So This Is What It’s Like… Sort Of…

With a less than a week left of the Motley Group reading of Joyce’s Dubliners, I am lingering a bit too long, I realize, mid-collection, thinking about what I’ve read, how the stories talk to one another, undercut or intensify each another. I get pulled out of the book altogether for a few days at a stretch by the other calls on my time.  I have to get going here…onward into “Clay” and “A Painful Case” today. I might even have to set a reading schedule to make sure I have enough time to hang out in “The Dead.”  I can’t remember when I have ever read a collection this slowly, with breaks, and rereads, and trips out to my fellow readers’ blogs and to this site.  And I know I have not walked down the long driveway in search of the mail with such anticipation in a long long time.

remnants

This is as close as I have ever come to what I asked of my students and their blogging back in my teaching days. Yes I blogged with them, but never on equal terms, at best as guide. In fact I stayed off our class blogs for the most part, posting on my own blog in meta-reflection so as to keep their conversation open, playful and free between peers instead of performance for the teacher, something I’ve written about many times over the years here, including the final paragraph of one of those long-long posts of mine from 2005 (with lots of broken links):

“And it is the Motherblog that keeps them linked within a community–they venture back and forth onto one another’s blogs, taking comfort in their peers’ experiences, pushing one another, and learning from one another. And I’m rarely on the blog at all. Isn’t this what we’re after in a liberal arts education?  The students naturally, on their own, gravitate towards the learning ecology.  I’m keeping these second-wave bloggers in mind as my young first-years wonder aloud why we’re doing this public blogging thing.  I want them to read the Blogging-the-World blog, and I want them to look down the road at where they might be in two years.  If I teach them the grammar of the blog well, and they take to it, they can use the medium (or whatever other tool will be in play by then) to make their learning real, active, and worth crowing about.”

as if

I’m realizing that this Motley reading experience is as close as I’ve ever come to being absolutely inside classroom blogging–as a reciprocal apprentice.  I see the personalities come into play–who likes posterous, who their own blog, Flickr, postcards.  Who dropped out, never started, is still thinking about starting, is on the fence about continuing, is doing her own thing with responses.  Absolutely fascinating.  I’m learning more about my own inclinations as a reader as I hear Lanny’s puzzlement over the postcard I sent him, and how the image is linked in any way to the reading experience. In learning about how the others are approaching and responding to the stories, I think more deeply about my own readings, my own way of reading.  I really don’t think I did that enough as a teacher.  I see now how much I continued to dominate my classes even when I tried my best not to, even though I believed that students would learn how to think and communicate if they had to rely on one another as  much as on me. This experience almost has me hankering over another go in the classroom.  Almost.

Something else has me stumbling over my departure from the classroom. My old student, now my good friend and teacher, Stephanie Saldana, has been visiting for the past couple of days as she tears about the country on her first book tour.  Yesterday she gave a splendid, moving reading at the college. Four former students were in the audience: three still at the college and another, Stephanie’s best friend here fifteen years ago, another gifted writer, who drove over from Maine.  Stephanie read to an audience made up of townspeople, students and her former professors–a reading that showed her big heart as well as her considerable intellect, a reading that allowed us to glimpse her struggle with a broken world from the vantage point of living in the Middle East.  I thought, how brave, to come back here where you were a star poet/scholar and read from a book so human, so real, so true.  Later, a young Palestinian remarked to me that this was the first lecture/reading about the Middle East he’d been to here that hadn’t been dissecting, theorizing, and/or intellectualizing the trauma.  There was no sense of the personal, the lived in those other lectures and readings as though problems could be understood and solved purely from knowing enough. Stephanie’s reading and discussion gave him the space for his own story.  There it was again, the heart, the heart.  Later that evening, my two old students and another grad from that time sat on the floor of my livingroom and shared how they felt that their undergraduate classes had been far too much about the intellect.  Where was life in the classroom?  How did community outside the school have anything at all to do with what was going on in the classroom?  Where were the hearts of their teachers?

If I could do it all over…I would have been a more radical teacher than I was, and isn’t it too bad that I have to say that teaching from the heart in a liberal arts college is radical?  For a moment, I wanted another chance…but no, I am getting another chance…this way: with Motley readers, with my students turned teachers, with my messy work with storytelling in communities (ALL about heart), with my fumblings with camera.

It’s funny how I’m coming across this reminder repeatedly this week.  This morning,  I opened T.S. Eliot’s essay on Dante to find:

“In my own experience of the appreciation of poetry I have always found that the less I knew about a poet and his work, before I began to read it, the better.  A quotation, a critical remark, an enthusiastic essay may well be the accident that sets one to reading a particular author; but an elaborate preparation of historical and biographical knowledge has always been to me a barrier.  I am not defending poor scholarship…At least, it is better to be spurred to acquire scholarship because you enjoy the poetry, than to suppose that you enjoy the poetry because you have acquired the scholarship.”  (“Dante” 1929 Essay p. 205 in Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot)

That’s what I so like about writing and receiving postcards as well as posts–they feel like little bursts of felt response–by readers who love to read and love to feel the pen on a card, having to move within the confines of that small white square, and caring enough to take the time to find a postcard, a stamp, go to the post office after engaging with the text.  Bound together by a love of reading, the freedom to come and go as we wish, the playfulness of responding however we like, and, for me, a commitment to speaking from the heart as well as head and to stick with it even if I don’t have time, love all the stories, or feel I have anything useful to say.  You just never know when you’ll stumble upon the new, or touch someone, or learn something you thought you already knew.

Alan's Mount Fujiaraby

jenjen2

The Contextual Process: Cinquecento, Painted Toenails and Tagging Lessons

My favorite car of all time is a Fiat 500–I’ve wanted one ever since I first saw one–for their defiance of typical standards of cool (and perhaps because they were born the same year I was). I love that they are emphatically themselves and elegantly silly and ridiculously small compared to bloated U.S. vehicles. Seeing an entire line-up of them in Montreal, though not all were the older models, recently pleased me to no end.

proud line-up of cinquecento

I don’t want a new model. The original cannot be tinkered with–it is a one and only. And even though I would attract far more attention than I like, I would drive one around Vermont if I could get my hands on one. Context matters naught. They are perfection wherever and whenever they are. Sometimes the evolution of a thing or an idea doesn’t interest me, nor similar things. It is only THAT thing that will do, that makes any sense, that works.

But in other areas of my life I don’t feel that way at all. I take an organic approach, fluid in my likes and dislikes related more to context than anything. Sometimes I love calamari, sometimes I hate it. It all depends.

I love to read cookbooks but hate to cook by recipe.
I love to explore syllabi but hate to teach by them.

When I was a kid, my mother made me clean my room. College roommates had to put up with my “system” of un-organization. My family is used to my idea of packing (five minutes before we go anywhere, throw stuff into a bag) being out of sync with my timing (never be late–it is such a waste) and the way I stuff money wily-nilly into my pockets and never know how much I have or where it is. My students, too, grew used to my saying I had absolutely no idea what we’d be doing in the next class, and wouldn’t until we all got there–it depended on what happened on blog and in the world between class meetings.

bg and students in the classroom, a typical day

I love the idea of total immersion in a moment, paying complete attention to the now, the this, the Cinquecento’s definitiveness, its perfection. But in reality, I don’t work this way very often. I am always thinking about how this moment relates to the past, to what’s around me and what’s possibly ahead. In the classroom I was all about feeling the class temperature and relating this class to all those I’d taught before and what was going in the world and how this class could benefit all the classes to come. Context context.

Even the odd ritual I adhere to–and I don’t adhere to many–is about movement over time, about change, appearances and disappearances.

reminders

Ever since our first family trip to Europe when they were three and six, my two girls and I have painted our nails (the only time I ever paint mine). To feel a little Italian or French, I suppose, or to announce to ourselves that this is a big deal. I always paint mine a blazing red. And then I do not touch the color, letting the nails grow, clipping the paint away little by little with each clipping, letting them chip if they chip. And over the six months or so it takes the painted parts to disappear, I am reminded of the trip every time I look down at my feet. I like those little, private reminders. My kids think I’m nuts, rolling their eyes at how bad I look in public with these nails. It’s goofy, yes, but I love this tangible yet shifting link to experience. I like that they change and eventually disappear–by the time my nails are naked, I’m ready to move out of the past, planning the next trip across the Atlantic. And then I’ll paint my nails again, which will remind me of all the past trips and root me in the present one.

This is what tagging and linking have done for me in blogging: I wanted to keep all the possible links to the past, other presents, and the future open, so that in bumping up against something I wouldn’t necessarily think of, I might come up with something far more interesting than my own simple mind is capable of. But actually, I’ve always privileged the link over the tag. I’ve used a personal taxonomy, then, not a folksonomy. I’ve been using the recipe, following the syllabus. I’ve been treating my posts as little Cinquecentos while calling them open segments of an ongoing conversation. Readers mostly have to wait until I link back to find that old post–it’s really my conversation with myself more than with others.

I don’t use tags as well as I could. As I should. It has taken me a long time to see that.

Losing the rich conversations–the collective knowledge–of my early course blogs when those housing them erased entire servers, and then of later course blogs when access to them was denied to anyone off campus, finally brought home how limited I’ve been in my practices and attitudes. And so I moved bgblogging here and taught my final courses on WordPress.com blogs. And right now I am in the process of exporting all of those MT blogs off campus. What a waste to think in terms of a single class–that once a course is over, the conversation that occurred there is no longer interesting or alive. What a waste not to thread back to earlier posts–it is something I have argued for over these blogging years. But of course, no one else goes back to those posts; few readers of my blog ever click through to the links. And that has to do with my own poor understanding of the power of social tagging. If I had tagged well–and had my students tag well from the get-go, those early posts would have fed one another then, and live on much more than they do now and keep me from repeating myself, as well as making my own sorting through posts right now more fruitful, simpler. Right now my way back into old thoughts happens through links, links that are embedded only within the context of other posts and searching instead being about the tags living in freespace ready to be called upon as markers of the Cinquecentos, the thoughts as they existed right there and then, as well as open, fluid thinking.

just past dawn, late summer vermont

And so when Alan urges people to get tagging together, but simply, I’m with him. I’m heading back into old posts to examine the tags and vowing to do better tagging in delici.ous and on Flickr. I’m not sure where this will take me, but I’m interested in exploring the impact of a shift in emphasis, in attitude, and seeing how my thinking expands accordingly. I’ll still be dreaming of toodling around in a Cinqucento with my painted toenails, but not so much on blog.

In Three Places at Once

taxidermy

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

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

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

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

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

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

And

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

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

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

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

January Term Opens: Marvels and Frustrations

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

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

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

From Alex:

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

AND

from Miriam:

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

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

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

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

Slowing it Down as the Semester Speeds to a Close

“When someone is trying to make something that doesn’t exist yet, for which there is no clear template, it’s going to look unfamiliar, and it’s likely to arrive with struggle, uncertainty, and a quality of raggedness. What makes things feel polished or “finished” is very often their adherence to familiar codes. The new arrives with its edges less charted; it tends less ‘to click the lid of a well-made box’ than to jangle or vibrate or sigh. Or even to provoke or irritate, as it presents itself with opacity rather than transparency.” Mark Doty, Preface to Legitimate Dangers, American Poets of the New Century

We’re back, barely, and briefly, from Thanksgiving break, which marked the first trip home for many first-years.
riverbottom
It’s a wild time now as students scramble to complete their work for the semester and try to get into spring classes. The first-years have had to watch our on-line registration system for days as the upper-level students preceded them in the course selection process. It has been agonizing. Every day the numbers in their favored choices have dwindled, and Friday morning, many were disappointed when at last, they were able to register. My phone has been ringing, my email box swelling. Students want to take creative writing and they can’t get into the class. My waitlist is longer than the class roster. And while I am delighted to see so many seeking creative spaces in their course line-up, I am dismayed that our institutions of higher learning place such little value on creativity-centered courses except for majors in the arts. If a student has 36 courses to take over the four years of college, how many of them are creative-intensive? And yet, what could be more important than building their ability to think and act creatively?

rivertree

It’s got me thinking–of Ken Robinson’s contention that schools are killing creativity, of Vera John Steiner’s examination of the role of collaboration in creativity (ah, here’s where schools could and should play a role, with our built-in arenas for collaboration), of Maxine Greene’s urging, of Dewey’s urging ( “Every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of the imagination.” from The Quest for Certainty) and of James Paul Gee’s emphatic argument “that people learn best when their learning is part of a highly motivated engagement with social practices which they value.” (p. 77 Situated Language and Learning: A Critique of Traditional Schooling). Heck, it’s got me thinking about what many of my blogging buddies write about so often: our deep need for creativity, and the reality–a lack of creative spaces and practices in higher ed because, at least in part, these spaces invite uncertainty, risk, and Doty’s “raggedness.”

moodsofwater

Mostly, of course, it’s got me thinking of the journey of this course–nearly done– and how Mark Doty’s quotation about poets could describe this class. I think of how this group of students has come together to urge one another on, to encourage one another, to collaborate, to celebrate. Just as the course ends, they are oozing creativity, cracking open their voices and subject matter, messing around with the tools of twenty-first-century writers, as they engage with ideas, events and realities of our times, of their times. Their ongoing narrative reflections reveal that they are deeply immersed in Thomas Mann’s “serious play” of art and finding the deep rewards of creation: see Sarah’s inventive exploration of her thoughts on writing, for instance. They are confronting, too, what it means to be emerging adults, between childhood home and adult home, a reality they felt acutely upon going home for the first time last week, in posts such as Home? and the wry, moving Coming Home. This self-motivated slow-blogging (I’ve just told them to try it out, think about what they want to engage people in discussion about, without prescribing for them number or focus of posts) is pushing them to take responsibility for “what it is they believe and why they believe what they believe” (from yesterday’s lecture by former Harvard Dean, Harry Lewis, Excellence Without a Soul: Does Higher Education Have a Future?) They are loosening up, undoing the shackles of the grade-oriented grind, noodling around a bit, becoming increasingly playful, and open and THEMSELVES in posts such as Love is Monkey and Home: A Five-Paragraph Essay.

That so many students are lining up to take creative writing–and my section with its extra two-hour evening workshop to boot–tells me that we need to take our students’ creative development far more seriously than we do. The emails I have received from students trying to find a way into the course emphasize their need to explore their creative sides, as in this excerpt:

“This past semester, all of my writings in every class were analytical and dry. I found myself yearning for something more creative, something I could really attach and devote myself to.”

Indeed.

flight

In slowing down by moving more deeply into reflection, connection and creativity , my students have gotten in touch with parts of themselves that they haven’t seen in years while coming out of themselves to examine the world around them within the contact zones of the classroom community and of the provocative readings from John D’Agata’s The Next American Essay. Harry Lewis said something else in his talk along these lines that stayed with me: “Everybody should read books that keep them up at night.” Yes. And through reading one another’s thoughts about our reading and about life in general, we experience what de Certeau describes:

“the activity of reading has…all the characteristics of a silent production: the drift across the page, the metamorphosis of the text effected by the wandering eyes of the reader, the improvisation and expectation of meanings inferred from a few words, leaps over written spaces in an ephemeral dance…words become the outlet or product of silent histories. The readable text transforms itself into the memorable: Barthes reads Proust in Stendhal’s text; the reader reads the landscape of his childhood in the evening news. The thin film of writing becomes a movement of strata, a play of spaces…This mutation makes the text habitable, like a rented apartment…” (p. xxi The Practice of Everyday Life)

It’s got me thinking, too, about Laura’s recent post in which she wrestles with getting out of her comfort zone of genre and media:

“And although from a technical standpoint, I’m comfortable with video, audio and images, from an artistic standpoint, I feel like a complete dolt.”

And yet in the very pushing of herself into new creative directions, while vulnerable and terrified, perhaps, she finds herself energized, excited, “gung ho,” as I did when I made my foray into text-image storytelling this summer and every time I post a new photo. I have no training in photography, and all of my education tells me that I have no right to claim ownership of arenas outside those of trained expertise. And, yes, the results are pretty ragged but no less serious and revelatory for that.

This is what learning is about, this is what we need to be doing–not teaching undergraduates (most of whom will not go on to become academics, after all) to become ever narrower in viewpoint and expertise within silo-ed disciplines and arcane discourse modes, but to become expansive and worldly and deeply in touch with their creative and critical selves as they tackle the problems that face our world and articulate deep thinking clearly across disciplines. We need them to transcend disciplines, even. Look at this example of a “video poem” by a student working with a former student of mine on a Global Learning semester trip to Morocco. Wow…why aren’t these kinds of practices–as well as the traditional read-and-analyze practices– at the heart of our classrooms?

workingdog

We need more interdisciplinary creative courses in our higher education institutions, open to all students and not just majors. A little creative space goes a long way to bringing about meaningful reflection, action & interaction, “getting students to use their writing not just as a tool for making arguments, but also as a lens for exploring complexity and a vehicle for arriving at nuanced understandings of a lived reality that is inescapably characterized by ambiguities, shades of meaning, contradictions and gaps.” (Richard Miller, Writing At the End of the World, p.196-7)

And so on Monday, I will write more emails to those students seeking creative courses, urging them to let the school know how hard it is to be a science or social sciences major and get a place in a creative writing or other “creative” course, and how crucial it is to do just that. I’ll move into re-thinking my January term and spring semester courses with this in mind, too, and hope that I can continue to help students find contact with messy, vibrant, challenging spaces of creativity.

And the teacher learns that we may be missing a huge point…

octoberfield

With two and a half weeks left of this semester, I can now begin to see the full figure of my first-year seminar, this new course in exploring the far reaches of twenty-first century creative nonfiction (including a month-long unit in online multimedia expression). What brave teachers my students are, helping me to understand the complex intersection of their lives’ angles, social and academic, as they strive towards self-discovery and world-exploration…all while learning to crack open the process of reading and writing, digging into the fundamental elements of creative nonfiction, coming in touch with writers and theories of our times as we write for print and for the small screen. It has been such a fascinating journey for me as teacher-learner that I have hardly known where to begin to capture what I have witnessed, experienced and learned. But I will try. In fits and starts over the next weeks here.

Some Initial Observations/Revelations:

* Watching my students grapple with the tensions (and joys) of being college students away from home while they know full well that the world teeters on the brink of collapse: that other kids, just their age, are in Iraq, or contending with the direct impacts of global warming and first-world policies– brings home to me that we need to engage our students directly with these issues, from the minute they step on campus–in our classrooms, in all of our classrooms. We need to get them out into our communities both to apply their learning and to keep one foot squarely in the messy wider world. This is not the time for a four-year experience in privileged isolation. We have to keep the experience real– connected to the world beyond themselves. (I need to do better in this regard…more in an upcoming post.)

kitchendoor

* It is very very difficult to walk into a classroom like mine when everything else in students’ academic experience follows a different, and teacher-centric, model. It takes a lot of work (and determination) to help them understand that it’s okay that I will not lecture at length on the writers we read or the elements we analyze or the techniques they explore, nor will I provide them with the kind of feedback (i.e.my pen all over their papers) to which they have grown not only accustomed but on which they have become dependent. I will not tell them what they have to write about, or how. I will not respond to their posts on blog. I will not be solely responsible for their course grades. But I will question, push, explain, encourage and give them feedback one-on-one. As I often remark, students are in a bit of a freefall for the first weeks, thinking I have no idea how to be a teacher, and I have to stand by, reassuring them that this is fine, this is good, in fact.

crowinthewindowpane

* It takes faith on my part that if I am patient, and clear, and do a good job of setting up opportunities for learning magic to occur, then at some moment in the semester, when none of us is looking, the students will delight in their creativity, push into the world of ideas of their own choosing, and turn to one another in a lively example of collective intelligence and emergence at work. In turn, their thinking will deepen, their writing grow in clarity and complexity and power, and they will have engaged meaningfully with their own learning journey. Of course this is an oversimplification of the actual steps forward and back of the classroom dance–in a crammed semester with so many demands on student time and attention, there’s never enough time and focus to shift the learning model as dramatically as I believe we must.

throughbarnwindows

* My students have not been asked very often or at all to experience the world as writers (which I would define as actively engaging in the world and trying to make sense of it through communicating through words and/or words plus other media)–their comments about this month’s blogging (as opposed to posting their assigned work on the blog) reveal how “having to find something to say on the blog” has forced them out of the college bubble to look back and examine it, and out into the world to understand their place in it. Some have found “blogging whatever” artificial and forced–“I have nothing to say.” But why is that? Do they not have the practice of being asked to write about their experience and knowledge and connection and concern and questions? Publicly? As an act of genuine communication and connection? Others say that their nerve endings are on fire–that they now go to dance performances, for instance, wondering how they could possibly capture a post-modern production for their blogging community, or that they are constantly looking for things to share or to ask or to wonder about through the conversation of blogging. It’s exhausting to be this aware of the world.
At first they resisted blogging because they thought Facebook was for that kind of connection. But now many of them are discovering the value and pleasure of connected thinking through asynchronous discussion NOT dictated by the teacher. (Many teacher-directed and assigned online discussions including blog discussions are little more than adjacent monologues, call-and-response performances for the teacher’s benefit–and soon forgotten by the students, I’d wager–rather than authentic engagement in a fluid give-and-take about the world with a community of learners.)

fallbeauties

* They teeter between the future and the past–their own–as they find outlets from the furious pace of their studies:

quidditch%20post.jpg (from Sam’s Post, “Only at Middlebury”)

And students come to my home to cook and eat (fresh noodles and sauce and brownies). They seek and appreciate contact–direct, personal contact with their teachers and classmates. Friendships have sprouted from this seminar.

Some examples from student blogs that show me what’s on their minds:

ON BEING IN COLLEGE, GAZING BETWEEN CHILDHOOD AND THE FUTURE:
ON ‘AWKWARD’
On Grades
HIgh Hopes
On Comparing their Lives to Those Who Accomplished Great Things

ON THE FUTURE:
A student asks questions about when she’s going to make bold choices, and her classmates respond, including over at another blog
Another student looks at the Future

ON THEIR PLUGGED-IN LIVES:
A student on “Save Middlebury?”
On Facebook

ON ART:
A dance review..and more
Another Response to the Dance Performance
Performace? Art?

And that’s just for starters (Make sure you read the comments as well). They are tackling the life issues that matter to them on their posts, weaving in lessons from other courses, and engaging with larger societal issues in their projects–do we actively promote this kind of integrated learning between formal and informal learning spaces in our colleges and universities?

* Students crave time and opportunities to be creative (how many courses involve active creativity?), once they allow themselves to get off the train of the constant critic (why do we insist on teaching students to judge literature and art from the outside without an equal emphasis on exploring art from the inside? My students are much much better critical thinkers and writers as a result of their forays into the process of making art). They are, for the most part, enjoying the process of making multimedia projects even though they are exhausted at this moment in the semester and sometimes frustrated by their lack of technical skill or cumbersome programs or the number of hours spent in front of computers. What fun to mash things up, or to discover the impact of soundtrack on mood, color on visual impact, font size on narrative distance, or to make something out of nothing that has the potential to move people, to make them think? The projects are breathtaking, far far beyond anything I thought they could produce in a three weeks’ time. Stunning in fact. They’ll be posted soon.

*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?

quality rubric

And so on we go, inexorably towards semester’s end. Tuesday they unveil their multimedia projects–I can’t wait–and then after break we move into two weeks of revision and evaluation. It has been bumpy–teaching a course for the first time is always a little unnerving and I promise to post some of my (several) mistakes soon–and thrilling. It isn’t about stuffing their heads with what I know, but about helping them to fill their writing and learning toolbox with tools and practices and self-awareness, so that they can find out what they need to know and how. To participate in the process wherein these remarkable young men and women gain skill and confidence and daring and community is a privilege indeed.
suninaleaf

Image Stories and Essays

My students have just completed image-only responses to Bill McKibben’s Wandering Home, a book chronicling his walk from his home in Ripton, Vermont to his other home across Lake Champlain in New York’s Adirondacks. Last week I asked the class to take their own photos, if possible, and assemble them as a response to something in the book, some point McKibben makes about Middlebury, that they felt they had something to say about. The process was, as I expected, fun, frustrating, challenging, and enlightening. I wanted them to think about the arc of an argument, about making a point moment by moment, element by element. I wanted them to think about visual arguments and about how images work, and about transitions and ordering and structure–all by playing around with between 5 and 15 images. I wanted them to start thinking about how they might use images when we turn to multimedia writing in a couple of weeks. And I wanted them to learn from one another. None of them had ever done anything quite like this before. Some of them are still struggling to get their results embedded on their blogs. Soon we’ll talk about ways to evaluate multimedia writing and so we have to start looking at more than text. (I have a post brewing all about the unfolding of our class-built grading rubrics, so more on assessment soon.)

I find these early attempts interesting as responses and revealing about how they are reading the book and how they work with images before we have discussed the grammar of an image in class. You are welcome to look at their stories on their blogs linked from the Motherblog.

In the spirit of learning alongside them, I took my camera out on a walk this weekend and then made my own little image story-essay (thanks to cogdog (Alan Levine) and his magnificent resource, 50 Ways to Tell a Web 2.0 Story, for the link to FlickrSlide):

FALLING RIVER

Three Weeks into the Semester: Stopping to Catch My Breath

Between Twitter satisfying my need to reach out within my blogging community, a quick trip to George Mason University for a workshop/conversation, several wiki and Google doc collaborations with blogging comadres, and the whirlwind of the semester’s opening leaving me rather out of breath, I have been the slower-blogger as of late. But I like this pace: Twitter brings me into daily contact with many whose blogging work informs and intersects with mine–I trust they’ll let me know when something of note is stirring abroad in the blogosphere and beyond, and so I don’t spend as much time looking at edublogs as I once did. I can spend more time thinking about new modes of expression, new ways to bridge old literacies and new. And I wait for blogposts to brew while I watch with amazement how my Bloglines account fills with unread feeds…

This beautiful place is festooned in grand colors and I should be outside, but I’m drawn into this realm to think aloud about how things are evolving with social software in my classes and in my conversations out in the world. vermontfall

So here I am. Because something’s not quite as it was when last I entered a classroom ( a mere nine months ago). Every time I step into a new learning adventure everything, of course, seems new; every time I enter the classroom, I wonder where we’ll venture that day. It’s always new. But this year is even more new, if such a thing is possible. Both in the classroom and on the road when I give talks and workshops.

My Students–
These first-years strike me as quite different from those of past years (which is interesting, as I am also parent of a first-year college student, and I always attributed her distinct ways to her alone–what a range of lenses we use depending on our role …). Indeed, teaching a first-year seminar for the first time in four years is a fascinating revelation–I usually detect subtle shifts in the online experience of the classes of students separated by the three-year gaps between my first-year seminar teaching stints. Subtle shifts. Students in my 2001 first-year seminar (blog now lost) and 2004 seminar didn’t have notably different experiences online before coming to college. Some in both groups came with video editing skills and memberships within social networks, but most did not. Blogging was foreign to all of them. It took some time to get over the disorienting, unnerving experience of writing in and for the public, of sharing their work with one another and commenting effectively.

The difference between my current seminar group’s exposure to online learning and networking practices and that of my 2004 seminar is stunning:
All fifteen students…
*know what a blog is;
*six blogged in high school classes (the first students I have ever had who blogged in secondary school);
*none of them blog on their own;
*every one of them has a Facebook account;
*they all walked into class the first day with strong opinions (mostly negative) about reading blogs for information. (“Oh no, I don’t read blogs,” one student said in a tone that indicated surprise that I would even ask such a question. They contended that blogs were unreliable and/or belonged to the realm of narcissistic exhibitionists. ) Where did they learn to disapprove of blogs? Teachers? Parents? The Media? Experience?
*A couple of them indicated that they signed up for this course precisely because of the online practices promised–not because they liked their previous classroom experiences, but they felt they needed to get more comfortable communicating online and exploring Web 2.0 storytelling practices. Interesting.

milkweedbursting

A couple of observations about the first weeks of seminar blogging:

Observation #1: What they did in high school in no way resembles what we’re doing (or aiming to do) here. Some students used blogs before college to hand in work or to retrieve assignments; others used blogs to participate in teacher-driven discussions (mostly in the form of writing what amounted to response papers handed in to the teacher). No one had actually integrated informal and formal learning spaces, the world of the classroom and the world beyond, or had conversed on blogs about ideas other than the ones the teacher instructed them to consider.

So, while this group is very very comfortable with online communication amongst themselves on Facebook, they are uneasy about discussing academic ideas in public, writing about what they learn from one another. (They met on Facebook as well as on our course blog before school, and surprise surprise, the Facebook encounters were much more natural-feeling and informal than the introduce-yourself-as-a-writer assignment driven by me). In fact Facebook-communication is so prevalent among Middlebury students that new first-years flocked to ask the advice of an upperclassman who volunteered to answer their questions before they ever got to school. Another group of students brought down a move by the administration to change the college logo–all via Facebook) Yet classroom blogging, at least the way I envision it, is foreign to them.

So some things have shifted, for sure–they are online and comfortably so–but they have not had particularly meaningful experiences using social software in their formal learning spaces.

tagcloud.jpg
As my students venture onto Flickr and try out tagging, I see them slowly extending their intellectual reach and sense of expressive possibility, and relaxing into a blogging practice not because a teacher wants them to do it, but because they get it. Slowly though. Even more slowly, perhaps, than previous groups–they are fine about having a Motherblog and their own blog and a Flickr group and other Web 2.0 experiences, but they aren’t necessarily naturally going much further than through the motions–yet. I suppose that the very strangeness of the medium to earlier students made them leap into the heart of the practice instead of skimming the surface. They had nothing to compare it to–no years of Facebook; they had not been bored by it in high school…
fallmorning It’s a tough jump for this year’s group, though, because so much in formal education conspires against it (i.e. faculty misunderstanding how social software can serve transformative learning, and the way we pack their days and nights with assignments–who has time for deep learning?). So far, I do see these students finding real value in reading one another’s work and commenting on it, and in experiencing the tight bonds of community fostered by the Motherblog. They like having the blogs. We’re making progress. Next step: initiating and joining the conversation–doing the blogs.

Observation #2: Online teaching & learning is moving out from the hinterlands, even here in the woods of the liberal arts. The opening editorial, “Welcome to the 21st Century” in our student-run college newspaper, discussed the college online, including new blogs set up by our president and college dean, and ended with the power of blogging in classes; another article profiled the new college radio station blog .
nightfallsonthecollege
Things are changing around here… (Though, yes, the Editor-in-Chief and Managing Editor both blogged in bgblogging classes, and so it isn’t as surprising an editorial to me as it would have been if they had not had this experience.)

This semester, for the first time, my students are participating in online discussions in several classes at once. It makes sense–no real surprise here that more and more classes are incorporating online discussion. But the kids are already getting worn out by having to do so many responses, comments, conversations simultaneously; they find it frustrating to keep track of the number of posts required for Course A vs. Course B, and how they are being evaluated, etc etc. In some cases they feel that the discussions are unnecessarily added onto a full load, and are really extra same-old response papers or last-minute flurries to fulfill the course requirements.

These shifts mean that I must struggle to keep transforming my teaching to meet the needs of my students, to stay alert to the shoals, the currents, the wind. And that’s good–no getting carried away with the technology here. I have to ask myself why I am asking students to discuss their work, the reading, ideas they come across–online. Do I pull back the blogging in my class because they are online so much in other classes? No. But I have to be mindful of that they make digital stories or podcasts or Powerpoint presentations in other courses. Mine is no longer one of the handful of technology-rich classrooms. Not by a longshot. And I welcome this tension, and the opportunity for opening discussion about new ways of connecting courses one another by connecting their online worlds through the pivot of the student’s own learning practice. Ah, for a fluid learning landscape.

In other words, we have pulled in new practices, but we have not yet transformed our teaching or our courses or our institutions.

My recent experiences on the road and in the blogosphere have also pointed both to progress and to new tensions as we work towards breaking through to progressive pedagogies. Take last week’s workshop/discussion with GMU Arts & Sciences faculty. That I was invited to GMU not to convince people of the merits of blogging, but to work with faculty already blogging, to help them to ground it within twenty-first-century teaching practices marks a significant shift. I never had to define a blog. Instead of stopping along the way to discuss technical how-to questions, we discussed pedagogy how-to–practices–and we discussed the generation of learners; we discussed the reality of preparing them for this hyper-networked world. Concerns about plagiarism were never raised. Support issues were handled deftly by ed tech staff–so so different. Finally I could talk about transformative teaching, and transforming teaching with people really grappling with the gap between how they were taught to teach and how they needed to teach now. At Exeter, too, faculty talked about online overload, about how we need to move towards a more holistic, student-centered approach to online classroom practices, that these conversations need to happen in conjunction with conversations about curriculum and learning spaces as a whole, across the school. Yes indeed.

Evaluation is always a big concern when I give talks–but this group asked a different question: they were not trying to push blogging into antiquated, ineffectual notions of assigning and grading (by asking how many posts I require, how I check or read them, how I assign grades to them); they were really trying to sort out how to engage students in new learning practices through effective assignments and to evaluate the outcomes, and new forms of academic discourse fairly and meaningfully–yet– within the static constraints of old requirement systems. And that is, I see, the big stumbling block for so many faculty who are, on the one hand, asked to push their teaching forward and yet, on the other, required to adhere to teacher-driven test-and-grade forms of evaluation and assessment. The most controversial thing I hear myself saying these days is no longer, “Let your students read each other’s work and build on it and learn from it–let them learn from the world and the world from them; they should transform the course as it transforms them” or “To use social software effectively and to its full potential, you must really question whether you have actually shifted teacher-centric practices” but “To integrate social software and twenty-first century learning practices effectively into your classrooms, you must abandon your twentieth-century ways of grading–and if you must use letter grades (as I must), build the grading rubrics WITH your students. Have them write ongoing, hypertext narrative reflections of their learning process and outcomes, and then propose and defend a grade twice a semester according to those class-generated rubrics, a grade that has meaning because they understand what it represents and why. Do not grade individual posts. Do not count them.”

I think I still shock people with that one, and so one of my blogging goals for this year is to make visible here the building of the course rubrics in my first-year seminar as we go. My students have never done this kind of self-evaluation before, either. And when they heard that’s what we’d be doing, they smiled rather wanly, I must say. But they are a game group, and that’s something else that’s different—they are willing to experiment–to try out these new ways of learning. Not a one is balking. So far. We’ve started the process of building a rubric by looking at old posts from the archives of previous classes, looking at what first-years have written, sophomores and seniors, trying to come up with some ways to describe the elements of a successful piece of writing at this stage.
ontheboard
Today I saw some lights flicker on for them as they explored why they knew a senior had written one essay and a first-year another–they are crawling around writing as writers, as fellow travelers in Gardner’s caravan. Next week, I’m having them read from two student blogs that are not being kept in conjunction with courses, one by a Midd student and veteran blogger, Alex, blogging from study abroad in Mongolia and the other bya wonderful student I met at UMW’s Faculty Academy, Blogging from University of Mary Washington. I’m interested in them taking a look at blogging the learning journey rather than blogging the course ; will they be interested in integrating the two, if, when it makes sense thematically, they can pull some of their discussions from other classes onto our course blog? We’ll see just how contained they find each course experience.

stilllife

And we’re only three weeks in…

Looking Back, Moving Forward: A Talk at Exeter

Sifting through my archives, I see that not only do I like the cusps of things, the edges, the beginnings and endings, the transitions, I seem to do a lot of blogging during such times.

foxontherun (fox stealing a pear)

The cusp of the school year, of course, quite naturally prompts a looking back on the summer (hence all those lousy what-I-did-over-the-summer essay assignments September after September–don’t teachers have any imagination?) and previous years as I move into the wonder of the fall semester a day or a week before I meet my students in class for the first time. I wrote such a post in 2004, , 2005 (on the heels of Katrina) , 2006 (one that captures the old Russian custom exercise I will use again this year), and I am drawn back here to do so again even though it’s the middle of Labor Day weekend, writing deadlines loom, and it’s a drop-dead gorgeous early evening.

roadtoschool

This year is one of the special ones when I teach a first-year seminar, and already my students are stirring the blog with letters (via email to me for their posts at this point) and comments–their first forays into our community. With five days to go before we have our first class together, 13 of the 15 have been on the blog–I am delighted to read their introductions and to see how they have understood my request for them to introduce themselves as writers before having the chance to see one another. Of course, they could all well be communicating with one another via Facebook for all I know. For this teacher, though, who will not look for them on their own social network spaces, getting to know them through their writing (both posts and comments) first has me thinking through my exercises for the first weeks of semester, selecting ones I think will work for them, and it also takes me back to other beginnings of years.

mainememory

Yesterday I was sent forward and back in quick succession: forward as I brought my younger daughter to college for the first time, and back to childhood and my teaching roots at Exeter where I had the honor of delivering a talk to the faculty before the opening of their school year. How strange to be standing in front of former teachers (was I in a dream in which I was 15 again, giving a presentation in one of my high school classes?) and how exhilarating to be sharing with them how my grounding in Harkness has informed my Web 2.0 teaching. The school where my father taught. It was something, and quite a fitting way to spend August 31, 2007.

______________________________________________________________________________

Here is the first half of the talk. The second half was a tour through my course blogs to show the how of what I do. I think the slides show enough (and I’ve written about my course blogging many times), so I won’t fill in the details unless someone requests clarification. And as usual, the Q & A period was the richest time of all. Excellent, sometimes tough, questions.

Slide1

What a pleasure it is to stand here before you in this room on this campus. I have spent much of the past nine months speaking to faculty in Europe, Australia and the U.S. about a new kind of blended teaching, a 21st-century Harkness pedagogy that embraces deep learning based on reflection, action and social-constructivist learning theory. But to give a talk here about bringing Harkness online quite takes my breath away. As you know, I grew up on this campus, a beneficiary of this school’s gifts as daughter of one of the great Harkness teachers. Indeed, I learned to teach here, at the dinner table under my father’s tutelage, as a student of some of the great Harkness teachers, by learning from Jack Heath in the Exeter Writing Project, by visiting my father’s classroom in the early 80s when I was just starting out as a teacher. It is quite something to be here 20 years after my dad retired and at the beginning of the school year following his death. What an honor. And so I thank Kathleen and Shelley and Vi for inviting me and all of you for coming here to listen to me speak about something that may well make you uneasy. But I am okay with that, for as the dynamic systems theorists tell us, “learning happens in cycles of disruption and repair” (Skorczewski), and a little disruption is a good thing indeed at the opening of a new school year.

Slide2

I lived here in the sixties and early seventies, an exciting, bewildering time of transition when Exeter shed its old-boy ways as its student body grew more diverse, its curriculum more open, its rules less rigid. I was in the first class of four-year girls, a handful of faculty daughters graduating in 1974. But that’s a whole other story. I return to Exeter today during a time even more tumultuous, a time calling for even more daring changes, perhaps, on our campuses if we are to prepare our students equally and well to take their places at THIS time in THIS world.

But before I take you on my journey with technology, and explore the benefits of taking Harkness online, I’d like you to consider what it means to you to be a Harkness teacher in the 21st century. What does Harkness offer our students? What are our responsibilities? If our goal is to guide and mentor and model and inspire as our students develop creative and critical thinking and expression skills balanced with goodness—how do these things look out there in our global, networked society? Should we care—or should we batten down the hatches and hang on to our beloved, time-honored traditions because they served us well in the past?

Slide3

Some of you—and my father would surely have been in your ranks– may well be thinking that we should resist using network technology in our classrooms. Kids spend too much time texting, phoning, Facebooking, IM-ing, You-Tubing as it is. Especially at a residential liberal arts college like Middlebury or the heart of Harkness, Exeter, we should continue an unplugged model of teaching—it is reading and writing and discussing– solving problems together over time, after all, that is our gift, that sets us apart. Why introduce the distraction of out-of-place, out-of time practice of blogging in our classes? Shouldn’t we resist the flash and seductiveness of the new?

Indeed. We should be serious about time offline. About time immersed in lived-in community, in daydreaming and noodling and walking out in the woods. I teach in a computer-free classroom two out of every three class meetings. I want those class meetings not to be spent watching films or interacting with one another or information on machines. It is a mighty gift to be in a classroom together—in a residential school together, discussing, listening, doing, learning from one another in reciprocal apprenticeships.

But it is no longer enough. And I would go further to say that it is no longer the best way, even, to teach and learn.

The day I brought my daughter to Exeter as a new Lower catapulted me, of all people, into teaching with technology. You see, I am not a techie. I hadn’t heard of a blog two weeks before I introduced one into a first-year seminar on contemporary Ireland. But that day, September 11, 2001, shook me from my lovely complacency. I saw clearly then how ill-prepared my students and I were to participate in a networked, global society, and effectively engage with emerging online communication practices. I was teaching as though nothing had really changed since I had been a student. And while my students were lucky that my pedagogy was Harkness-based, and while their credentials were increasingly astonishing, classroom discussion was often superficial, writing formulaic, and engagement with extended, deep learning for learning’s sake difficult to muster. The kids were distracted. Disconnected. Though they performed well. And liked class. Exonians counted in their midst.

Slide4

I realized then what Barry Wellman of the University of Toronto meant by observing: “The broadly-embracing collectivity, nurturing and controlling, has become a fragmented, variegated and personalized social network. Autonomy, opportunity and uncertainty are the rule.” People no longer know their neighbors, as Robert Putnam pointed out in Bowling Alone. As Daniel Pink argues, the work world, too, has changed, now requiring adaptive experts, who can shift easily from one mode of thinking to another, one project to another—working collaboratively, often at a distance from colleagues. Sir Ken Robinson has shown that we are not doing a good job preparing our students for this world: graduates are unable to think creatively, work together well or express themselves clearly in a range of situations. Exactly what I had been noticing—

Ah, we like to blame technology—the sink of time, the cult of the amateur as Andrew Keen has recently argued.

But look at the riches of online exploration, the impact of the access for so many people to so much information. As Yochai Benkler points out in The Wealth of Networks, “…the diversity of perspectives on the way the world is and the way it could be for any given individual is qualitatively increased.” People with access to the internet, have access to information, to learning resources, and to networks. And potentially to choice about how to live. To solve the problems of illegal logging and exploitation of natural resources, for example, the government of Brazil has announced it will provide indigenous villages along the Amazon with satellite internet access connecting villages to one another gives them access to shared crucial information and power of their numbers. How extraordinary.

Slide5

Universities such as M.I.T. and UC Berkeley are exploring the new options and opportunities afforded by the internet,—opening their classrooms to the world, participating in the explosion of affinity spaces where people come together to learn from one another out of INTEREST not coercion. If kids have such rich learning resources available online, for free, why will they continue to plunk down their $36,000 a year to come to Exeter? Should they?

Slide6

How are we taking into account our culture’s increasing privileging of image over text, of how the world is being transformed by digital camera ownership, vernacular culture; as Susan Sontag pointed out after Abu Ghraib, “the western memory museum is largely visual”, “images no longer objects to collect but messages to be sent”. As Victoria Carrington points out, “Where more traditional models of literacy prepare children for a somewhat distant future at which time they will participate in meaningful ways in the ‘real’ world, a model of literacy matching the needs of contemporary children must take as a first principle that children are already active participants and risk takers.” (in Marsh, p.23) Hence the explosion of such sites as Youtube and Flickr—of images circulating on Facebook and MySpace. Do we spend time teaching students how to navigate and evaluate these images? How to produce visual arguments?

Slide7

I also had been noticing other kinds of shifts in this post-Internet, Generation Me. As Jean Twenge’s extensive research has found, based on data collected from 40,000 college students–”anxiety increased so much that the average college student in the 1990s was more anxious than 85% of students in the 1950s and 71% of students in the 1970s.” (p.107) “One out of three college freshmen reported feeling ‘frequently overwhelmed’ in 2001, twice as many as in the 1980s.” The cult of the individual suggests that they do not trust others because they have been taught to believe in themselves, to feel good about themselves no matter what—to listen to themselves and not other people. And yet they crave immediate anytime, anywhere connection, as a Middlebury study of cellphone use and autonomy suggests in finding that the average first-year student was in contact with parents over 10 times a week. College students! How do we inspire goodness and a connection to lived-in community in students who are as likely to be connected to friends far away as friends down the hall? How do we get them to commit to more than themselves when they are overcommitted, oversheduled as it is? Are we helping kids take risks as learners by getting it wrong, by experimenting, by daring to think new thoughts? How do we get them to be more reflective, to slow down, to go deep both on their own and in a collaborative context all while learning to use the emerging tools and practices of this time? How overwhelming!

As I watched my students after 9-11 reeling, trying to make sense of their world, I knew we had to venture out beyond the safe confines of the classroom. I needed to connect the classroom with the world, students to themselves and one another in meaningful, reciprocal apprenticeships. I had a responsibility to teach my students how to navigate the Web fluently, how to use it ethically, producing and publishing as well as consuming.

I had to weave into my new practices three powerful approaches to learning:
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learning as reflection;

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Learning as doing—democratic learning means taking action—making and doing things, an Arendtian approach to democratic education .

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And—Exeter’s own great gift, learning as social activity. You are lucky to be here facing this challenge—for you have long taken into account the power of informal learning outside the classroom—in the dining hall, the dorms, the playing fields. The importance of an integrated interdisciplinary program such as prep studies or the senior seminars. The value of multiple perspectives, of plurality.

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I turned to social software—blogs—as they seemed to balance the individual with the group, reflection and action, the informal with formal, the private and the public all while providing flexible opportunities to practice new literacies. They seemed uniquely to be of the time and timeless, both very old and very new.

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Few teachers were integrating digital technology into the heart of their classes, while striving to safeguard the Socratic, Harkness tradition of a residential school. bell hooks asks us whether we dare change our teaching practices even when we dare embrace progressive pedagogies.. It was scary—risky—to throw myself into the unknown. But if we teachers do not take risks, trying to become better than ourselves, how can we expect our students to do so? As Richard Miller writes in Writing at the End of the World : “Schools currently provide extensive training in the fact that worlds end; what is missing is training in how to bring better worlds into being.” (p.x) And that is what we all need to do.

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These past six years, my Harkness teaching has moved from this model:
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At least it was in theory–my classroom as it really was, if truth be known, I fear :

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Only after I brought social software into the mix did I understand that some students didn’t participate because they felt they were not invited in–they were the onlookers, the lurkers in blog parlance. Although I thought I was using an inclusive approach and inviting all the students to speak, to add their voices, to learn equally, some students felt more ownership than did others, some participated and others did not–I was espousing a progressive pedagogy but not really practicing it p.42) .

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The results of classroom blogging, as I will show you now, have been nothing short of astounding in my experience these past six years—this is now how my classes look and feel according to my students, who have become actively engaged with deep learning, developed their skills of critical and creative thinking and expression, their ability to connect and collaborate, and their confidence and skill using the digital technologies. It has been nothing short of electrifying. Staying the course for Harkness in the 21st century means evolving it to suit the needs and realities of our times, and to avail ourselves of the opportunities afforded by new ways of teaching and learning–online.

So let’s take a little look, and by all means stop me and ask questions along the way.

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Memories of an Art History Class: Inspiration and Perspective

chinesepeony
Chinese Peony

One of my professors in college, I recall, an art history professor, would move into class by dimming the lights, leaning against the back wall behind us and clicking his little slide projector clicker to illuminate the first slide. Then, unlike most other professors, instead of lecturing us about what it was we were seeing and what it meant, etc. etc. in the larger context of our discipline, while we madly scribbled notes about the stuff we thought would be on the next exam, he would ask us to comment on what we saw and what we could glean from our observations based on the reading and looking we had done to prepare for class and what we had seen and discussed during previous class meetings. He’d challenge us to figure out when it was painted, maybe by whom, and why we should spend time looking at and discussing the work. He cautioned us to question our initial responses; he urged us to think as much with our guts as with our intellects. He’d ask questions, add context, push us to come up with more, to come up with better. His comments on our papers were much the same. And he told us the first day that he would grade the non-majors differently because they didn’t have the experience the rest of us had. We majors howled that it was unfair– no one else did that in any other department….

Bloomington Window

Nearly thirty years down the road, every time I see one of the paintings we studied, I am transported back to that classroom–I can still speak quite confidently about the content of that course while most other classrooms experiences have faded to mush.

IWU Theater Sculpture
(Illinois Wesleyan Theater entrance)

Sometimes he would slip in a slide of a fake. Sometimes a painting from a different country. Sometimes a lousy modern approximation. We never knew what was coming. And it was up to us to smoke it out. Once he came in and showed a pair of side-by-side slides which at first glance seemed identical. Only when we looked more closely than we had ever looked before could we begin to detect the differences. Our task that day was to figure out which was the original, which the copy. Our final exam was filled with such moments.

It was a course about discovery. About the joy of discovering something fundamental about painting, about the world at that time and place, about ourselves as art consumers, as critical thinkers, as contributors to the discussion. We didn’t need blogs or wikis or any of the Web 2.0 tools to have that profound experience. But sometimes I find myself thinking …

… it would have been even more interesting, the learning even deeper, the development of our skills even more pronounced if we had had opportunities to talk outside of class via asynchronous slow-blogging, linking out to articles we had found, and pushing each other and ourselves by posting images we had come across in our Web wnaderings, annotating them, publishing our papers–sharing our drafts with one another.

overthetop

But that’s ridiculous. Absurd. Preposterous. Web 2.0 was not for that time; it is for THIS time. My professor taught brilliantly for that time but not for this. (Much as my father had.) The world is different. The generation is different. The skills graduates need include those we were schooled in–but others, too. We cannot compare what we need to do with what our teachers did. It’s that different.

I remember that some of my professor’s colleagues didn’t approve of the way he taught. Or at least that was the buzz. I imagine he’d be really excited about the ways we can connect, link, share and tag. He’d understand that teachers who do not weigh all the tools they have available, all the practices possible are as guilty as doctors who fail their patients because they haven’t kept up with advances in treatment. (I heard Chris Dede use this analogy that in his 2007 ELI keynote) I like to keep that in mind when I face yet another audience, as I struggle to find ways to help faculty understand why they should not feel threatened by new ways of teaching and learning, but delighted, because in one sense we are not abandoning tradition–just remembering it–the best of it, that of Socrates, for instance, and clutches of great thinkers who hung out together through history, either in place or through letters and their responses to one another, artwork by artwork, letter by letter, essay by essay.

I’ve been on the road A LOT this semester, mostly to give talks and workshops to faculty teaching undergraduates. planeWhen I first started doing this a couple of years ago, I was pelted with questions about intellectual property (fear of plagiarism), assessment, and the time commitment taking to the Web would mean for someone thinking about giving blogs or wikis a go in their teaching. And those are still questions I get when I talk blogs, no matter how much I thread a talk with learning theory, progressive pedagogy, and the realities of a world simultaneously moving towards disconnection within local communities (which center on plurality) and greater connection through ME-oriented social networks); no matter how much I show the slide that puts the teacher as part of the learning circle after the slide with the scary desks in a row.

preppingfortalk

At Illinois Wesleyan University and then at University of New Hampshire, I recently gave versions of the kind of talk I’ve been focusing on lately in which I try to help faculty dare move into the 21st century. I try with each talk to convey more clearly the realities of the work world, of social networks moving beyond teens, of GenMe; I show them blogs and wikis, and some really interesting class projects such as ArtMobs and second language blogging such as Barbara Sawhill’sSpanish classes at Oberlin, and Jim Groom’s use of tagging with his UMW summer class.

Faculty seem to like what they see- learning by reflection (through hyperlinked slow-blogging techniques), learning by doing and making (multimedia projects, service learning mentoring through blog connections), and learning by connecting and conversing (asynchronous blog discussions and linking between blogs, referencing one another’s work and scholarship beyond the classroom). They love the idea of bringing experts in the field into the classroom through blogging invitationals, and the students to the world by publishing their work on their blogs, the class blog, wikis, ‘zines. All’s well so far.

Even Twitter has been making sense to people, how it might work to teach the art of concision, to get students to hone an idea, or to share urls, etc. Annotating slides and creating course photo sets on Flickr–you get the drift–it makes sense–to anyone once they see how it works.

cloudmetaphor

At UNH, especially successful was kicking off the talk by asking them to come up with a metaphor for how it feels to be a teacher who trained in the 20th century but is teaching in the 21st.

But then I get to RSS and del.icio.us–both of which I am planning to place at the heart of all my courses in the future–and things get a little unsettled. The questions get interesting; in other words they approach what’s really the heart of the matter: what happens when students are given much of the responsibility for their learning, what happens when risk and failure are seen as good things–fumbling together in the dark as we learn to think and read and write critically and creatively; what it means when even the syllabus can be changed at a moment’s notice as the group discovers a new direction. How Web 2.0 teaching and learning and living practices are butting up against age-old sacred cows: i.e. the dominant value of the expert, the teacher as trained authority, and a sense of order in the classroom.

Why do RSS and tagging, in particular, provide an opening for this kind of essential discussion? Well, I talk about having students not just create feeds to one another’s blogs–that can be done on the Motherblog or with multiuser blogs and is a given when you are using blogs within a community. Yes, it’s essential to have students see and learn from one another’s struggles for meaning. Yes, it’s essential to weave the stories of their blogs together in a larger community tapestry. Yes. But having students–and NOT the teacher or the librarian–go out and find resources in the field and bring them back via feeds for the group–well what an excellent opportunity to gain skill in evaluating sources, for one. I get concerned questions from the audience about quality control–who is responsible for making sure the sources linked to are “appropriate” or “valid”? Ah…that’s the beauty of gathering RSS feeds as a learning and not a teaching practice. What a learning moment to discover a deep bias within a blog in the field (or a journal, for that matter) or factual errors!

And so, we’re making progress, Laura, I agree. It’s slow, yes, and often frustrating. But it’s happening… At UNH a couple of days ago, some forty faculty members showed that they get it. They want to move their teaching. They just need a little help understanding what that means–and how they can do it well, navigating through the sea of options. It will take the kind of inspired and innovative and fearless IT people of the likes of the magnificent crew at University of Mary Washington or Laura Blankenship at Bryn Mawr, Todd Bryant at Dickinson, Barbara Sawhill at Oberlin, the staffs at UNH and VSC and IWU. It will take classroom teachers making their pedagogy transparent on blogs for themelves, their students and their colleagues. It will take leadership from in our institutions, of the kind Lanny Arvan at the University of Illinois repeatedly demonstrates. And the tireless work of the Bryan Alexanders and Alan Levines of this world–showing us, encouraging us. But finally, I think we’re actually making strides in the right direction.

Yeah.

My college professor would be happy, I think, to see me taking risks, pushing my teaching forward into this century as I strive to be for my students the kind of teacher he was for me. And to see that I’m not alone in this. Not by any means.

Here are the slides and notes from the two recent talks over on Flickr. I’ll pull them over here as well in a few days.

UNH Talk Slide1

For the Flickr version (slides and notes) of the University of New Hampshire FITSI talk, click here.

IWU Slide1

For the Flickr version of the Illinois Wesleyan University the Teaching and Technology Workshop keynote, click here.