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).

Continue reading

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

Preparing for Educause’s ELI Conference in Atlanta

Tomorrow I head to Atlanta with one of my former students, Lizi, to co-present with Barbara Sawhill and one of her students, Evie:

newtitleslide

Apart from looking forward, in particular, to watching these two stellar blogging students interact with our audience, I am hoping to catch up with blogging buddies and to attend several talks, including Chris Dede’s, my good friend, Bryan Alexander’s, the preconference workshop by Joann Martyn of Carleton College on using visual media to teach critical thinking, and Cyprien Lomas’ session on Teaching and Learning with Ambient Mobile Technologies.

It’s been interesting to prepare for the conference from Oberlin and Middlebury–I’m not sure we really nailed the best way to share our evolving talks, (email, audio files to give the group a sense of the voice and narrative such as Barbara has done with her first draft–especially important since we do not all know one another–, blogs to post thoughts and elicit feedback as Evie has done, Skype for in-the-moment consults, and Flickr for sharing and commenting on draft slides ), but I rather liked pulling from a variety of platforms to get a pretty dynamic talk ready to roll out. We’ll see how it comes together… and I’ll post the talk once it’s finalized.

Revelations in Dallas

dallasreflections.jpg roundup.jpg
And no, I didn’t get to take in the Kimball or the Dallas Museum of Art or the Sixth Floor Museum–just the sprawling Dallas Convention Center and the historic Adolphus Hotel and the shuttle between the two. That’s what happens when you attend only the first couple of days of a huge conference. But in that convention center I met some great people and learned about some impressive projects going on in classrooms in Virginia, Nebraska, North Carolina, Minnesota and Michigan.

It was a real pleasure to spend Monday with the marvelous Bryan Alexander and the nearly 50 participants in our EDUCAUSE workshop on Social Software in Teaching and Learning.

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Bryan telling stories…

The biggest challenge for me was the range of experience with and exposure to social software among the participants. While a few attendees had very little knowledge of blogs and wikis–though you wouldn’t think so from this shot I snapped after Bryan asked, “Who has ever edited a wiki?”
IMG_0229.JPG
–we also had a Dutch team teaching social bookmarking to seven-year-olds and embedding video of us into the wiki almost in real time. Knowing that we only had a day, and being a believer in student-centered learning, I felt the pressure of getting everyone talking and thinking deeply about their learning and that of the students in their schools. Bryan’s wonderful session wiki helped immensely as it gave our most advanced participants an opportunity to contribute, and contribute they did, adding content to the wiki as we spoke. Inspired by the incomparable Nancy White and her use of Flickr in presentations, I used a Flickr slide show as part of the introduction to my teaching and learning. From now on I plan to use the combination of the two–and invite attendees to contribute to both as I’m presenting–this approach creates an interesting relationship between presenter/facilitator and attendee/contributor, closing in on the kind of interactive conference session I’m after that includes collective knowledge building through the wiki and Flickr as well as discussion following brief presentations. Keeping the presenting part to a minimum is tough, though… And of course, the network connections have to be reliable… The workshop went well, I think, combining Bryan’s looking ahead and deeply with my looking into the classroom. Not surprising at all were the many questions about privacy, assessment, and motivating faculty. Yes.

Other highlights of my brief stay in Dallas included two excellent conference sessions–one so inspiring that I haven’t stopped talking about it all week. In “Time, Space and History” prominent historians Edward Ayers of The University of Virginia and WIll Thomas of The University of Nebraska showcased their Aurora Project (watch their presentation here). Daring to consider historical scholarship in four dimensions through digital means (GIS, xml, coding, visual patterning, ect.), and inspired by the work of weather visualization and analysis, these two noted scholars are portraying the individual and community stories of Reconstruction and the expansion of the railroads against the larger sweeps of history, showing time as well as space as they “weave together the patterns of a multidimensional history” instead of continuing solely with monograph-based historical scholarship.

Students in Ed Ayers’ classes contribute to the project in real ways, including examining historical primary source documents, county by county, and writing brief historical narratives from the documents. Each student writes ten of these page-and-a-half narratives–“Imagine writing history for a cellphone,” Ayers explained–which are reviewed by grad student TAs before being published on the project site linked to the GIS maps, graphs, visuals of all sorts. They spoke of the “productive anxiety” students feel when asked to do something that they have never done before, that no one has done before. The professors tell their students that they are making it up as they go–how many teachers say such things in class? These students are learning the discipline as they are doing it. They are developing the discipline as they learn it. Fantastic! This is how we can weave together the best traditions of classroom learning and the new opportunities afforded by emerging technologies. It was a riveting talk exemplifying authentic learning.

The second session of note, “Gaming as Pedagogy: Teaching College Economics via a Video Game” showcased a visually enticing computer game created for a mid-level economics course at the University of North Carolina- Greensboro as a way for students to apply what they learn while being engaged by the stimulating environment of a computer game. I can see its appeal and its usefulness to assess understanding in a choose-your-own-adventure kind of setting, but I don’t much like the fact that the only options available are set out for the students–they have to choose one route over another, one decision over another, but are not able or asked to give their own reasoning. They click and move on, click and watch, read or mull over, click again. They are applying their learning, sure, and it’s fun, absolutely, but they are not contributing here; there’s no asking the students to articulate for themselves what they have learned. They aren’t doing the discipline I guess, but playing it. The students sure love it, signing up in droves for the section that offers the game. To see a sneak preview, check out their site–they definitely win the award for coolest hand-outs (creature mask, demo disk, and beautiful promotional booklet).

I also found myself at a poster session on Media MATRIX which is “an online application that allows users to isolate, segment, and annotate digital media”–very interesting examples from political science and history classes. I plan to spend some time trying it out and perhaps inviting my students to use it in their research papers later this semester. Promising.

Hearing at the NITLE reception more about some of the extraordinary online work going on at Carleton College, including a full-semester multimedia and blogging course on the road that I had learned about earlier from Sarah Lohnes has me absolutely green with envy. This is how I want to teach!

It was quite extraordinary to see the kind of creative, powerful work being done across the country, and so I returned to Middlebury both inspired and refreshed, ready to keep pushing forward with these ideas, ready to get back to my own classroom, ready to get back to Vermont. geese adirondacks

A Recent Conversation on Blogging for The Vermont State Colleges

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Ah, I’ve been away from the blog too long.

I have several posts waiting for me, posts stirred by comments from the likes of Terry Freedman and Lanny Arvan, on topics ranging from a clearer articulation of what I mean by teaching in a syllabus-less classroom to a clearer articulation of how, exactly, I see images in my classes. I am afraid that the frantic pace at which I am moving these days between teaching, talking and family have made my posts a little thin, a little less carefully developed than I would like them to be. Oh well–at least I’ve been able to show my last few posts and the resulting comments to my students as models of useful blogging conversation and feedback.

So, no, today I am not going to blog back to Terry or Lanny; I’m not going to talk about Chris Sessum’s wonderful new post on “relationships of knowledge, teacher learning, and practice”, or the interesting Skype show I participated in two nights ago about assessment of student blogging over at languagelabunleashed, or even the fascinating group of students I am lucky to be teaching this semester or the new group of world bloggers embarking on their study abroad ventures. Soon, I hope, I’ll get to those posts. For today, I’ll share the slides and text version of the talk that kicked off an afternoon-long conversation a couple of days ago with a spirited group of teachers and administrators from the Vermont State College System on the other side of the splendidly autumnal Green Mountains. And if I can get the audio sounding okay, I’ll post that, too.

I’m not covering new ground here–it is a talk introducing my classroom work with blogs and urging the group gathered to think first of the goals they and their students have for their learning, and how the new literacies affect how and what we teach.
The text served as a guideline, but in the actual talk, I departed from it frequently, pulling in additional examples both from theory and practice.

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BlogHer 2006: Mixed Feelings

I’m still in California, so the unsettled feeling I am experiencing can’t be attributed to jetlag; rather, I am feeling quite uneasy about some of what I observed and heard at BlogHer this weekend. On the one hand, it was a kick to be one of some 700 women bloggers for two days–the energy, humor and good will were palpable among the attendees–and some of the conference was very interesting and thought-provoking–facilitating the edublogging session with Laura and Barbara, for instance, was great; as was running into Stephanie Hendrik whom I had met at Blogtalk; hearing Dina Mehta, Grace Davis and Sarah Fordtalk about their blogging relief efforts; meeting the incomparable Nancy White and hearing her talk about how to set up and nurture online collaborative community sites; having J D Lasica of all people videotape our session.

But rumbling through the two days was, as Laura points out, a strong whiff of the almighty dollar. People were looking for hints on increasing traffic to their blogs, making money blogging, encouraging advertisers. In sessions I attended, and in the buzz around the pool, there was a whole lot of attention paid to getting people to your blogs. Fascinating.

Okay, so I learned that my world is indeed what I expected to find out–a bit out of touch. But I expected there to be a huge outcry against DOPA–after all, Danah Boyd spoke on Day Two. But no–NOTHING within my earshot. And in fact, as I went around talking about it, I found out that many, many bloggers, including those in academic circles, hadn’t even heard of it. How can that be? I was shocked and not a little bothered–we were surrounded by the sponsors giving us everything from zipdrives to condoms, fake flowers to souped up water; but no talk about legislation that will deepen the digital divide by making blogs and other social networking sites out of reach for kids without computers in the home, and force those who do use the sites underground to form their communities. Read Danah Boyd’s inspired research on MySpace and adolescents if you don’t believe me.

And so while I was pleasantly surprised to see how many people showed up for the edublogging session, and how they really wanted to talk about all kinds of Web 2.0 and learning topics (and how challenging so many of them felt sifting through the Web to find helpful sites on pedagogy and technology integration, on places for teachers to gather) I was dismayed by the lack of substantive talk about what’s going on with the Internet and kids. And in fact there were very very very few teens in attendance. And teens of color?

Maybe I just felt uneasy in a crowd of women who were basically having a ball blogging and meeting other women who blog and whose lives have changed through finding this means of expression. Maybe I’m too wrapped up in the future, on trying to reform education. Maybe I should have sat down with a couple of Yahootinis and stopped thinking about DOPA. But I can’t…it’s too big…

I threw this idea out there a while back, but now, now I’m convinced we’ve really got to figure out how to have an edubloggers gathering (K-16, and teacher-training programs), a face-to-face one where we sit down for two-three days and hammer out better ways for us to collaborate, to get materials and ideas to those who need them, and to talk about keeping the internet open to all.

And so, I’m gad, really glad, that I went to BlogHer, for it illuminated for me the current state of blogging, both the good and the bad. And it’s making me ever more determined to get out there and do what I can to get people talking about teaching and learning.

BlogHer 2006: Talking about Education outside the Edublogosphere

I’ve been quiet on the blog for nearly two weeks due to a schedule filled with projects and planning and snatches in the garden and lovely moments with family—true true—-but really, now that I’m here at the keyboard, I confess that the multitude of fascinating projects has been as much an excuse right now not to post as a real reason why I have been scarce around these parts. When I received an email from Terry Freedman today in which he extended his hope that I was enjoying my vacation, I thought, vacation? what vacation–and I told him as much. And indeed, I have been absorbed by my work this summer, and it’s been incredibly exciting to move between plans for my fall teaching to workshops for Middlebury faculty, and writing applications for grants (well, that’s not all that exciting) to leading and planning Web 2.0 workshops and giving talks and writing and reviewing and meeting with colleagues in the field. Phew–it’s a whirlwind and incredibly stimulating.

But truth be told, I have dragged my feet on the blog because the closer I have come to BlogHer, the further away I’ve been from knowing what I want to say in the session on edublogging where I am co-presenting with two of my absolute must-reads in the edublogosphere, Barbara Sawhill and Laura Blankenship. I couldn’t quite get my head around what to say in a non-education-oriented conference. After all, many people outside this realm, when they hear the word “education” during the course of a conversation, smile politely and let it just pass on by without comment. As Ken Robinson said in his riveting talk, (and in his equally compelling book, Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative, people don’t want to talk about education; they want to tell their own learning stories, sure, the terrible or wonderful things that happened to them in school, but they blanch at the mention of EDUCATION (and I DO try to stay away from that word as it smacks of the delivery-system of knowledge rather than the student -centered process of learning). They hear me say, “I’m an edublogger” and they recoil just a bit or look blank. And indeed, in the din of the pre-conference shindig for presenters last evening, someone thought I said I was an “anti-blogger” not edublogger–ha. I bet some of the people here (and even in my edublogging world) think this loose kind of essay writing I do is anti-blogging. I know that. I’m okay with that. In fact, the reason I wanted to come to BlogHer was to see the wider world of women bloggers first hand. Do they struggle getting their voices heard in a male-dominated world? Do they care? How do I talk about the things I am passionate about in teaching and learning to people outside this world? If we don’t want disasters such as DOPA to strike again and again, we have to get out beyond our own set of readers and thinkers as well as throw ideas around with one another.

I’m learning, I’m learning…

And I’ll be back with another post on creativity in the classroom–

Lessons Taken from the Gathering of Digital Storytellers

Spending two days with a group of digital storytelling facilitators working largely outside of the world of formal education but squarely within the world of social activism was not only refreshing but useful. I learned a lot about how people outside formal ed are thinking about technology, and how they are promoting informal learning and personal empowerment. I found myself really trying to sit back and listen, to learn, to take in more than trying to push the conversation in any particular direction. Ha–Ms. Passionate staying on the quiet side!

I found it very interesting how the stories’ dependence on technology didn’t provoke particularly interesting discussions about technology or pedagogy. The facilitators were interested in learning about software and shortcuts, ways to make the work-with-technology easier and ways to keep up with developments about hosting sites and such–but really, they wanted to talk about their projects and the communities they were serving, showcasing the impact digital storytelling was having on their communities. There were lots of questions about next-steps–how to grow the movement, how to convince their own organizations or funders to support the work, and how to share the work. There was some tension between the process and the product, between the creator and the audience.

Of course I jumped into informal between-sessions conversations to talk about ways in which social software might ease that tension, and might well deepen the experience for the storytellers, and extend the reach of the work’s impact. Initially I met with some resistance to social software–blogs were seen as a waste, a distractor, or a isolating factor by some. I heard young people in the group apologize for using MySpace. This morning, an article on the front page of the Boston Globe made me think of that reluctance to think about how perhaps online tools might well help them solve the very problems expressed. Entitled It’s lonely out there: Connections fray in wired America, study finds, the article by Scott Allen opens with the following:

Americans don’t have as many close friends as they used to.
We’re networking on myspace.com, sharing photos and text messaging on our cellphones, and blogging at all hours. But a major national survey being released today shows that the average number of people with whom Americans discuss important matters has dropped from three to two in just two decades, a steep falloff in confidants that startled the researchers.

The study by sociologists at Duke University and the University of Arizona provides powerful evidence for the argument that the country is becoming increasingly socially isolated even as cellphones, the Internet, and other technology make people more interconnected.

Hmmm… Even though he doesn’t come right out and say it, the writer sure is implying that it is because we are on blogs and MySpace and wikis that we do not have strong connections with the people in our lives. This is, of course, nothing new. Book after book after article after article take this position. And indeed, if people are aimlessly wandering around about on the Web or on the streets, bored, restless, they aren’t going to be connecting with others in ways that build strong bonds and a feeling of belonging and wellness. On the heels of the conference, it helped me see why social activists hesitate to try out the Web’s connectivity through their own practice , even when they use the same words–bonding and bridging—that I do, and even when they are actively using digital media technology in their work. Blogs are getting slammed out there in the media–

So when I got up to talk with my student, Remy, I hoped to convey a sense of how blogs, for one, by giving people a place to establish a linked reflective practice (linked to one’s earlier posts by referencing them and by literally being a scroll or click away) help weave a powerful narrative of a person’s relationship with the work and the community of practice. Blogging as a meta-practice can deepen the experience for the community members by grounding it in their own lives, their own experience, their own reasons for coming to the community of practice using digital storytelling. Blogging as a meta-practice for facilitators can help clarify, chronicle, contextualize, situate the experience of facilitating for themselves and their organization.

Again (or as usual) I’ll quote from E. M. Forster: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” So, why, some might ask, does this expression have to be on a public blog? Yes, the linking aspect makes sense–but why not keep one only to be read by oneself? Well, that’s certainly a possibility, and when the context is extremely sensitive or vulnerable, that’s understandable. But with a public blog–and what I’d advocate (again as usual), is linking individual blogs from the community off of a group blog or something like drupal, where other kinds of interactions and publishing can go on– sharing the reflection means that you are reaching out to others–your community of practice directly by and the world beyond, to learn from them if they swing by and converse with you via comments, or to teach them through your own stories, experience and reaching-out. And that kind of sharing in an age-old letter-writing manner can help grow ideas for the organization through collective intelligence, deepen the bonds between the members, reach out to other communities. Informal learning can take place, developing of a strong personal and group voice, and a sense of looking out into the world and trying to make a difference. Community engagement can be positively affected. And blogs are great ways to link to digital stories–stories that can be embedded within text, or coupled with images, or open to comments.

And then I handed things over to my student Remy, who did a splendid job being a case study, in essence, talking about how he started by reading blogs, and then tried out blogging in fits and starts until the practice really informed his digital storytelling–the writing and using images and working ouut his ideas and getting feedback from his readers. And then he showed his stunning digital story (which he should have up and running on his blog soon)–he learned a tremendous amount being at the conference as a presenter as well as a participant.

After our talk many people joined us to discuss how a Web community might enhance their own experience, give their constituents more opportunities to develop a voice, and be an important tool in strengthening their communities while reaching out to other groups and individuals. But there wasn’t enough time–we were last up during at long two days. There simply wasn’t time. And so we’ll continue that conversation here and on the blog from the conference (interesting that there’s a blog but it really isn’t being used by the community except to access information) and in other venues that we’re developing.

A couple of highlights from the gathering–presentations by:
Shira Golding, Director of Education & Outreach, <a href=”http://www.artsengine.net/index.php”target=”_blank”<Arts Engine Here are my notes blogged from her session:

Arts Engine was founded by documentary filmmakers working on social issues; they wanted to make an impact with their films and realized there needed to be a much broader network for the makers and the users of film. They house MediaRights.org–a powerful resource and tool for filmmakers for social change and people who want access to films. The films here include digital stories. It is community driven for the most part. Arts Engine doesn’t curate the films. To do so, they started the Media that Matters Festival, a festival working year-round and through as many platforms as possible; it streams online (you can see photos through Flickr or the films on Google Video) On the website you can view the films, learn about them, and be linked to context of the specific film–places to learn more about the issue and to take action. They also realized that online interaction can only take you so far–they also have a traveling film festival and a DVD and tools available for people who want to use the films to make an impact (including posters, press releases, programs, etc., evaluation forms)–to watch within a community.

Concepts needing to be discussed by this movement–
Process versus Product: You can get swept up with the product when you’re talking about distibution and outreach. We can’t forget process. Taking a moment at the beginning, during the process to talk about audience–who will view it and why?
Marginalization vs. Integration: We have to think about digital storytelling as part of a larger form, independent media, instead of a wee, lesser form. They do this with Youth Media as well.
DIY vs DIWP: There is an attitude in independent media that you can do it all yourself; you have to open up to making it with partners–community groups, etc to reach your audience with the most impact.

The Story Development Process Josh Schachter of StoriesMatter and Cheryl Crow of Bridges to Understanding–Josh really gets the media literacy aspect and how to listen to the those doing the storytelling, letting them take the lead at every turn. Inspiring work. My notes:

Josh: Has been working with teenagers and their community stories in image and text; the Tuscon newspaper carries the stories. He’s worked on US/Mexico border to teach photography–what’s it like to live by the fence, etc.

Cheryl: Bridges to Understanding in Seattle –giving children who didn’t have a voice a voice, linked kids in the Amazon with kids in Seattle. The focus now is middle school and elementary students posting their digital stories to share with others around the world. It’s moving towards being an issue-driven model rather than sharing of personal stories.

Josh: He focuses on visual storytelling. He showed a story by a student on a reservation–the process took three weeks. Josh had to learn a whole new form of communication and teaching–the community didn’t want to talk about the issues.
“Why do we even take pictures? How are they used in society? Are they the truth?” These are the basic questions he starts out every class with. The essentialness of teaching image literacy. Every photograph is a self-portrait.
Taking metaphor and turning it into matter–hope, sorrow, confusion, for example. He gives students an image scavenger hunt–he gives them abstractions, and the kids have to go out and take photographs of time, memory, etc.

Then he goes into composition and lighting. And the moment in time captured (he uses film clips and has kids take a freeze frame that expresses it and talks about how the meaning would be changed if they had shifted the frame by a second) .

He talks with them about assumptions they have about people and subject matter.

Visual Variety: (Life Magazine’s formula for taking photo stories, too)

Strategies for getting students to the stories
–Take into account individual differences
–If fixated on text–force them to tell it in 5 pics or just spoken word
–Do interview exercises
–Find what excites them
–Have them tell story without looking at the script, poetry slam
–Screen clips
–Get peers to help
–Go take twenty pictures of the same thing
–Found objects within the community

Cheryl: How much do you prepare before you gather your visual data? What’s the balance between letting unexpected things arise and having a plan?
A worldwide project on the theme of water in their lives and communities– shows a short clip of a piece from Peru and one from New Mexico; the kids in New Mexico didn’t want to talk about water. On the photoshoot, the stories opened up and the kids got to talk about what they wanted to talk about.

So much potential here for social software. I’m looking forward to BlogHer where I hope to listen to bloggers such as Nancy White and Dina Mehta and many others working with activist groups and other nonprofits outside the formal education realm. Can’t wait.