One Resolution: When I Return to the Classroom Next Fall…

“One’s ‘reality’ rather than being fixed and predefined, is a perpetual emergent, becoming increasingly multiplex, as more perspectives are taken, more texts are opened, more friendships are made.” Maxine Greene (quoted in Dawn M. Skorczewski’s Teaching One Moment At a Time, p.27)

dawngull puddlereflectioninthtewoods

One of my (many) goals for my sabbatical is to rethink my teaching by looking at what I’ve been doing, by immersing myself in reading both in and outside education theory and practice, by exploring experiential and informal learning used in formal learning contexts, and by peeking into the classrooms and research of inspired teacher-scholars such as Spencer Schaffner and Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Jill Walker. I want to put pressure on the way I teach, on my contributions to every semester’s unfolding learning dynamic, on the way I design courses–the actual physical space I request for our class meetings, the frequency and duration of our face-to-face time, the blog as vehicle and receptacle of our time together outside of class, the one-on-one conferences, the balance between my selection of texts and assignments and student-directed/generated explorations and assignments, the rhythm of the semester’s unfolding and how much I really allow directions and opportunities to emerge from the learning moments themselves, the use of multimodal forms of expression. Does the interplay between Web spaces and physical spaces really help students to develop their creative and critical thinking, reading and expression skills? Am I helping them to think and read and communicate for their time by contextualizing the new literacies within the old and then letting the students explore together and on their own as much as is possible within the confines of a twelve-week semester? How does what we do in class relate to what students do outside, including their commitment to the pressing issues of our time, to community, to environment, to learning, to art?

My determination to put my teaching through rigorous self-review in part comes out of an ongoing conversation about the gap between what students do with communication and digital technologies outside the classroom and what we’re trying to get them to do inside traditional institutions, and how much that gap matters. I am bothered to no end by the fact that among the few places that really haven’t changed at all in the past century or more are our classrooms–even Time Magazine gets that (thanks for the link, Bryan). A hundred years ago classroom spaces, materials, attitudes, dynamics, experiences were as bad as they are now, privileging the privileged, not to mention deadening the creative spirit. Have I really found my way out of the factory-method of education, or am I just fooling myself?

Students tell me they value my classes, but sometimes I wonder if what they like is the attention I give them, the intensity of my commitment to every one of my students as individual learners, which involves ample one-on-one time. My privileged students may well take this kind of easy access to me for granted, coming as they increasingly do from highly scheduled backgrounds and the instant connection to their parents via their cellphones, as my colleague at Middlebury, Barbara Hofer, is researching with her students. My less privileged students blossom under the attentiveness, the connection to an adult mentor, but I wonder if I am too available, too present offline and on.

I am heartened, though, that people, including–at last–those within mainstream media, are asking some tough questions about our education spaces and traditions, and even more, by how pockets of teachers and students are quietly transforming formal education in their own schools and communities. Of particular note are programs started by teachers and parents who have had enough of wasted time in classrooms, and have found ways to get students out of their home environments not for the typical two-week class whirlwind tourist trip to Spain or Italy or Peru, but for a full semester or year, time enough to taste living in another culture. Take, for example, the following innovative teacher-initiated programs for teenagers– BOTH ORIGINATED OUTSIDE TRADITIONAL SCHOOLS :

travelingschool.jpg The Traveling School, started by teachers who left their traditional schools, is putting backpacks on groups of girls and sending them out on the trail for a semester to learn about the world and themselves (and yes, math and writing) by studying where they are in context and getting out to do community-service projects. vis.jpgAnd Vermont Intercultural Semester, with its innovative program that brings Vermont teens to Ladakh to learn side by side with Ladakhi teens. These programs know that to learn about the world you’ve got to get out into the world, and to get to know yourself and your home, you’ve got to leave home. Both programs are working hard to provide opportunities for all kinds of students–not just the privileged—to get out into the world. And in university? Is the traditional liberal arts tradition of studying abroad little more than the contemporary version of the continental tour of old? Or are our study abroad programs really challenging students to gain a broader world view by immersing students in target languages, having them live with host families, and sending them out on experiential kinds of programs such as Global Learning and SIT? How many colleges are offering the kinds of opportunities John Schott at Carleton has embarked on this semester?

And what about kids who stay at home in our classrooms? Not everyone can actually pick up and leave home. That’s where social software really shines, of course. Over the past five years we’ve seen remarkable uses of blogs, wikis, podcasting and gaming to foster classroom community, creative and critical thinking and expression skills within and across disciplines, and–to a lesser extent–building bridges to people and ideas out beyond our classroom walls, not just by visiting websites, but by participating in conversations, sharing work, and collaborating with others well beyond our own schools.

One of the most powerful and effective uses I’ve seen recently of blogs and online communities to integrate formal and informal learning is the brainchild and passion of the remarkable Geoff Gevalt, former Managaing Editor of The Burlington Free Press: The Young Writers Project.
ywp.jpg Teens from all over Vermont are taking to the site–ALL kinds of teens, not just motivated students– both prompted by teachers and finding their own way there, publishing their writing and connecting to one another through their writing and photography on a site that also involves adult writers and teachers. This kind of interactive site meant for both kids and teachers could well be a model for teaching and learning in the 21st century–check it out.

And so, I want to look closely at my students’ online and multimodal, multimedia work and highlight interesting, compelling uses of social software, multimedia narrative, and mash-ups to stretch students’ critical and creative skills, and see if I can transfer those individual inventions into models and inspirations for future students–and perhaps, more importantly, for other teachers. I also want to think about how throwing open the doors and windows of my classroom to the world can be done even better, even more powerfully, even more safely. I want to explore gaming, and ways to use cellphones (something I’ve been meaning to do since I read Howard Rheingold’s The Virtual Community and then Smart Mobs years ago, and Mimi Ito’s research and The Digital Youth Project coming out of Berkeley, USC and the MacArthur Foundation) to do Murmur-like projects and perhaps Museum of the People kinds of projects that would combine research out into the world with a pedagogy of the local. I want to think abut ways in which we can do some Outside.In or Placeblogger kinds of projects.

And I want to give my students lots and lots of room to bring in their own ways of communicating and creating– After all, what got me thinking about multimedia narrative as viable academic discourse was a student in the fall of 2001 who wanted to turn in a video as her final project, a video that included a voiceover narrative, cited scholarly evidence, images, and music– fortunately for me and the next five years of students in my classes, I said sure, why not, and her ground-breaking project introduced me to a whole new way of writing the academic essay. I’ve got a lot to learn from my students.

I want to learn, too, from Oliver Luker’s dispatx projects, seeing if there’s a way I can tweak their model of collaboration and bring it to my creative writing and arts writing classrooms. I want to learn from Remy’s experiments in travel writing for the 21st century. I want to return to the work of Michael Joyce and Roy Ascott and, of course, Maxine Greene, but also to go well off line to the work of young writers such as my old students, Stacie Cassarino and Stephanie Saldana, who are pushing boundaries of genre and form and discipline.

Gotta get to work–time is a-flying!

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