Three Weeks into the Semester: Stopping to Catch My Breath

Between Twitter satisfying my need to reach out within my blogging community, a quick trip to George Mason University for a workshop/conversation, several wiki and Google doc collaborations with blogging comadres, and the whirlwind of the semester’s opening leaving me rather out of breath, I have been the slower-blogger as of late. But I like this pace: Twitter brings me into daily contact with many whose blogging work informs and intersects with mine–I trust they’ll let me know when something of note is stirring abroad in the blogosphere and beyond, and so I don’t spend as much time looking at edublogs as I once did. I can spend more time thinking about new modes of expression, new ways to bridge old literacies and new. And I wait for blogposts to brew while I watch with amazement how my Bloglines account fills with unread feeds…

This beautiful place is festooned in grand colors and I should be outside, but I’m drawn into this realm to think aloud about how things are evolving with social software in my classes and in my conversations out in the world. vermontfall

So here I am. Because something’s not quite as it was when last I entered a classroom ( a mere nine months ago). Every time I step into a new learning adventure everything, of course, seems new; every time I enter the classroom, I wonder where we’ll venture that day. It’s always new. But this year is even more new, if such a thing is possible. Both in the classroom and on the road when I give talks and workshops.

My Students–
These first-years strike me as quite different from those of past years (which is interesting, as I am also parent of a first-year college student, and I always attributed her distinct ways to her alone–what a range of lenses we use depending on our role …). Indeed, teaching a first-year seminar for the first time in four years is a fascinating revelation–I usually detect subtle shifts in the online experience of the classes of students separated by the three-year gaps between my first-year seminar teaching stints. Subtle shifts. Students in my 2001 first-year seminar (blog now lost) and 2004 seminar didn’t have notably different experiences online before coming to college. Some in both groups came with video editing skills and memberships within social networks, but most did not. Blogging was foreign to all of them. It took some time to get over the disorienting, unnerving experience of writing in and for the public, of sharing their work with one another and commenting effectively.

The difference between my current seminar group’s exposure to online learning and networking practices and that of my 2004 seminar is stunning:
All fifteen students…
*know what a blog is;
*six blogged in high school classes (the first students I have ever had who blogged in secondary school);
*none of them blog on their own;
*every one of them has a Facebook account;
*they all walked into class the first day with strong opinions (mostly negative) about reading blogs for information. (“Oh no, I don’t read blogs,” one student said in a tone that indicated surprise that I would even ask such a question. They contended that blogs were unreliable and/or belonged to the realm of narcissistic exhibitionists. ) Where did they learn to disapprove of blogs? Teachers? Parents? The Media? Experience?
*A couple of them indicated that they signed up for this course precisely because of the online practices promised–not because they liked their previous classroom experiences, but they felt they needed to get more comfortable communicating online and exploring Web 2.0 storytelling practices. Interesting.


A couple of observations about the first weeks of seminar blogging:

Observation #1: What they did in high school in no way resembles what we’re doing (or aiming to do) here. Some students used blogs before college to hand in work or to retrieve assignments; others used blogs to participate in teacher-driven discussions (mostly in the form of writing what amounted to response papers handed in to the teacher). No one had actually integrated informal and formal learning spaces, the world of the classroom and the world beyond, or had conversed on blogs about ideas other than the ones the teacher instructed them to consider.

So, while this group is very very comfortable with online communication amongst themselves on Facebook, they are uneasy about discussing academic ideas in public, writing about what they learn from one another. (They met on Facebook as well as on our course blog before school, and surprise surprise, the Facebook encounters were much more natural-feeling and informal than the introduce-yourself-as-a-writer assignment driven by me). In fact Facebook-communication is so prevalent among Middlebury students that new first-years flocked to ask the advice of an upperclassman who volunteered to answer their questions before they ever got to school. Another group of students brought down a move by the administration to change the college logo–all via Facebook) Yet classroom blogging, at least the way I envision it, is foreign to them.

So some things have shifted, for sure–they are online and comfortably so–but they have not had particularly meaningful experiences using social software in their formal learning spaces.

As my students venture onto Flickr and try out tagging, I see them slowly extending their intellectual reach and sense of expressive possibility, and relaxing into a blogging practice not because a teacher wants them to do it, but because they get it. Slowly though. Even more slowly, perhaps, than previous groups–they are fine about having a Motherblog and their own blog and a Flickr group and other Web 2.0 experiences, but they aren’t necessarily naturally going much further than through the motions–yet. I suppose that the very strangeness of the medium to earlier students made them leap into the heart of the practice instead of skimming the surface. They had nothing to compare it to–no years of Facebook; they had not been bored by it in high school…
fallmorning It’s a tough jump for this year’s group, though, because so much in formal education conspires against it (i.e. faculty misunderstanding how social software can serve transformative learning, and the way we pack their days and nights with assignments–who has time for deep learning?). So far, I do see these students finding real value in reading one another’s work and commenting on it, and in experiencing the tight bonds of community fostered by the Motherblog. They like having the blogs. We’re making progress. Next step: initiating and joining the conversation–doing the blogs.

Observation #2: Online teaching & learning is moving out from the hinterlands, even here in the woods of the liberal arts. The opening editorial, “Welcome to the 21st Century” in our student-run college newspaper, discussed the college online, including new blogs set up by our president and college dean, and ended with the power of blogging in classes; another article profiled the new college radio station blog .
Things are changing around here… (Though, yes, the Editor-in-Chief and Managing Editor both blogged in bgblogging classes, and so it isn’t as surprising an editorial to me as it would have been if they had not had this experience.)

This semester, for the first time, my students are participating in online discussions in several classes at once. It makes sense–no real surprise here that more and more classes are incorporating online discussion. But the kids are already getting worn out by having to do so many responses, comments, conversations simultaneously; they find it frustrating to keep track of the number of posts required for Course A vs. Course B, and how they are being evaluated, etc etc. In some cases they feel that the discussions are unnecessarily added onto a full load, and are really extra same-old response papers or last-minute flurries to fulfill the course requirements.

These shifts mean that I must struggle to keep transforming my teaching to meet the needs of my students, to stay alert to the shoals, the currents, the wind. And that’s good–no getting carried away with the technology here. I have to ask myself why I am asking students to discuss their work, the reading, ideas they come across–online. Do I pull back the blogging in my class because they are online so much in other classes? No. But I have to be mindful of that they make digital stories or podcasts or Powerpoint presentations in other courses. Mine is no longer one of the handful of technology-rich classrooms. Not by a longshot. And I welcome this tension, and the opportunity for opening discussion about new ways of connecting courses one another by connecting their online worlds through the pivot of the student’s own learning practice. Ah, for a fluid learning landscape.

In other words, we have pulled in new practices, but we have not yet transformed our teaching or our courses or our institutions.

My recent experiences on the road and in the blogosphere have also pointed both to progress and to new tensions as we work towards breaking through to progressive pedagogies. Take last week’s workshop/discussion with GMU Arts & Sciences faculty. That I was invited to GMU not to convince people of the merits of blogging, but to work with faculty already blogging, to help them to ground it within twenty-first-century teaching practices marks a significant shift. I never had to define a blog. Instead of stopping along the way to discuss technical how-to questions, we discussed pedagogy how-to–practices–and we discussed the generation of learners; we discussed the reality of preparing them for this hyper-networked world. Concerns about plagiarism were never raised. Support issues were handled deftly by ed tech staff–so so different. Finally I could talk about transformative teaching, and transforming teaching with people really grappling with the gap between how they were taught to teach and how they needed to teach now. At Exeter, too, faculty talked about online overload, about how we need to move towards a more holistic, student-centered approach to online classroom practices, that these conversations need to happen in conjunction with conversations about curriculum and learning spaces as a whole, across the school. Yes indeed.

Evaluation is always a big concern when I give talks–but this group asked a different question: they were not trying to push blogging into antiquated, ineffectual notions of assigning and grading (by asking how many posts I require, how I check or read them, how I assign grades to them); they were really trying to sort out how to engage students in new learning practices through effective assignments and to evaluate the outcomes, and new forms of academic discourse fairly and meaningfully–yet– within the static constraints of old requirement systems. And that is, I see, the big stumbling block for so many faculty who are, on the one hand, asked to push their teaching forward and yet, on the other, required to adhere to teacher-driven test-and-grade forms of evaluation and assessment. The most controversial thing I hear myself saying these days is no longer, “Let your students read each other’s work and build on it and learn from it–let them learn from the world and the world from them; they should transform the course as it transforms them” or “To use social software effectively and to its full potential, you must really question whether you have actually shifted teacher-centric practices” but “To integrate social software and twenty-first century learning practices effectively into your classrooms, you must abandon your twentieth-century ways of grading–and if you must use letter grades (as I must), build the grading rubrics WITH your students. Have them write ongoing, hypertext narrative reflections of their learning process and outcomes, and then propose and defend a grade twice a semester according to those class-generated rubrics, a grade that has meaning because they understand what it represents and why. Do not grade individual posts. Do not count them.”

I think I still shock people with that one, and so one of my blogging goals for this year is to make visible here the building of the course rubrics in my first-year seminar as we go. My students have never done this kind of self-evaluation before, either. And when they heard that’s what we’d be doing, they smiled rather wanly, I must say. But they are a game group, and that’s something else that’s different—they are willing to experiment–to try out these new ways of learning. Not a one is balking. So far. We’ve started the process of building a rubric by looking at old posts from the archives of previous classes, looking at what first-years have written, sophomores and seniors, trying to come up with some ways to describe the elements of a successful piece of writing at this stage.
Today I saw some lights flicker on for them as they explored why they knew a senior had written one essay and a first-year another–they are crawling around writing as writers, as fellow travelers in Gardner’s caravan. Next week, I’m having them read from two student blogs that are not being kept in conjunction with courses, one by a Midd student and veteran blogger, Alex, blogging from study abroad in Mongolia and the other bya wonderful student I met at UMW’s Faculty Academy, Blogging from University of Mary Washington. I’m interested in them taking a look at blogging the learning journey rather than blogging the course ; will they be interested in integrating the two, if, when it makes sense thematically, they can pull some of their discussions from other classes onto our course blog? We’ll see just how contained they find each course experience.


And we’re only three weeks in…


Looking Back, Moving Forward: A Talk at Exeter

Sifting through my archives, I see that not only do I like the cusps of things, the edges, the beginnings and endings, the transitions, I seem to do a lot of blogging during such times.

foxontherun (fox stealing a pear)

The cusp of the school year, of course, quite naturally prompts a looking back on the summer (hence all those lousy what-I-did-over-the-summer essay assignments September after September–don’t teachers have any imagination?) and previous years as I move into the wonder of the fall semester a day or a week before I meet my students in class for the first time. I wrote such a post in 2004, , 2005 (on the heels of Katrina) , 2006 (one that captures the old Russian custom exercise I will use again this year), and I am drawn back here to do so again even though it’s the middle of Labor Day weekend, writing deadlines loom, and it’s a drop-dead gorgeous early evening.


This year is one of the special ones when I teach a first-year seminar, and already my students are stirring the blog with letters (via email to me for their posts at this point) and comments–their first forays into our community. With five days to go before we have our first class together, 13 of the 15 have been on the blog–I am delighted to read their introductions and to see how they have understood my request for them to introduce themselves as writers before having the chance to see one another. Of course, they could all well be communicating with one another via Facebook for all I know. For this teacher, though, who will not look for them on their own social network spaces, getting to know them through their writing (both posts and comments) first has me thinking through my exercises for the first weeks of semester, selecting ones I think will work for them, and it also takes me back to other beginnings of years.


Yesterday I was sent forward and back in quick succession: forward as I brought my younger daughter to college for the first time, and back to childhood and my teaching roots at Exeter where I had the honor of delivering a talk to the faculty before the opening of their school year. How strange to be standing in front of former teachers (was I in a dream in which I was 15 again, giving a presentation in one of my high school classes?) and how exhilarating to be sharing with them how my grounding in Harkness has informed my Web 2.0 teaching. The school where my father taught. It was something, and quite a fitting way to spend August 31, 2007.


Here is the first half of the talk. The second half was a tour through my course blogs to show the how of what I do. I think the slides show enough (and I’ve written about my course blogging many times), so I won’t fill in the details unless someone requests clarification. And as usual, the Q & A period was the richest time of all. Excellent, sometimes tough, questions.


What a pleasure it is to stand here before you in this room on this campus. I have spent much of the past nine months speaking to faculty in Europe, Australia and the U.S. about a new kind of blended teaching, a 21st-century Harkness pedagogy that embraces deep learning based on reflection, action and social-constructivist learning theory. But to give a talk here about bringing Harkness online quite takes my breath away. As you know, I grew up on this campus, a beneficiary of this school’s gifts as daughter of one of the great Harkness teachers. Indeed, I learned to teach here, at the dinner table under my father’s tutelage, as a student of some of the great Harkness teachers, by learning from Jack Heath in the Exeter Writing Project, by visiting my father’s classroom in the early 80s when I was just starting out as a teacher. It is quite something to be here 20 years after my dad retired and at the beginning of the school year following his death. What an honor. And so I thank Kathleen and Shelley and Vi for inviting me and all of you for coming here to listen to me speak about something that may well make you uneasy. But I am okay with that, for as the dynamic systems theorists tell us, “learning happens in cycles of disruption and repair” (Skorczewski), and a little disruption is a good thing indeed at the opening of a new school year.


I lived here in the sixties and early seventies, an exciting, bewildering time of transition when Exeter shed its old-boy ways as its student body grew more diverse, its curriculum more open, its rules less rigid. I was in the first class of four-year girls, a handful of faculty daughters graduating in 1974. But that’s a whole other story. I return to Exeter today during a time even more tumultuous, a time calling for even more daring changes, perhaps, on our campuses if we are to prepare our students equally and well to take their places at THIS time in THIS world.

But before I take you on my journey with technology, and explore the benefits of taking Harkness online, I’d like you to consider what it means to you to be a Harkness teacher in the 21st century. What does Harkness offer our students? What are our responsibilities? If our goal is to guide and mentor and model and inspire as our students develop creative and critical thinking and expression skills balanced with goodness—how do these things look out there in our global, networked society? Should we care—or should we batten down the hatches and hang on to our beloved, time-honored traditions because they served us well in the past?


Some of you—and my father would surely have been in your ranks– may well be thinking that we should resist using network technology in our classrooms. Kids spend too much time texting, phoning, Facebooking, IM-ing, You-Tubing as it is. Especially at a residential liberal arts college like Middlebury or the heart of Harkness, Exeter, we should continue an unplugged model of teaching—it is reading and writing and discussing– solving problems together over time, after all, that is our gift, that sets us apart. Why introduce the distraction of out-of-place, out-of time practice of blogging in our classes? Shouldn’t we resist the flash and seductiveness of the new?

Indeed. We should be serious about time offline. About time immersed in lived-in community, in daydreaming and noodling and walking out in the woods. I teach in a computer-free classroom two out of every three class meetings. I want those class meetings not to be spent watching films or interacting with one another or information on machines. It is a mighty gift to be in a classroom together—in a residential school together, discussing, listening, doing, learning from one another in reciprocal apprenticeships.

But it is no longer enough. And I would go further to say that it is no longer the best way, even, to teach and learn.

The day I brought my daughter to Exeter as a new Lower catapulted me, of all people, into teaching with technology. You see, I am not a techie. I hadn’t heard of a blog two weeks before I introduced one into a first-year seminar on contemporary Ireland. But that day, September 11, 2001, shook me from my lovely complacency. I saw clearly then how ill-prepared my students and I were to participate in a networked, global society, and effectively engage with emerging online communication practices. I was teaching as though nothing had really changed since I had been a student. And while my students were lucky that my pedagogy was Harkness-based, and while their credentials were increasingly astonishing, classroom discussion was often superficial, writing formulaic, and engagement with extended, deep learning for learning’s sake difficult to muster. The kids were distracted. Disconnected. Though they performed well. And liked class. Exonians counted in their midst.


I realized then what Barry Wellman of the University of Toronto meant by observing: “The broadly-embracing collectivity, nurturing and controlling, has become a fragmented, variegated and personalized social network. Autonomy, opportunity and uncertainty are the rule.” People no longer know their neighbors, as Robert Putnam pointed out in Bowling Alone. As Daniel Pink argues, the work world, too, has changed, now requiring adaptive experts, who can shift easily from one mode of thinking to another, one project to another—working collaboratively, often at a distance from colleagues. Sir Ken Robinson has shown that we are not doing a good job preparing our students for this world: graduates are unable to think creatively, work together well or express themselves clearly in a range of situations. Exactly what I had been noticing—

Ah, we like to blame technology—the sink of time, the cult of the amateur as Andrew Keen has recently argued.

But look at the riches of online exploration, the impact of the access for so many people to so much information. As Yochai Benkler points out in The Wealth of Networks, “…the diversity of perspectives on the way the world is and the way it could be for any given individual is qualitatively increased.” People with access to the internet, have access to information, to learning resources, and to networks. And potentially to choice about how to live. To solve the problems of illegal logging and exploitation of natural resources, for example, the government of Brazil has announced it will provide indigenous villages along the Amazon with satellite internet access connecting villages to one another gives them access to shared crucial information and power of their numbers. How extraordinary.


Universities such as M.I.T. and UC Berkeley are exploring the new options and opportunities afforded by the internet,—opening their classrooms to the world, participating in the explosion of affinity spaces where people come together to learn from one another out of INTEREST not coercion. If kids have such rich learning resources available online, for free, why will they continue to plunk down their $36,000 a year to come to Exeter? Should they?


How are we taking into account our culture’s increasing privileging of image over text, of how the world is being transformed by digital camera ownership, vernacular culture; as Susan Sontag pointed out after Abu Ghraib, “the western memory museum is largely visual”, “images no longer objects to collect but messages to be sent”. As Victoria Carrington points out, “Where more traditional models of literacy prepare children for a somewhat distant future at which time they will participate in meaningful ways in the ‘real’ world, a model of literacy matching the needs of contemporary children must take as a first principle that children are already active participants and risk takers.” (in Marsh, p.23) Hence the explosion of such sites as Youtube and Flickr—of images circulating on Facebook and MySpace. Do we spend time teaching students how to navigate and evaluate these images? How to produce visual arguments?


I also had been noticing other kinds of shifts in this post-Internet, Generation Me. As Jean Twenge’s extensive research has found, based on data collected from 40,000 college students–”anxiety increased so much that the average college student in the 1990s was more anxious than 85% of students in the 1950s and 71% of students in the 1970s.” (p.107) “One out of three college freshmen reported feeling ‘frequently overwhelmed’ in 2001, twice as many as in the 1980s.” The cult of the individual suggests that they do not trust others because they have been taught to believe in themselves, to feel good about themselves no matter what—to listen to themselves and not other people. And yet they crave immediate anytime, anywhere connection, as a Middlebury study of cellphone use and autonomy suggests in finding that the average first-year student was in contact with parents over 10 times a week. College students! How do we inspire goodness and a connection to lived-in community in students who are as likely to be connected to friends far away as friends down the hall? How do we get them to commit to more than themselves when they are overcommitted, oversheduled as it is? Are we helping kids take risks as learners by getting it wrong, by experimenting, by daring to think new thoughts? How do we get them to be more reflective, to slow down, to go deep both on their own and in a collaborative context all while learning to use the emerging tools and practices of this time? How overwhelming!

As I watched my students after 9-11 reeling, trying to make sense of their world, I knew we had to venture out beyond the safe confines of the classroom. I needed to connect the classroom with the world, students to themselves and one another in meaningful, reciprocal apprenticeships. I had a responsibility to teach my students how to navigate the Web fluently, how to use it ethically, producing and publishing as well as consuming.

I had to weave into my new practices three powerful approaches to learning:
learning as reflection;


Learning as doing—democratic learning means taking action—making and doing things, an Arendtian approach to democratic education .


And—Exeter’s own great gift, learning as social activity. You are lucky to be here facing this challenge—for you have long taken into account the power of informal learning outside the classroom—in the dining hall, the dorms, the playing fields. The importance of an integrated interdisciplinary program such as prep studies or the senior seminars. The value of multiple perspectives, of plurality.


I turned to social software—blogs—as they seemed to balance the individual with the group, reflection and action, the informal with formal, the private and the public all while providing flexible opportunities to practice new literacies. They seemed uniquely to be of the time and timeless, both very old and very new.


Few teachers were integrating digital technology into the heart of their classes, while striving to safeguard the Socratic, Harkness tradition of a residential school. bell hooks asks us whether we dare change our teaching practices even when we dare embrace progressive pedagogies.. It was scary—risky—to throw myself into the unknown. But if we teachers do not take risks, trying to become better than ourselves, how can we expect our students to do so? As Richard Miller writes in Writing at the End of the World : “Schools currently provide extensive training in the fact that worlds end; what is missing is training in how to bring better worlds into being.” (p.x) And that is what we all need to do.


These past six years, my Harkness teaching has moved from this model:

At least it was in theory–my classroom as it really was, if truth be known, I fear :


Only after I brought social software into the mix did I understand that some students didn’t participate because they felt they were not invited in–they were the onlookers, the lurkers in blog parlance. Although I thought I was using an inclusive approach and inviting all the students to speak, to add their voices, to learn equally, some students felt more ownership than did others, some participated and others did not–I was espousing a progressive pedagogy but not really practicing it p.42) .


The results of classroom blogging, as I will show you now, have been nothing short of astounding in my experience these past six years—this is now how my classes look and feel according to my students, who have become actively engaged with deep learning, developed their skills of critical and creative thinking and expression, their ability to connect and collaborate, and their confidence and skill using the digital technologies. It has been nothing short of electrifying. Staying the course for Harkness in the 21st century means evolving it to suit the needs and realities of our times, and to avail ourselves of the opportunities afforded by new ways of teaching and learning–online.

So let’s take a little look, and by all means stop me and ask questions along the way.

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