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