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. 😉

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