Midsummer Preparations for Fall

In the old, pre-blogging days, prepping for a new course meant, primarily, doing a lot of reading and then thinking about sequencing assignments for students to develop their writing and thinking. I used to think in units, weeks—time and length. I used to hang out at the photocopier quite a bit. Pretty straight forward process.

last light

Now, as I dive headlong into prepping a new first-year seminar, “The Extraordinary in the Ordinary: Exploring the Far Reaches of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction” I realize that I go about designing a course by taking it myself during the summer.

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I spend a lot more time considering the opening couple of weeks. If I want my students to learn deeply, one of my most important tasks is figuring out how to create an environment in which they risk making mistakes, looking foolish, reaching out to others while relying on themselves. I frequently blog about the crucial first weeks of a course, how I am convinced that if you want your students to go beyond themselves, you have to focus on the class environment first.

bowling shoes

But I also spend time trying to put myself in their shoes. I spend a lot of time writing, playing, moving along promising threads of ideas and forms and outcomes, backing up, rejecting, flailing, and fumbling. I have to consider elements of visual design, explore a range of media for producing as well as consuming the course, and envision how a group of sixteen students might take the initial sparks I throw out and turn them into something far more interesting than I could possibly anticipate.

I’ve had to get a whole lot more creative.

With that in mind, one reason I have set up the new bgexperiments blog–-a blog far more intimidating for me than this one—is to push myself in ways that aren’t altogether comfortable, just as I will expect my students to do. And so I posted a personal narrative text/image exploration a couple of days ago, and wow, I haven’t felt so exposed and vulnerable in a long long time. I read it several times online, seeing the typo, the ways I would revise certain image-text combos, the ways the piece fails, the ways my skills and gifts fall short. And until some of my most valued cyberspace mentors had read and responded so kindly, well, I just felt completely out of sorts.

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How many times do we put ourselves squarely in our students’ shoes? Admit to yearning for feedback? To fearing failure?

sunrise through clouds

It’s harrowing, but as I move into this rainy Sunday morning, I find I can’t wait to get back to my experiments and to my course planning: I am as excited and engaged and nervous and exhilarated as I was the summer before my first teaching job back in the 80s. That’s one of the marvels of teaching in all times, but especially in this time—feeling like an explorer in a new land, remembering that “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” (Sir Edmund Hillary)

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My Own Little Sense of the “Deeply Intertwingled”

Of course, as soon as I announce a new blog for experiments as a way to re-inspire me as teacher and edublogger, I’m running back here to post. I’m just a tangle of contradictions… which is, I guess, why I’m a blogger. 😉

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More contradictions: As Alan pointed out in his comment to my last post, there’s a fine irony in my leaving the countryside’s beauty for a moment to pull out of the daze of being in its thrall– seems counterintuitive, I guess, since most people head to the country for the space and quiet of writers’ retreats.

And another: I’m known, by people who’ve seen me in person, more for being passionate, energetic and enthusiastic than for being balanced, careful and slow-moving. But so many of my posts end up being about balance, about slow, considered reflection. And I do believe in going full tilt towards beliefs and passions, but in this time of societal and (slow) educational shifting, striking a balance between online and off, formal and informal, structured and unstructured, mentored/social and independent learning, or perhaps an “intertwingling” IS the way to go. As I’ve come to understand in the past six years of exploring digital technology in my classrooms, the magic results from a careful stirring of the cauldron and a willingness to step back and let the ingredients become more than the sum of their parts: a leaning into emergence. It ain’t either/or.

I just got off the phone with my eighteen-year-old daughter (who is spending the summer in Rome before she heads off to college) and as we were talking, I realized that what was really bothering me about the New York Times’ “What’s the Matter with College?” essay contest was precisely this either/or, or in this case, then/now stance in the anchoring article. Hearing my daughter describe her plans for the next two weeks and ask for our recommendations for stops along the way both amazed me (once again) and delighted me. She had done her research, had the money figured out, a route–didn’t need us at all. The old “When I lived in Europe at sixteen, I spoke to my parents maybe three times all year…” comparison of course jumped to mind. But not quite as quickly as before. And my worry about my daughters as members of Generation Me being too self-involved and too dependent on quick connections fell away. I’m learning that she and her 21-year-old sister like to stay in touch via phone and email and Skype, not because they cannot make decisions on their own, but because they feel strong ties to us that are forming the basis of lifelong relationships that keep us healthy, and grounded, and connected to family, to community in a way that is probably a whole lot more healthy than my generation’s questing for self-realization or whatever it is we do. Yes, they belong to Generation Me, but it ain’t all bad by any means.

I saw my generation’s lack of connection to essential ties when my father was dying and people expressed amazement at how the family pretty much put everything down and moved in with my parents for the last weeks. People thought we were remarkable–I couldn’t imagine being anywhere but there, no matter what. Nor could my mother and my brothers. It wasn’t remarkable at all. It was life.

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With these new ways to connect, I see my kids weaving lives threaded with rich contact points, old and new, near and far in a way closer to that of my parents and grandparents perhaps. (My mother LOVES the internet, Skype, chat, blogs (though she doesn’t yet have her own) and now her cellphone.) My kids aren’t quite so interested in shucking the past off as fast as they can–moving far away, calling once a week the way Perlstein describes earlier generations. Since when did contact, connection become equated with lack of responsibility or lack of indepedence? It doesn’t have to be either/or.

cherries from the garden tree

I’m so interested in speaking up for blended learning because I’m also moving into writing an article for the Australian online journal, The Knowledge Tree, with my frequent collaborator, Barbara Sawhill of language lab unleashed, an article zeroing in on balance–how balancing through interweaving (versus diluting) formal and informal learning spaces, online and offline practices can lead to transformative learning within traditional educational institutions. Students, I am convinced, need both the strong mentor and the quiet guide, the structure of a course and the freedom of exploration, the constraint of deadlines and the openness of noodling time. School–as a nerve center, a gathering place, and an organizing principle– has its place. Gardner’s latest post gets to the heart of problem with the either-or arguments about teacher-centered, student-centered learning debate, putting his finger squarely on the need for us to teach according to a flexible learning-centered model that embraces both the teacher’s mastery and the student’s interests, the beauty of stucture and the need for flexibility. He’s talking about balance, or, “No More Pendulums.”

So I’m interested in hearing from my students and daughters about the article, about what he says here:

“… to just about anyone over 30, going to college represented a break, sometimes a radical one – and our immediate post-college lives represented a radical break with college. Some of us ended up coming back to the neighborhood partly for that very fact: nostalgia for four years unlike any we had experienced, or would experience again. Not for these kids.”

Indeed. My 21-year-old daughter has an intense internship in New York this summer and is learning to balance the parts of her life–before graduating from college. Yikes, I was living in a toolshed (long story), waitressing and working for an antiques dealer the summer between junior and senior year, mostly playing. Life was about me in the moment. She doesn’t see things that way.

With the collapsing of boundaries between what were once considered life’s milestones for some–childhood at home, the in-between-ness of college, and then independent adulthood setting up one’s own home–we have an opportunity, actually, to foster deep community involvement, commitment, and engagement. Inside our classrooms this fluid crossing of formerly boundaried spaces can be so powerful–if–and this is a big “if”, we in education begin to see the promise of open connection instead of the peril.

Where do I see this kind of balancing working well? The Vermont Youth Orchestra’s recent concert tour of China. With guidance from and support by the Young Writers’ Project and a young graduate of Middlebury serving as mentor on the road, some of the kids joined a blogging, podcasting, digital storytelling group to report back on and reflect about the experience during the experience.

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The response from home was fabulous–family, friends and community following along as the orchestra made its way from city to city, concert to concert–and the response from the kids themselves was even better. They marveled at one another’s take on the experience–this connected, collective reflection as YWP guru Geoff Gevalt puts it, deepens the experience in all manner of ways. As they bumped into multiple perspectives on the same journey, they came to understand the value of taking into account more than a single viewpoint, of not clinging to their first response, the value both of talking AND listening AND collaborating. Of the mosaic of voices. How a healthy community functions. They were brilliantly mentored through questions, encouragement, feedback and appreciation and shared expertise. It’s the “genius of AND” that through Gardner I’ve come across in the writing of Peter Morville.

And so I’m not going to pull that “When I was your age” stuff on my kids any more. That was the age of OR, perhaps, and this the age of AND–the AND as connector, as clarifier, which can lead us to balance and not to the extremes of excess and poverty, the divisiveness that so characterizes the America of my generation. I am hopeful.

A Return from the City Moves Me into a New Blogging Space

Lately we’ve had a slew of those listless pre-storm afternoons when even the dog doesn’t want to go out and the cats can’t be bothered to mess with no-brainer prey.
storm settling in
And I wrestled–for days– with a chapter I promised for a worthy book project. My mind wandered.
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This kind of weather brings some of the languid ease of the South across our fields, I imagine, because the storm never materializes, just teases with its barking tantrums well to the South (how a Northern New England girl of Irish ancestry can set her imagination on overdrive).
I worried a bit about the state of this blog, that I was running out of gas, my brain too sticky, too taffy-ed, too, well, too distracted.
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How can you live in a place of such intense physical beauty and have something to say that isn’t charged with poetry, bad poetry at that?
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You can find yourself slinking slowly into a somnolent bog. (See?)

But then we went to New York. That place always slaps sense back into me. A weekend spent wandering the streets and galleries and eateries of Lower Manhattan picks me out of my nature-addled daze. eastvillageshift
The stunning range of human story and culture and reality are an antidote to my lush woods and big skies and green mountains and small villages of Vermont. It’s good to be thrown into something different. And it’s good not to overplan those visits, to take them slow in a New York buzzy sort of way (if that makes any sense), to look around and let the city’s odd magic do its thing.
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The only plan we had was NOT to go to any Apple store during the iPhone madness and to see the astonishing Soledad Barrio dance with her flamenco company at Theater 80 (take a look at the flow of stories about the theater in the comments linked off the post), and dinner with some friends.

184628089_22fb58b702_m.jpgImage by Sondra Stewart

The rest of the two days, my daughter, my husband and I moved where our feet took us. Camera in hand of course. With changes of plan welcome.

And this time, that included more of the East Village, the West Village, Chelsea and the Meatpacking District. We found open-air markets, cupcakes and graffitti and the single-most unbelievable draping of tye-dye attire on one person I have seen anywhere (and that includes Haight-Ashbury).
shoppinginny inthemirror

In Chelsea, as we feasted our way down the windows of the galleries on West 24th Street, we stumbled on an exhibit that has jarred me out of my blogging complacency. Got me thinking about a new blog, a blogger’s sketchbook of sorts. About getting more serious about not being so serious. Silverstein Photography’s current exhibition, “First Contact: A Photographer’s Sketchbook” placed photographers’ contact sheets next to the image pulled to print (and in some cases these were iconic images, taken by Diane Arbus, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Man Ray and many others. What a great learning moment for anyone taking pictures, or for anyone looking at pictures, for anyone blogging as a way to capture and hang onto fleeting thoughts, glimpses of ideas, memories, connections, conversation with reading and viewing and listening online and off– to see the creative process –the contact sheet filled with failed images, many in succession. How much richer, then, the experience of seeing the selected, fully realized image printed. How we all need contact sheets. Blogs are such, most of what we write on them being disposable…forgettable.

I came away from that show thinking about how I have been slowing moving towards writing with images and text but how so many times I leave those posts undone, in draft form or sketched out on paper, or in my head because they didn’t seem to fit bgblogging as it has evolved. bgblogging explores formal learning in, sometimes, informal ways, certainly in informal spaces, but it almost always has its eyes directly on changing our educational system. Yet Twitterhas opened to me a new interest in micro-texts. Sharing photos on Flickr has pushed me to pay more attention to my images, both taken with camera and taken with words. I’m ready to keep pushing the kinds of posts I’ve been exploring. PLAYING. Making mistakes. Having fun. And sharing these with my students.

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I’ll still read and write blogposts. Edublogposts. But experimentposts too.

Perhaps about the mysteries of place and light and childhood.
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During summer, then, this blog will see fallow spells as I shift into a new blogging realm, one more creative and experimental, one that engages more of my playful side than my critical, hungry-for-change side.

I want to play with Henri Bresson-Cartier’s notion of “the decisive moment” defined as “the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression.” (from the Silverstein Photography Gallery Press Release). I’m tired of the repetition in my feeds and in my books; I’m going to be more selective in my reading while more open in the territory from which I learn. Otherwise, just as I find happening when I stay in Vermont for too long at a stretch, I get lazy, complacent, and dull.

I’m in search in the summers for the poetry of blogging, the poetry in blogging, and will do so over on bgexperiments, that will kick into gear this week. I’ll move between the blogs, hoping the tension between them will prove useful.
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We’ll see how it goes…