In Three Places at Once

taxidermy

These past few days I have found my head in three places at once: here in San Antonio at Educause’s ELI conference (an event that brings together a fantastic crew in person and through Twitter–see Jim Groom’s post about experiencing the event from afar), a ways up the road in Arlington, Texas where I will meet up with UTexas faculty and The Texas Bluebonnet Writing Project later this week, and back at Middlebury, where my students have been wrapping up J-term with me away, participating virtually through ongoing 100-word posts, reading their blog entries and emails. I found myself moving with ease between thoughts of and interactions with these three different worlds.

People have noticed me working on a 100-word posts as I wait for some session or another to get going. Some have asked, “You mean you don’t have posts stored up, ready to push out? You mean you actually write the 100-word entries right here, in the middle of this mayhem?” I say, yes, I do, and that it is a pleasure to pull away from the conference from time to time to spend moments with my class, in my class-on-the-blogs. My students know I am still reading along, commenting occasionally, reading always, posting my own entries about lighthouses, cranberries and squash. They know I’m right there with them.

Indeed, as I prepare to head to Arlington by reconnecting with the workshops and talk I’ve prepared, as I continue to talk with my fab four colleagues about our presentation on Fear 2.0 and the ensuing dialogue about how to overcome our panic, our unease, our mistrust, our FEAR, I also have been reading the narrative reflections my students posted today. I wish I could have shared these at our talk yesterday. Although not required to post their course reflections on blog, many students have–to our good fortune–for in these thoughtful revisitings of our course journey, these students have created a map for me as I try to find my way, creatively and critically as a teacher and learner. These reflections are long, but so well worth reading for they show how much can happen in even just a short time if we allow ourselves to embrace reciprocal apprenticeships and expect great things of our students and ourselves, and then help them explore this world of online communication and expression. I think that from now on, all I have to do, when people ask me what it is I am up to in my classes and why I think it works, is to point them at these reflections. This is what can happen. This is what should happen.

To give you a taste of what you’ll find in their reflections, here are just a couple of excerpts:

At the end of the first day of class, when Barbara asked if anyone wanted to leave. I almost raised my hand. Not out of disinterest to the course, but fear of failure. Failure of a bad a grade. Failure of embarrassment in front of my peers. Seeing what the rest of the class came up with in small exercises, I didn’t stand a chance. But something kept my hand down that day. An inner curiosity and fearlessness that I cannot explain. That little gremlin on my shoulder that told me to dare, has made all the difference four weeks later.

I had never thought of blogging before this class. So from what started as a requirement for the class became an addiction, and obsession. Before I checked Facebook every night, I would see if anyone’s 100 word piece hit home. I couldn’t wait for people to post comments in response to my blogs so I could start a conversation about the piece and hopefully something bigger. It’s changed the way I view writing. Abshek

And

I never realized how powerful blogging could be — so enriching and vast and stimulating. At the beginning of the course, I found myself spending all my time on other people’s blogs, reading what they had written and wishing I could write more like they did and be less like me. I only went on my blog to post whatever we had to post. I stressed over what template to use. Back then, that was what was most important.

But the days began to roll past. I realized that there was, actually, magic in my own blog. That maybe I could actually surprise myself and take risks. I raised my hand and read one of my pieces to the class one day. It was no masterpiece, but I finally started to have more faith, to look at my own writing more objectively, to know its flaws, but to also acknowledge it as mine. I learnt it was up to me, and the blog was the tool to make the most of my writing.

Blogging and workshopping also changed my way of reading. I read other blogs and pieces as a writer. I learnt from them. I commented on them. I talked to them personally about their writing. I didn’t limit myself to doing this in class or for class. It had become a way of life. My obsession with facebook has been replaced with the obsession for wordpress. This really took off with me. Annabelle

So, thanks, J-term Writing students, for the extraordinary month, for sharing your work with me, one another, and the world, and for daring to write better than you thought you could by being willing to face the fear of failure, throwing yourselves into the work, and to seeing the world with wonder. I count myself lucky indeed to have been a fellow adventurer, even when I am not in the classroom.

ELI Youtube Fear 2.0 Video

More anon on ELI and all the terrific people and ideas–my wee contribution to the Fear 2.0 digidrama:

Where I’ve been…

In case you think I’ve been on a cruise, or pulling back from blogging, I want to assure anyone who actually reads bgblogging that I haven’t gone far–just over to my course blog and now to bgexperiments as I join my students in the 100 Words A Day experiment, something I didn’t suggest or assign (a student’s idea to join the fun) but am interested to try out with them. In the past students have wanted to keep blogging past the course, but few have kept at it as the crush of their new courses and the action on their social networking sites pull them away from this kind of writing practice & conversation. Perhaps the 100 Words a Day project will help them bridge the gap next month as they leave our intensive J-term course and struggle to find the discipline to write every day as they grow their skills and explore their creativity. Perhaps the 100 words a Day will get me writing more playfully again, daily, instead of solely crafting commentary and observation and reflection. Yes!

I do also have a long bgblogging-type slowpost brewing that I hope to get out before the end of the day (week, month–heheheh), but in the meantime, I will be posting my 100 words a day over on bgbexperiments; every morning someone else in the class will propose the day’s topic, and we will see what stirs. Two days into it, and I’m having a blast, not only experimenting but reading my students’ inspired Houdini-like transcending of the constraints of word limits. Connecting, sharing, learning. Anyone want to join us?

January Term Opens: Marvels and Frustrations

decemberbittersweet
Teaching within the compressed schedule of our four-week January Term is both one of my deepest teaching delights and most harrowing teaching experiences. To connect almost every day in class and on the blogs with sixteen committed, energetic, playful undergraduate writers is a blast. Even after the first two days I feel as though I am hearing their individual voices, the opening of their creativity and wonderment about the power of creative nonfiction, the freedoms and the restraints it affords. I am learning at least as much as they are, and that’s a good sign. We’ve been talking about being Houdini-like as we wrestle with the constraints of text-only or image-only or any-one-media-only expression and of being in free fall when we have so many media choices and publication vehicles–how we’re either struggling against the constraints of form and rules or searching desperately for them.

What a fabulous first two days we’ve had, first launching into writing about ourselves by writing about a place that holds special importance for us (I want to ground my students in the physical world and personal context in this class, something we do not often do in higher ed), and then through
the deep learning exercise
that has proven so effective in creating bonds within our learning community. Two former students, a week before setting off for digital-storytelling projects in Indian schools, helped teach the first day, presenting to the group their own journey to storytelling as an agent for change and the center of their work lives. Those first two days students made picnik stories, stories-without-words, and Voicethread stories, looked at stories across the Web, started blogging, and played around with writing exercises. Having so few days has helped them shed self-consciousness and dive right in; on the downside, having so few days also means that I have to give up having the class come up with the complete grading rubric (to be done well, I think, you have to do it slowly, little by little over time)–I had to provide some basic outlines; we’ll fill in the rest together as we go.

While some of the students profess some uneasiness about sharing their work with the world, they are excited by the chance to write something that matters to someone beyond themselves. They are excited to share their work and to be a part of a writing community. They are excited by the opportunities afforded by Web expression tools and by the chance to connect with their creative selves. Already they’ve made some powerful observations in their blogging. Here are two brief excerpts:

From Alex:

“So, we’re all starting up in this class- and on these blogs- as a community. We vaguely know each other, or can at least make an attempt at the name/face/ I think the first letter is A… spiel. In a more profound sense- we’re bound in a knowledge of each other that is unnatural- I don’t know your name, but I know how you write, I know that your favorite place is a corner nook, shaggy carpet, over water, in the back room etc. “

AND

from Miriam:

“I feel as though I’ve been bombarded with painfully uncreative nonfiction for the the past six years or so. Who hasn’t realized that “science journal article” is often a synonym for “afternoon nap” and that time carefully budgeted for geography reading quickly morphs into valuable Facebook-surfing time? But there’s a problem with all this, beyond the stony-faced professors who ask unanswered questions in class: we still need to know the information in those readings. Not just for the grades, but to know the stuff. Why go to college if we didn’t have to know it, and if there would be no future benefits?
So it’s time, for me at least, to learn something true that’s interesting. To revitalize my drive, so to speak. Beyond that, I want to present what I have to say in a way that makes people take notice. Who cares about the message of a piece no one will ever pick up and read?”

I am excited to be a part of this learning journey–and stretched fully to the utmost of my teaching abilities as I tell them in a post on our course Motherblog. J-term forces me to make every learning moment count, to plan more than is my wont, and yet to keep everything open to adjustment, revision, and rehauling if that’s what’s needed. There’s no way I could ever teach a J-term without blogs any more (or any course for that matter)– we connect quickly and powerfully with one another from the first day through our writing; we get over the fear of writing in public, a fear that can hold us back from daring to write better than we did the day before; we experiment readily and with media that we are unused to considering as means of writing (working with images, for example, not only helps us develop visual literacy, but it teaches all kinds of valuable lessons about transitions and structure and order and weight and pacing when (if) we return to text alone; audio teaches us about voice and modulation and pacing etc.); we connect, we reflect, we learn from one another and the world. We keep it real. In a four-week term, these benefits, all carried via this flexible, nearly blank-slate of a vehicle and practice, are so obvious. Indeed, I have felt this way at the opening of every semester for the six and a half years I have been using blogs in all of my classes. Every semester is a wonderment.

I cannot, for the life of me, understand why blogs have not taken hold across progressive formal learning environments, and this is why I have once again taken on talks this winter in addition to my full-time responsibilities at school– I very much look forward to a presentation on Fear 2.0 with my band of merry cohorts at ELI, and to my blogging talks and/or workshops at University of Texas Arlington and The Texas Bluebonnet Writing Project, Chicago Latin School and Randolph Macon College. I can’t wait to sit down and talk with them about the impact of blogging on pedagogy, student and school culture, affinity spaces, evaluation, creativity, deep learning, scalability, sustainability, and giving learning back to students.

I mentioned frustrations, too, in the title of this post. Besides the obvious frustration with entrenched educational inertia, the smaller, daily problems take a toll. Blog server challenges that have created a rollercoaster of a ride with this blog and all my other course blogs–sometimes they have been viewable off campus, sometimes not. Sometimes they were closed altogether, hence the silence here on bgblogging for a couple of weeks. But all seems well now with the server–fingers crossed. And I have moved off campus with my new course blogs, seeing what happens. It’s gotta be better than having no access at all to my blogs for weeks at a time. 😉