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.

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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.