On Shaking Things Up: Art and the Role of Surprise

“Imagination, more than any other capacity, breaks through ‘the inertia of habit.'” (Maxine Greene, Releasing the Imagination, p.2 quoting John Dewey)

“The chief enemy of creativity is ‘good’ sense.” Pablo Picasso

“I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one.” Flannery O’Connor

liz in holzer

A few years after college–after following the temple route through India and a stint running a gallery in pre-cool Seattle–I turned from the visual arts back to writing. As a viewer outside the creative process, I had grown uneasy, even in galleries, even in the gallery I ran. Few people outside the art and collecting world ever stepped off of First Avenue and into our small space, and those who did enter, often seemed not deeply interested in the art at all but in being near it or being near people who liked being near it. I saw little conscious, active participation, just a drifting through.

I began to dislike museums intensely–the formality, the lack of questioning, the spectacle–in spite of my hunger for a creative world. I preferred religious art and public art because at least in Europe and Asia, you could find it on the street and in places people actually went. Art could become something new, different every time you encountered it. Of course that’s not to say that we’re awake to art as we pass it by or that there is no place for the museum and concert hall (as Joshua-Bell-busking-in-the-subway showed), –that’s ridiculous–but are we increasingly immune to the disruptiveness of art because we are not encouraged to develop our creative selves? Indeed, I would argue that we have the creative schooled right out of us. If we, as Maxine Greene argues, release our imagination, we might be ready to have our doors blown open when we encounter art. And perhaps we’ll work towards a better world.

I suppose that’s what I’m doing now as I prepare to leave formal education. I’m heading out of the museum and onto the street. I’m releasing my imagination.

Of course my discomfort hasn’t kept me from going to museums–you’ll find me seeking them out wherever I go. But I still don’t much like them. I just keep hoping I will–I like a lot of the people who work in them– and I need art to startle me and make me question what I know. So it is with interest that I watch Leslie Madsen Brooks and her cohorts trying to transform museums into relevant, inspiring places for people–all people.

jenny holzer installation

But mostly, over the years, I turned to literature, to theater, to film, to music. And I wrote. To make sense of the world, to participate fully in the world, I felt compelled to create stories, and words seemed easier to access than other materials (ha!). I turned to teaching as art–the classroom the canvas, the subject the paint, the students the collaborators, channeling experience and intelligence and imagination towards one another into creating. Classroom narratives. It was deeply satisfying.

But for the past couple of years, as classroom stories have grown pinched by curricular demands and limited by a lack of institutional imagination and the thin expectations of formal learning, I despair of this museum context. I am moving back to creative learning spaces of everyday life. I am as eager to take out my camera as I am my pen. To press the results up against one another. And okay about failing as I learn. To open a center where anyone can come to explore digital expression and connection practices–a place where creativity, imagination and connection are the focus, the raison d’etre, as people struggle to make sense of the world and “to bring better worlds into being.” (Richard Miller, Writing at the End of the World, p.x)

Yesterday I spent the afternoon with my daughter and husband at what I’d almost call an unmuseum, MASS MoCA, with its mix of conventional-looking galleries and raw former-mill spaces, meandering around the exhibitions-finding ourselves offended, amused, moved in turns, arguing, discussing, animated. Then we arrived at the huge former mill building turned gallery occupied by Jenny Holzer’s “Projections,” a work that silences you as you enter, that you become a part of: enormous lines of poetry immersing you, a work that flows words over the floor, the walls the ceiling, bending and distorting as they encounter disruptions–including the viewer–to flat surfaces. We stayed a long time, experiencing it, thinking, talking, being quiet, taking photos–she actually welcomes people playing around with her art this way.


All day yesterday and today I can’t shake the feeling of being inside the artwork, part of the experience for anyone else who was there, and they part of the experience for me. Words, light, space, shapes, people, stories. Fascinating. Jarring. I kept thinking about Nabokov’s words, “Curiosity is the first step to insubordination.”

I came home inspired, surprised, eager, yes, to step out of the traditional walled-off museum once and for all, where as Garrison and Anderson (p.5) contend,”There is far more rhetoric than reality in the assertion that communities of inquiry in higher education today encourage students to approach learning in a critical manner and process information in a deep and meaningful way.” I’m ready to move into the un-museum creative spaces in the world where active participation is a given, imagination is encouraged and creativity at the center of the learning experience.

Free flow: watching & learning from my students

waiting for spring

While I’m sorting out my problems with archived posts’ broken links (argh), wrestling with upcoming talks, and complaining about Vermont’s never-ending winter, I thought it would do me and you good to move to a more positive outlook and point to some extraordinary work my students are doing with Web-based practices. 😉 (This is what I will miss next year.)

Even though Alex has taken three classes with me, I cannot say that I have taught him much of anything. He’s just plain old inventive, daring, creative, talented and willing to find the rules for himself, for each experience, rather than conform to some static set delivered to him. As has been true with a long line of students, I’ve been learning a good deal from him, as are my current crop of creative writers, for they have the good fortune to have him as one of their senior writing tutors. He was blogging well before he met me, and has continued blogging, folding into his own brand of link-blogging his creative and reflective writing on all manner of topics, currently on Mongolia (where he spent last semester) and heavy metal. He receives comments from people all over the world who share his particular interests, as well as from former teachers, family members, classmates and friends. His is truly a dispersed, loosely-knit, ever-fluid network. He is also a truly amazing photographer and one of my favorite Flickr commenters and cohorts (just look at this image, for instance), and so I am glad, also, to point to his new photoblog.

Some of this output is connected to his coursework (the more formal pieces on Mongolia and metal are part of the independent study he’s doing with me right now) but most of it is not. There’s no place in our courses for this kind of expressive work (he’s had to resort to an independent study), and that’s sad. But he perseveres, and makes the connections between his courses, his interests and the world on his own, because he’s that kind of learner.

My intro-creative writers are also exploring online expression in interesting ways, using a range of tools and practices to find form and meaning, moving away the now-traditional CDS-style digital-story. A few examples: Lois moves her own paintings, music and video into her story. In a quick in-class exercise Kyle creates a Flickr poem, which changes the entire experience of engaging with the text. Clare makes a hypertext creative nonfiction using only image and sound and requiring the involvement of the viewer. All of these projects underscore the students’ understanding of a degree of reader choice and involvement in the writing of the piece. They are writing for more than themselves, actively immersing their reader into the making of the work. And none of them had ever done any of this kind of writing before.

When students have opportunities to find their own forms while contextualizing them within their own lives, their own means of solving the problems we set out for them in our assignments instead of having them adhere to well-oiled formulaic structures and expected outcomes of our disciplines, what might they teach us and themselves? What might they break through to in making connections? In his ELI talk last month, George Seimens quoted historian William Cronon: “More than anything else, being an educated person means being able to see connections so as to be able to make sense of the world and act within it in creative ways.” This, this is what my students are trying to do, and in spite of some hefty impediments in their path, in their hypertext reflections on writing creative nonfiction, they show that they get it. They are connecting, and learning to connect, and learning to make connections. I see it in how they see the importance of learning to read as a writer–from the inside–instead of as a scholar only–from the outside. They are trying to connect to their readers as well as to their subject matter, to themselves as well as to some abstract notion of academic excellence. And playing around in this connected medium really helps them to do just that.

How many teachers can say that a first stop on their online daily tour is their students’ blogs, not to check up on them, but to learn from them?

(the new) bgblogging

Although I’ve been blogging with my students on WP for a couple of courses and have bgexperiments for my creative-writing exercises, bgblogging has heretofore lived, and quite happily so, on Movable Type. But in six weeks’ time I will be leaving the faculty of Middlebury College and thus must start now to pack my bags and books and blogs. So here I am. (The new) bgblogging. Welcome!

Come June I plan to push into new kinds of topics (for me) while I explore ways in which collaborative and creative Web practices in concert with a physical lab/gallery/classroom/gathering spot located in our county seat can enhance the connectiveness, life-long learning and deep creative spirit of rural communities. This kind of community-based/Web-centric space for creative expression and lifelong learning practices doesn’t seem to exist in many rural communities in this country–certainly not in this state. Now that my departure from the college is certain, I ‘m ready to share the center’s mission and design — details in a coming post.

In the meantime I will be trying to capture practices emerging in my formal classroom one last time, pulling together the work of the past seven classroom-blogging years into some posts about the process, the students, the outcome, and the reasons for heading out.

It will take a couple of weeks to sort out all of the bugs (tags did not make the export) in this blog, so please let me know if something isn’t working or you can’t find what you came here for.

Grading Partnerships in the Classroom, Conversation #3

I know that I have been hammering away about grading in the new classroom, student responsibility, and faculty resisting substantive change to the way they teach and therefore use grades, but I’m doing it again here, because of an amazing class yesterday during which I watched my students connect with one another in authentic, deep-learning ways.

Lanny Arvan’s excellent post on personal responsibility in the face of our full-on financial crisis, and what it should mean to us and our students, reminds me of something Harry Matthews said in his “Excellence without a Soul” speech here a couple of months ago (and in his book): academic institutions have basically abdicated the responsibility to teach integrity, to teach values, to talk about the pressing questions of being human right now right here as we mentor our students along their way to responsible citizenship. We are distracted by our own research. By the lack of time. We complain that here isno time for anything, not as things stand now with our major requirements for graduation, our singular focus on only whatare doing in our own classrooms. We’re afraid to change. We’re afraid of change.

One of my students in a recent post wrote,

I enjoyed this unit tremendously. I think much of it had to do with the exploration of self and the reflective aspect and nature of the genre. Writing some of the exercises during this unit and doing the longer pieces gave me assigned time to think about myself, which I thought quite uplifting, in a way, because we, as students, are so busy these days that we hardly ever have time to contemplate—really contemplate—things such as our childhoods or moments that have shaped us. Writing about these moments gave me an opportunity to get in touch with myself, and I think I needed this.

Indeed. If we do not give our students time and space to contextualize their learning, time to contemplate who they are and what they are doing, then how do we expect them to do anything but find the quickest avenues to “success” ?

Lanny writes:

Somehow we need to create a grades-don’t-matter environment where the decisions that students make have clear consequences on others and where the students can readily see those consequences, then reflect on them and on their own choices. This would let them learn the lesson for themselves, not to please others. All I can conclude is that it seems more likely to happen in a co-curricular setting than in actual courses. Yet even then it seems more likely that students will learn the opposite lesson to what we want – everyone else is cheating so why shouldn’t I? This is a tough one to crack.

It takes time and a concerted effort to help students to slow down, as Mark Edmundson also urges, though I do not agree with his top-down approach. I want them to come to these conclusions themselves, together, looking at one another across the circle, listening, and entering the contact zones, wrestling for themselves with the questions of whether to have laptops in class, for instance, or how grades are going to figure into the learning experience. Have we forgotten the whole student?

I have written a bit about my current creative writing class, about the fabulous work they have done in multimedia expression, and just now in creative nonfiction, and some, too, about how long it has taken them to come together as a group, to trust one another, to open up to one another–to trust me and this process of participating in a learning community where learning to read one another’s work-in-progress and commenting on it is an important part of the course. I’ve blogged about the shift I have seen lately, how they are now coming together. They are beginning to care about each other as writers, and as complex people, not just fellow students who happen to be taking the same class.

Our three-part conversation about grading has played a role in this shift, I believe. During the initial discussion we decided upon the areas that should be assessed: risk, effort, improvement and quality.
Opening the Evaluation Conversation

During the second conversation, we discussed percentages to be given each of those areas, as well as how to consider the individual’s writing, and the individual’s contributions to the group, and the balance of self-assessment and outside assessment.
grading percentages

Yesterday we voted on the percentages to be given to each area.
The discussion explored the relationship between the various parts of the course to the whole–what does quality mean exactly, how can effort and risk be separated–doesn’t effort lead to improvement automatically? And questions about the individual’s responsibility to the self and to the group. I wish I had recorded the discussion–they wrestled with the urge to do their own work, to focus on their own writing projects versus the urge to spend time helping each other out, reading and responding, commenting and discussing, and participating in the group conversation. This is what happens, I believe, when we take grades out as much as possible–meaning, stop grading individual assignments, and yet discuss assessment to push their thinking about why they are here in the first place, and what it is they can get out of this course, and how. And what it means to balance self-interest and group-interest, and how serving the group is to serve the self, ultimately. Now, when they walk into class, the chatter subsides, and they move with excitement into a world where their contributions count and are counted on, where they have a say in the process and the outcome. This is not me being a magician, a guru, a cult figure. This isn’t about me at all–and that’s been the hardest piece of the puzzle to fall into place for them. For the most part, they know only classrooms dominated by the teacher.

Every year, it gets a little harder, I think, to pry the kids out of themselves (their in-the-moment needs and desires) and out of the rut of the way they have been conditioned to experience a formal learning environment while getting them to take their own work seriously (deeply, over time). Another student wrote recently,

“While some early discussions and workshops felt akin to having teeth pulled, by this time in the semester I feel that our class has laid down a solid foundation and begun to grow from it. This developing bond is encouraging to me as a writer, reader, critic, and classmate, and that dark bleak hour between 3 and 4 am has recently become much less intimidating on account of the obligation I feel towards the class’ creative, academic, and group health.”

Now we’re getting somewhere.

Building a Course, Weaving a Story: Writing the Experience

under the gable end

The first thing our architect did when designing our house was ask each of us to write a narrative about our relationship to space–what kinds of spaces we felt drawn to, how we felt in various spaces, how we felt about colors and textures and memories of spaces and places we loved. He didn’t want to know what we thought our house should look like, or what rooms it should contain–he wanted to know how we felt, what we believed about the world, who we were. After he read our four narratives, he sat down in front of us and made a quick sketch of the exterior of what now looks very much like our house. It was remarkable. And it was us. It surprised us to discover things about one another through these narratives (it’s a terrific exercise for families, and communities of practice), and through talking through the design of the house. When we built the house, our architect made plaster casts of our faces, and embedded them into the gable ends. I look out over my garden, my husband to the sunrise, one daughter to the sunset and the other to the mountains. We are the place, the place is us, quite literally, as the impressions of our faces, the narratives we wrote weave us into the fabric of the house. We thus also connect deeply to one another, four points on our home’s compass. We like to think that our faces give the house personality, our collective, complex personality.

bowling shoes

What does this anecdote have to do with writing, teaching and the teaching of writing? For me it suggests how I try to teach writing. I have to reveal my beliefs about writing, and the students do, too. We have to think about ourselves as points on the compass of this writing experience. I have to be available as a writer. Show them how I read as a writer. Show something of my struggles with writing, with writing digitally, with the decisions only I can make about and for my writing–all without imposing myself on the community. (I highly recommend Teaching One Moment at a Time, in which Dawn Skorczewski explores “the delicate negotiation” in writing classes.) Teachers, in my experience, tend to over-articulate or under-articulate–but do little modeling, have little self-awareness about how their own beliefs and attitudes are affecting the course experience, all while holding set (and rather mysterious) expectations for outcomes. We are, for the most part, terrible listeners. How are students to know what it is they are supposed to be creating if they have never seen one of these beasts before? Where is there room for student innovation? Beliefs? What does excellence look like at the intro level? The advanced level? Why? The University of British Columbia Murder, Madness and Mayhem Course Wikipedia projectThe University of British Columbia Murder, Madness and Mayhem Course Wikipedia project, described here so well by Brian Lamb, gives students real-world experience finding their way, collaboratively, to high standards of content and writing in their field. It’s an incredible example of what college students and their inspired teacher can do, collaborating, reflecting, listening, revising.

windows reflecting fall

Today my creative writing class had our second discussion on grading. The group proposed and discussed percentages to assign the various areas of the course to be assessed–areas they had decided upon in the first discussion; after narrowing the field down to three proposals, they asked for a couple of days to reflect before we put it to a vote and finalized the balance between self and external evaluation.

grading percentages

This group has slowly, slowly come together, much more tentative about group practices than other classes, quieter in discussion, and uncomfortable with the need to comment on one another’s work. It is a situation that comes close to unnerving me, so delicate is this balance between all the learners and their writing journeys, so strong are my beliefs about what a good writing community looks like. Some days I have wondered if we’re getting anywhere, if I have stunned them with such newness that they cannot take the first steps, even. But things have shifted. As they do. Especially when I relax, when I become more self-aware. As I have increasingly pulled out of discussion, letting them wrestle with reading-as-writers after having modeled for them how I read, and then scaffolding the process, they have gradually gained confidence in discussion, on the blog, in conference and in workshop–and in their writing. Coming over to my house last week for food, laughter, collaborative writing exercises, and a glimpse of my life as a person with a house, a husband, a dog and some weird stuff around the walls helped them feel the power of the collaborative. They were ready to tackle the insides of the course, what we mean by taking this course.


And indeed, today’s discussion on grading was lively, provocative and meaningful–it belonged to everyone. They spoke out for what they believed, listened to one another, moved towards consensus. I asked tough questions. They asked tough questions. And they wanted more time–to go deeper, to think about it. They slowed down on their own.

The same thing is happening on the blog, where I am one writer among many; rather than primary respondent and feedback-giver. After a few weeks of fumbling with the blog, looking for me to take the lead, they are starting to take it over. After hearing their voices in writing and in recordings, they are losing their shyness. And they see me as a writer in action, playful and experimenting, sometimes writing well, sometimes missing my mark, struggling to find meaning and then to convey it in a way that moves my reader. I know how hard it is to write well. And they are learning to trust themselves, one another, and me. When I do give them feedback, it is always in response to specific questions they ask about their writing. They come to one-on-one conferences prepared to critique their work before I do. And when I give them feedback, they really take it in, and then I promptly narrate my thinking process for them, to show them how I read their writing. That’s the best part of the one-one-one conference, watching them learn how to ask good questions of their writing, watching them gain control of their writing.


I’m the architect, I suppose, of this course, but a resident, collaborative one, who tries to listen to their narratives about what they need to learn and why, connecting our points on the compass through the bones and veins of the coursework, weaving our personalities and beliefs and writing styles deeply into the story of this course.

Some Irish Writers You Really Ought to Read…or… How I Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day

In spite of my heritage, I don’t really celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Green beer is a bit much– they also dye the Liffey green, I know (my brothers and friends once dyed the milk of the school we grew up in, yup, green…). The funniest run-up to St. Paddy’s I ever experienced was flying back to the States from Ireland for my father’s 80th (I lived in Ireland that year); the plane to Boston was loaded, absolutely to the gills with bands heading to the U.S. because THAT’s where the St. Patrick’s Day action was, not in Ireland. Tin whistles, bodhrans, fiddles, button accordions were played up and down the aisles, and the Guinness vanished before we had left Irish airspace. It was, well, hmmmm, wild.


My dad loved St. Patrick’s Day. So in his honor, I’m marking this day with a list of Irish fiction from the past ten years or so that people on this side of the Atlantic might not have read (but should). I am an avid student of Irish literature, film and music, and though it is challenging from so far away to keep up with emerging writers, I do what I can. I’m not including Edna O’Brien, John Banville, Julia O’Faolain, Patrick McCabe, Roddy Doyle, John McGahern, or the late Clare Boylan, not because I do not love their writing, but because I figure their books have made their way into many collections on this side of the Atlantic.

In no particular order and certainly not an exhaustive list by any means, but some real treasures:

Seamus Deane Reading in the Dark
Anne Enright The Wig My Father Wore (you probably know her new, Man Booker Prize winning The Gathering–simply wonderful)
Colm Toibin The Blackwater Lightship
Clare Keegan Antarctica
Joseph O’Connor The Salesman
Colum McCann Everything in This Country Must
Robert McLiam Wilson Eureka Street
Eoin McNamee The Last of Deeds
Sean O’Reilly Curfew and Other Stories
Sebastien Barry A Long, Long Way
Dermot Healy A Goat’s Song
David Park Stone Kingdoms
Deirdre Madden The Birds of the Innocent Wood
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne The inland Ice


That’s a start, and who first comes to mind this Oirishy morning.

My daughter, Nora, playing the accordion with her school band, in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, in Westport, Ireland, 1998.

Oh right, and the poets. Listen to Seamus Heaney and Eavan Boland and okay, Yeats growling his way through his poems–and Joyce reading from Finnegan’s Wake–all stunning!

And for sheer fun, watch a snatch of The Commitments


March 14 2008: The Day My Father Would Have Turned 90

walking home
Heart and mind swell with memories of my father. He’d be ninety today and pretty pleased about that. (Of course he was aiming for 100.) I always loved that our birthdays were exactly a week apart, separated appropriately by St. Patrick’s Day. This week right now feels unbalanced, shifted, torn open. Precisely the edge on which I should write, continuing to explore my reasons for leaving formal education while lauding the good teachers who find ways to work from the inside. I will celebrate his life, then, today by exploring this new space through writing a coda of sorts to my talks at University of Mary Washington’s Faculty Academy and at Exeter, both talks inspired by him. I write, too, with a nod, of course, to Rilke and to Kozol and to all of my students, past and present.

Blogpost to a Young Teacher

Dear M-,

Thanks for your recent email–how lovely to hear from you a good dozen years or so since you found your way into one of my courses. I do remember you well, and am glad to have played some small part in your journey to teaching though I know it is an unnerving, difficult time to be in this field. That you have reached back into your learning past to call out touches me.

I know you are surprised by my decision to leave teaching. I have received emails from teachers across the world in response to my announcement about leaving my teaching position. The solidarity of the response, the support for my move shows me that yes, we have reached a dark time indeed inside our schools. So many are feeling discouraged if not downright distraught by the lack of vision, courage and commitment to deep learning in their colleagues, their institutions and communities. But do not let my decision lead you out of your classroom. We need teachers like you. Right where you are, calling out for better, insisting on change.

From your letter, and with your permission, I excerpt the following paragraphs, for they bring home the reality of imaginative, talented, committed teachers throughout this country, and of the students they teach.


“I googled your name, with the intention of dropping you a quick e-mail, and have blissfully spent the last hour perusing your blog (while simultaneously proctoring a study hall and avoiding piles of mediocre Jane Eyre essays!). I found the experience just as compelling as I remember your classes were. Your photography is gorgeous; each image tells a story (of course), while also making me long for New England and all of its subdued, lyrical beauty. More importantly, I felt your writing, about teaching, about grading, about blogging, all spoke so clearly to me. I had at least 5 major epiphanies as I read your comments about grading, about the classroom as a collaborative space, about helping students find the time and space to think creatively, etc. etc.

“I teach 9th and 11th grade English at a prestigious, ridiculously expensive school. While I really enjoy my students and my time in the classroom with them, I find myself growing more and more frustrated by this secondary private school world and all of its constraints. As Mel Levine puts it, we, as an institution, are so concerned with college prep that we seem to have missed the boat on life prep. These [kids] are so over-programmed/over-scheduled that much of what they do is done in a rush, thus preventing much sense of depth, care, or ownership. I worry that, as part of this institution, I am part of that problem, despite all my small efforts to the contrary.

“I was also really intrigued by your discussion of the grading process. The fact that your classes create their own “rubrics” is so exciting; I immediately started thinking about how much I would love to put a similar plan into place, but how impossible that would probably be in this particular environment. Though I’ve been teaching for 9 years now, I am finding it more and more difficult to grade my students’ work, not only because it can be such a daunting (and seemingly arbitrary) task, but also because the process has become so fraught with danger. Things are so litigious that you have to document everything; when students plagiarize (which happens much more than I ever imagined the onus is on the teacher to resolve the situation. Parents have no problem e-mailing, or showing up, to question a particular grade (often because they themselves have had a large part in the paper’s construction). It’s difficult to see the forest for the trees when laden down with progress reports, maintaining websites, infinite faculty meetings, college recommendations, etc.”

M-, what a time, what a time. What madness. I worry for these kids. But before talking about shifts of the 21st century, I have to ask, has deep learning ever been found regularly in school settings? Even in elite private schools? If we’re honest? We’ve all had those remarkable teachers who managed to pull us out of the mist of mind-numbing repetitive drill and lecture and into active discussion and collaboration. We remember the great lecturers. The teachers who listened. The inspired teachers. But mostly, they were the exceptions. Mostly I remember dully competent teachers. And in my evil moments I love to remember the worst teachers– my senile third-grade teacher who would teach the same drill lessons, hand out the same worksheets repeatedly for days on end while we snickered nervously and passed notes and sank into boredom and, some of us, into rebelliousness and trouble; and the eighth-grade English teacher who kept a flask of whiskey in his top drawer, to our wonder–it helped us make sense of his absence from class when he sat right there in front of us. I’m sure you can recall the ill-placed teachers in your life, too. They’re terrific story-writing material, and that’s at least something. Many say that all it takes is one great teacher, but I find that sentiment a condemnation of our schools’ general mediocrity. Why does so much depend on a teacher’s ability to transcend the inertia, the territoriality, the fear the fear the fear embedded in our schools?

Recently I read an article in the Chronicle by Mark Edmundson that at once seemed so right on the mark–so much like my father, in fact– and so out of touch–also like my father– that it embodies for me this uneasy time and my reasons for leaving formal higher education at this juncture. He writes: “It’s this kind of dialogue, deliberate, gradual, thoughtful, that immersion in the manic culture of the Internet and Adderall conditions students not to have. The first step for the professor now is to slow his classroom down. The common phrase for what he wants to do is telling: We “stop and think.” Stop. Our students rarely get a chance to stop. They’re always in motion, always spitting out what comes first to mind, never challenging, checking, revising.”


Yes, we’re caught on the barbed wire of confusion, of unsettled, unsettling times. We blame students and their IM-ing, texting ways for their inability to focus, and yet, look at us. We have fossilized learning–taking quick impressions of the works we’re studying, rather than digging down into them to see what they’re trying to tell us. We careen through novels, plow speedily through dense texts, through labs, through lessons, taking snapshots along the way, as we prepare students not for active, thoughtful citizenship but for performance, as you point out, a mad dash to acquire higher scores, better grades, resumes, jobs, more more more. And don’t we do that with publishing, racing to conferences, getting noticed, on committees? How much attention do we really pay to our students? Deep learning strategies?

You might be surprised to learn that bgblogging, the passionate blog-based teacher, still teaches two of three class days a week in a lounge with no computer access at all, just a small portable blackboard and a circle of comfy chairs, so all we have is one another and the materials we have explored. We have to talk, to turn over and over and over again the concerns of the writer. Sometimes class discussion is quite awkward, stiff, stuttery–this is hard hard stuff. Students do not want to feel exposed. No one has asked them to talk about what they have read as writers–I’m not looking for “smart” responses; I’m looking for discovery.

I worry that Mark Edmonson’s article will be used as fodder by teachers and others who out of fear, or ignorance, dismiss the computer in learning, holding it solely responsible for the way students live “to multiply possibilities. They’re enemies of closure. For as much as they want to do and actually manage to do, they always strive to keep their options open, never to shut possibilities down before they have to.” (Edmundson) Come on. Weren’t you like that? After college I felt free to wander about Asia, move to a surfer town and then an island, get to know myself outside of school before I settled down into anything. Everything was possible. Anything. But I was not pressured by my schools, by my parents to be something I was not. Vietnam had ended years before–things were pretty easy really.

They are not now. And to turn from computers as though that will solve our classroom problems is downright reductive. We know that computers used well in education, deepen and extend and slow down the thinking, the reflecting, the connecting and the communicating–students come to see that in addition to the delights of grazing the possible, we can use the connective, collaborative practices of the Web to dig far more deeply into subject matter by moving laterally and associatively across it instead of just chronologically and hierarchically. We can say things we couldn’t before when we can use image and sound as well as text; when we can shift between screens, use hyperlinks; when our viewers participate in the writing by deciding order, elements, options and responding. Why don’t we help students harness the power of connectivity and collaborative creativity to “stop and think.” In writing blog-letters, we can learn to engage in sustained, ongoing, unfolding, emergent dialogue with one another about our subject matter. We can slow down the chatter.

Chris Dede in a recent essay, writes, “…the primary barriers to altering curricular, pedagogical, and assessment practices towards any ICT-based transformative vision are not conceptual, technical, or economic, but instead psychological, political and cultural. The largest challenges in changing schooling are people’s emotions and their almost unconscious beliefs, assumptions and values.” p. 11-12 in “Reinventing the Role of Information and Communications Technologies in Education” You’re feeling that right now.

For me, it’s time to try a different approach, one anchored in the community instead of a school, a place where I can help the people of my lived community access the new ways of connecting and creating, across all the divides that separate us from one another, and from deep creative expression and learning. You are young. You have time to work from within to help your fellow faculty, parents, administrators and students come to their senses.

I’m optimistic when I hear that students such as you have become teachers, or students such as Piya and Remy are willing to teach into a school using new ways of expression. I am optimistic when I have students over from a J-term class and I watch seven of them plan out a new online magazine that they hope will engage their peers in creative expression. It is worth it. You’ll see when you receive an email a few years down the road from one of those Jane Eyre essayists.

Be brave. Speak your mind. Model great teaching and learning. Show them how computers are not the enemy. Laugh a lot. And breathe.


Stay in touch.


Your old teacher

The Ides of March Approach


I can’t get past the lack of time and space for reflection and creativity this semester, and how detrimental it is to reel from one task to another without breathing, without taking stock, without time for humor or fun. Yesterday I started my Twitter day with a tweet about my students in need of these slow-spaces, and then while catching up with blogs and tweets, I saw examples of all kinds of people off-kilter. We’re all stressed out.

Today it’s no better. I’ve watched students filling just about every seat in the library. I should be delighted to see our splendid space so well used, kids with books and all, but I suspect it isn’t about deep, sustained learning at all. In other words, the Ides of March and midterms coincide rather nicely around here.

The students in the library look sickly, tired, stressed out.
In class they look sickly, tired and stressed out.
In conference they look sickly, tired, and stressed out.

Even when I try to help my students to develop reflective and creative practices by giving them ample space and time and encouragement, they look at me wanly, smiling fondly, knowingly, as if to an uncomprehending child–and then, as though against their will, they let all the many demands on their time poach that quiet, creative space. They apologize. And get more stressed out.

So the question is–a conundrum–how, under these circumstances, do I help them find reflective, creative slow-space (which is by its very nature open-ended and ongoing) if I do not specify how, exactly, and when, through actual teacher-directed and evaluated assignments?

A tweet this morning by Nathan Rein, asks about his stressed-out students, why they care so much about grades when they will hardly matter down the road. We all know that it is a downward spiral, the relationship between stress and grades–students cramming and writing furiously–for ALL of their classes at once, but separately, carving their days into “If it’s 10:00, it must be chemistry; if it’s 11:00, it must be sociology.” They didn’t have time to vote. But we don’t stop. We stick to our midterms and our papers. We are deeply complicit in this frazzed-out state of affairs. At what cost?

To address the stress-grades-lack-of-creative-risk-taking problem in my own classroom, a long time ago I realized that in concert with creating space within the syllabus for deep thinking and creativity, I had to rethink evaluation altogether. Whereas I had always threaded community-building and critical-thinking development and effective writing processes and formative evaluation into my courses, I struggled with meaningful summative evaluation. And so, I stopped grading individual papers, stories or assignments in favor of more holistic unit portfolios, which in those days I did grade, based on narrative reflections the students wrote to self-evaluate, and my external evaluation of their work. I blogged the details of this method of grading a couple of years ago.

With the shift to subject-centered, collaborative, connective learning practices, I had to change this locus of control. Over the past couple of years, as I have gained confidence in a fluid, open, connective teaching and learning classroom, I have thrown all interim grades out of my courses. I no longer grade those unit portfolios, because while that method freed students up from the stress of a graded paper or story, it kept me as the evaluator who counted, and put too much emphasis on work produced too early in the course–before they had the full learning experience to draw from. I had been the one to establish the rubrics for grading; I took their comments into account, and their self-reflections, but ultimately it was up to me to tell them how they had done. Such an approach was counterproductive–while we worked hard to create a model built on reciprocal apprenticeships, students still leaned on me, much more than as an experienced expert who could guide, mentor and model, but in ways that detracted, I felt, from their ability to find their own ways creatively and critically. It was as though they couldn’t tell whether they were learning unless I told them so. It was as though they couldn’t learn without me. Baloney.

Over the past couple of years, I have developed an evaluation process inspired by my colleague, Hector Vila, and his hybrid system of giving frequent, pointed formative feedback and then having the students propose and defend a grade at the end of the semester. I do something somewhat similar: we grade as a conversation. My classes build the grading rubrics and approaches together, carefully considering the aims of the course and the individual learner, and base them on process and product, and the fact that students have access to models of good writing and bad on previous course blogs archived and linked off the Motherblog.

Here’s a rough sketch of the process at work (it varies of course from class to class):

1. In the Course Overview, under Grading, I write:

The following system both allows you to experiment wildly and requires you to take three pieces of writing from first inklings to completion:


We will develop a grading rubric together during the semester.
You will each write an ongoing narrative reflection about your learning and progress in the course, keeping these standards in mind. At the end of each of the units you will write a unit reflection and meet with bg to discuss your progress based on the standards from our rubric. At the end of semester, you will write a final, hypertext narrative self-evaluation and present your work, including a proposed final grade to bg in a one-on-one conference much as people do in performance evaluations out in the work world.

We discuss this system briefly during the opening class. I also ask them to write letters to the class introducing themselves and telling us about their histories as writers. I open the final week of the semester by giving them copies of these letters to read, and asking them to write to that self who wrote the first letter. In other words, I open the ending by circling right back to the beginning.

2. Three or so weeks into the semester, once they are comfortably situated and beginning to come together as a community, we talk about grades generally and how to recognize excellence in this particular course. We discuss what we should value in their work and why. They share past grading experiences, and I ask how many have had bad grading moments (as opposed to bad grades). Everyone raises a hand. In fact, we did just this in class today–here is the board-scribble charting that first step:
Opening the Evaluation Conversation
Today, after coming up with the areas for evaluation and the evaluators, we stopped. I asked them to think over what we discussed, and to be ready in a week to propose percentages to assign Effort, Improvement, Risk and Quality and how we’ll use grades to assess these areas. We talked about when should they evaluate themselves, and when should they have external evaluators, and whether they wanted to/should evaluate one another after having worked so closely together and providing one another with ongoing feedback. In past semesters, some groups have opted to give one another a “feedback evaluation” (not a grade) as to how responsive and effective they had been on the blogs and in workshop.

3. Over the course of two-three weeks, we continue the conversation in short bursts, 10-15 minutes of class time on a couple of days. Some readers might recoil from this expenditure of precious class time, but I have found it an incredibly beneficial use of our time. We get to talk about what we’re learning here and why. They ground the bits of the course within the context of the greater learning goals, and they take ownership of their process and progress. Suddenly, grades are not quite so evil. (I’d prefer to go through the process without the grade part, but my hands are tied on that score.) In my experience, the quality of the work improves, the students are happier, and the learning endures. And the grading is fair.

Notes from our grading discussions in a first-year seminar this past fall:

<img src=”http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2041/1544663302_598de46f93_m.jpg” width=”240″ height=”180″ alt=”grading” / gradingelements


4. Feedback. Students give one another ongoing constructive feedback (I put them in 6-person feedback loop groups, changing the groups with each unit), and receive it from me, and from our course tutors, seniors who have taken this course with me. I assign the class the tutors’ writing from when they took the course–they can see that even th tutors weren’t necessarily so skilled or confident at creative writing when they started. I cannot understand how we expect students to learn how to produce work reflective of their learning if we never show them models of whatever kind of work this is in our courses. Why do students read professional writing only? My students have available a wealth of examples through the archived course blogs (seven years’ worth). They write hypertext narrative reflections at the end of each of four units, and then meet with me one-one-one in conference to discuss their progress.

Two posts ago (back in November), I wrote the following:

“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?”

5. At the end of the semester students write a hypertext reflective narrative of their journey through the course, taking into account the initial letter they wrote, as a marker from which to explore their learning. They propose a grade based on the grading rubrics and guidelines, which they defend in a one-on-one conference with me. I evaluate their work as well, and we come up with a course grade together. Sometimes, but not usually, a student and I will initially disagree on the grade, but through the course of the discussion, we reach consensus. It is always a wonderful experience for them to trace the journey to me, with me.

At the end of last semester, I posted an entry with excerpts from my students’ final reflections as they took stock of the entire process, grades and all.

This kind of ongoing feedback looping and close bonding makes the end of the semester tough on the first-years, in particular, but for good reasons. I wrote the following reflection at the end of the seminar:

“My first-years, most of whom were accustomed to year-long courses, felt the end of their first semester writ large as a strange, unsettling flurry of final papers and exams and then DONE. OVER. MOVE ON. How strange to have bonded so closely, so intensely with fourteen other students and a teacher in a first-year seminar and twelve weeks later know that you’ll never all be in class together again. This is a huge tension in my way of teaching which encourages students to integrate this course into their lives instead of shoe-boxing it. It makes the end potentially wrenching, and so the process of collaborative grading needs to bring a measure of closure to the experience while encouraging ongoing exploration and application of the learning to their lives.”

And so on I go, searching for ways to foster learning that matters to students, that endures and encourages contemplation, creativity, and fun. And I’m going to make sure I keep balance in mind for myself, too.

Voting Today in A Vermont Village After Teaching

As much as I love my students, I scolded them soundly today. I don’t know why I was so shocked when over half said they weren’t voting in the primary, and some weren’t intending to vote in the general election either. They couldn’t understand my dismay. They didn’t see the big deal–their feeling of disconnection from the political process was stunning. Perhaps because I have recently pushed myself out of my higher ed torpor to take a stand about how I intend to participate in a more inclusive, cross-cultural, community-intensive educational process, I am taking pretty hard their rejection of any stand about their country’s future.

It’s unimaginable to me to be 18, 19 or 20 and NOT vote. It was what turning 18 was all about! Even when I have been unhappy with the choices, I have worked hard to participate in campaigns, conversations, and always always always to vote. I’ve written in candidates from time to time when the choices were too grim to consider, but I’ve been there in the booth, pencil in hand.

I urged my students at least–if they couldn’t bring themselves to vote for a presidential candidate, if they really could see no difference between the lot of them–to make sure they voted for local, state and national legislators as well as all those school board members trying to make a difference. And to think about running for office themselves if they didn’t like the state of things.

As I drove through town past the stream of Obama and Clinton campaign signs listing in rapidly melting snowbanks, I thought some more about my students’ response. What would get them to get excited about participating in their democracy, these students at a school of considerable influence and privilege? By the time I finally arrived at our town clerk’s office at around 4:00, I had missed the famous pie sale—probably a good thing– but overheard the town clerk say that over 300 of our 630 registered voters had preceded me into our small booths. I thought of my students, too, in that moment as my eye fell on my daughter’s name on the Voter List along with the check and note, Absentee Ballot, next to it.

In the wee booth I saved the democratic primary ballot for last, moving through the green, blue and yellow local ballots first–the names of those running representing people I know, my neighbors and friends. Those votes were easy to make. Then I turned to the final sheet. The names, “Hillary Clinton” and “Barak Obama,” on the white ballot hit me in a way that even all the talk, the reading, the campaigning had not–these two names signify such a shift, such a promise: that a woman–a woman!– could be a serious contender for the White House, finally; that a black man with a name that conjures up visions of an open, multicultural society could be surging to the head of the pack–well, I was just about overwhelmed right in that tiny booth behind the red-white-and-blue curtain. And I voted. With relish.


Thursday I’ll go into class and talk again about voting–I’ll show them my little “I voted” sticker, and tease them a bit. Then we’ll explore ways that the deep, compelling creativity they are unveiling in this course can push them beyond our walls and into the community, and even how it can can help them envision participating in the political processes of their times. Just imagine what kinds of names might be on ballot by the time they’re my age–I’d like to know that they had a hand in it.

Why Open A Creative Writing Course with Multimedia Experiments

How many creative writing courses include multimedia writing? Hypertext writing? How many creative writing/English departments (in small liberal arts colleges, at least) include multimedia writing courses at all? Do all painting classes insist on students grinding their paints? Do all photography classes insist on film-cameras only? Do dance departments insist on all-ballet-all-the-time? Shouldn’t students have a range of experiences? Shouldn’t we encounter the tools of the time, the full range of the art of the time at some point in the curriculum? Shouldn’t we move out of our comfort zones and play?


Three weeks into creative writing class, a course that the students, when they signed up, had no idea would pull them into multimedia writing (all sections of Introduction to Creative Writing carry the same generic description, and no other section involves writing beyond text-on-paper), and already I am in awe of my students’ creative daring and their willingness to move into expressive terrain new to them as writers. Yes, they have a lot of experience looking at media–at multimedia, and writing–essays and poems and stories and shards of things in their journals or on Facebook; some of them have tried out a movie, many have taken pictures. But few have actually actively explored multimedia as an avenue for creative writing as viable as straight-up text-based creative nonfiction, fiction or poetry. Many of them, in their reflective blogging, even admit to some early consternation about multimedia and blogging being a part of a creative writing course at all. They are surprising themselves by how much they have learned about story and narrative and structure and voice–all traditional concerns of the writer, by moving outside the confines of words alone. It happens every semester.

in the kitchen, february

So why blog about this moment of the semester again? After all, I’ve been peppering the Twittersphere almost daily with my delight and astonishment over the discoveries; over the years here I have blogged repeatedly about how if you just help students open the window beyond what they thought it was okay to do in school, they would astonish you and themselves and anyone watching with their inventiveness, their intelligence, their boldness, their desire to reach down into their deepest creative recesses. I have long opened my courses with a multimedia unit. What’s different this semester is the quality and range of these early projects, the use of Web-based tools and the willingness to shake their own need to be right, to be good, to be, well, best. Most of them have also forgiven me for NOT being a famous writer. They are peeling away the layers of preconceived notions about being in a creative writing course in a school known for creative writing. And wow…

We spent the first three weeks exploring image and sound and text, individually and integrated. We played, we looked, we played, we listened, we played, we talked.


And then I set them loose to create a multimedia piece that expressed something they felt they had to express, something that was not merely dazzling but meaningful. I urged them to consider the emotional as well as narrative arcs of their work; to think about entrances, exits and the terror of the middle; how the piece has to do more than exert their own fascination with their experience. It has to matter. And they had to make discoveries in the process. Or as Robert Frost put it, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”

This group of 17 used all kinds of media and each other to extend their toolset, their subject matter, their creativity, their understanding. They truly taught one another and themselves and me.

One student is making an installation; some used audio/image, some text/image, some audio/text/image; lots of iMOVIE, some hypertext, slides–we used no college server, few expensive high-end tools. It was scary. Frustrating. Yet already they have stretched themselves to consider themselves as writers both in traditional ways–hunkering down with words on paper, and in emerging ways–exploring the ways in which words, images, and sound can come together on the computer screen or in a gallery space.

Here’s just a narrow sampling, including reflections (check out their individual blogs for more):

A project that lifts iMovie to new heights: Memory plus Kyle’s reflection–a first in this course–on Voicethread

A project using music as effectively and essentially as image and text:Imagine a Little Girl

Another use of image, text and voiceover: Shira And from her Reflection:

That is what multimedia has taught me. Know your story and know the tool you wish to shape it with. Because we have more options, we also have a greater responsibility – obligation, almost – to choose the best media, present our story exactly as it should be presented. As writers of the twenty-first century, we should know our alternatives and learn how to use the multitude of media available to us. If we choose to peel a potato with an axe, we should do so not out of ignorance at using the potato-peeler, but out of knowledge that the final effect, as well as the process, is the one we are after.

A project containing the student’s paintings: Catharsis

A dramatic narrative playing with voice, text and image Laura Lying (in the lane) plus reflection–excerpt here:

That being said, this has been an awkward unit for me. While I’m more willing to “put myself out there” in a realm where perfection has not yet been defined and creativity is key, it is still tricky to try to navigate through the world of electronics with words. I’ll admit that I was displeased when I learned that I was going to be blogging and creating a multimedia project in my writing class. I was set for the traditional write-my-piece-get-it-critiqued-do-a-rewrite-hand-it-in-for-comment-by-the-professor course. After the first couple of days, however, I saw that this wasn’t a unit focused on my technological prowess (or lack thereof) at all. To me it has become about physically expressing the images and sounds that I already see and hear through my words. The same agonizing decisions one always faces over word choice were made and then they had to be followed by additional agonizing over how to give visual and audio expression to those fragile sentiments without jeopardizing their integrity. It isn’t easy, but it’s an excellent exercise in awareness that I believe I will take with me into the upcoming units. I think perhaps the disquieting nature of this unit is precisely what I needed to remind me not to get too adjusted to what I “know” – writing is a never-ending pursuit that does not take kindly to comfort.

Hypertext project using only image and sound and her reflection.

Using picnik.com and Slideshare:

The Middle of Nowhere

As we move into creative-nonfiction-with-words-only, we’ll see how working on screens has an impact on working on the page. Of course, several students have already asked if they can use multimedia. I say vague things about rules, and about breaking rules.


I will miss this…