Beauty and Implausibility in This Thin Place*: Familyscape, Tendrils Out into the World and Talks

*Thin Place defined

“There is probably nothing more beautiful and implausible than the world, nothing that makes less sense, the gray bud of the willow, silky and soft, the silk-white throat of the cobra, the wish of nature or humans to subsume all living matter in fire and blood. I will hurt you, hurt you, hurt you, says the world, and then a meadow arches its back and golden pollen sprays forth.”
–from The Thin Place by Kathryn Davis (p. 12)

I’ve been absent here for some time, and my blogging fingers feel rusty. For the next weeks I will blog sporadically at best as my family pulls ever closer into the cocoon around my father; when I can I do a little work and hit the road for talks. This is not to say that I haven’t been scratching down ideas for next fall’s new course, or talks and workshops and chapters still ahead this spring; or reading in my restless, hungry way—for I have, and these moments, because they are slowed down and intensified, I believe, bring a kind of pleasure and clarity I haven’t experienced in a long time. Ah, the joys of a semester’s sabbatical and the wonders of deep participation in the dying process.

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One of the deepest pleasures has come in the shape of a book, a truly astonishing book. If you haven’t read Kathryn Davis’s new novel, The Thin Place, you are missing a most moving, original use of language, form and narrative—it’s one of the best novels about small-town life and most beautifully-written books I have read in a long time.

out the train window (Manchester - York, England) york minster

Another pleasure was my brief time in England, on the train, snapping pictures out of windows as I have been doing as of late, meandering around medieval York, Victorian Leeds, and then giving a talk at AoC Nilta 2007 where I met wonderful Nigel Paine and many great AoC Nilta folks and caught up with Scott Wilson for a few minutes before racing off to catch a plane to Milan. I’m not convinced that my talk hit the mark as well as I would have liked, but preparing it helped me push my thinking and it seems to have sparked some discussion; a question during Q & A about traditional speeches espousing new ways of doing things motivates me to get more creative as well as passionate, incorporating conversation and/or action.

Here’s the longer, written version of the talk, (the shorter, delivered version captured in audio on the AoC NILTA site), entitled “Blurring the Boundaries, Making It Real: Global & Local, Formal & Informal Learning Landscapes.”


“Blurring the Boundaries, Making It Real: Global & Local, Formal & Informal Learning Landscapes”

AoCNILTA Slide1

Feminist scholar bell hooks writes, “One of the dangers we face in our educational systems is the loss of a feeling of community, not just the loss of closeness among those with whom we work and with our students, but also the loss of a feeling of connection and closeness with the world beyond the academy.” (Teaching for Community: A Pedagogy of Hope p. xv)
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I hope to stimulate some discussion about how our practices using social software can help, in part, to repair the broken connections. I’ll offer you examples from six years of classroom adventures with social software, and I will post the this talk on my blog which contains links to my classes.

Emerging communication and production tools, platforms and practices come out of intensely human urges: to CREATE, to COMMUNICATE and to COLLABORATE.
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Sir Ken Robinson stresses these very areas as crucial to successful participation in our increasingly fluid, dynamic workplace. “Graduates,” he contends, “cannot think creatively, they cannot collaborate, and they cannot express themselves clearly.” (in in Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative, p.7)

I’ll spend the next minutes exploring about how an engaged 21st century pedagogy leads us quite naturally to an open use of emerging technologies. In such an environment, students develop critical literacy skills, a sense of belonging, and a connection to learning that can lead them to participate responsibly, actively in a globally networked world and local, linked communities.

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A 2002 Ridings and Geffen quantitative study of forty online communities found trust to be an essential factor to such a community’s success. ( Karen Keifer-Boyd, “(In)forming Virtual Learning Communities” in Hipfl & Hug, eds: Media Commmunities, p. 296) How do we establish that trust? First we have to look within and to think back. As educator Ron Scapps says, “Focusing on experience allows students to claim a knowledge base from which they can speak.” (in bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress, p. 148) Examining our own beliefs and experiences through narrative, forces us to confront our own biases, especially when we put our narratives out into a public, linked space that reflects ourselves back to us through the experience of others. AoCNILTA  Slide6 This is how I now open the semester—I tell them of the old Russian custom of sitting on one’s suitcase, looking around before departing, considering who one is in one’s own learning journey. It is essential for us as educators to do the same. When we share our stories, we can no longer remain aloof, disengaged—when we feel listened to, we begin to trust.

So, I’d like you to get out something to write with (or if you have your laptop, use images or voice files if you like). Dip back into your memory stream, searching for a moment of deep learning when you were thinking creatively, connecting to both the learning experience and to others through collaboration, and you communicated something you had never quite captured before. In other words, see if you can recall a time involving creativity, communication and collaboration. Take 5 minutes to jot down the story. Then in pairs, each take a minute to share your story. A single minute.

You’ve just experienced, in 7 minutes a taste of being creative, expressing yourself and connecting with your own story and then with someone else who will be here learning and participating for the next two days, part of your professional community—imagine what happens to students in a school that emphasizes personal context, public expression, and self-deirected connection over testing and evaluation… for students and teachers.

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Preparing this talk led me to a memory, to a story from when I lived here in Cambridge (England) that means something quite different to me now as I near fifty than it did at eleven, and relates to my theme today. That year, while my father was buried deep within the university libraries, and my brothers and I were trapped inside our stiffly starched schools, my mother toodled around the countryside, searching for brasses to rub. On Saturdays I would sometimes accompany her to one mossy medieval village church or another where inside, she would lay a long scroll of black, velvety paper onto a brass figure in the church floor, then coax it to life onto her paper. AoCNILTA  Slide8

What interested me then were the odd pieces AoCNILTA  Slide8 of people’s histories pressed AoCNILTA  Slide10into the dim stained windows AoCNILTA  Slide12 and into the worn tombstones. AoCNILTA  Slide11

What interests me now is how my mother learned to make beautiful impressions of these brasses informally. She was willing to explore, to imagine, to make mistakes in public, among strangers. Passion for the doing was certainly a part of it. But just as important was her organic, collaborative process. From the vicar to the church ladies to other brass rubbing enthusiasts, she received suggestion, encouragement, correction, story and plain old talk. And then there were the quiet times when she worked alone, daring to innovate. She learned by conversing, by experiencing glorious failures, by networking with the brass rubbing crowd. Out of the ordinary comings-and-goings of people came something extraordinary.
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It speaks to me now of Vygotsky’s and Dewey’s theories of the social nature of learning, of Arendt’s learning as action (in Gert Biesta’s “Education and Democratic Person: Towards a Political Conception of Democratic Education” TC Record #109, 3 2007), of Levy’s knowledge spaces and reciprocal apprenticeships, of the value of experiential learning and of networking, yes, but also of the actual process of expression and creative thinking being connected and transparent.
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I wonder what my mother’s knights would look like, or what she would have learned about them and their times if she had worked alone in a studio, or taken a class. Sure, she would have figured out how to use her crayons, and a teacher would have explained the iconography of the symbols; the surface product—the rubbings themselves—might well look the same, but what would have been lost? The sense of history’s continuity, the feathering out of meaning beyond the act of rubbing the brass, the feeling of the place and herself in it conversing with the people. Rubbing brasses, it turned out, was about far more than rubbing brasses.

For the past twenty-five years I have tried to get my students out into the world to rub their own brasses, so to speak, breathing in place and context, participating in those slow conversations that billow out around the central learning purpose. And now, now, I feel as though it’s working. As we’ve invited informal learning spaces through blogging, a spark has ignited in the classroom that moves out into the dorms and networked spaces. AoCNILTA  Slide15They don’t want the semester to end. Both current and former students read my reflective blog out of curiosity—and I’m a slow-blogger who writes long, sometimes dense posts— they leave thought-provoking comments even to posts I’ve made during my sabbatical—I’m not on campus and yet they’re interested in what I am thinking about. They teach me as they express their own learning much as Paolo Freire describes the transformative power of teaching and learning on the teacher. The merging of informal and formal learning spaces in a dynamic classroom allows us to experience “conversations [as] a means to create content,” as connectivism theorist George Seimens describes, and experience that “Human ideas, science, scholarship, and language are constantly collapsing and unfolding,” as cybertheorist Ted Nelson argues. (in Manovich) AoCNILTA  Slide16

But it has not been easy. Chris Dede from Harvard University’s School of Education recently quipped, “There’s a saying in academia: It’s harder to move a university than a cemetery.” AoCNILTA  Slide17
But of course there has been no real incentive to move our educational institutions because they’ve always done precisely what they had set out to do—educate the people enough, but not too much. Behind the scrim of literacy, formal education has largely preserved class and racial divides (keeping the powerful in power, the wealthy wealthy) and prepared the general citizenry not to participate actively in the processes of our democracies, but to be compliant, docile and willing to perform repetitive tasks of a manufacturing or service economy. AoCNILTA  Slide18
The hidden curriculum was even more effective in reinforcing the inequities than the actual loads of material heaped on students which few could possibly retain for long, a reality that brain researchers explain (Talk Notes from Jamshed Bharucha: “Learning and the Brain”; Educating the Next Generation Conference, Tufts University February 2, 2007). “Literacy,” as educator Cynthia Selfe has observed, “is always a political act as well as an educational effort.” (Technology and Literacy in the Twenty-First Century: The Importance of Paying Attention , p.137 1999)

But now, now we are of course at a crossroads. The mask is off, the emperor has no clothes—we can no longer pretend much less argue that the factory model of education has ever or is now serving all of us. We cannot pretend that students are treated equally. We cannot pretend that we are protectors of the important, the relevant—informal learning in what James Paul Gee calls affinity spaces, places where we are pulled out of our own interests, has become so compelling, so powerful, so mobile and ubiquitous and explosive that it has crept INTO the classroom even when we ban devices that might bring it in: computers, cellphones, PDAs, cameras. Those with access to online social networks, tools and know-how for creating online content and the Web’s knowledge spaces increasingly tune us out. Those without access, or who do not participate do so as well, but with different results.

What goes on in our traditional classrooms is increasingly irrelevant, even when kids want to pay attention. With free access, for those in the know, to a rich array of learning opportunities from some of our most esteemed institutions of learning—M.I.T. , for example, learners can, theoretically, personalize their study via a smorgasbord of options ready in any configuration at any time. If you know how, if you feel welcome.

Without the chance to learn effective uses and practices of these emerging technologies, unwittingly people can use them foolishly. Indeed, I just read in the paper about how mountain rescue teams are finding people venturing out ill-equipped, ill-trained into rugged terrain in rugged weather, assuming they can use their cellphones if they get lost.
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Even when it looks as though formal learning structures have evolved to become more inclusive, more democratic, we’re still not shifting deep attitudes about teaching and learning. Not yet. Not as we could. Not as we must.
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For one thing, it feels a bit like opening Pandora’s box. AoCNILTA  Slide21 In the name of safety, instead of teaching our students about transparency, we erect walls around ourselves.
AoCNILTA  Slide22 (photo by Bryan Alexander)
We tend to use closed learning systems over which we have administrative control—students move through OUR online modules, choosing among the many often tasty flavors. We’re anxious about letting the world in and the students out. Who knows what they’ll do out there and what will be done to them. Time, precious time will be sucked away from basic skills and literacies and knowledge building. It’s not easy to convince administrations that this is a good idea . AoCNILTA  Slide23

Change is, after all, hard, for “…many teachers who do not have difficulty releasing old ideas, embracing new ways of thinking, “as bell hooks writes,” may still be as resolutely attached to old ways of practicing teaching as their more conservative colleagues. That’s a crucial issue. Even those of us experimenting with progressive pedagogical practices are afraid to change.” (Teaching to Transgress, p.42) We were once, after all, the children who actually liked school, so much so that we have devoted our lives to it. Why would we want to change something we value? We teach as we were taught. To go beyond is scary, risky indeed.

And as Bertram Bruce reminds us, “No two of us live in the same information age.” (Literacy in the Information Age, p.333) AoCNILTA  Slide24
Some of us don’t use the Web. We hide from the fact that increasingly “our sense of continuity and belonging,” as W. J. Mitchell writes, “derives from being electronically networked to the widely scattered people and places [we] care about.” (Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City, p.17)

We often cut the same failed patterns of prescriptive, hierarchical, discriminatory education, just with snazzy new fabrics in the name of eportfolios, online discussion, collaborative-knowledge wiki building. As overworked, overwhelmed teachers, our online practice is often quite shallow. We are often adrift in a chaotic sea of choices, reacting rather than visioning, rather than adapting and innovating. I worry that we hide behind a technology façade (Lawrence Tomei) and thus don’t imagine what we could do.

So let’s explore a classroom as 21st-century nerve center. To do that, let’s return to those fundamental truths about our species I mentioned a few minutes ago:

1. that we seek to be our creative selves, which means that we also
2. want to be heard, which means we need
3. to connect to one another, which once we do, potentially creates empathy, empowerment and efficacy. Learning deepens.

In other words, learning is a continual, emergent, complex, social process.

These complexly interwoven areas are, I propose, just what we are naturally positioned to focus on, precisely because, ironically, we are NOT the real world and yet we can connect to it, let it flow around us through the connectivity of the Web. Our very artificiality and our apartness give us what a laboratory gives a scientist—a place, a space to gather in a collaborative, connected experimental learning community. My students, when they first hear about the intensive collaboration they will do are dismayed—their experiences with group work have been consistently dissatisfying. Either they feel as though they have done all the work and gotten none of the credit, or they were bossed around by the students who say they did all the work. Researchers on creativity, such as Vera John-Steiner, have found that successful collaborations “require sustained time and effort. It requires the shaping of a shared language, the pleasures and risks of honest dialogue, and the search for a common ground.” (Creative Collaboration, p. 204)

So, how do we foster the flexibility and dynamism of deep creative thinking in steadfastly conservative, traditional institutions? I’d like to suggest using social software to house, stimulate and extend a combination of teacher-designed exercises, ongoing self-reflection on process and learning goals, and student-generated and directed projects and conversation all experienced through the subject matter.

My students blog essays with images only, AoCNILTA  Slide27 tell stories with ambient sounds AoCNILTA  Slide28, explore their own backgrounds through digital storytelling. Helping them use different forms, even going against what they are used to, can loosen latent creative thinking. They find themselves taking pleasure in coming at old problems in new ways. Doing, making, rather than just the analyzing and regurgitating—fosters media literacy skills.
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Students think about TIME in their learning through open-ended experiences (outside of class time)—in slow blogging– and bounded experiences (in-class exercises). Students have to figure out how they want to move through the course sorting out what they’ll explore, when and why. In a writing course we talk about the expectations of different audiences –which of these do the students think is important to master? How might they do that? What do they need from the group, this experience? I never, as a result, post more than three weeks of a syllabus at a time, allowing the course to move along its own trajectory, becoming its own focus—how do we learn to learn, how do we use the resources available to us in the world and in this classroom? Students help design the course as we go.

To extend and deepen the creative I use creative exercises to stimulate playful thinking together as a group. They share the results. And as they get over themselves, over having to be right—some of the exercises make that impossible–they start digging deeper, past the first glib idea and realize that a good idea takes time to gestate. We also work within parameters, to feel the squeeze of time and form and what deadlines actually offer us. Just as the poets shackle themselves to form to see what magic transpires from within its confines, defined exercises give students experience with positive pressure that does not pulverize but transforms promise into substance. And they learn from one another’s results. We shift our notion of evaluation and assessment, seeing it as a conversation between the learner-expert and the teacher-expert. The learner knows how she has been changed and her own growing relationship with the field—an essential component of evaluation for the individual, the teacher knows how the student’s work demonstrates a mastery of concepts and processes. At the end of the course, students blog hypertext self-evaluation narratives; they tell their story of the course and their learning by linking to all the pieces, to highlighting the successes, to explaining what still eludes them, to contextualizing the learning within their education. Linking and seeing their work linked makes their journey whole instead of distinct, unrelated pieces that get handed off to a teacher and then stuffed in a folder. This is a new kind of eportfolio.

We walk the knife-edge between chaos and structure, which the dynamic systems researchers tell us is exactly where learning is most likely to occur, in cycles of disruption and repair. AoCNILTA  Slide30 (in Dawn Skorczewski’s Teaching One Moment at a Time p.12) Students come to understand that it is okay to take risks and to fail, gloriously. That we learn by making mistakes, assessing what went wrong and trying again. How many of us design messy courses with opportunities for failure built in? We might completely disrupt the classroom environment as it used to be. After all, “Curiosity,” says Nabokov, “is insubordination in its purest form.” AoC NILTA  Slide31
(from Barbara Sawhill’s notes on Azar Nafisi’s keynote at NAIS 2007).
We teachers have to risk everything every day—encouraging our students to question us, push us, press us as they learn to access their deepest, creative selves.

Creative thinking does not happen, of course, in isolation. Claude Levi-Strauss explains: “Whether one knows it or not, one never walks alone along the path of creativity.” (in “The Artist as Critic” in Every Force Evolves a Form by Guy Davenport).
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In other words, there’s a fine balance between each of us needing as part of our self-realization the feeling that we are doing something for the first time, and yet also being aware of the greater conversation in which we participate.

Which brings us to our second urge—to communicate, to express ourselves, to tell our story. Most students, by the time they reach our classrooms, have lost that urge within a classroom setting because the story is about being correct instead of conveying our experience of something, our understanding. Blogging publicly for one another and the world allows our students to reconnect with story and with those with whom they share their stories. They become aware of audience. New digital media plays a role in the re-awakening of the power of story. “The newest digital technologies are returning us to the most ancient form of media,” June Cohen recently stated at the TED talks, “one in which a natural order is restored; our individual stories take center stage, with the rest of the world as a backdrop.”

Students who communicate authentically, tell their stories publicly, feel the urge to develop their skills of expression. Suddenly writing is no longer the chore it was. If someone is listening to us, expression becomes a crucial part of self-discovery and bonding to the world beyond ourselves. We feel connected. We have a role to play—we matter. And so we move beyond our own very small orbits and really understand Michael Bahktin’s words: “I cannot do without the other; I cannot become myself without the other; I must find myself within the other, finding the other in me.”

And when we are told a story, in turn, when we become the listener, we are also transformed—we are linked, connected, collaborators. “A shared story,” Ken Newman writes, “a shared joke, or a shared pretence can be a defining activity in promoting a sense of communal identity.” (“Using a Non-Linear Narrative Framework in an Online Community” in Media Communities, Hipfl & Hug, eds.). Which brings me to the crucial role and impact of collaboration. Students in my classes become active listeners and collaborators through the process of making digital media: they help one another out with podcasts, digital stories, blogposts, image-sharing. And through active blog feedback loops.
AoCNILTA  Slide33Everyone has a blog; all blogs are linked to one another through the Motherblog which serves as a course nerve center—all resources on the lefthand sidebar, including previous class blogs which serve as models and course content—students realize that their work lives on and might help next year’s students; space for slowly unfolding informal conversations surrounding the learning in the center space, and dynamic links to the student blogs on the right sidebar. On their own blogs they post drafts and finished work alike, exploring a range of voices and topics, links to other sites, thus claiming their own identity. In small, rotating groupings of students, they read one another’s blogs, offer feedback, commentary, encouragement and comraderie. Someone is always sharing, someone is always listening. They actively learn from one another. (on left sidebar see links to my course blogs)

Here students venture into what Mary Louise Pratt calls “contact zones,” the space where we bump into the otherness of people different from ourselves, where they learn about the dangers and limitations of online spaces. Students learn to negotiate. They can point to the moments—when something is really getting interesting, or when something gets close to a border we should ask ourselves if it’s ethical to cross. They become models for themselves as they build a rich archive of their interwoven journeys.
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(Students responding to one another, prompting new posts from one another)

We connect to the world on the blogs, sometimes intentionally, when we invite experts into our classrooms during blogging invitationals or to give us feedback. AoCNILTA  Slide39 (dispatx art collective) Sometimes someone wanders onto the blog. Writers we have studied have found us. People interested in our subject matter.
AoCNILTA  Slide40Barbara Sawhill of Oberlin College watches as her Spanish language students connect through SKYPE and blogs with people from around the Spanish-speaking world and, as a result, redouble their efforts at cross-cultural communication. We can connect classrooms across a city or the globe. The possibilities are restricted only by the limits of our imagination and by our educational system’s harnesses. AoCNILTA  Slide38

Gaining confidence and skill as listeners and observers as well as contributors, my students become connected to –-involved in—the larger school, home and world communities. They are eager for service-learning, to use their online skills to help others. Creatively and critically. And this is crucial as we gravitate more and more to online networks where we can extend as much or as little of ourselves as we choose, even constructing identities, young people leading the way. More and more, W J. Mitchell isn’t the only one saying, “I link, therefore I am.” ( Me ++, p. 34) George Siemens isn’t joking when he says that we no longer seek fifteen minutes of fame but to be famous to fifteen people.

This is messy, emergent. Things crash, students are by turns excited and uneasy. The learning is alive—this is, after all, life. They begin to trust themselves and one another; they start to see themselves as contributors and thus they assume more responsibility for themselves and one another. This sounds much like my mother’s experience rubbing brasses, but taken into the 21st century.

We spend increasing amounts of quality time in the company of our machines, living cyborg lives. At the other end of the spectrum are those living off grid, independent as much as possible of computer technology and the rest of the world. Either sort can let the physical world around us rot. Both can turn from the problems of our times: war, poverty, dislocation, environmental crises. As educators, we are in a position to counter this despair and escapism by harnessing the power of our urge to be creative, to communicate, and to connect with one another, by experiencing the connection of our worlds online to our lives off. As M.I.T.’s Henry Jenkins writes in a recent post, “How Second Life Impacts Our First Life”: “…the digital world is never totally disconnected from the real world. We learn things about our first lives by stepping into a Second or parallel life which allows us to suspend certain rules, break out of certain roles, and see the world from a fresh perspective. More often, though, there are a complex set of social ties, economic practices, political debates, etc. which almost always connects what’s taking place online to what’s going on in our lives off line.”

So, as we struggle to teach in our time FOR our time, we need not look all that far into emerging technologies to find ways to foster deep learning that enables all of us to be our creative selves, connecting with one another actively, participating as citizens in a complex world.
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(Not-for-credit Project for Peace Blog for Summer 2007 Children’s Radio Stories Project in Uganda initiated by Middlebury students, one of whom started blogging in one of my classes)
If they are given the opportunity, the tools and the encouragement to use Web 2.0 tools as learning tools in their formal as well as informal education, students will find all kinds of interesting ways to pull what they know from the world outside the classroom into our midst, grounding their education in the very real.
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And we professional educators have a lot to learn from students about using our creative thinking to blur the boundaries between formal and informal learning spaces, speaking out in our school and local and world communities, and collaborating in reciprocal apprenticeships within our communities of practice.

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One Response

  1. Hello BG,

    Just read and email that included an EdPath article calling you the “Grandmother of Blogging”. Noted with interest your work with the use of technology in your courses and came to visit your blog.

    I am using a blog as a form of action research and am searching for and reading women bloggers blogging on topics of technology, higher education, and leadership.

    It is a pleasure to “meet” you through your blog and will look for your name as presenter at upcoming conferences.

    If you know of other women bloggers please send urls my way.

    I am finding more women than I thought I would, but not as many blogging on topics of interest to me.

    Thanks!

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