Getting Ready for SXSW: Thinking Aloud

disappearing act

This coming Sunday, I will be joining Dave Lester, Gardner Campbell, Stephen Downes and Jim Groom on the Edupunk Panel at SXSW–wow, what a line-up they are–to chime in as one who left formal education to try a different approach to teaching and learning. To prepare, I’m listening to Janis Joplin (childhood), Joni Mitchell and Neil Young (high school) Patti Smith (college years), Ani deFranco (now) –(“i speak without reservation from what i know and who i am. i do so with the understanding that all people should have the right to offer their voice to the chorus whether the result is harmony or dissonance, the worldsong is a colorless dirge without the differences that distinguish us, and it is that difference which should be celebrated not condemned. should any part of my music offend you, please do not close your ears to it. just take what you can use and go on.”)

All offer me lessons in moving across media, across boundaries, across voices while speaking out, while acting.

from inside the barn

In some ways I am an odd duck here as I am no longer edu-anything. I am not working with schools to shift their approaches to teaching and learning–I’m interested in what we can teach-and-learn without schools as we know them now. I’m working with five rural communities to help them design storytelling projects as a way for them to honor and learn from the past, understand the present, and to create actively across community divides, the future. I’m also dreaming up centers for community digital learning as third places where kids, elders, and everyone in-between can offer and take workshops/discussions/seminars–whatever they decide–to explore new media/social media practices and their impact on community life and learning.

winter dream

I spent some 25 years teaching– at the secondary school, community college, and liberal arts college levels. I grew up inside a school. I have children who have journeyed through public and private educational institutions, one who never wants to go back to school now that she has graduated summa cum laude/ phi beta cappa from a prestigious college, and one who attends a progressive college within a five-college consortium and currently taking classes at four colleges. I am passionate about learning. I thought I knew a thing or two about teaching-within-the-confines-of-a-school-as-writing-a-sonnet. Some of the particulars about those years of which I was especially proud:

  • Embracing the creative process as fundamental to deep learning. In creative writing courses, my students would dance or drum their poems, or make play-dough versions of stories, or use color only to plot a narrative, and write image-only stories as well as write multimedia narratives and essays. We talked about writing counter to our well-worn inclinations, as a way to surprise ourselves out of our ruts–clipping bits and pieces of stories to actual clotheslines, for instance, and walking about inside the characters’ lives, for instance. I encouraged students to employ these processes in all of their writing, across the disciplines. I thought of myself as disruptor
  • Believing in less-is-more. To watch my daughter valiantly try to read over 600 pages a week just to fulfill her assignments–and she loves every one of her classes, at least what they purport to be and do–makes me furious. What of all this mass of reading will she think deeply about? Will she retain? She is a docent at one of the college museums, making podcasts of conversations about the works of art, writing the actual catalogues and captions–learning about art through being in art. None of her classes has her engaged in such learning. Not one departs from the read-discuss-test-write cycle. Only one course my other daughter ever took at her college departed from that cycle–the only course she loved. Why do faculty continue to assign ever more reading/tests/writing–now adding blogging, online discussions to the pile instead of ditching this approach altogether
  • Viewing every class group as a community experiment. I put in place the opening strokes of a syllabus and then we built the course together from there–how did I know what they would want and need to learn? How presumptuous and arrogant that sort of teacher-as-sole-course-designer stance is, how infantilizing of our students. In designing the course, they had to think about what it was they didn’t know and wanted to know and how we might go about engaging with those things. Did they like this approach–no way, not at first. Some thought I was out of my mind; others that I was lazy; others that I didn’t know what I was doing. They were placing the responsibility for their education on me. In preparation for them to place responsibility for their towns, states, country and world in the hands of others, yes
  • Grading as an opportunity for the class to come together and decide on how they would succeed in their learning journey–what excellence might look like at their novice level, how they would evaluate their work together and as individuals, and what role I could play to help them
  • All classrooms as having windows wide open. We invited subject-specific experts, casual readers, our families and friends–everyone and anyone– into our courses via blogs. We learned to engage with a range of people on the topics we had set out to explore. We learned to engage with one another intensely yet respectfully under the gaze of the public. Sometimes we failed, and we learned from those glorious failures
  • Indeed, we saw deep learning as willing to take risks, to experience glorious failure. The goal was to try to do things we couldn’t already do.

marvel of nature

Sounds pretty good, yes? I thought so. Ha.

I have never learned so much about teaching and learning; about systems and institutions; about active, deep engagement and participation–about reciprocal apprenticeships and Do-it-Yourself learning ; about the power of less-is-more; about the damaging effects of the cult of the charismatic teacher; about creativity’s role in learning–as I have in the nine months since I left school.

Some early lessons I might offer on Sunday that on surface do not sound edupunkish at all but on closer look are, I believe, profoundly subversive where we’re talking about school:

  • Even less is even more. Slowing down, being playful, laughing, going deep. School has programmed us to expect outcomes, tangible results, blueprints to follow, measurable results. We skim, skate and race across the surfaces. What a waste of time. Effort. Energy. What has happened to common sense, on the one hand, and to a spirit of wandering, on the other. Why do teachers make up syllabi (I do not make up community storytelling project plans)? Why do teachers continue to grade (I do not evaluate the outcomes of the storytelling projects–I evaluate my own work)?
  • Belonging. How essential a concept that is, with its spiral meaning. Belonging to the moment, the group/network/community, the experience; and they belonging to us. Peter Block writes about belonging in his book, Community: The Structure of Belonging: “It is membership, the experience of being at home in the broadest sense of that phrase…To belong to a community is to act as a creator and co-owner of that community. What I consider mine I will build and nurture.” (p. xii) Take responsibility. How can we expect students to do so if we are constantly telling them what to do, what to read, what to think and how?
  • Engage our full creative selves in every learning situation. If we privilege textual expression, we lose fundamental ways of understanding, connecting and bridging. I’ve learned a good deal from watching Nancy White in action, her journey into non-verbal approaches to understanding, communication, and creative thinking
  • Listen. Listen some more. Patience balanced by impatience. Sitting still and moving fast. Daring to try, daring to refuse.

As I deepen my work with communities engaged in the Orton Family Foundation’s Heart and Soul storytelling projects, I see how powerful paths are, and how well-worn paths soon become ruts. And I’m talking about my own approaches here, about moving beyond verbal language to the visual and kinesthetic while refusing to offer easy scaffolds, blueprints, recipes for success.

Here, for example, is the wiki from my most recent four-hour workshop. Note the absolute absence of slides–I never turned on the computer during the workshop–released from computers when we’re together; using them actively when we’re apart.

“What do we know but that we face
One another in this place.”

(from WB Yeats “Man and the Echo” beautifully remembered by Gardner Campbell at the end of the final edupunk-talk video with Jim Groom)

into the snowy curve


13 Responses

  1. Somehow I just experienced you as soaring on birds wings as I read this Barbara. I so deeply hope many of the young spirits at SXSW find you, connect with you, slow down with you.

    It has been for me in the past a sensory overload, a fast moving kaleidoscope that was so intense I had to step back and hide every now and again to regain my center.

    I look forward to hearing how the adventure goes. I hope you find the joy in every step of it.

    • Thanks, Nancy–I will make sure I keep a measured pace there, remembering my words here about less-is-more. If I felt that NV was overwhelming, then, oh boy–SXSW!

  2. “School has programmed us to expect outcomes, tangible results, blueprints to follow, measurable results.”

    This is what is so intensely wrong with education and it boggles my mind that those in charge with education don’t see it as wrong. For them it’s absolutely right.

    As someone who works with schools and students and as an advocate for theatre as a part of a well rounded education, time and time again I see the pursuit of ‘creative thinking’ get pushed to the side because admins (and sometimes teachers who don’t grasp it’s full power) see drama as a bunch of frivolous games. It’s intangible.

    What will happen when all creative thinking has been wrung out of the education system? What will happen when students come face to face with the fact that doing well on a test score has nothing to do with real life?

    • Lindsay,

      Thanks so much for venturing onto the blog and commenting. I love that you are an advocate for theater in schools. The physical piece of theater is so so important for us–the ability to embody someone other than ourselves. I applaud you for trying to do so within schools.

      I have moved away from that tack, instead trying to help communities engage in deeply creative and connective practices across generation as well as across other kinds of community divides. My experience thus far has been that people are hungry for this creative piece to return to their llives if they have put it aside since childhood.

  3. I needed to hear this this morning. I’m on spring break right now, which should mean slowing down, relaxing. And instead, I’m frustrated with myself for not doing enough. I’m staring down 18 papers to comment on. I feel the futility of it. I want to focus on different things–on helping educational institutions move towards a more open version of education, to get past results-based learning–but feel pulled back into the maw of results-based learning through the class I’m teaching.

    I’m also struggling with the pressure to work, work, work. I see and understand the importance of play, of exploration, of just getting out into the world. But when I do those things–when I literally play online, or go to volunteer at school, or go for a walk–I’m faced with an ever larger pile of stuff to do. Part of it is that that work–the papers, class prep, etc.–don’t seem as valuable to me as other things I want to get to. Some of it–reading the class blog, reading the papers (without having to think about what to say)–is enjoyable, inspiring even. But it’s rarer than I’d like it to be. Which says something to me.

    Anyway, I’m inspired by you as always. Good luck at SXSW! And try to enjoy the frenetic energy of it. There are people there who are smart and interesting and doing completely different things. It’s fun to listen to them. Enjoy!

    • Thanks, Laura. I wonder about how you manage to juggle the old world with the new–continuing to teach within an entrenched system while working on the outside. That takes some kind of stamina!! Especially when you see that some of the work you have to do is wasteful.

      I am learning to pace myself, to take the time for reflection and messing around with ideas, photos, writing. Walking every day even without Finn. I realize every morning just how lucky I am to be in this space.

      I very much look forward to the edupunk conversation at SXSW, to listen to my brilliant cohorts and to see if I even have anything to offer them anymore–except to say that I think that secondary school should focus on critical and creative thinking in a liberal arts (but no not traditional liberal arts) way, and that the college-age years should put youth into the communities, doing service of some sort as they continue to engage in learning groups—meet-up type things, once or twice a week to push their thinking. And then they would do something such as keep a reflective blog, and build wikis for the world based on their growing knowledge and experience trying to solve real problems. Something like that.

  4. I’ve read a couple of your posts before and noted the new understanding you’ve gained outside schools. As a college student and game designer, it was great to read about another seeing what I see.

    So, when I realized who’s post I was reading, it was a pleasant surprise, since I’ve been talking with Jim Groom about a project to do all those things you mentioned as “on surface do not sound edupunkish at all but on closer look are, I believe, profoundly subversive where we’re talking about school”. From my discussions with Jim, I think he’d say they are indeed “edupunkish”. You two should get along just fine.

  5. I am quite sure this is old news to you, but I was so struck by the similarities in themes and intents between the work of Alice Waters & her “slow” food movement and your thoughts expressed here (and your idea of “slow” blogging…and learning…) that I felt moved to point that out here.

    While not even remotely as eloquent as either of you, I must just SHOUT AMEN. I’ll admit to having just learned of her work (sadly) just last evening through the 60-Minutes piece about her…and (at least as I understand it) one way in which she expresses her ideas is through encouragement of “slow” schooling where students connect with things that take time to learn – through gardening.

    What a wonderful (and true) foundation you both drive us to stand upon. Is this not in fact what is needed for real learning to take place? Would that every educator could consider these ideas more fully …
    Thank you for your work.
    Following from South Carolina…

  6. […] that Edupunk brings to the forefront. She doesn’t claim to all the answers, but she’s struggling through how education needs to evolve along with a lot of other folks. I commend her for that, and that’s why I will spend some […]

  7. Thanks, Steven and @cljennings, and sorry for the delayed response. My new work has me on the road a good deal, and I am still learning how to balance all the parts! Steven, I’m glad you have found some common ground here. Jim is a great thinker and a fabulous person–he knows how to inject humor into the serious, into the subversive, something I am still working on!

    @cljennings–I think the world of Alice Waters’ work; she is a real inspiration to me. (I’m a slow gardener and cook, too) Thank you, thank you for your lovely words. Some days I feel as though I’m shouting into the wind, on the fringes, a near lunatic. And then someone like you comes along to tell me, no, this way makes sense.


  8. […] Es tracta d’un panell en què vaig a participar, en una cchat o xat-conferència. També: Barbara Ganley reflexiona sobre el debat que farem. Jim Groom en parla amb mentalitat de supervivent, però la meua […]

  9. […] glanced at the article Stephen has written, and followed a link to Barbara Ganley’s blog, and started reading. She reflects on some truly (her words) subversive, edupunkish (hmm, what is […]

  10. […] and semantic gaps in our culture between professional expert and layperson, and about the power of reciprocal apprenticeships.  And the delights of mixing heart and mind.  I am learning from young writers I know, and all […]

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