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.

roadtoschool

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.

mainememory

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.

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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.

Slide1

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.

Slide2

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?

Slide3

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.

Slide4

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.

Slide5

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?

Slide6

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?

Slide7

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:
Slide8
learning as reflection;

Slide9

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

Slide10

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.

Slide11

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.

Slide12

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.

Slide13

These past six years, my Harkness teaching has moved from this model:
Slide14

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

Slide15

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) .

Slide16

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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3 Responses

  1. Ah the beginnings, and the endings.

    While you have certainly have gathered no moss during your time off and away (oh how I envy you!) you have somehow also maintained (rekindled?) your energy and your passion for what you do and how you so it. How easy it would be to just recycle something old from the past, dust off the notes from the yellowing legal pad, and go on auto pilot as you return to the classroom. But you don’t, and you won’t. Thank goodness for that.

    I am sure the Exetonians (sp?) whom you addressed were proud and also a little afraid of what their education hath wrought. But hey, that’s what an educational experience should be all about: a dose of awe, mixed with a little fear, and a whole lotta passion.

    ¡Felicitaciones!

  2. Thanks, Barbara S. for your comment. It was a great experience, and of course I wish I had been able to spend all day there showing the faculty all kinds of powerful examples of Web 2.0 learning, including yours.

    And it is good to be moving back into the classroom again, pushing myself to grow in my teaching and learning, continuing to push into this century with my practices.

  3. Thanks for the articulate glimpse into your world. Your challenge to add our voices extends beyond acedemia. Keep up the good work!
    RT

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