalists for the best individual blog. This year, it’s a very different group indeed, diverse, with a couple of slow-bloggers, a couple of post-almost-every-day types and ANOTHER WOMAN in the mix! I am again honored to be a part of such an interesting and excellent group. And the other nominees for the most significant post, all making essential contributions to the ongoing conversation, are collaborative endeavors this time, which makes me feel a little lost, a little insignificant within this magnificent crew. I hardly know who to vote for among this extraordinary group.

field fog at dawnAnd so I plod along in my little thinking box here, reflecting on the changes in my teaching and learning, on what I experience in reading and conversation and writing. And I realize that my blogging quietly evolves post to post, little by little, sometimes circling back, sometimes treading water, sometimes moving forward. What has really changed for me in the last year, I realize, has not been how my own thinking has shifted or how fellow teachers have begun to experiment with blogging and new media or have shifted their sense of effective learning environments, but rather what my students have been doing to craft learning experiences that combine the experiential and the creative, the reflective and the active. And I have have so very little to do with their learning. The learning experiences my students are having seem, finally, to be headed towards Levy’s knowledge spaces or James Gee’s affinity spaces–explained in his wonderfully provocative and illuminating Situated Language and Learning: A critique of traditional schooling(which Jo McLeay blogged about a year ago) The twelve features of an affinity space:

“1. Common Endeavor, not race, class, gender, or disibility is primary
2. Newbies and masters and everyone else share common space
3. Some portals are strong generators
4. Content organization is transformed by interactional organization
5. Both intensive and extensive knowledge are encouraged
6. Both individual and distributed knowledge are encouraged
7. Dispersed knowledge is encouraged
8. Tacit knoweldge is encouraged and honored
9. There are many different forms and routes to participation
10. There are lots of different routes to status
11. Leadership is porous and leaders are resources” (pp. 85-87)

It is very difficult indeed to implement # 9 and #10 in a college classroom, but I’m trying, I’m trying. I am, though, seeing the power of cultural versus instructed processes of learning in my classes. Gee writes,

“In today’s schools many instructed processes, not least those connected to learning to read, involve practicing skills outside any contexts in which they are used by people who are adept at those skills (e.g. good readers). If this is how children had to learn to play a computer or video game–and, remember, these games are often very long and quite challenging–the games industry would go broke.”
….
“…as schools turn reading into an instructed process, today’s children see more and more powerful instances of cultural learning in their everyday lives in things like Pokemom and computer games. Modern high-tech society–thanks to its media, technology, and creative capitalists—gets better and better at creating powerful cultural learning processes. Schools do not.”

Moving away from instruction and thinking of our classroom as a community space and rather as an affinity space makes such sense to me right now because I’ve had to let go of even more of my power in the classroom (power dynamics when teachers evaluate student performance is a topic I’ll return to soon), even though I had thought I had already distributed the power pretty well. I have been rather preoccupied this semester with my father’s rapidly failing health, thinking about what it will mean to lose the person who, in addition to being a beloved parent, has so inspired my work by his example during his forty plus years teaching high school history. A remarkable teacher, my father would seem to disappear as the students took it upon themselves to sort out the motivations and meanings behind piles of primary source documents he would heap on the center of the Harkness table. He asked questions from time to time as a member of a team might. The first time I saw him teach, I understood classroom magic. I have been zooming back and forth across the spine of mountains and down towards the sea since this summer, now every week, splitting my time, almost, between the two places. My students have had to cope. And in the old system of college classrooms, that would have meant canceling class, or screening a film, or assigning an extra project. Without me there, there would be no class. Now it meant really letting the features of this learning environment–offline and on–unfold according to their own rhythms, not mine. Now it meant seeing if the blogs, as vehicles for conversation, for posting images and audio files as well as writing, would serve us no matter where any of us, including the teacher, might be. Now it meant seeing how fluid groupings and re-groupings of students worked as they sought help from each other on their final projects. Now it meant trying out Skype for the final evaluation conference. Online work was no longer what we did because it enhanced or facilitated what we already did pretty well offline or because we knew we had to integrate new, emerging literacies with the old, but because we had to–we had no choice. Because I give no grades (all assessment and evaluation is done collaboratively by the students and me in conferences, but mostly by the students), ongoing reflection, self-assessment, and conversation about progress and outcomes are essential–and in the past conducted in written narratives by the students and by me, and in face-to-face conferences. bgelee.jpg
(Photo by my great blogging colleague, MEB.
Yesterday, because I had to leave town so quickly to race to my parents’ for what might have been the last time, I had one of our fabulous IT guys set up a laptop in my office with Skype–video and all (not all of the students have used Skype before now). We’d do the conferences online, but talking.

And because in my haste I forgot the toggle for my iSight (I have an older model Powerbook), we had to dispense with visuals altogether. I thought it would be disastrous not to see my students, not to read their body language and their facial expressions, not to be able to look them in the eye when we talked about their final grade. But in a way, it worked even better than the regular conference precisely because everything disappeared but our words. And the students heard when their words did not convey their intention, when they were vague or hadn’t yet thought our their point. All we had were the words in our ears coming from our computers. And all I could hear was the confidence, the sense of ownership these young men and women now have in their writing, in their learning. They have all mentioned the power of collaboration, of reaching out to one another for feedback, for expertise, for the enjoyment of sharing. They know how to ask probing questions of their books, their cohorts, themselves. It has been a great lesson for me.

And some of them, some of them might just go on to do the kind of independent, boldly creative and innovative senior work that Remy of remstravels has done with his interactive multimedia installation, both online and in situ, of new forms of travel writing. Remy is, by the way, up for the best undergraduate award this year, so go check out his work–he represents the new student in a traditional school–taking chances, making his education his own, and doing inspiring work in the process. It’s been quite a year!

Thinking Locally As the Semester Ends

Today opens the last week of classes for me until September, and so as I stand on the cusp of a semester’s leave, many thoughts about my students, my teaching, my family send me to the blog. And it’s a twist I appreciate, for I turn to this global medium to talk about the importance of grounding the Web 2.0 work locally. I continue to grapple with balance, with the relationship between what I do at the computer and what I do away from it, and how to help students understand the importance of going out in the world to learn about its various workings and stories and marvels and tragedies and then to apply that learning, that communicating, that collaborating back here, locally, in the communities in which we live. I want to study the blogging of Laura, Toril and Lanny, for they so seamlessly weave the threads of their home lives into their blogging about the world and their work. They think aloud about how difficult it is to bring these two realities together: the online networking and the in situ groups with whom they work. I would like students to weave more of the personal, of the particular, of the here-and-now into their academic writing; they seem detached, almost clinical in their approach to writing as soon as evaluation, grades, school enter the picture. And no wonder.

But there are lovely exceptions. One student told me last week that writing about her dance practice, trying to tell the world about its role in her life, about the role of art in our lives, has helped her to understand and then to articulate something momentous for her–she wanted to write about how dancing a classical Chinese dance role, which she loves but also finds confining, is something she does in her quest to belong, to find a connection in her life to place and people and culture– how important this sense of belonging somewhere has become for her as she, a Chinese woman growing up in Japan and now studying in the United States, looks ahead to her adult life. It reminds me, too, of my sister-in-law’s wonderful film that she will screen tomorrow in New York, Shalom Ireland, which she made as a way to understand her own heritage as a Jew with roots in Ireland, a seemingly odd convergence of cultures. I want my students to ask the very questions she has asked: Where do we belong? >How do we belong?

How do university students cultivate a sense of rootedness to a place, a local place when places begin to look and feel so much the same in this country and increasingly in other countries with the malling and the sprawling? How do students who travel across states, continents and oceans to go to university keep rooted to place because and in spite of communications technologies? Are my students too tied to home by the phone so that they do not really connect with Vermont as a place instead of Middlebury as a school? Does my having them blog out to the world interfere with their ability to look around them and make ties here? Or does it help them to become more observant, more aware, more caring citizens of their local worlds as they hear stories of other persepctives, of other places? And am I, as a mentor to them, staying as aware as I should of the fact that, as Chip Bruce tells us,

“No two of us live in the same information age”? (Literacy in the Information Age, p.333)

Or what Bill McKibben contends in The Age of Missing Information:

“We believe we live in the ‘age of information,’ that there has been an information ‘explosion,’ an information ‘revolution.’ While in a certain narrow sense this is the case, in many ways just the opposite is true. We live at a moment of deep ignorance, when vital knowledge that humans have always possessed about who we are and where we live seems beyond our reach. An Unenlightenment, An age of missing information.'” (As quoted in Bruce, p. 334)

Every day at my country home begins with some configuration of the family taking Finn for a pre-dawn or edge-of-dawn walk through the fields–ours and those of neighboring farmers. Every day ends with a final walk down our long driveway. When it’s 20 below, or sheeting cold rain, no one volunteers. Finn is always ready to go, especially if we’re in for, what our Irish neighbors called, “a bit of dirty weather.”
morning fog And though we fuss about leaving the warmth of pre-dawn bed, we’re glad to be thus grounded in the quiet, subtle shifts of the seasons in our physical, natural world. milkweed opening Right now early December careens from a bizarre in-between-ness, neither fall nor winter as Finn still picks up ticks, as geese seem to fly north as much as south, as the fields hold their green, as the snow is slow in making a first appearance.
Finn drinking in the field

And then we move into our human community, driving through town on the way to work. Stopping in our bank, our post office, our natural foods cooperative, our local corner grocery store means catching up with the people we know as much as it means running errands. We have no chain stores downtown; we still have a locally-owned bank, independent grocers, a bakery, coffee shops. My husband takes forever on errands because he seems to know everyone from all of his work on local boards; I know everyone of a certain age, people I taught in high school in the late eighties.

It makes me think of Timothy Beatley’s contention that,

“A significant pathway to greater meaning in our lives and greater commitment to place is understanding and knowing the landscapes, creatures and people living here.” And this sobering quotation he includes by Terry Tempest Williams: “‘….if we don’t know the names of things, if we don’t know bighorn antelope, if we don’t know blacktail jackrabbit, if we don’t know sage, pinyon, juniper, then I think we are living a life without specificity, and then our lives become abstractions. Then we enter a place of true desolation.'” (Native to Nowhere: Sustaining Home and Community in a Global Age)

My students don’t know these things about the land or the town here. Until they were assigned to read our local newspaper a couple of weeks ago, it hadn’t occurred to them that we had poverty here or that dairy farms were suffering or that we still have a dairy in my village or that our county has a bevy of artisanal cheesemakers. Their lives are so tethered to campus and to home (and by that I mean their families). But not to the people and places of the town and county in which they will live for the next four years. And when they do finally get out there and take a look around, they are struck by the stories, by the rich complexity of the place.

This is the strange thing about a college town, especially in a rural place–how it’s very strength–the flooding into the area of new ideas and perspectives and cultures– can now in this age of instantaneous, continuous communication links to the world beyond the local, be at once something to embrace and something to be wary of. And it’s linked, I think, to something else I’m noticing about our students. They have a hard time telling stories. True stories that link their intellectual inquiry to their own lives. Why it matters to study history, philosophy, chemistry, geography–to them– What all those things have to do with the here and now. I’ve been working with seniors on essays for the Peace Corps, graduate schools, fellowships; I’ve been working with high school seniors on college essays, suggesting–tell your story in your own voice–what do you want people to know about you? How are you connected to things and people and places you hold important? They often look terrified. What should be the most natural thing in the world to do as an act of human communication–to tell stories–leaves them flustered, for they are out of the habit of it. It feels too risky.

Likewise, as Francine Prose points out in her new book, Reading As a Writer:

I liked my students , who were often so eager, bright, and enthusiastic that it took me years to notice how much trouble they had reading a fairly simple short story. Almost simultaneously I was struck by how little attention they had been taught to pay to the language, to the actual words and sentences that a writer had used. Instead, they had been encouraged to form strong, critical, and often negative opinions of geniuses who had been read with delight for centuries before they were born.” (p. 10)

And it reminds me of things I have been reading lately as I try to get my head around ways in which I can help my students and myself use the Web as a means of communication and expression to root themselves firmly to the local as well as to the global conversation the way Stephen Johnson is doing with Outside.in. HOw well are we doing this in our universities? And that is one reason I’m so looking forward to having Middlebury graduate Sarah Kramer of StoryCorps visit campus on Thursdaysarahkramer.jpgto tell the stories of helping people tell their stories of family and place. I want students to get to know their community so they will not become part of a world of lost connections, that hollow existence that Timothy Beatley describes:

Americans, it seems, work harder and longer, often to support increasingly higher levels of consumption and personal debt, in a kind of overwhelming spiral of stress and anxiety…
The hectic pace of American life reinforces stultifying uniformity in our communities…
With minimal civic involvement, little time or inclination to know one’s neighbors or one’s community, it is perhaps not surprising that there is considerable fear and anxiety about ‘others.’ Both a product of our current culture and considerable obstacle itself to strengthening place and community, this fear often keeps us apart. (p.19)

And so, as this semester ends, and I step out of the classroom for several months, I want to remind myself to think creatively about how and where online and offline meet, how one can complement and deepen the other for our students in residential colleges as they navigate the challenging waters of a 21st-century adulthood.
early morning fog