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.



3 Responses

  1. Barbara – you and I have discussed whether the blogging persists beyond the course. But is there some way to assess whether that vulnerable feeling persists and if so whether that is something they learn to do for themselves or if it induced by other courses?

    I don’t think the deer metaphor is bad. But is may be less suitable for students who are a little further along.

  2. Lanny,

    A course such as this one which asks students to move beyond their comfort zones in writing naturally makes students feel vulnerable. It doesn’t matter who they are or how old they are–we are uneasy when we’re doing something new, something we at which we may well fail. Add that I am asking students to converse with the world, or whatever part is interested in their thoughts, within an ideas-based realm, a place they have not often been invited into as participants (the students should be seen but not heard maxim has held sway in their lives), and they do indeed feel disoriented at first. If we really believe in learning as occurring in “cycles of disruption and repair”, well, then, I suppose the deer metaphor could work for any of us.

    But even a couple of weeks into the blogging experiment shows me that if we give students mentored experiences in online creative and critical expression (and by that I mean experiences that involve direct discussion on process and outcome of participating in such conversations), they will soon encounter contact zones and learn valuable lessons about boundaries, voices, information, knowledge and perspective.

    I no longer care if they blog past the course, for the lessons learned within this one experience are lessons that resonate and endure and affect the way my students see themselves in the world. New post along these lines coming…

  3. Looking forward to the next post. I’d like more on what lessons endure. I find myself somewhat divided on seeking out the contact zone. I’m at the ALN conference now and find I prefer to hook up with old friends rather than make new ones and that what I hear has to make sense in my own personal picture of learning rather than to embrace approaches new to me. (There are a lot of Ed faculty here who study/preach constructivism a la Dewey. I’m ok with some of it but there is too much low to the ground stuff that they sweep under the rug for my taste.)

    So I’m curious as to whether your students stay in cohorts after your course and take mostly a program of study that follows from those first courses or if they keep at the intersection of many different areas of study. At Illinois, I don’t believe there are too many students who do that.


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