From Outside the Walls: In Search of Form and Meaning in Extreme Times

Be forewarned, this post is more of a personal reflective narrative about where I find myself than an exploration of ideas and practices of our times, so if you don’t like that sort of thing, go ahead, bow out now. 😉

My blog, morphing into an open laboratory, will include some messier-than-in-the-past posts about my doubts, my stumbling, my questions as much as my usual kinds of posts examining theory and practice of learning in our times as they play out in my world. I am not necessarily comfortable in this looser writing terrain –the risks are high–and thus I have stayed off blog more than on for the past months as I find my way. But enough of being careful. Blogging is about thinking and sharing boldly, sometimes half-baked thoughts–it is about learning and growing through the conversation, not always offering clear substance or demonstrating command or authority. Yikes. How did I forget that?

Okay, onward:

foggy ipswich morning

I have been fortunate to know summer as deep, slow quiet feathered between spring’s cacophony and fall’s exuberant re-embrace of the classroom. Wending my way through the weeks taking pictures, writing, gardening, playing, dreaming, traveling, cooking seems as natural and necessary as engaging in intense creative collaborations during the “school year.” The very bounded nature of that time invites its expansiveness, its dreaminess–it is luxurious precisely because it has limits, tensions, oppositions. The form poem. The classroom at its best.

into the kitchen

Even though it is summer, I miss acutely that beauty in what I have just left: the passion and optimism of my students, and what great teachers on my old campus, the Hector Vilas and John Elders, inspire in them. John’s recent comment sent me back to my old world:

“But I feel that such tension–between what Dave Smith calls desire and dailiness–can itself itself intensify our awareness of what’s really important. Contrast-value can be essential to staying awake. When I think back to recent classes on “Michael” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” or to class trips to hear Jean Ritchie sing or to climb Mt. Abe, I feel grateful to Middlebury for offering an educational structure from which these experiences of a life-time blasted off.

I guess my conclusion is that, while traditional institutions and structures can be oppressive, they can (and must) also be enlivened. Curricula, theology, and law can slump into dead weights indeed, but when overtaken by discovery, grace, and compassion can start to breathe again. And to dance.”

lotus dance

He’s so right. He describes the beauty of the classroom. Those of us lucky enough to have had such extraordinary experiences as I did when I studied with John in graduate school or as Gardner Campbell did draw daily inspiration from such teachers in our own work. Unlike Matt Crosslin* (Note added 8/20/08: please see the follow-up comments for a correction of this statement–sorry Matt for misreading your earlier comment!), I don’t think great classrooms are common at all. Too many teachers do not go beyond the comfortable syllabus, the safe lecture, the composed practice, in part because of systemic realities such as Leslie points out within even some of our finest large universities. What a shocking disregard for the deeper purposes of an education, of the sort John described in his response to me.

But he is exceptional. And just who has access to such an experience, to such a teacher? Too few. Too few. Even in a small college. The liberal arts college environment is too soft, too privileged, too disconnected from the actual messy classroom of the world–at least it is right now, at least in my experience. There are other ways, and I believe, better ways–especially now– to unlock the potential of our best selves, within the contact zones of a messier place than a traditional institution of higher education.

A place without clear summers, perhaps. Like this one. It is not quiet. It is not silent.

graffitti art montreal

I face nothing finite on the other end except for the end of summer itself, something subtly insinuating itself into the fields with the massing of swallows on the wires, the fading of the fawn’s spots, the empty nests, the yellowing fields. There’s no human-made marker, no school shaping the movement of time and responsibility and endeavor. I have walked beyond the sheltering walls of formal education and into the chaos of the world of messy, participatory learning. It is quite a feeling.

in a window, montreal

Could this be creative free-fall? Living the free-verse poem? Of the sort I tell my students to expect when they enter our learning community and have to feel their way as a group and as individuals through the labyrinth of possibility? What lovely irony. I’ve left the classroom to find the classroom, a truly participatory one in which I am as much apprentice as expert, as often confused as inspired, angry as delighted. How will the small centers I plan help communities if Obama loses the election and we continue as a country along this hellacious, divisive path? If we do not apply ourselves immediately to the urgent environmental crises of our time?

How do I find patience in this extreme time?

in the fray

I am awkward outside of school. My passion can overwhelm as much as inspire. A vision that seems so straightforward to me is easily misread, filtered through what is assumed and already experienced rather than what is possible. I have much to learn.

brilliance in a japanese garden pond

A big challenge is finding a way to articulate simply, clearly and sensibly a practical vision for centers devoted to creativity, collaboration and reciprocal apprenticeships within our lived-in small communities. How difficult that is when people naturally read through the spectacles of known context and experience–how do you describe something that hasn’t quite existed before, at least not quite as I am imagining? I am searching for form.

foraging in the Chinese garden pool

Even as I struggle with the words I am laughing at myself for not walking the walk. When I whined a bit on Twitter recently about having trouble with the mission statement, Steve Greenlaw suggested I post it and get feedback. Up until now I have done that but only kinda sorta–I have let people directly involved in the project onto the pages-in-process. Now I am considering making the entire process transparent and collaborative by blogging the draft mission and vision statements (and naming ideas), the turns in the road.

No more shyness or fear of failure.

vive montreal


12 Responses

  1. I’ve been having some writer’s block too as of late, when there was none a while back. Either turning into a dull boy or caring too much about the consequence — probably the latter but it feels like the former.

    I suggest something different from Steve. Forget the Mission Statement for now. Try to produce some example of what you’d like to see coming from your Center. Aim for something small. Then do it again. Once you’ve got an example that pleases the rest should be a piece of cake. 🙂


    I was surprised to hear you embrace Obama, but considering the alternative maybe it’s not such a puzzle.

  2. Did I say that great classrooms are common? I should take that back. I think I would say that decent classrooms are common, questionable and classes are a little more prevalent than they should be, and great classes are there and in greater numbers than most people give them credit for. there really hasn’t been much hard research out there on this subject. I think their needs to be – both from the teachers perspective and the student perspective.

    I would also say that Science education is not the only education that is “open, fluid, and pretty exploratory.” Art and Music Education is ten times more so hands on than Science of any kind. Computer Science and some forms of Engineering are still somewhat lecture based still lean heavily towards the hands on fluid side. Language study, Nursing and most health/medical-related fields, theater and communication, and social work are all fields that have massive hands-on components – if not total immersion in your field. I think I have just covered nearly half the majors at the University I work for! I could also give a long list of majors that are lecture-intensive by default. Some that have to be – like Mathematics or History. But many others don’t have to be. I think we need to call for a change in those areas that need the changing. Shouldn’t Business be more hands on than lecture based?

  3. I need to edit better before I submit. That one sentence in the first paragraph should read “questionable and bad classes are way more prevalent than they should be” and that sentence in the second paragraph should read “Computer Science and some forms of Engineering are still somewhat lecture based BUT still lean heavily towards the hands on fluid side.” At least, those were the thoughts in my head while I was typing……

  4. Lanny, Matt–thanks for your comments. This was a post I figured would be left alone by readers as it didn’t really get anywhere, so I appreciate that it got at least somewhere. 😉

    Lanny, I have to produce a mission statement in order to secure 501 (c)3 status and funding. I am working on a couple of interesting projects in communities right now, but it is the physical center itself, I think, that needs to be in place for this work to be anything but disjointed, I’m interested in the relationship of PLACE to fluid learning communities, and so I’m going to keep honing the language until I get it right!

    As for Obama–I’m surprised that you’re surprised that I not only endorse him but heartily so. Obama isn’t perfect (though maybe his wife is…)–our system makes certain of that–but he’s got the gumption and vision and perspective and intelligence –and the ability to collaborate– to move us from the brink of disaster in terms of foreign policy, the environment, education, health care, and our whole sense of ourselves in the world. There are politicians I like better: Vermont’s own Bernie Sanders (a Socialist in the Senate, imagine) is fabulous as is our Pat Leahy on most issues, and Paul Wellstone was inspirational, but we are a country so ruled by the agenda of big money that it is simply amazing and fills me with hope that we actually have a choice in this election, A real choice.

    I am no Hillary lover by the way–that she was on the board of Walmart and a Goldwater Girl much less in league with Bill took her off my list long ago. No, actually, she was never on my list.

    Matt, it’s so interesting that you followed up with this comment, for I truly read your response to my previous post as an endorsement of what’s going on in classrooms right now, that you saw more good than bad in them, and now that I reread your comment again, I see that I jumped to some conclusions there. I will right it in my post. I apologize! I also agree that science is not the only place where such an approach is happening–I was speaking about the core subjects in a more K-12 way. And in my former world- a traditional, liberal arts college where lecture/discussion rules, I do not think that Math or History or Political Science or Philosophy or Economics need or should be lecture-driven at all.

    But I would still contend that even in science, even in language, even in many of those examples you cite–music and art, for instance,–there is a tendency for the teacher to control far too much of what goes on in the room, the assignments, the outcomes, the discussion. Even in classrooms that profess to be student-centered the teacher is often squarely in the center of everything, the hands-on exercises and group projects often canned in that they are contoured carefully for particular results; they are repetitive (brain researchers contend that to retain information or processes, learners need to experience it in many different ways, not just again an again in the same way, even if that is a hands-on simulation). Sometimes controlled experiments and exercises are important to be sure–but if that’s what students get even half the time day after day, class after class, year after year after year, how numbing, how destructive of creativity and independent thinking and the development of what Lanny calls “intelligent guessing” in a recent post,
    . No wonder it takes so long for my students to awaken their creativity and to trust themselves as being able to think for themselves when they arrive in my class.

    No, I do not have reams of research I have conducted on this score, but I have seen many classrooms across all kinds of institutions, all over the world, and now all over the blogosphere. I;ve read deeply in the literature. Yes, there are exemplary teachers, classrooms and schools. Yes. But not nearly enough–read Rob Freid’s book, The Game of School, for starters, on that score.

    And I would question students needing to be in schools at all as much as they are required to be; I’d like to see teens spending half their time applying their learning through social service, community-based real-world projects that take thought, collaboration, commitment, knowledge and TIME, lots of time stretching over weeks and months, not class periods. I would also throw out textbooks altogether except as reference materials in online versions.

    Thanks for the continued discussion, both of yo. It is wonderful to be pushed.

  5. Barbara – this is a sidebar. When you visited here it was still a few months before the Iowa Caucuses and you made some remark to the effect that Obama didn’t have enough experience, but perhaps that was just to draw me out on my views, which are these. I like Obama for his thoughtful and well considered approach to the issues. I’m frightened by how much money he has raised, much of it coming from big donors, and what the quid pro quo is in that exchange. And I’m confused on the question of whether the so called 24 hour news cycle and constant media bombardment means we can’t have a real discussion of the issues or if Obama simply lacks the skill to create a sustained conversation on the economic issues. BTW, the upcoming NYT Sunday Magazine has a featured piece on Obama’s economic views. It is quite a good read, but is not something that comes across at all in his ads or in the typical news shows.


    I get it now on the mission statement. Perhaps there is some mileage to be had in considering the negation of place. Are the members of the community like the students you fear have been overly exposed to predictable environments?

  6. Well, I can use an example from Art. I am actually certified to teach art hear in Texas. I took many art classes. They were hands-on, of course, and yes – the teacher was really in control and not letting us do whatever we wanted. That was the only way to truly release our creativity. I know that doesn’t make sense. But I spent most of my life trying to figure out how to get the images that were in my head down on to paper, failing miserably. I read books, went to galleries, did all that self-guided stuff. When I got in to college, I was one of the ones that listened to the instructor and did what they said. And my art flourished like crazy. Because I was disciplined enough to listen to an expert and learn the rules. There were plenty of fellow students that ignored the input and lessons from the instructor – and their art truly ended up sucking big time. And they were frustrated with it.

    You see, the classroom, to me, is not always the place to explore our creativity. It is sometimes the place to get down and dirty and learn the basics and laws and listen to the experts so we can gain the tools to become creative. But there has to be balance.

    One of best and hardest art classes was 2-D design. I remember that we had to created a color wheel. Not the 12 color basic thing ( – the 256 color deal with the shades and tint spectrums on both sides. Oh – and we had to create this with only the basic colors and black and white paint tubes – mixing everything. That was so hard – and the instructor was very specific on what we had to do and what we had to make. I had one of the better ones in class and got a C. And everyone claimed that this whole class was stifling their creativity and such – but I took a watercolor painting class from this professor over the summer and was amazed at how much my skill had grown. And he was very flexible in how we did things. We basically drove to a farm or some other interesting place on Monday and took pictures of everything, got them developed over night, came back on Tuesday, picked whatever picture we wanted to paint – and then had the rest of the week to paint it how ever we wanted. Needless to say – I was very happy with some of the results ( But it took both discipline/teacher control and creativity/freedom to get to that point. I could read all the books I wanted and not go anywhere until I had someone looking over my shoulder saying “that is wrong, that is right.”

  7. Oh yeah – I tend to be on the glass is half full side too often, so I was thinking that I might have said there are more good classrooms than bad. But, just because I think that most classrooms are mediocre (after all, we all do learn something somewhere along the way – I didn’t teach myself how to write, read, spell, etc) – doesn’t mean that I think we need to be okay with that.

  8. Fabulous musings from outside the walls and … exquisite image poetry… what a very insightful eye you have!

  9. Lanny,

    I love this question you post at the end of your more recent comment: “Are the members of the community like the students you fear have been overly exposed to predictable environments?” I think you’re onto something there. As we encounter so much stimulation in our lives, a bombardment of information–and I do not mean just from our computer screens– (and I find myself guilty of this, too) I wonder how much real attention we pay to what we see and read and hear. We scan for the known, the understood, the expected and often respond accordingly. It is a wonderfully fascinating (and at times frustrating) experience trying to explain to people this idea for something that hasn’t existed as far as I know except for in the punkish realm of DIY movements such as the Tinkers Workshop ( It is an excellent exercise in saying-what-I-mean exactly and yet simply.

    Great example of when a teacher or expert can make all the difference in a learning moment. And I think you’re right about the balance between freedom and restraint; I had my students write without words, or only use a certain number or no adjectives–having them understand the raw materials of language; and we would write to strict forms as well, to understand what they offer us as writers, why they exist at all.

    Thanks for your comment!

  10. bg,
    forgive me for breaking into this beautiful reverie and dreamlike composition to ask something mundane. I was given your name by a teacher I found on the web with a blog on “paperless grading”. My students are posting their writings as blogs and I need to give them feedback. Can you point me in the right direction? Please feel free to use my email.
    Thank you for the beautiful images and prose.

  11. Lynda,

    You need not apologize at all–you have joined the larger conversation of this blog: each post is just a quick glimpse, a fragment. of something sprawling, discursive (and recursive). It is a bit frustrating not to have a decent place for the question that doesn’t seem to fit the blog’s current moment, I know.

    As for feedback, I do not like to give my students feedback on blog except when I am trying to model or to suggest something to the full class. I like to participate when a conversation gets going and many class members have already jumped into the fray. I am in the minority in this; many of my blogging colleagues give their students feedback on almost every post by responding on blog or by keeping a system of accountability (number of posts and responses, feedback from the rest of the class on the blogger’s contributions). I feel that if I enter the conversation too soon, it becomes all about me and what I think and know. They write therefore to please me instead of to say something they need to say about what we are engaging with in the course. I also want them to evaluate themselves–to gain expertise in recognizing the differences in quality of posts according to the aim,, and to take responsibility for their work by evaluating it.

    I have written quite extensively on my blog about this:
    Assessing Multimedia Composition
    Evaluating Work on the Blog

    I hope these help! I’ve also written about building course rubrics with the students:
    And more generally about blogs as ePortfolios (The links out don’t work on this one–I’m still trying to fix that problem).

    You can also click on my category, Assessment, to find more.

    Good luck with your classroom blogging adventure!


  12. […] are just dreaming. How could anyone make such a transition in THESE times? I like this post “From Outside the Walls: In Search of Form and Meaning in Extreme Times” because it exemplifies the way we need to give ourselves permission to explore and learn about […]

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