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.

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2 Responses

  1. Barbara – when I was your age…I started to write a blog. 🙂

    I’m just back from the LTLI in Madison, Wisc. and among other interesting things that happened there I met your Movable Type administrator, Joe Atonioli. He’s a good guy and I learned that he was well aware of your blogging; it certainly seems to be a small world.

    In the first session where I did a presentation, joint with Larry Ragan of the Penn State World Campus, I had a lot of stage fright beforehand and was sky high emotionally during much of session. My guess is that most of us get stage fright and adrenalin rush in this type of circumstance, with an audience largely unknown to us.

    It’s different with writing. Once in a while I’m mindful of the audience in a way that gives me trepidation regarding what I have to say, but even in those rare cases that almost never leads to a feeling of urgency and a sense of charging forward. While I can be intensely engaged with the writing, it is easier to maintain a dispassionate stance then and go slower, work through the nuance of the idea, let the reader make some connections for herself.

    Many of the attendees at the LTLI seemingly went through an emotional experience of their own, the sort of thing you have in mind for the first two weeks of the semester in the courses you teach. As you observe in this post, there is now the possibility to continue with the connections made during such an institute well after it has concluded rather than treating it as an isolated episode. I’ll be curious whether this group of attendees does precisely that.

    I don’t know if the kid-parent relationship is special this way or not. My kids seem close to my wife in a way that I was not with my mom – the trust is very high now. But unlike your kids, they are boys and perhaps that matters. I will follow your good suggestion and not bore them with my experiences about seeking some separation from my parents when in my early 20’s – going to grad school in the Midwest, far enough from New York that I only went home a couple of times a year, only to learn a few years later with my mother’s first hip replacement that I actually wanted to be closer to them and for them to rely on me if necessary. Perhaps kids nowadays are more in tune with their emotional selves. I wonder.

  2. Lanny,

    Great to hear that LTLI went so well. I know what you mean about the adrenalin rush of presenting, both how harrowing and rewardng it can be. Feeling the response of your audience right there, being able to feather out the ideas during the question period…I love those parts. Writing is equally harrowing, of course, because we throw the line out into the water and have no idea whose there reading it, and most of the time, we have no idea how our writing is being received, especially we who have slow, long-post blogs –that’d be you and me 😉 –primarily used to hammer out our own ideas. Most harrowing of all is putting creative work out there which I am doing on my new blog both to push myself and to prepare for my course this fall. I need to understand what I’ll be asking my students to do. (Yikes, it’s scary.)

    And I guess that’s why I keep trying not to bore them with my stories of youth (though I do think there is a place for that kind of threading of past through present, so don’t stop telling your kids those tales!) but instead keep exploring this time.

    As for being in tune with their emotional selves, that’s an interesting question. I want to think more about that– thanks.

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