UMW Faculty Academy Day Two Workshop

It’s the end of the first, remarkable day at University of Mary Washington’s Faculty Academy 2007. Hearing Gardner Campbell, Alan Levine, Laura Blankenship, Steve Greenlaw and the inimitable Jim Groom –for starters– present, share stories, and converse–well, it’s been an inspiring day. And as a result I’m almost ready to explore Twitter and get back into Second Life, this time with a voice.
I’ll blog my talk and my responses to other talks when I can (I have several other talks and workshops nipping at the heels of this one, so I’ll be a day or two in the posting, I’m sure.)

But for now–here are some materials for my Day Two Workshop:

Abstract

Twenty-First Century Entrances and Exits: Planning for the Crucial First and Last Weeks of the Web 2.0 Semester

It’s one thing to understand why we need to integrate Web 2.0 practices into our teaching; it’s another to do so gracefully and effectively within a semester system. How do we actually move into and then out of courses that take advantage of a full range of teaching and learning spaces, technologies and relationships? Do we start students out on course blogs and/or wikis the first day or do we start out in traditional reading and responding and move slowly into more innovative practices? How do we pull in RSS and tagging, multimedia composing and sharing? Do we take time to run technology workshops for our students? How much time? How and when do we weave in the core subject matter? How do we prepare our students for the freefall experience of the first weeks of this kind of classroom?

In this workshop we’ll take a good look at the opening two weeks of our courses, exploring exercises that build a strong learning community based on reciprocal apprenticeships while introducing students to the kinds of technology they’ll be using, and immersing them in the heart of our subject matter. We’ll also consider the end of the semester and how we help students move beyond the confines of the course through self-evaluation, hypertext reflection, and an old Russian custom.
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I. OPENING THE SEMESTER (In part, excerpted from a November blogpost)

HOW DO WE TRANSFORM
Slide5 skelleftea

INTO

Slide25 Bergen

1. Some Guiding Principles about Learning Before We Consider Course Goals & Syllabi & Design

Slide5 Bergen Slide6Bergen

Slide8 Bergen Slide9 Bergen

Slide27 Bergen Slide10 Bergen

Slide3 Bergen Slide16 Bergen

My Story

I’m moving more and more to ways in which blogging and tagging and image-sharing and digital storytelling enhance the here-and-now, the communities in which we live and work, and in this particular case, the classes we teach. And to do that, it is essential to spend time at the opening of the semester talking about who we are, what we each bring to the learning adventure, why we’re in this class, and what we hope to get out of it. We talk about building a blueprint together based on our goals and available materials, and then think about how we actually build the course experience together and alone.

But first, I have to think about how the various means of expression might have an impact on the learning and on the community. How and why will we use social software? Will we venture further into online work than blogs? Why blogs at all? Will we really blog or use the blog structure as a vessel to hold traditional assignments? Why, for example, would we blog in a course on Ireland? How might hypertext and digital storytelling enhance the experience? How might we use audio as a tool for expression and for revising and for exploring ideas? Cameras? Images we take, images we find? How might we want to connect with experts out in the world–would we invite them to participate in blogging-invitationals? Would we want them to respond to our work? What is the role of loose dialogue and conversation, of let’s-talk-about-any-thoughts-we-have in the course? Do we want to link to our work in other courses? To our other online worlds? How do we also work in traditional modes? How do they intersect and influence one another? How much time can be devoted to learning how to use the tools, how to become comfortable with the practices? How much time do we devote to meta-practices, to reading and talking about what we’re doing online? How can we capitalize on the fact that we have the luxury of being together in class twice a week–do we devote that time to presentations, to discussion, to lecture, to feedback, to projects?

EXERCISE ONE: What kinds of teaching will you do in class? How will your students spend their time out of class? What is the relationship between content and process? How will you make your pedaogy transparent?

These are just some of the questions I have to ask before I pull up even the most basic course blog. Based on my answers, the course blog begins to take shape, each course demanding its own look and structure. For example:

irishclass.png
The Irish seminar blog really focuses on collaboration and so has more of a group-blog feel to it than others; one of our goals is to think about how our community of mutual apprenticeships works–how to be engaged in a liberal arts college.

WP.png
A composition class balances between group and individual work, and so the unit plans are posted as we go, as we develop as thinkers and writers and see what next we need to learn and to practice.

arts.png
An arts writing class takes on a ‘zine-like, real-world look with multiple columns and choices as to what is posted where and why.

EXERCISE TWO: Sketch a possible Motherblog design for your course

2. THE FIRST TWO-THREE WEEKS

EXERCISE THREE: Jot down notes about ways in which you have, in the past, opened your course. Why have you spent the first weeks this way?

My Story
We spend two-three weeks moving into the course material and getting comfortable with the blog and whatever other technology they NEED to know right from the start. Together and in solo <a href=”LETTERS TO THE CLASS, we examine our own voices; our learning goals; what makes a strong, effective community of inquiry, the demands of the discipline; and what it is we need to do and to learn in order for the course to “be a success.”

I call this first part of the course Cracking Open the Course and the Imagination, in my creative writing classes; “Exploring the Course” in composition classes, something we do as we pull up the blogs; Knowledge Trees in a first-year seminar on Ireland (the first part of this exploration is done online before the students even set foot on Middlebury’s campus).

I use a variety of techniques to examine the ways in which we’ll each enter this collaborative:
personal narratives about our individual cultural contexts and learning histories, including digital storytelling,
a deep-learning exercise
image-stories exploring personal relationships with the course content;

sitting on a metaphorical suitcase following an old Russian custom:
Just before they set off on the long journey across continents and oceans to whatever new life awaited them, Russian families would gather as a group and sit down upon their bags, look around them in silent awe and reflection. How important this is to stop and make note of the moment, at what has come before, at what it means to be in this moment—we do our own version of sitting on our bags taking in the wonderment of this moment when we are about to begin our journey together.
Then we’ll write.
And we’ll thus have walked though the door of the semester, committed ourselves to this community of learners, of reciprocal apprenticeships (Levy), a moment indeed fraught with awe, a feeling that mixes wonder and fear. When we study together and write together, we open ourselves up to one another; putting our writing out there can leave us feeling exposed and vulnerable (particularly an eighteen-year-old entering college and quite sure that he or she was somehow mistakenly admitted in the first place and will be so woefully behind everyone else in the room) –ah, the delicate moment when there is the potential for response or evaluation from those around us.
After we write for ten minutes or so about this feeling of awe, we will talk about the gremlin sitting on our shoulders laughing derisively at us as we write for an audience, sneering at the very thought of us presuming to be a writer, at having something to say and being able to say it elegantly. We talk about ways to shut that gremlin down, how we can develop ways to write hot and read cold—to balance within ourselves the artist and the critic. We’ll talk about the evaluation process in the course, how they will see no grades until the end of the semester but they will receive a good deal of feedback from themselves, from one another, from me and perhaps even from people beyond our classroom.

We also might create and present small-group metaphor-portraits in which the groups try to represent themselves in a kind of logo or symbol that represents all of them.

EXERCISE FOUR: DEEP-LEARNING EXERCISE

My Story
In class we talk about how to participate in discussions and feedback-loops, about levels of diction and discourse, using archives from previous semesters for our fodder.
We’ll discuss how they will help design the course, how to make it work for us as individuals as well as the group. We talk about collaboratives and about the purpose of a liberal arts education and how our course intersects with those goals. We talk about trust. About making mistakes. Asking dumb questions. Daring to ask dumb questions. About playful inquiry. About TRUST. And efficacy.

We try to place our semester within a much bigger picture of our life journeys and the greater conversations we will join. From our letters to the class, we begin to reflect on our blogs, we push one another to grow as learners and writers, we push ourselves. We might read Levy. Or Greene. Or Dewey and Wenger. We read each other. We always read each other. And we read deeply in our discipline. We look at online communities and try to figure out what makes them successful. We read the early-in-the-semester-works of students from previous semesters.

Blogging enhances the undergraduate course experience, I believe, when we spend time laying a careful foundation for our work online and in class, thinking and talking about how and why connecting this way plays a fundamental role during the precious brief twelve weeks we have together. Because we rarely make our pedagogy visible, students are far too accustomed to going through the motions, to taking our word for it that our assignments have value, to completing work without thinking about how it fits into their lives. I can see the difference in the depth and authenticity of student work when I have taken the time to talk about the value of slow blogging, of slow learning compared from when I’ve been all in a rush to get to the facts and processes of the discipline.

More Examples:
Being playful with image;
http://mt.middlebury.edu/middblogs/ganley/Artswriting%20News%20&%20Updates/003710.html
“>More Play
a deep-learning exercise

II. Mid-course
Ongoing hypertext narrative reflection, renewed goal setting at mid-term, some reflections can be done via podcasts.
First-Unit Reflection

III. Final Week

1. Students prepare a portfolio of their work through selection, revision and hypertext revision:
Mollie’s Final Reflection
Maddie’s Final Reflection

2. They prepare for their evaluation conference with me by posting the final reflection which should include a sense of what this course means to their larger learning journey, and bringing to conference a proposed grade and defense of that grade.

3. We return to our suitcases and to our original letters and Knowledge Trees–students write letters to the next class about what to expect, what they wish they had known at the start, and any other advice.

4. Other options: A gathering of quotations from one another, from other writers in our field.

Links to a wiki filled with links to Web 2.0 resources

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Sweden and Norway : Talking and Touring

fjordhouses
The Sognefjord

Yes, I’ve been away from the blog for a month now, first with my family, and for the past almost three weeks, in Scandinavia for a workshop and a couple of talks and a bit of touring. I left home the day of the Virginia Tech tragedy and have relied on blogs for much of my contact with the U.S. since then; it is a strange time to be away, with disturbing reports streaming across the Atlantic.

Out of the distance; blog reading; travel; and stimulating talk with people at the Humlab in Umeå, the conference at Skelleftea, and the University of Bergen talk are stirring my next series of talks and workshops this month, at The University of Mary Washington”s Faculty Academy, Webheads in Action Online Convergence and the Vermont State Colleges’ Academic Retreat. I am convinced that while it’s important to keep talking about change in education writ large, the most important work occurs day by day in our schools and in our communities writ small. Especially now. Will’s discouragement by the rate and depth of change is to be expected–absolutely–. I find people get quite excited about rethinking teaching and learning — during and just after conferences–but to return to their schools and really make profound shifts takes an unusual level of energy, commitment and, well, bull-headedness. It takes time. Passion. (Someone in Sweden called me a tsunami after my Skelleftea talk.) The kind of change I’m talking about bubbles up from the trenches, one teacher at a time, one classroom at a time, one school at a time, something I wrote about for a talk in England a year ago: Losing Hope to Effect Change.

After a semester spent partly on the road urging people to examine teaching and learning practices, shifting our thinking about what goes on in our classrooms, I am looking forward to getting back to day-to-day practice once again. I’ve got a couple of new courses that will push my thinking and test my practice, including a new first-year seminar:

The Extraordinary in the Ordinary: Exploring the Far Reaches of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction

As twenty-first century writers capturing our experience of place and time, we choose from a smorgasbord of media, forms and audiences, both traditional and emerging. In this workshop-style course designed for students interested in creative nonfiction, we will explore the far reaches of writing today through exercises, research, field trips, presentations and collaborations, We will read John D’Agata’s The Next American Essay as we also examine and engage in blogging, hypertext, radio stories, and/or multimedia essays. At semester’s end we will publish our work online. We will also mentor Vermont high school writers, online and /or in person.

It will be interesting to see if the course description entices any incoming students into joining me in this exploration. In the meantime, I’ll post more thoughts on the upcoming talks and text/audio versions of recent talks, once I’ve returned to Vermont. For now, from Bergen Norway, here are links to my talk slides and wiki.

The workshop at the University of Umeå’s Humlab
It was great to meet Patrik Svensson and to see Stephanie Hendrick again and to think about guest blogging at some point for them. What a terrific facility, and more important, a magnificent concept for collaboration between faculty from across the university:

The basic idea behind it is to stimulate innovative cooperation in a dynamic interdisciplinary setting. Here the humanities and culture on the one hand and modern information and media technology on the other interface and collaborate, both in real terms and virtually. HUMlab attracts students, lecturers, researchers, artists, engineers, media people and others. The aim is to bring together a diverse range of individuals and groups in a creative, stimulating and innovative milieu and – via new methods, new technology and interdisciplinary projects – do things that have never been done before.

From the Humlab blog

From what Patrik said, and what I felt in the room, Bryan’s presence is still very much about the place! Of course, knowing he’d been there helped put me at ease from the get-go. I very much enjoyed working with the teacher educators
deep learning exercise umea workshop, and engaging in such stimulating conversations about blended learning with my gracious host
dag and peeter from Umea at SkellefteaDag, and Peter and their colleagues.
I created
a wiki for them and a practice blog, based in part on the wiki Bryan Alexander set up for our Educause workshop, and the one Barbara Sawhill and I made for our NAIS workshop in February.

The Skelleftea Conference
brought 120 or so educators from throughout Sweden together to discuss the future of blended learning. The day introduced me to Chuck Dzubian
chuck dzubian at Skelleftea
and his research on blended learning,
and Brian Hudson
brian hudson at Skelleftea
and his experience with a blended learning, inter-campus Masters’ program.
Useful talks both, with lots of supporting data and literature. The talks were recorded and will be available on the conference site at some point–(the one thing I would change about their site, now that I am looking at it, is the Dr. next to my name, a title I don’t own, though is often assumed to be mine in Europe as I am a Lecturer–which of course means something different over here–and I have the good fortune of teaching in such a fine undergraduate institution.)

Slide1 skelleftea
Here are my slides from the talk. Once the audio is available I will create a file that weaves them together.

Then it was on to Bergen where I met the remarkable Jill Walker and Scott Rettberg (and ate his amazing cooking), and the wonderful Toril Salen and her blogging cohorts.
Bergen bloggers
I also saw Jan Hoem again, who had given a great presentation at Blogtalk2 in Vienna.

Slide1 Bergen

Here are the talk slides; I’ll post the audio when I return.

Soon.

Beauty and Implausibility in This Thin Place*: Familyscape, Tendrils Out into the World and Talks

*Thin Place defined

“There is probably nothing more beautiful and implausible than the world, nothing that makes less sense, the gray bud of the willow, silky and soft, the silk-white throat of the cobra, the wish of nature or humans to subsume all living matter in fire and blood. I will hurt you, hurt you, hurt you, says the world, and then a meadow arches its back and golden pollen sprays forth.”
–from The Thin Place by Kathryn Davis (p. 12)

I’ve been absent here for some time, and my blogging fingers feel rusty. For the next weeks I will blog sporadically at best as my family pulls ever closer into the cocoon around my father; when I can I do a little work and hit the road for talks. This is not to say that I haven’t been scratching down ideas for next fall’s new course, or talks and workshops and chapters still ahead this spring; or reading in my restless, hungry way—for I have, and these moments, because they are slowed down and intensified, I believe, bring a kind of pleasure and clarity I haven’t experienced in a long time. Ah, the joys of a semester’s sabbatical and the wonders of deep participation in the dying process.

thethinplace.jpg
One of the deepest pleasures has come in the shape of a book, a truly astonishing book. If you haven’t read Kathryn Davis’s new novel, The Thin Place, you are missing a most moving, original use of language, form and narrative—it’s one of the best novels about small-town life and most beautifully-written books I have read in a long time.

out the train window (Manchester - York, England) york minster

Another pleasure was my brief time in England, on the train, snapping pictures out of windows as I have been doing as of late, meandering around medieval York, Victorian Leeds, and then giving a talk at AoC Nilta 2007 where I met wonderful Nigel Paine and many great AoC Nilta folks and caught up with Scott Wilson for a few minutes before racing off to catch a plane to Milan. I’m not convinced that my talk hit the mark as well as I would have liked, but preparing it helped me push my thinking and it seems to have sparked some discussion; a question during Q & A about traditional speeches espousing new ways of doing things motivates me to get more creative as well as passionate, incorporating conversation and/or action.

Here’s the longer, written version of the talk, (the shorter, delivered version captured in audio on the AoC NILTA site), entitled “Blurring the Boundaries, Making It Real: Global & Local, Formal & Informal Learning Landscapes.”

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Getting Ready for England: Memory Stirrers and Stories/ The Social Nature of Learning

Preparing to give a talk in a place I do not often visit, or have never visited, sends me into personal memory and/or imagination as much as into reflections and experiences of this world of twenty-first century teaching and learning. November, before I headed out to Illinois, for instance, had me writing about Willa Cather and the vast open spaces of the prairie as they existed in my imagination; last summer, prepping for a talk in London brought me back to my childhood year in Cambridge, England and had me thinking about how my school days were proof of how so much crucial learning about the world occurs in informal as opposed to formal learning spaces. This weekend I head back to England, and naturally return to that year on the cusp of adolescence (I turned 12) during a time of great turmoil and excitement (1968-69). Plunging back into memories that my busy life has left by the wayside until triggered, back into personal narrative provides me with useful insights into the emerging opportunities to make formal learning more equitable, more effective, and more enduring. Weaving my own small story through my thinking of larger educational questions, in other words, creates its own valuable discoveries.

And because I see preparing for each talk as an opportunity to push my own expressive online practice, I’m playing around with images and voice recordings for this talk–no Powerpoint. No iMOVIE. How scary. How risky.
I’m exploring Splashr:
and
Dumpr, turning
this image of a thicket thicket into this one:thicket image in a circle
and this image of a crow crowinto this one: crow in a circle

Here’s the current draft of the opening anecdote of the talk for AocNilta in Leeds on March 20–I’ll add the complete talk with voice files, etc. once I’ve got it all together. My point here in posting just the opening is the importance of this practice of returning to our own early experiences, reflecting on them and connecting them to what we’re up to in our teaching and learning now. Every post pushes me forward in my thinking, I hope; every talk gives me a fresh opportunity to explore what I’m trying to do in the classroom. People think I’m nuts to prepare a new talk every time out, but if I’m not discovering something new every time I write or speak, how can I expect anyone reading or listening to discover anything…

Blurring the Boundaries, Making It Real: Global and Local, Formal and Informal Learning Landscapes
Sir Robert de BurrA lady and knightSir Roger's face

I have a memory from when I lived here in Cambridge (England) that means something quite different to me now as I near fifty than it did at eleven. That year, while my father was buried deep within the university libraries, digging through eighteenth-century journals and letters, and my brothers and I were trapped inside our stiffly starched schools, my mother toodled around the countryside in our bright red Volvo, searching for brasses to rub. On Saturdays I would sometimes accompany her to one mossy medieval village church or another that instead of stretching to the sky in what my college art professor called the “soaring verticality” of the Gothic church, pushed down into the ground, so squat, so rooted, so damp, so dark. Inside, she would lay a long scroll of black, velvety paper onto a brass figure of a knight or lady right in the church floor, then spend hours bent over, kneeling on a pillow with her silver and gold wax crayons, paying tribute by coaxing it to life onto her paper.

A shy child, a collector, what interested me then were the odd pieces of people’s histories pressed into the dim stained windows and tombstones, and the conversation amongst the people who found their way to the door. Sir Robert's chainmail Sir Robert's knees I listened. I observed. The talk and the stories that wafted from my mother’s spot.

What interests me now is how my mother learned to rub such beautiful impressions of these brasses–informally–she had a book about the monumental brasses of the U.K. that helped her locate them–but that was it. She was willing to make mistakes, to learn as she went, to dismiss the scrim-thin white paper and black charcoal most people used for thick black paper and color in public, among strangers. Sometimes she made huge gaffs, coloring an ear the wrong hue–there was no backtracking. Once committed, the color was there and couldn’t be covered or erased.

Although she was the only one to apply crayon to paper, hers was a collaborative process. From the sexton to the church ladies to visitors to other brass rubbing enthusiasts, she received a near constant flow of suggestion, encouragement, correction, story and conversation. crows at dawn I see now that she learned by conversing, by experiencing glorious failures, by networking with the brass rubbing crowd who told her which church to go to next, where to buy the best supplies, what to say to the grouchy deacon at such and such a church, stories around the figures. It was a bit like the travel boards I loved in India with their tatters of paper pinned with messages for friends, tips for anyone, queries for the around-the-world-traveling network. But it was different, too, as she was not merely messaging–she was actively learning, with purpose, with passion, something quite exacting inside an improvisational, creative, public space.

It speaks to me now of Vygotsky’s (make sure you watch the little video) and Dewey’s theories of the social nature of learning, of Hannah Arendt’s learning as action, of the value of sharing the actual process of expression and creation. I wonder what my mother’s rubbings would look like, or what she would have learned about the the knights and their ladies and the places they lived if she had learned alone in a studio, or in a class. Sure, she would have figured out how to use her crayons, and her book or a teacher would have explained the iconography of the symbols, Sir Robert's feet but what would have been lost– the sense of history’s continuity, the feathering out of meaning beyond the act of rubbing the brass, or her own contributions to the brass rubbing circuit. Rubbing brasses, it turned out, was about far more than rubbing brasses.

In stark contrast, I did learn about brasses in school: in a unit on medieval times, we read about knights, looked at pictures of the rubbings, and ran pencil on paper over the face of a half-crown to simulate the act of rubbing a brass. And then we moved to the next lesson. It meant nothing. The only reason I remember it, I’m sure, is that I knew what these brasses felt under the hand–how big some of them were, how detailed, how expressive, how real.

For the past twenty-five years I have tried to get my students out into the world to rub their own brasses, so to speak, to have those slow conversations that billow out around the central learning purpose, deepening, and adding complexity and richness to the learning–making it real. I want them to feel what Ted Nelson says: “Human ideas, science, scholarship, and language are constantly collapsing and unfolding. Any field, and the corpus of all fields, is a bundle of relationships subject to all kinds of twists, inversions, involutions and rearrangement,” (in Manovich or what George Seimens says: “Conversations are a means to create content.”

But it has not been easy. Our educational systems conspire against a messy, organic approach to learning because it’s difficult to compare one student to another, or quantify the knowledge retained for the moment. And even now, when technology affords us all kinds of opportuntities to make learning real, the classroom walls porous and thus open to a natural give-and-take between the formal and informal, the local and global, the schoolroom and the world, it is challenging work. It’s risky to welcome failure into the classroom, to invite students to take control of their own learning, to remove the yoke of doled-out knowledge sirrobertdeburr in favor of the Sir Robert de Burr Full size murky press of exploration. But as I hope to argue here today, there is a role for schools to play as nerve centers of various learning spaces, precisely because they are more contoured than informal learning spaces, and offer time for concerted exploration, and opportunities for extended collaborations, things difficult out in the messy spaces of informal learning… (more to come)

ELI 2007 Presentation: The World Is Flat: Using Blogs and Skype to Create Communities of Learners and Cultural Literacy

Here is the text/slide/podcast version of our January 22 talk. ( I’ll also post my recent Tufts talk within the next few days.)

Update (Saturday the 10th): The blog is back up and running with commenting reinstated!

To View Larger Versions of the Slides, click on them–you’ll be sent to their home at Flickr.com.

Slide2

Welcome. We’re delighted to share our experiences at two small liberal arts colleges with blogs and Skype in writing, literature and language classrooms. I’m pleased to introduce you to these two remarkable students whose work exemplifies the very best of liberal education in the 21st century within quite traditional institutions. I’m Barbara Ganley, a lecturer in the Writing Program and English Department at Middlebury College, and since the fall of 2001 I have been using blogs and more recently digital storytelling, multimedia essays, podcasting, wikis etc, in my classes. But I’m not a techie. I still don’t know how to use the remote correctly at my house.

But I’ve had to get over myself. My fears. (My loathing.) The shifts occurring so dramatically in the world outside our institutions and the changes in the realities of our students’ lives — what Julie Evans earlier today pointed to as student attitudes and use of technology– pulled me from the complacent slumber of a Rip Van Winkle in a 19th-century classroom (something even Time Magazine gets, pointing to school as the only place a time traveler from a hundred years ago would find virtually unchanged).

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Learning (Once Again) from My Students:To Blog or Not to Blog–the Social Context

NOTE: Middlebury is about to upgrade MT tomorrow (Thursday) , and we’ll probably be offline until Monday, so if you want to jump in and help me think about the threads of this post, you might have to wait until next week.
exeterrivericestorm crabapplesinice

Being on leave this semester, one might well assume, entails little to no contact with students as I try to gain perspective on this work through reading, traveling and writing. And yes, it is true that I have been mighty scarce around my office, and have an away message all cued up on my phone. Nevertheless I am still learning from my students, right here, embodying Paolo Freire’s portrait of “The teacher [being] no longer the one who teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach.” All while trying to be a bit quieter.

But of course the blog is absolutely fair game, and I welcome my students to check it out if they’re interested. Back in 2004 I wrote about the first time one dipped a toe into bgblogging conversations. And now three years later, they are still finding their way here to extend my thinking by wrestling with the question of blogging outside a course as a way to connect their learning experiences and to think deeply through connected, transparent writing. And I gotta say, their comments get more and more interesting as they come to understand the benefits of this asynchronous, extended, letter-writing-like correspondence. If for no other reason than to engage with these fine young thinkers in the conversation about the liberal arts, about writing to learn, and about the relationship between what goes on in the classroom and out, blogging has been incredibly helpful to me as a teacher and learner. (Of course there are other important reasons, namely the conversation with blogging colleagues, the opportunity to work out my ideas in a densely linked narrative, and the exploration of the practice I ask my students to try out. )

While I recommend that readers actually take in the entire discussion growing out of my previous post, and even going back to the ELI presentation itself (slides are now uploaded to the ELI site and the version with notes/text and audio here on bgblogging–(once the MT work is complete), I do want to pull out a few of their points here –they provide a very interesting look into the undergraduate learning experiences of some of our students.

Lizi writes:

“I hadn’t even made the connection that blogging is the one and only thing that I’ve ever done as both a classroom activity and a personal interest. I’ve never thought it strange that our learning remains contained to the classroom. I have a distinct memory though, when we were reciting poems in your class, of one student starting to recite a translated poem and me realizing that we had memorized that same poem, in Russian. I almost didn’t say anything,though, because I felt strange sharing my experiences from another class…For some reason, students (myself included) are still assuming that their projects and time are categorically divided between academic and personal development.”

If we spent more time at the beginning of our school year, semester, course talking about blurring the lines between formal and informal learning, between learners and between modes of expression, and about how students can create their own learning spaces that pull in all kinds of learning, relating it, synthesizing it, reflecting on it and talking about it, together, students might well take more ownership of their learning, developing the kinds of reciprocal apprenticeships that transcend classroom walls and semester systems. Our campuses could get pretty interesting… Whether we do that with social software or through other means is pretty unimportant–just as long as we do… as Megan imagines in her comment:

“…Our classes at Middlebury could be like that. Departments could be more communicative. Perhaps, there wouldn’t be a need for the Independent Scholar major if we were all in fact “independent scholars.” Professors across the board could utilize blogs. We could all meet in rooms where the chairs were arranged in a circle, or Coltrane Lounge was multiplied. In fact, professors could be blogging with one another across departments about educational visions. Perhaps, there might be more service-learning; perhaps, we’d have an Education major; perhaps, student clubs and organizations would then transgress boundaries, and those perspectives might step into the classroom more fervently. Would we be more active?”

Ah, she’s describing what we could be doing in our institutions if we took away the single-subject major, the one-teacher-to-a-learning-space design we have in place. She sees the potential , but she’s pretty realistic, too:

“…Ever since your class, I’ve been struggling to define and redefine what education and learning means for me. And I go back and forth. I remember your class and the very few others I’ve had like it, and I wonder — well, maybe it was really just me. Maybe, this type of learning is only limited to the arts. Yes, Barbara’s class was great–but now I have to find a major and stick with it and follow its rules. You say the blogging stops after the class. You’re right, it does. But the reflecting doesn’t stop.”

I know it doesn’t–but there’s something extraordinary about connected, transparent, archived–yes, documented— reflection–Megan’s to Lizi’s to Julia’s, for instance, that pushes the individual reflection into something even more interesting, something along the lines of Dave Weinberger’s “Small Pieces, Loosely Joined” thinking, taking the time to write out our thinking, showing it to others, responding, linking it to others’ thinking, and then linking back to our own earlier thinking…

And then Megan, in this true spirit of conversation, returns for another comment, in which she observes:

“Sometimes I feel as if I need permission. Not just to blog, but to make connections with what I’m learning to my own life. I still can’t tell sometimes if it’s selfish, if it’s distracting to the intellectual standards of the conversation. Frankly, there is information professors must transmit to their students. Lectures and summative testing are the first two obvious ways for transmitting and evaluating that knowledge. But on the other hand, it’s like putting on a mask every time you enter the classroom–the PC mask. How honest are we with each other wearing that mask? What goes left unsaid? Who chooses not to speak? Who does? Why?

I can never tell if it’s my own personal problem when I find myself struggling with these questions. Are these reflections just a guise for my low self-esteem and the fear of failing to articulate verbally? Or the fact that I learn differently, just as we all do, from other people and it is my responsibility to acquire the skills Middlebury demands of me? Or are my reflections valid? Do they warrant a discussion of change? Even more importantly, do they resonate with other students? “

How often do our students let us know this is how they feel? How often do they venture out beyond the safety of their own bound journals or their trusted groups of friends to discuss these concerns, misgivings, fears? Isn’t this what we should be talking about in our schools? In our classrooms?

And then Julia jumped on, from Oxford where she is studying this year, to comment on the social context in which students blog:

“When you speak of our ability to post on our own social network without censure, one thing to keep in mind is that we are “talking” to our friends, people we know, people who saw us drunk last weekend, who we brush our teeth next to. For most of us, the classroom is still our equivalent to having a real job, it is a professional place “of business.” And you’re right that we have an academic mentality that keeps us from expressing our own, sometimes half-formed, ideas because it goes against everything we’ve ever been taught. The entire reason we got into Middlebury is that we know how to write without “generalizations” and we use “it seems” to stand in for “it is.” We are taught our opinions don’t really matter unless they can be backed up with more experienced opinions that have made it into peer-reviewed journals. It’s just a mentality.”

And later on:

“But most people are terrified of their fellow students. You, the teacher, go home at the end of the day, you remain aloof. We live together, we eat together, we party together, and then we’re forced into this artificial classroom environment where we have to seem knowledgeable without being condescending, and supportive without being overly-friendly.”

Fascinating–I hadn’t really thought about it that way before, but of course it is absolutely true: they compete by day and play by night with the same people in a small liberal arts insitution, at least. And of course in class they must perform–brilliantly. Our classrooms are stages, artificial, dislocated. I am sent back to my books now, to thinkers on space and place: Yi-Tu Fuan and Michel deCerteau, and Gaston Bachelard and Henri Lefebvre
for starters. Now this is what being on leave is all about–having an opportunity to be sent down the strands of thought deep into the study of things I have only glanced at before. And this particular journey has been set in motion by a trio of my students. Brilliant.

Heading Home from ELI–Lessons and Leanings

atlanta from the hotel

This is what usually happens when I head home from a conference–a bundle of perhaps disconnected thoughts needing sorting out..so be forewarned that this is one of my slow-blogging kinds of posts.

Highlights of the conference included meeting Gardner Campbell again (and seeing his colleagues’ adventures with Web 2.0 tools in a new program of first-year seminars), catching up with Steve Warburton, Lanny Arvan, Leslie Madsen Brooks, Cyprien Lomas/a>; and meeting Bitch Ph.D. and Scrivener when we took a field trip to Emory to hear The B talk (which Leslie blogged and I captured on my camera). The star autographs the poster

Of course there was also the delightfully provocative and right-on-the-mark talk by Bryan Alexander, the excellent keynote by Chris Dede and a great intro to ambient mobile video as learning tool. But the best part was watching Barbara and our two student co-presenters deliver their powerful stories (In a few days I will post our talk). Lizi Rocks

For all the talk during the conference about the Net Gen’rs, who they are and what they need and want, and how the work world demands a new system of education, I heard little about how to help students apply critical approaches to their use of technology, or about how to set up effective learning communities that really help students engage in real-world-based learning without the professor looming front and center. I heard a lot of excitement around social software and Second Life and all kinds of tools, lots of ideas for how one might use them in the classroom, lots of reasons for WHY we need to use these tools and how to think about goals and objectives for the learning, but I really heard nothing about the absolutely critical piece in the puzzle–setting up the environment for learning –and I don’t mean physical space, I mean the contact zones, the places to engage in the cycles of disruption and repair of learning, the uneasy space of failure–effective, messy ways of working towards real collective intelligence, the ways in which the learning network will engage across class, culture and circumstance, how the syllabus itself and evaluation rubrics must come out of those first conversations.

Okay, this means that I’m still on the fringes. I get it. Someone called me the grandmother of classroom blogging (sheesh, and I’m not even yet 50), someone else likened me to the teacher to the rest, but I don’t feel much like either. I still stumble along in my practice, searching for how to make the learning experience in my classrooms really account for something worthwhile, scaleable, and lasting–something real. So, I come away from the conference with no answers at all, but once again due to some excellent conversations between and around the sessions, I am re-invigorated, re-radicalized and ready to write what I hope are a couple of good keynotes for European conferences this spring.

Although we had a small audience (interesting in itself that we were overlooked by so many when our students really contributed significantly to the greater conversation about 21st century learning…) , people were engaged and asked excellent questions at the end. One question, in particular, dogged me through the rest of the conference. And wouldn’t you know, it would be Lanny who asked the question (he has pushed me on blog and off to clarify, deepen and explain my thinking and pedagogy more than almost anyone over the past year or so). A concluding observation I made was that most students weren’t yet, at least in my experience, bringing the kind of deep, connected, reflective practice they experienced in the blogging classroom out with them beyond the class at semester’s end. Lizi had explained that she was no longer blogging, that there didn’t seem to be anything to blog about during her senior year in the way I had asked her to do in my class or she had discovered on her own in Siberia. In the Q & A and in a follow up email Lanny voiced his concern that students didn’t find their ordinary lives worthy of this kind of reflection.

He’s put his finger on something that has been bothering me, too, something I didn’t hear other speakers touch upon–that we are not yet really having a lasting impact on the relationship our students have with their learning, bridging formal and informal learning, taking the classroom out of the box and letting it stretch and find its new shape in the world. We aren’t paying enough attention to the participatory gap–to who really gets to talk in the classroom, who really feels ownership of an ongoing blogging experience and why. This is not new territory to be sure, but it is essential territory. Yeah, sure, all of my students take to this active engagement in certain kinds of classroom situations and do quite extraordinary things when given a good deal of responsibility for the course design, implementation and evaluation (alongside their prof who makes sure the opening weeks are devoted to questions of learning communities and what we need to learn in this discipline and why). But even so, they return with remarkable ease to the read-lecture-test scenario, snapping right back into their old student-as-recipient-of-knowledge-and-grades personae.

Sure, former students bemoan the fact that one of the only classes that really asked them to drive their own learning or created a lasting bond between learners as well as a sense of confidence and efficacy was this Motherblog-centered course. They belly-ache about lecture classes, about turgid textbooks, about professors who do all the talking in discussions. But they do so quietly or with their friends on their social network spaces. They’re resigned to the realities of our classrooms, and pretty darn docile about it. After all, it takes a lot of energy, commitment and passion to learn the way I’m asking my students to learn. Very few of them take the reins of their learning squarely in their own hands by finding ways to make it real, to make it their own on their own. And that’s not their fault. It is ours.

The students who do move the blogging out into their lives want to do independent studies (with credit) rather than using reflection-connection-observation as a way to connect to others with similar intellectual and artistic interests and to deepen their learning outside of a graded or a study-abroad experience. In other words, are students still just going through the motions of whatever a teacher puts on their plate whether it be lecture-test or blog-create? Are we blogging teachers really rather altogether too smug and self-congratulatory about our results?

I want to start exploring the reasons for this elastic-band behavior (students will return to the “old” ways once out of our “new” classrooms) and ways I can help students to keep pulling down the silos. Here’s my first take on why my students, once out of the classroom, continue to shoebox their classroom experiences –even those that are transparent, connected, out in the world blogging experiences, why they accept plodding through the traditional academic paper and test and report and project in the classroom in a never-the-twain-shall-meet kind of spirit after they have had a taste of something else.

The first and obvious reason is that thinking deeply about the connections between their courses, between their courses and the world and their own lives seems unnatural to them. Why should they do this? Why would they do this? We’ve only ever shown an interest as teachers in what we design and assign to them–that is the world in which we co-exist with our students. Do we ask our students about their other courses? Do we invite them to bring that learning and their learning from the world into our classes? Rarely. Few teachers seem to foreground active, connected, transparent reflection and written conversation across communities as valuable; when everything in a course is designed and assigned for them, of course that is how students view formal learning–of course that is how they view even this kind of wild experience of the open-walled blogging classroom: something to do as long as someone else is telling them it is what they should/need to be doing. The inner motivation isn’t there. They don’t really get it. They have only done classroom work for the grade. What I am asking here is too risky. They are vulnerable because they are building resumes, traditional accomplishment-based resumes.

Blogging the abroad experience makes sense as it is a “Letters Home” thing: the blog broadcasts their experience to friends and family while serving to expand their own thinking and understanding of their experience. It archives the experience and who they were going through it for themselves and whoever wishes to read it. The more personal pieces are reserved, as makes sense, for their social networking spaces. This kind of blogging feels serious, weighty, and needs something driving it that is BIG, INTERESTING, SCHOLARLY i.e. studying abroad.

But when they come home, slow-blogging outside the classroom feels unnatural to them, especially blogging-about-learning when they are doing it in a vacuum (no instant, motivated community)–apart from the one blogging course and the abroad blogging, they have no experience with this kind of writing or community-building, no place to root it in their lives just yet. It feels risky, too, for other reasons. Who will read it down the road and think poorly of them for their thoughts? They’ve been groomed to be correct, to be the best, to be “on.” I am very concerned by this need to occupy performative space, this disturbing trend of future employers being interested in what a college student wrote about the experience of learning (not to be misunderstood for the kinds of dangerous and/or harmful publishing to the Web that some young people insist on doing). It’s absurd. We are losing the ability to learn for the pleasure of it, for the wonder of it.

Also, my students know what it takes to do deep blogging well, or slow-blogging as I like to call it, and in school they just don’t have time for those kinds of extras. (I certainly know how it feels to be overwhelmed with work–trying to find a clear place in my head to think about my teaching and learning is tough during the semester, but it has been invaluable to my teaching, it is a part of my teaching.)

It also has something to do with blogging outside a community–they can’t imagine anyone wanting to read about or respond to what they think about their studies, and they don’t want to blog to themselves alone.

Teachers like us are working right now in ways that are really making no difference in a sense–students been so encultured, the lessons so engrained about doing what they’re told, that not only are they uneasy when enter our fluid classes, they often snap right back into the old mold when they depart…they only bring in their lives outside the classroom when we ask them to… and yet their lives leak into the classroom at every turn. This continued dichotomy between what can happen in such a classroom and what happens beyond and after is something I want to discuss with my students from the past six years as I start to plan new courses for next year. I need their help to make the classroom more relevant and worthwhile than before–much to learn.

And so as I head home to snowy, frigid Vermont, I’ve got much to keep me warmly engaged, and that means it was a useful conference.
Lake Champalin from the sky