Free flow: watching & learning from my students

waiting for spring

While I’m sorting out my problems with archived posts’ broken links (argh), wrestling with upcoming talks, and complaining about Vermont’s never-ending winter, I thought it would do me and you good to move to a more positive outlook and point to some extraordinary work my students are doing with Web-based practices. 😉 (This is what I will miss next year.)

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Even though Alex has taken three classes with me, I cannot say that I have taught him much of anything. He’s just plain old inventive, daring, creative, talented and willing to find the rules for himself, for each experience, rather than conform to some static set delivered to him. As has been true with a long line of students, I’ve been learning a good deal from him, as are my current crop of creative writers, for they have the good fortune to have him as one of their senior writing tutors. He was blogging well before he met me, and has continued blogging, folding into his own brand of link-blogging his creative and reflective writing on all manner of topics, currently on Mongolia (where he spent last semester) and heavy metal. He receives comments from people all over the world who share his particular interests, as well as from former teachers, family members, classmates and friends. His is truly a dispersed, loosely-knit, ever-fluid network. He is also a truly amazing photographer and one of my favorite Flickr commenters and cohorts (just look at this image, for instance), and so I am glad, also, to point to his new photoblog.

Some of this output is connected to his coursework (the more formal pieces on Mongolia and metal are part of the independent study he’s doing with me right now) but most of it is not. There’s no place in our courses for this kind of expressive work (he’s had to resort to an independent study), and that’s sad. But he perseveres, and makes the connections between his courses, his interests and the world on his own, because he’s that kind of learner.

My intro-creative writers are also exploring online expression in interesting ways, using a range of tools and practices to find form and meaning, moving away the now-traditional CDS-style digital-story. A few examples: Lois moves her own paintings, music and video into her story. In a quick in-class exercise Kyle creates a Flickr poem, which changes the entire experience of engaging with the text. Clare makes a hypertext creative nonfiction using only image and sound and requiring the involvement of the viewer. All of these projects underscore the students’ understanding of a degree of reader choice and involvement in the writing of the piece. They are writing for more than themselves, actively immersing their reader into the making of the work. And none of them had ever done any of this kind of writing before.

When students have opportunities to find their own forms while contextualizing them within their own lives, their own means of solving the problems we set out for them in our assignments instead of having them adhere to well-oiled formulaic structures and expected outcomes of our disciplines, what might they teach us and themselves? What might they break through to in making connections? In his ELI talk last month, George Seimens quoted historian William Cronon: “More than anything else, being an educated person means being able to see connections so as to be able to make sense of the world and act within it in creative ways.” This, this is what my students are trying to do, and in spite of some hefty impediments in their path, in their hypertext reflections on writing creative nonfiction, they show that they get it. They are connecting, and learning to connect, and learning to make connections. I see it in how they see the importance of learning to read as a writer–from the inside–instead of as a scholar only–from the outside. They are trying to connect to their readers as well as to their subject matter, to themselves as well as to some abstract notion of academic excellence. And playing around in this connected medium really helps them to do just that.

How many teachers can say that a first stop on their online daily tour is their students’ blogs, not to check up on them, but to learn from them?

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Building a Course, Weaving a Story: Writing the Experience

under the gable end

The first thing our architect did when designing our house was ask each of us to write a narrative about our relationship to space–what kinds of spaces we felt drawn to, how we felt in various spaces, how we felt about colors and textures and memories of spaces and places we loved. He didn’t want to know what we thought our house should look like, or what rooms it should contain–he wanted to know how we felt, what we believed about the world, who we were. After he read our four narratives, he sat down in front of us and made a quick sketch of the exterior of what now looks very much like our house. It was remarkable. And it was us. It surprised us to discover things about one another through these narratives (it’s a terrific exercise for families, and communities of practice), and through talking through the design of the house. When we built the house, our architect made plaster casts of our faces, and embedded them into the gable ends. I look out over my garden, my husband to the sunrise, one daughter to the sunset and the other to the mountains. We are the place, the place is us, quite literally, as the impressions of our faces, the narratives we wrote weave us into the fabric of the house. We thus also connect deeply to one another, four points on our home’s compass. We like to think that our faces give the house personality, our collective, complex personality.

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What does this anecdote have to do with writing, teaching and the teaching of writing? For me it suggests how I try to teach writing. I have to reveal my beliefs about writing, and the students do, too. We have to think about ourselves as points on the compass of this writing experience. I have to be available as a writer. Show them how I read as a writer. Show something of my struggles with writing, with writing digitally, with the decisions only I can make about and for my writing–all without imposing myself on the community. (I highly recommend Teaching One Moment at a Time, in which Dawn Skorczewski explores “the delicate negotiation” in writing classes.) Teachers, in my experience, tend to over-articulate or under-articulate–but do little modeling, have little self-awareness about how their own beliefs and attitudes are affecting the course experience, all while holding set (and rather mysterious) expectations for outcomes. We are, for the most part, terrible listeners. How are students to know what it is they are supposed to be creating if they have never seen one of these beasts before? Where is there room for student innovation? Beliefs? What does excellence look like at the intro level? The advanced level? Why? The University of British Columbia Murder, Madness and Mayhem Course Wikipedia projectThe University of British Columbia Murder, Madness and Mayhem Course Wikipedia project, described here so well by Brian Lamb, gives students real-world experience finding their way, collaboratively, to high standards of content and writing in their field. It’s an incredible example of what college students and their inspired teacher can do, collaborating, reflecting, listening, revising.

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Today my creative writing class had our second discussion on grading. The group proposed and discussed percentages to assign the various areas of the course to be assessed–areas they had decided upon in the first discussion; after narrowing the field down to three proposals, they asked for a couple of days to reflect before we put it to a vote and finalized the balance between self and external evaluation.

grading percentages

This group has slowly, slowly come together, much more tentative about group practices than other classes, quieter in discussion, and uncomfortable with the need to comment on one another’s work. It is a situation that comes close to unnerving me, so delicate is this balance between all the learners and their writing journeys, so strong are my beliefs about what a good writing community looks like. Some days I have wondered if we’re getting anywhere, if I have stunned them with such newness that they cannot take the first steps, even. But things have shifted. As they do. Especially when I relax, when I become more self-aware. As I have increasingly pulled out of discussion, letting them wrestle with reading-as-writers after having modeled for them how I read, and then scaffolding the process, they have gradually gained confidence in discussion, on the blog, in conference and in workshop–and in their writing. Coming over to my house last week for food, laughter, collaborative writing exercises, and a glimpse of my life as a person with a house, a husband, a dog and some weird stuff around the walls helped them feel the power of the collaborative. They were ready to tackle the insides of the course, what we mean by taking this course.

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And indeed, today’s discussion on grading was lively, provocative and meaningful–it belonged to everyone. They spoke out for what they believed, listened to one another, moved towards consensus. I asked tough questions. They asked tough questions. And they wanted more time–to go deeper, to think about it. They slowed down on their own.

The same thing is happening on the blog, where I am one writer among many; rather than primary respondent and feedback-giver. After a few weeks of fumbling with the blog, looking for me to take the lead, they are starting to take it over. After hearing their voices in writing and in recordings, they are losing their shyness. And they see me as a writer in action, playful and experimenting, sometimes writing well, sometimes missing my mark, struggling to find meaning and then to convey it in a way that moves my reader. I know how hard it is to write well. And they are learning to trust themselves, one another, and me. When I do give them feedback, it is always in response to specific questions they ask about their writing. They come to one-on-one conferences prepared to critique their work before I do. And when I give them feedback, they really take it in, and then I promptly narrate my thinking process for them, to show them how I read their writing. That’s the best part of the one-one-one conference, watching them learn how to ask good questions of their writing, watching them gain control of their writing.

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I’m the architect, I suppose, of this course, but a resident, collaborative one, who tries to listen to their narratives about what they need to learn and why, connecting our points on the compass through the bones and veins of the coursework, weaving our personalities and beliefs and writing styles deeply into the story of this course.

Why Open A Creative Writing Course with Multimedia Experiments

How many creative writing courses include multimedia writing? Hypertext writing? How many creative writing/English departments (in small liberal arts colleges, at least) include multimedia writing courses at all? Do all painting classes insist on students grinding their paints? Do all photography classes insist on film-cameras only? Do dance departments insist on all-ballet-all-the-time? Shouldn’t students have a range of experiences? Shouldn’t we encounter the tools of the time, the full range of the art of the time at some point in the curriculum? Shouldn’t we move out of our comfort zones and play?

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Three weeks into creative writing class, a course that the students, when they signed up, had no idea would pull them into multimedia writing (all sections of Introduction to Creative Writing carry the same generic description, and no other section involves writing beyond text-on-paper), and already I am in awe of my students’ creative daring and their willingness to move into expressive terrain new to them as writers. Yes, they have a lot of experience looking at media–at multimedia, and writing–essays and poems and stories and shards of things in their journals or on Facebook; some of them have tried out a movie, many have taken pictures. But few have actually actively explored multimedia as an avenue for creative writing as viable as straight-up text-based creative nonfiction, fiction or poetry. Many of them, in their reflective blogging, even admit to some early consternation about multimedia and blogging being a part of a creative writing course at all. They are surprising themselves by how much they have learned about story and narrative and structure and voice–all traditional concerns of the writer, by moving outside the confines of words alone. It happens every semester.

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So why blog about this moment of the semester again? After all, I’ve been peppering the Twittersphere almost daily with my delight and astonishment over the discoveries; over the years here I have blogged repeatedly about how if you just help students open the window beyond what they thought it was okay to do in school, they would astonish you and themselves and anyone watching with their inventiveness, their intelligence, their boldness, their desire to reach down into their deepest creative recesses. I have long opened my courses with a multimedia unit. What’s different this semester is the quality and range of these early projects, the use of Web-based tools and the willingness to shake their own need to be right, to be good, to be, well, best. Most of them have also forgiven me for NOT being a famous writer. They are peeling away the layers of preconceived notions about being in a creative writing course in a school known for creative writing. And wow…

We spent the first three weeks exploring image and sound and text, individually and integrated. We played, we looked, we played, we listened, we played, we talked.

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And then I set them loose to create a multimedia piece that expressed something they felt they had to express, something that was not merely dazzling but meaningful. I urged them to consider the emotional as well as narrative arcs of their work; to think about entrances, exits and the terror of the middle; how the piece has to do more than exert their own fascination with their experience. It has to matter. And they had to make discoveries in the process. Or as Robert Frost put it, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”
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This group of 17 used all kinds of media and each other to extend their toolset, their subject matter, their creativity, their understanding. They truly taught one another and themselves and me.

One student is making an installation; some used audio/image, some text/image, some audio/text/image; lots of iMOVIE, some hypertext, slides–we used no college server, few expensive high-end tools. It was scary. Frustrating. Yet already they have stretched themselves to consider themselves as writers both in traditional ways–hunkering down with words on paper, and in emerging ways–exploring the ways in which words, images, and sound can come together on the computer screen or in a gallery space.

Here’s just a narrow sampling, including reflections (check out their individual blogs for more):

A project that lifts iMovie to new heights: Memory plus Kyle’s reflection–a first in this course–on Voicethread

A project using music as effectively and essentially as image and text:Imagine a Little Girl

Another use of image, text and voiceover: Shira And from her Reflection:

That is what multimedia has taught me. Know your story and know the tool you wish to shape it with. Because we have more options, we also have a greater responsibility – obligation, almost – to choose the best media, present our story exactly as it should be presented. As writers of the twenty-first century, we should know our alternatives and learn how to use the multitude of media available to us. If we choose to peel a potato with an axe, we should do so not out of ignorance at using the potato-peeler, but out of knowledge that the final effect, as well as the process, is the one we are after.

A project containing the student’s paintings: Catharsis

A dramatic narrative playing with voice, text and image Laura Lying (in the lane) plus reflection–excerpt here:

That being said, this has been an awkward unit for me. While I’m more willing to “put myself out there” in a realm where perfection has not yet been defined and creativity is key, it is still tricky to try to navigate through the world of electronics with words. I’ll admit that I was displeased when I learned that I was going to be blogging and creating a multimedia project in my writing class. I was set for the traditional write-my-piece-get-it-critiqued-do-a-rewrite-hand-it-in-for-comment-by-the-professor course. After the first couple of days, however, I saw that this wasn’t a unit focused on my technological prowess (or lack thereof) at all. To me it has become about physically expressing the images and sounds that I already see and hear through my words. The same agonizing decisions one always faces over word choice were made and then they had to be followed by additional agonizing over how to give visual and audio expression to those fragile sentiments without jeopardizing their integrity. It isn’t easy, but it’s an excellent exercise in awareness that I believe I will take with me into the upcoming units. I think perhaps the disquieting nature of this unit is precisely what I needed to remind me not to get too adjusted to what I “know” – writing is a never-ending pursuit that does not take kindly to comfort.

Hypertext project using only image and sound and her reflection.

Using picnik.com and Slideshare:

The Middle of Nowhere

As we move into creative-nonfiction-with-words-only, we’ll see how working on screens has an impact on working on the page. Of course, several students have already asked if they can use multimedia. I say vague things about rules, and about breaking rules.

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I will miss this…

In Three Places at Once

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

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

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

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

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

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

And

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

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

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

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

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.

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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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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:

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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.

Slow Blogging: Context, Transitions and Traditions (Back from Illinois, Part Two: Setting Up The Classroom Community)

Lately I have been off blog much more than on, posting a few times a month, not a week, while reading with pleasure and a bit of wonderment about the whirlwind travels and explorations of Bryan, Stephen, Nancy and many others on my Bloglines feeds. At times I’ve thought perhaps I should blog more often–I certainly have many entries swirling about in my head, and I’ve got to post some recent talks–but quick posts just don’t do it for me as a thinker, as a writer.

It was reading Martin Heidegger’s “Discourse on Thinking” this weekend, in which he writes about “calculative thinking” versus “meditative thinking,” and then wandering over to a student blog post about this year’s Slow Food Conference that made me want to call what I do slow-blogging or meditative blogging. At least that’s what I’d like to work towards. It takes time for the many loose strands of thought to converge into a unified post; it takes a lot of effort, a lot of energy, and a lot ( I know, I know sometimes too much) writing. And some posts never quite find their footing; they remain awkward and tangled when I don’t have enough time or courage or energy or ability to go deep.

And since this kind of reflective practice–both a return to thinker-to-thinker letter-writing and a move forward into hypertext and multimedia expression– is what I ask my students to do as a way to develop their creative and critical thinking and writing skills, it’s what I need to do, too. If I’m asking students who sign up to participate in the Blogging the World project to see blogging as a way to ground their experience, to think about it and to enhance it, then I’ve got to do that, too. So, yes, I come down on the side of teachers-who-use-blogs-in-the classrooms-better-use-them-in-their-own-work. And I make sure that the pedagogical underpinnings of my courses are transparent and discussed in class.

In other words, I try to look back as much as forward, to dig deep into the books that call to me from my bookshelves as I think about my teaching and my learning with social software and without. I think about my teachers as much as about my students. I try to stay aware of the context from which this blogging practice springs, and I try to consider the transitional spaces between old practices and new, old literacies and new, old treasures and new. And so right now, right next to this computer sits a bag of books I’ve been carting around with me for the past few days: the Heidegger; Pahl and Rowsell’s Travel Notes from the New Literacy Studies; Paul Muldoon’s new collection of poems, Horse Latitudes; Yehuda Amichai’s last collection of poems, Open Closed Open, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer— such wonderful books all of them. Sometime, somehow, I’ll figure out why this particular group of books happens to slide off the shelves and into my bag at the same time.

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Maybe it is November and the onset of hibernation that put me into a period of absorption, of feeling my way between past and present, but I find myself in an oddly balanced place these days. Or maybe it’s because I have children emerging from adolescence and parents moving into old age, and next year I will celebrate one of the BIG birthdays that I feel perched between the disequilibrium of life’s big moments. I want it all–the physical world and the virtual, books and blogs, old ways of communicating and new. I want them all in my classroom. I want the physical classroom, where we sit around big tables together to wrestle with ideas and processes, and I want them augmented by other kinds of “tables” of the virtual sort at which we can come and go at will, learning from experts we discover as we wander. I don’t want to get rid of schools, just to change them. I want to walk through the halls with people, to talk with them in person, to sit around a table day after day after day with the same group in extended inquiry–in slow learning. I want access to the wisdom of someone who has devoted a lifetime to the study, to the processes of thinking in my field.

Visiting last week with graduate students in writing at the University of Illinois was not only a pleasure but an inspiration– to witness how much they enjoyed and felt stimulated and engaged by one another and their program and the place. They feel the dynamic bonds of community. I want my students to feel those ties to an intellectual, physical-based community. Take my mother’s three-year-old-and-going-strong poetry group: every Saturday some dozen residents of her retirement community meet for a couple of hours to read, study, and talk about poems. There’s a kind of special language they’ve developed, a trust and a willingness to speak openly and fiercely about what they read because they’re looking each other in the eye. There’s the caring for one another as neighbors and friends that goes beyond a simple intellectual engagement. I did a guest workshop for them several months ago and came away inspired by their intensity and warmth and commitment and intelligence, collective intelligence. I want that for my classes of twenty-year-olds.

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OPENING THE SEMESTER

So, what am I saying here? I guess 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?

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–

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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.

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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.

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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.

THE FIRST TWO-THREE WEEKS

We spend two-three weeks moving into the course material by examining our own voices, our learning goals and community, 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 pre-blogging; 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, image-stories exploring personal relationships with the course content, and a deep-learning exercise.

In class we talk about how to participate in discussions and feedback-loops, how to help design the course, how to make it work for us as individuals. We talk about 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. We try to place our semester within a much bigger picture of our life journeys. We 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.

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 to when I’ve been all in a rush to get to the facts and processes of the discipline, when I’ve thrown us into the course content without grounding it. Students who have come out of the slow-blogging classes have gone on to do some quite extraordinary, independent work–such as Lizi and Remy and Piya, work that transcends formal learning as they stand on the cusp of senior year, balanced between their school-years and their post-school lives. Just yesterday at a workshop for students thinking about blogging next semester from abroad, four seniors who had blogged their junior year experience abroad spoke eloquently about the benefits of slow-blogging, how it really helped them to make sense of and to deepen their experiences by taking the time to articulate their learning carefully, in writing and image and sometimes sound.

And so, I’ll keep trying to practice slow-blogging here and in my classes, while appreciating, too, the benefits to me of the quick post that my many blogging colleagues do so well and so often! It is the slow blogging, though, that I think our students need to practice with us, for they quite naturally know how to frame a quick post, pointing to what they’ve observed and commenting about it in passing.