And the teacher learns that we may be missing a huge point…


With two and a half weeks left of this semester, I can now begin to see the full figure of my first-year seminar, this new course in exploring the far reaches of twenty-first century creative nonfiction (including a month-long unit in online multimedia expression). What brave teachers my students are, helping me to understand the complex intersection of their lives’ angles, social and academic, as they strive towards self-discovery and world-exploration…all while learning to crack open the process of reading and writing, digging into the fundamental elements of creative nonfiction, coming in touch with writers and theories of our times as we write for print and for the small screen. It has been such a fascinating journey for me as teacher-learner that I have hardly known where to begin to capture what I have witnessed, experienced and learned. But I will try. In fits and starts over the next weeks here.

Some Initial Observations/Revelations:

* Watching my students grapple with the tensions (and joys) of being college students away from home while they know full well that the world teeters on the brink of collapse: that other kids, just their age, are in Iraq, or contending with the direct impacts of global warming and first-world policies– brings home to me that we need to engage our students directly with these issues, from the minute they step on campus–in our classrooms, in all of our classrooms. We need to get them out into our communities both to apply their learning and to keep one foot squarely in the messy wider world. This is not the time for a four-year experience in privileged isolation. We have to keep the experience real– connected to the world beyond themselves. (I need to do better in this regard…more in an upcoming post.)


* It is very very difficult to walk into a classroom like mine when everything else in students’ academic experience follows a different, and teacher-centric, model. It takes a lot of work (and determination) to help them understand that it’s okay that I will not lecture at length on the writers we read or the elements we analyze or the techniques they explore, nor will I provide them with the kind of feedback ( pen all over their papers) to which they have grown not only accustomed but on which they have become dependent. I will not tell them what they have to write about, or how. I will not respond to their posts on blog. I will not be solely responsible for their course grades. But I will question, push, explain, encourage and give them feedback one-on-one. As I often remark, students are in a bit of a freefall for the first weeks, thinking I have no idea how to be a teacher, and I have to stand by, reassuring them that this is fine, this is good, in fact.


* It takes faith on my part that if I am patient, and clear, and do a good job of setting up opportunities for learning magic to occur, then at some moment in the semester, when none of us is looking, the students will delight in their creativity, push into the world of ideas of their own choosing, and turn to one another in a lively example of collective intelligence and emergence at work. In turn, their thinking will deepen, their writing grow in clarity and complexity and power, and they will have engaged meaningfully with their own learning journey. Of course this is an oversimplification of the actual steps forward and back of the classroom dance–in a crammed semester with so many demands on student time and attention, there’s never enough time and focus to shift the learning model as dramatically as I believe we must.


* My students have not been asked very often or at all to experience the world as writers (which I would define as actively engaging in the world and trying to make sense of it through communicating through words and/or words plus other media)–their comments about this month’s blogging (as opposed to posting their assigned work on the blog) reveal how “having to find something to say on the blog” has forced them out of the college bubble to look back and examine it, and out into the world to understand their place in it. Some have found “blogging whatever” artificial and forced–“I have nothing to say.” But why is that? Do they not have the practice of being asked to write about their experience and knowledge and connection and concern and questions? Publicly? As an act of genuine communication and connection? Others say that their nerve endings are on fire–that they now go to dance performances, for instance, wondering how they could possibly capture a post-modern production for their blogging community, or that they are constantly looking for things to share or to ask or to wonder about through the conversation of blogging. It’s exhausting to be this aware of the world.
At first they resisted blogging because they thought Facebook was for that kind of connection. But now many of them are discovering the value and pleasure of connected thinking through asynchronous discussion NOT dictated by the teacher. (Many teacher-directed and assigned online discussions including blog discussions are little more than adjacent monologues, call-and-response performances for the teacher’s benefit–and soon forgotten by the students, I’d wager–rather than authentic engagement in a fluid give-and-take about the world with a community of learners.)


* They teeter between the future and the past–their own–as they find outlets from the furious pace of their studies:

quidditch%20post.jpg (from Sam’s Post, “Only at Middlebury”)

And students come to my home to cook and eat (fresh noodles and sauce and brownies). They seek and appreciate contact–direct, personal contact with their teachers and classmates. Friendships have sprouted from this seminar.

Some examples from student blogs that show me what’s on their minds:

On Grades
HIgh Hopes
On Comparing their Lives to Those Who Accomplished Great Things

A student asks questions about when she’s going to make bold choices, and her classmates respond, including over at another blog
Another student looks at the Future

A student on “Save Middlebury?”
On Facebook

A dance review..and more
Another Response to the Dance Performance
Performace? Art?

And that’s just for starters (Make sure you read the comments as well). They are tackling the life issues that matter to them on their posts, weaving in lessons from other courses, and engaging with larger societal issues in their projects–do we actively promote this kind of integrated learning between formal and informal learning spaces in our colleges and universities?

* Students crave time and opportunities to be creative (how many courses involve active creativity?), once they allow themselves to get off the train of the constant critic (why do we insist on teaching students to judge literature and art from the outside without an equal emphasis on exploring art from the inside? My students are much much better critical thinkers and writers as a result of their forays into the process of making art). They are, for the most part, enjoying the process of making multimedia projects even though they are exhausted at this moment in the semester and sometimes frustrated by their lack of technical skill or cumbersome programs or the number of hours spent in front of computers. What fun to mash things up, or to discover the impact of soundtrack on mood, color on visual impact, font size on narrative distance, or to make something out of nothing that has the potential to move people, to make them think? The projects are breathtaking, far far beyond anything I thought they could produce in a three weeks’ time. Stunning in fact. They’ll be posted soon.

*The challenging process of working through the course grading rubric with the class, to reach consensus, was well worth it–I think. I won’t really know until the end of the semester when they have met with me individually one last time to propose and defend a grade based on that rubric. What has been particularly striking about the conversations over the semester about the grading is the sharing about the mysteries of high school grades, of their interest in finding a fair balance between quality versus growth, and of their suggestion to evaluate one another. Grading Rubric Post from Course Blog and one student’s take on the balance between growth and quality. They want that experience and feedback, and to have those evaluations taken into consideration when proposing their course grade. And so, there are three layers of evaluation to this course: their own, their classmates’, and mine. For once I am actually looking forward to the grading process. Imagine–did I just say that?

quality rubric

And so on we go, inexorably towards semester’s end. Tuesday they unveil their multimedia projects–I can’t wait–and then after break we move into two weeks of revision and evaluation. It has been bumpy–teaching a course for the first time is always a little unnerving and I promise to post some of my (several) mistakes soon–and thrilling. It isn’t about stuffing their heads with what I know, but about helping them to fill their writing and learning toolbox with tools and practices and self-awareness, so that they can find out what they need to know and how. To participate in the process wherein these remarkable young men and women gain skill and confidence and daring and community is a privilege indeed.


November Rolls in…fretting about the ends of things…

Two nights ago four young deer made their way into my flower garden, the same four deer, I am certain, that we have watched grow this summer (two sets of twins), leave their mothers and band together in their own tentative herd.


As this weekend is Youth Hunting Weekend in Vermont, ushering in three weeks of rifle shots cracking open fear and dread, I have been fretting about the foursome’s safety while scolding myself because around here the people who hunt care deeply for the wildlife and the land. They just have a different relationship to it than I do, hunter, too, every dawn and sundown with my camera. And to survive, those young deer have to learn to read every sign in their world. They need to get fieldsmart now.


So for the next weeks, I will keep the dog in his hunter-orange collar, and close to me on the trails on our land; we’ll both shudder at the crack of gunshot, and I won’t be taking many pictures. With the swift flight of afternoon sun today as daylight savings time pushes back the clock, I’ll turn my attention inward to reading and writing and teaching and learning.

Early November also marks the semester’s waning weeks, something I see in my students as they plop down on the chairs in our lounge-classroom: the newness of college has worn off for these first-years, and fatigue, as I remark at this time of year, has set in. This moment presents a wonderful challenge, actually–how do I not only help my students remain truly excited about their learning when teachers are ramping it up out of fear of not covering every last bit on the syllabus, but also continue to make bold strides in their creative work. This year I have brought online and multimedia expression to their month, a unit designed to give them a chance to explore hypertext creative nonfiction, integrating image and sound in their writing, and to play around with blogging and digital storytelling. They are already more than meeting the challenge. They have found writing online useful and dangerous and frustrating, both as a way to think about writing with language alone (having to think about which words in a sentence merit links puts all kinds of fresh pressure on diction, structure, & ordering choices) and about what it is we do when we do it online. Indeed, I bet they feel a little like the young deer frantic in the fields, vulnerable and confused.


They are being asked to have their words stand for something, to matter to them, and potentially to a reader. A real reader. They’re experiencing the difference between broadcast and conversation, between self-congratulatory bombast and thoughtful reflection & questioning. Many are trying out posts about their internet use, about Facebook, about balance in their lives, and now about events in the news, in the world. They are figuring out how to respond to one another energetically and respectfully. They are also lucky to have a University of Mary Washington student interacting with them through comments, (out of her own interest) giving them a sense of the potential reach of their blogging, and also the fact that they still have a lot to consider about public vs. private issues of their online lives. Here’s an example and anotherof just such a discussion on their blogs.

I’m especially pleased to see them writing about their awareness of the college bubble and how blogging has put them in direct contact with the issues of our time. Reason enough to get students blogging. Their posts are getting very interesting indeed. As a result, in spite of the blogging STILL being artificial in that they are doing it as part of a course, (and most will, I wager, drop it as soon as the semester ends because at this point in their lives, Facebook fulfills their social needs, and they are not yet looking for more ideas-based, or subject-focussed, ongoing conversations that blogging promotes), the experience is giving them an opportunity to examine their own and the world’s online and offline social & cultural practices through a critical lens, something they probably would not have been as likely to do otherwise. All while doing the discipline.

Hypertext & Blogging DiscussionHypertext & Blogging Discussion 2Hypertext & Blogging Discussion 3Hypertext & Blogging Discussion 4

In their playing around with how image and text and sound intersect, collide and make magic–early experiments vary from text-based hypertext (with links to image and video) to several examples of Flickr notes and text/image work on picnik. In class we are also putting the finishing touches on our grading rubric –a process worth every second of discussion (and argument, heated) it has entailed. I’ll be back next week to share that outcome.

So, yes, the semester rolls on to its end. In seven short weeks, this band (I won’t call them a herd ;-)) of achievement-oriented, excellence-driven, talented but blog-wary, traditionally trained students have become bold explorers of creative nonfiction forms, of engaged ideas-centered discussion online and off, and of learner-initiated evaluation. Wow.

Okay, I take it back. It makes no sense to compare these learners to frightened yearling deer scattering at the shatter of gunshot. The dangers they face in this course are nothing like the dangers the deer encounter every day from coyotes and cars much less three weeks of hunting. Yes, the students feel vulnerable. As they should. Frustrated–as we all do from time to time with technology (we had a Twitter disaster and server problems and eyes-are-bigger-than-our-skills moments). But practice with these tools and accompanying literacies builds awareness of the need to protect their privacy, to interact responsibly, and to understand that these tools and practices afford them with creative means of expression and reflection, with scholarly and vernacular research resources, and with opportunities to connect with the world outside their own small orbits. Sounds like deep learning to me.