Another Resolution: Making my Pedagogy As Well as My Courses Visible

Inspiring, inspired work: Henry Jenkins today decribes his January course at MIT. These are the kinds of posts we need from one another as we try to build sound, effective practices in our classrooms–this is the kind of individual contribution to knowledge spaces that leads to powerful collective intelligence (as opposed to what Kathy Sierra’ describes as the “Dumbness of Crowds”)–indeed, M.I.T.’s open courseware exemplifies opening the doors of education to anyone with internet access.

Of especial interest to me is this excerpt from his section, “Educational Goals”:

This workshop emerged from a series of conversations that Henry Jenkins and Alex Chisholm had with more than 50 different companies, large and small, which might be interested in hiring Humanities-trained media studies students upon their graduation. We were consistently told that while Liberal Arts students are highly desired by employers because of their mental flexibility and breadth of background knowledge, they often lacked some core skills that would make them ideal employees. Among those things most often identified were leadership experience, teamwork, communication skills, brainstorming and problem solving skills, competitiveness, and the experience of carrying a project through to completion. So, one important thrust of the workshop was to give our own graduate and undergraduate students training and experience in these areas.

Sounds much like what Ken Robinson says in his TED talk, Creativity and Education” and in his book, Out of Our Minds, Learning To Be Creative which I’ve blogged about here.

And so, this spring I plan to link my blog-based courses to pages outlining my educational goals, methodology, reflections on outcomes, set-up considerations, etc. as a way both to contribute in my own small way to the growing body of online resources for teachers and learners and to reflect on and assess my practices. Learning from such teachers as Henry Jenkins, I will look for ways to enhance my students’ “leadership experience, teamwork, communication skills, brainstorming and problem solving skills, competitiveness, and the experience of carrying a project through to completion.” Yes, in the writing classroom.


Back from Illinois: Part One, The People

novemberinillinois illinoisbarn

Yes, it is flat out there, very very flat, and yes, the people are nice. Even the suburbs of Detroit startled and charmed me from the plane window as we sailed above intensely yellow puddles of leaves in perfect, surprising Andy Goldsworthyian circles about the base of tree after tree after tree. But what they didn’t tell me was that somehow all this open sky must have a wildly positive effect on the imagination — over the course of the three days I was in Champaign, Illinois, I met an extraordinary group of innovators happy to share with me the many interesting things they are doing with technology in their teaching and research, including:

Christian Sandvig
Christian’s creative, effective use of blogs and project-based learning in large lecture courses should be broadcast throughout the edublogosphere. His students apply their learning in treasure hunts, creative reports, active learning projects that make his courses fun for his students–imagine, fun in a university classroom, fun that leads to deep learning. He’s the artist and the scholar at play in a highly technical classroom and research lab. He kept explaining that he turned to blogs because they streamlined his teaching, made grading and responding efficient while making the students feel that their work meant something, was taken seriously. Anyone teaching large lecture classes who has some interest in using blogs to make their teaching, responding and grading more efficient should take a look at his inspired work. Here’s an article about his blogging with students.

Nancy Abelmann and Peter Mortensen
Their Ethnography of the University Project has a bit in common with Ed Ayers and Will Thomas’s Aurora Project (see this post for more of a description) . The UICU project is “an innovative center of interdisciplinary student research” (Abelmann and Mortensen) using iLABS software in courses across the university to study the university as an institution. The projects are archived as “an enduring portfolio of student research that showcases both the processes and products of student learning.” Here students engage in authentic learning about their own institution while building a rich archive of the university’s stories. This is the kind of project we should be doing across all of our schools, higher ed or not, as a way for students to think about where they are, and what issues concern their fellow students, and what and who have come before them in their place of learning.

Sharon Tettegah
Sharon is pioneering the use of Second Life in her education classes; students imagine and design learning spaces and the curricula together. She commented that the students could imagine quite extroardinary experiential curricula but they had a tougher time letting go of the traditional spaces they had experienced as school. Their learning spaces looked like, well, schools, especially from the outside. How often do we talk to learners about where they are learning? What a physical school ought to look like? Sharon is also doing great things with animation in elementary schools, in some cases in stripped-down, simple format with Powerpoint and Photoshop, for students to create personal digital stories about identity, communities and learning; her lab is also developing an incredibly simple-to-use animation software, still in Beta: “We have developed and designed Clover, an authoring tool that engages students and teachers in a technology-rich design process to construct animated narrative vignettes (simulations) that deal with school interactions. The tools leads students through the process of constructing a vignette – writing a narrative, writing a script, sketching characters and scenes, animating scenes, and responding to vignettes created by other students [Tettegah, 2002, 2003, 2004].” She volunteered to be my guide into Second Life if I want to explore its worlds for my classrooms…

I also met the talented, energetic, and inspired graduate students under the fabulous Gail Hawisher and her colleagues. The encouragement she gives them to engage in interdisciplinary work makes them as enthusiastic a bunch of grad students as I’ve met in a long time–they are teaching Writing with Video as well as more traditional comp courses that don’t look or feel traditional at all, using blogs, multimedia, and engaging students in the excitement of finding their writing voices while mastering the discourse modes of the Academy. Really wonderful work. It was a great pleasure to meet with Gail and Spencer Schaffner who’s a great blogger in his own right and an innovative, thoughtful teacher who clearly is passionate about his subject matter and his students.

Among the many people I met who were managing to pursue significant research while paying close attention to their teaching (contrary to popular opinion in my liberal arts world about the large university) was Chip Bruce (who edited the excellent Literacy in the Information Age: Inquiries into Meaning Making with New Technologies), with whom I had a too-short chat at the end of one of my talks, about bridging the old literacies with the new, and how do we effectively thread into our explorations traditional forms and history. I also had a great time talking at dinner with Walt Hurley who really should be blogging about his experience in ag school classrooms–he has a wealth of knowledge, a creative approach to teaching, and a real understanding of the role of technology in learning landscapes. I very much hope to see his blog up and running one day soon.

And of course, the highlight of it all was meeting Lanny Arvan in person instead of on the blogs–it was as though we had been colleagues for years, discussing and sometimes arguing about our approaches, our successes and failures with social software, and the position of the teacher in the classroom. He tells stories as well as he writes them! I learned a good deal about the challenges facing large public universities, and I experienced the advantages, too, of being surrounding by so many brilliant, bold thinkers. I had no idea that quite so much was going on in so many corners of the University of Illinois (I even met Bill Cope and Michael Peters in passing). What a place! Flat place, yes. Incredible people, absolutely. I came away having learned much more than I taught, having been much more inspired than inspirational– it was a great, great trip.

Over the next few days, I will post my two talks (for now the slides are posted to my page on Flickr,) and, in response to several requests from Illinois, a description of how I set up a learning community–the questions I ask myself as I design a new course blog, and the activities and exercises I use during the crucial first two weeks of a course.

Blogging and Place… Three Recent Contacts and Implications for the Classroom

smallerlydia.jpg A Willa Cather-esque Scene (think My Antonia) of Lydia, my husband’s grandmother, who traveled out to the Dakotas, alone, as a would-be homesteader around the turn of the 20th century, just to be told women couldn’t claim land. Undeterred, she got a job with the telegraph company and eventually married a homesteader.

As I finish up a couple of talks for next week’s visit with Lanny Arvan and his Learning Commons and Gail Hawisher and her students at The University of Illinois, I keep thinking about the place itself. That part of the country’s center. How flat it is out there–flatter, perhaps, than anywhere I’ve ever been (Lanny has told me that it is flatter than Wisconsin, my husband’s home state–and that’s as flat as it gets for me, New Englander that I am). I find myself both excited and apprehensive about that fact and how it will make me feel.

Such thoughts sent me back into my Willa Cather, to the opening description in O Pioneers!:

“One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away. A mist of fine snowflakes was curling and eddying about the cluster of low drab buildings huddled on the gray prairie, under a gray sky. The dwelling-houses were set about haphazard on the tough prairie sod; some of them looked as if they had been moved in overnight, and others as if they were straying off by themselves, headed straight for the open plain. . .”

It sent me digging around for this photo I wrested from my husband a long time ago, a photo that speaks to me with its smiling Lydia amid the emptiness, her companion looking off –where?–and the shadow of the photographer. The whiff of stories. The pile of lumber. History. Railroads. Migrations. The vast flat plain and sky–flat, empty, flat. No Rockies backing it, ending it–just the horizon. And so I’ve selected a window seat on the plane…

And it makes me think about my camera and whether I should try to get out into the country. It makes me think about Nancy White and the way she travels in Australia, pulling photos she takes that day in whatever place she is in, into her Flickr-based talks. How aware she is of her surroundings and how they have an impact on what she blogs (she even has a blog just for the trip) and on her talks. And it makes me think of my former student and friend from San Antonio who has moved to Jerusalem with her new, French husband and what a mosaic of places inhabit her being and how her connection to so many perhaps contributes to her gifts as keenly perceptive and observant and sensitive writer. And it pulls me to Steven Berlin Johnson’s new website,, because it’s a wonderful idea–to gather the stories, the concerns, the talk of a place, the geography of a place ,

“So what is In a phrase, it’s an attempt to collectively build the geographic Web, neighborhood by neighborhood.” from SBJ’s description


To get us involved in our communities, get us talking, sharing, thinking aloud and together– This is what I am trying to do in a way with my students and blogging together on Motherblogs as well as alone–to share, collect, build and consider the learning going on in our classroom and to connect it to the places and events and people around us. It is essential for students to think about the place, the actual geographic place they are in at college, just as it is essential, as Bill Shutkin of The Orton Family Foundation said the other morning on his Vermont PublicRadio commentary, for a community to think about how a school defines its town:

A school is a community’s premier symbol of its own survival, of its ability to reproduce itself over time as a living, breathing, thinking place. This is why a community that loses its school often feels it’s also lost its identity. It’s like losing a vital organ or worse, its soul.

To see a school disappear is, for a moment, to see a community’s life flash before its eyes.”

To that end, my group of first-semester first-year students will research and write about our Vermont county in the next course unit. As part of the research, I’ve asked them to get outside and observe the place, and they’ll take pictures and record the ambient sounds. Perhaps we should set up an account… as a gathering spot for our materials. I like the idea of such a site better than a wiki because the fluidity of a blog, the storyness of it as it unfolds, post to post, feels like people talking, breathing, interacting, each post somehow preparing the way for the next and linking back to the past posts. As long as people read one another’s contributions, that is. (And that’s a real issue in all human communication–listening–if only those in power would listen to one another and to those without power…)

Awareness of place and discovering it more deeply by writing about it drives, in part, the Blogging the World project, as students on study abroad programs learn as much just being absolutely alert in a place as they do in books and classrooms. Imagine what happens when learners connect the three… Read, for instance, the remarkable blogging of Emily on Paris (she’s blogged her hometown, New Orleans, and her school home in Vermont as well), how being in those places conjures up the realities, both harsh and wondrous, of history and culture, of people and events and literature and self. twoshadows.jpg
Read what happens to a professor and his students (all international students grappling with what it means to go to school in the US, in Vermont) when they read and respond to her blog in light of what they are reading and wrestling with in their course and experience as new students in a foreign place.

And away from the real place, here, Vermont, where as close as I get to Illinois is our neighbor’s field, at least in mind’s eye, cornfield.jpgI move through the books into that other place, to reconnect to memories of the Great Plains, memories quite vivid, but of a young girl on the coast of Maine, reading, reading hammockmaine.jpg of other places, of that other place:

“I wanted to walk straight on through the red grass and over the edge of the world, which could not be very far away. The light air about me told me that the world ended here: only the ground and sun and sky were left, and if one went a little farther there would be only sun and sky, and one would float off into them, like the tawny hawks which sailed over our heads making slow shadows on the grass.” Willa Cather My Antonia

If I hadn’t gotten myself entangled in the threads of this blogpost, would I have pulled Willa Cather from my shelf? Would I have rooted around for the photo of Lydia and the ones of the cornfield and the hammock and the shadows? Would I have thought about the correspondances between what I read on Emily’s blog and what my old student must be experiencing in her new home? Would I have slowed down enough to think along these threads when a million other things clamor for my attention? I don’t think so. Blogging this post has pulled me into my most alert, alive sensory thinking and remembering, and as I drive home tonight, I’ll keep the radio off, look at the last leaves on the trees, breathe in the cold wet October, try to hear the geese pouring South and feel this place.

The Tightrope of Blogging: A Week’s Adventure into the Public Nature of Social Software

Colin Brooke’s post today (his is one of my favorite academic blogs, btw) entitled, “Inching, Inching” is a wonderful reminder of the tightrope we walk as we blog (at least those of us inclined towards the long post, the discursive meanderings that are richly linked) between letting out the first inklings of ideas that have started to itch, and the need to write carefully considered, well-supported texts we can hang our EXPERT hat on. He opens his post with:

“It’s easy to come off, and to want to come off, as someone who’s already figured it all out–it’s a particularly academic attitude that’s all but hammered into us, that to “not know” is a sign of weakness. The unfortunately ironic part of it all is that not knowing is always an opportunity, for me at least, and yet I feel like I get caught up in papering over those times where I don’t know.”

It’s something we all blog about from time to time–something Chris Sessums considered a while back when he felt under some pressure NOT to blog or at least to rationalize the time he was spending blogging. I’ve written frequently about related tensions–here, for example in a post on the pull between time on- and offline.

All of these posts touch upon the individual as creator versus the group as creator along the lines of collective intelligence. Confused in Calcutta has a great post this week, called “Musing about Collaboration” in which he sketches a research project he wants to do about the nature of selection within collaborating groups. One line that really stands out is this:

What has entranced me since then is the magic of collaboration, the sheer unadulterated joy of co-creation.

How often do professionals say such things?! (It reminds me of Lanny taking me to task a couple of posts ago for using the term “authentic engagement” and not “falling in love”–it’s another side of the same issue of holding back what we know , this time by cloaking it in jargon vs. sharing it clearly, simply in hopes it will grow beyond us.)

Several moments this week during my whirlwind travels back out to California and back for the Center for Digital Storytelling’s three-day retreat pushed me up against the tensions between choosing to post, choosing to blog, choosing to read blogs at all due to concerns about boundaries of ownership and privacy. First off, it is still quite remarkable to me how many people I met in many venues really don’t get the potential of blogging and blogs even when they say they know a lot about blogs. Even people who spend a heck of a lot of time on the Internet reading blogs.
–I met with a lot of “Oh, right, you’re a blogger…I see…” during my travels as though that just about summed me up–they got the picture, no more info necessary. I also met with some hostility from people using fairly sophisticated digital tools when I talked about Web 2.0 possibilities–about putting stories and ideas out there for everyone to see, to respond to, to connect to, and to potentially build off of–well, there’s certainly the tricky arena of intellectual property–those who love and The Creative Commons, for example, and those who really really do not. It’s a vexing, thorny (but fascinating) issue that gets people rather heated.
–I heard a couple of horror stories about meetings being blogged (without anyone in the meeting knowing) the content of said kinds of meetings in the past having stayed safely within the group, or moving mouth to mouth rather than as they did in the stories, blog to blog to newspaper to television and ending up causing harm. As Henry Jenkins notes in the Introduction to his new book, through some astonishing anecdotes and simply-stated realities: Convergence Culture, Where Old and New Media Collide :

“When people take media into their own hands, the results can be wonderfully creative; they can also be bad news for all involved. ” (p. 17)

–I heard blogging being called navel-gazing by definition, soft, inconsequential–and I’m sure that’s true in a lot of cases. But what I find interesting about these criticisms is how they are evaluative according to some sort of scale that doesn’t suit this form. Blogs are being judged as though they are supposed to be printed media–finished, the end, the last word on a subject by an expert. But for me as a teacher, the absolute beauty of blogging is that it’s not that at all–it’s about developing thought, about pushing out tendrils to myself and the world in hopes that through collective intelligence and my own writing them down, the thoughts might both increase my own understanding of the subject at hand and even add something to the greater conversation by raising a question, reframing an idea already out there, contextualizing, adding extended commentary and case studies–we are building a wealth of new research and practice on teaching and learning through all of our reflective blogging chronicling our classroom practices; our reading practices; our conversations about these ideas; and our questions, doubts, concerns and fears about the whole messy business. It is about becoming, not about being there. It is about sharing and connecting and trying stuff out; not about knowing it first or best. It is learning in action. And so that’s why I urged a trio of remarkable teachers at the DS Retreat to take up blogging with their students and for themselves. They had great stories about how they are trying to change the educational system in their state, kid by classroom by school by schoolboard. But they feel isolated. Blogging could offer them a valuable approach: to help their students with a range of essential literacies while making the learning efficacious; to help themselves articulate and thus understand their own budding thoughts and lived experiences about how to keep passion for learning alive in their classrooms in spite of No Child Left Behind; and to connect with a community of other such teachers doing action research and trying to figure out this mess we call our educational system.

–And last night, back in Vermont, I urged our dinner guest who was skeptical about blogs for people in nonprofits wanting to convey ideas, to think of blogging in his world in pretty much the same way I explained to the teachers, instead of as just as another essentially static soapbox or as something potentially harmful because ideas could be co-opted or misconstrued. Don’t stay away, I say, but help us figure out the balancing act between private and public, between mine and ours.

I love the messiness of it–the need to let go of our perfectionist, achievement-oriented structures and mindsets, and play with ideas with other people who come to the work from myriad perspectives. It’s a bit like the Digital Storytelling Retreat, where the richness of the into-the-wee-hours talk with clutches of the fifty incredible people, who all worked with digital storytelling as an agent of change in schools and communities of all kinds, lay in the sheer smorgasabord of responses to the how, what, why, and the future of the work.

Indeed, here are a couple of the wonderful characters I had the pleasure of hanging out with and learning from–
bryan and helen.jpg Bryan Alexander and Helen Barrett.
(We were three of the few bloggers in the group, though I think we’ve made a few converts between us…)

For me, the lessons of the retreat will grow as I pull into posts from time to time some of the things I gleaned from my cohorts, weaving them into other thoughts I’m hatching, and then I’ll probably move some of the ideas worked on here into articles or presentations off-blog as well as on. But here, I feel absolutely free to post half-baked ideas I might even revise as soon as tomorrow once I hear how others respond–and there are many times when I have changed my mind about something I posted. And that’s fantastic. That’s what being passionate about ideas and learning is all about–and it’s okay if I get it wrong. We have to be okay about making mistakes in public, just as we have to struggle to articulate here as clearly and powerfully as we can our tender first stirrings of ideas or our considered responses to the ideas of others so as to use our and others’ time well.

It’s a tightrope I’m delighted to be on …

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–

How Former Students Are Using Blogs

A couple of days ago, I noticed that someone from Burlington, Vermont had linked to my blog. I was delighted and a little surprised because people from my state almost never read or link to my blog. So I took a look and found to my even greater surprise that it was my daughter firing up her first blog (as opposed to Livejournal and Facebook and MySpace). Her first post struck me as really very interesting–about why she was moving from Livejournal to blogging–that she wanted to talk rather than rant, that she sought connection and conversation instead of a public journal. Her reasons for wanting to try blogging outside of a classroom mirrors that of many of my students who go on to blog beyond their formal learning experiences.

One interesting tension they find is the pull of just being in the experience and the pull of reflecting on it as close to the experience as possible, or even at a distance. And the disappointment when readers (or at least those who will comment) don’t come. Remy has written a recent post about that tension as a writer about travel–whereas edubloggers tend to go offline (as I am about to do) when they travel, seeing it as a time to get out of the computer altogether, my students are playing around with blogging as a way to chronicle their travels as they’re having them for their own benefit and for those at home, and as a way to extend their thinking and learning about their inter-cultural experiences. As he writes in Blogging technology vs. time vs. perfection:

I am still feeling tugged at by my blog in ways that I had been while traveling – I am concerned with time… translating rather than experiencing. While traveling I wanted everything to be perfect – the pictures, the layout, the media, the feeling that I could travel, in that moment, with people who lived on the opposite side of the world. I wanted to use all of the presently available multi-media resources to their fullest so that it was as if people reading my blog were side-by-side with me as I went out and had my adventures. Down to the smell. I idealized blogging, rather than understanding it as a component of travel.

Here are some examples of students and former students, who blogged with me, taking blogging outside the classroom–

Mike –blogging as part of his job with th Appalachian Mountain Club



Drew in Africa

Dena in the D.R.

In thinking about their practice, these bloggers are making important observations for themselves about levels of living and thinking, about when to be online and off, about why blogging might serve them and why it might not. As I sit here in a little bookstore with wifi up on the coast of Maine getting online for the one time I’ll do so this week (have to prepare for a conference), I once again am drawn to the experiences of my students as they venture away from the classroom to see whether the kinds of blogging we do there will feather out into their lives online outside academia. But I’m not going to think too hard on that one today–I’ve got to get back to the important work of Maine:

beachstones.jpg blueberries.jpg lupine.jpg ospreynest.jpg shore.jpg shoreline.jpg

Memory, Experience, and Online Conferences

I’ve steered clear of them, I have to admit–online conferences, that is.

I read the descriptions, which usually sound interesting, and what’s better, you can come and go at will, deciding what to follow and what to ignore–you can surf the sessions, in other words, until you light on something that holds your interest. In other words, you won’t embarrass anyone by ducking out of a session, and you can alway come back at leisure if the sessions are archived. You can return again and again, in fact. Most significantly, (at least in theory– if the online conference costs are minimal) online conferences bring together people from across the world (again in theory — if the participants have online access and share a language) in dialogue about shared interests and research, giving participants access to speakers, information, and opportunities to discuss the subject that in the past may have remained out of reach. The conversation can be shifted to embrace multiple cultural perspectives. In the best of these formats, no one person is the show or dictates the conversation. Sounds pretty ideal.

But I still don’t like them.

For one, I find it difficult to juggle various channels and chatrooms, listening & watching & responding, asking questions, attending to side conversations all at once. I really don’t like listening and talking at the same time, and chat rooms can get distracting. There can be too much to absorb–I can’t hold onto it all, or remember who said what. It can feel like a perpetual waterfall of interruptions. Hmmm…sounds like the kind of environment that feels natural to my daughters. My students. It’s what I read in the literature about emerging childhood literacies. I am fascinated, and I enjoy giving these settings a shot, but I feel completely wrung out, strung out after such a conference (even more than I do those BIG cattleshow national conferences). I inevitably have to go back and read transcripts and watch the screencasts, so I can think about the things I have heard without distraction.

I am, I realize, contradicting a statement I made earlier this year in reference to a Jay Cross online presentation–and yes, I do like having screencasts linked to from my own blog entries, and lists of conference presentations and transcripts to study. Maybe I just need more practice. But, I wonder, if I have a hard time navigating these conferences, what about people who don’t normally spend as much of their lives in the blogosphere as I do? Perhaps conference pods could be set up so people could get together locally to discuss and participate in online conferences much as my husband as a teenager in Milwaukee would go to a movie theater to watch European soccer matches, where he would shout and swap soccer stories with the other fans. He did not watch a screen in the isolation of his own living room.

And much as I hate to admit it, I miss seeing people in their rumpled conference wear, or like Will today as one pair of jeans in a sea of suits (ha–good for you, Will, though my guess is that Dave Weinberger was right there with you in attire. In an online conference, would you have sniffed out their suits, and they your jeans? Probably.) I miss the experience, the story of the in-person UNconference–the meeting, conversation, the face-to-face talk that used to happen between sessions but now happens in the kinds of professional get-togethers I try to attend these days. I find myself at the end of a technology saturated school year looking forward to these conferences, meetings, workshops and retreats I’ll head to this summer. I want to see the people. I want to go from the blogs to the in-person conversation to the blogs again.

Another set of contradictions: This morning, I found myself inordinately joyful to hear my sixteen-year-old daughter’s voice on the phone, from Ladakh, after a week–just one week– of no contact as she was out in the mountains, out of range. Although when I traipsed across the world, I never spoke to my parents for months and months, and postcards and aerogrammes limped continent to continent finally to reach them when the news was weeks old, I have grown accustomed to reading her emails and hearing her voice from across the world frequently. And this morning I realized how much I count on it, how it is so much easier for me to let her go winging her way about the world because I know she can pretty much contact us from wherever she is–I can hear her voice as though she’s in the next room, instead of in a place about as far from here as you can get (in so many ways). This morning she spoke about how she’s learned so much about the pressures and pleasures for the Ladakhi of modernization, and the beauty –for a plugged-in girl from the USA–of quiet, of sitting around with her host family night after night swapping stories, knitting, even just sitting there close to the warm stove, looking at the stars out the window. They inhabit and share memory and experience, turning them over and over. Every night. They may yearn for cellphones, we for silence and relief from the clatter of machines. My daughter gets that tension and sees how crucial media literacy education is for those moving towards technology, and for those trying to get away from it. We hang up the phone, and I marvel at her, and I laugh at myself for writing this post whining about something like online conferences when there are so much more interesting things to think about in the world.

But of course it is all so much more complex than all this, and something keeps nagging at me about my online world, and so, as usual, my conflicting thoughts have pushed me back into books, books this time covering new research and theory about early childhood and digital literacy, the Web as community conduit, and storytelling in the information age. In my search for some answers, I find myself once again reaching for that word, BALANCE.

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I dove back into Pierre Levy’s Collective Intelligence and Dave Weinberger’s Small Pieces Loosely Joined, Popular Culture, New Media and Digital Literacy in Early Childhood (Ed. Jackie Marsh, 2005), and Stuart Selber’s Multiliteracies for a Digital Ageand Adolescents and Literacies in a Digital World. And I also journeyed back into Charles Baxter’s 1999 essay, “Shame and Forgetting in the Information Age”.

In his section on backpacks (pp. 181-191) Dave Weinberger includes these snippets:

The Web…exists only because its 300 million denizens are reaching out to others. The Web is possible only as a group activity… The thoroughly a creation of subjective human beings and is built not of atoms or facts but of human interest….The Web is a revel of values and viewpoints. The Web…is a multibillion-point reflection on the world, on its inhabitants, and on their reflections about the world. It is a fractal image of the world outside our own minds. ..The Web helps us to embrace without embarrassment who we really are. It returns us to ourselves. It arches over the alienation we’ve been taught to take as a sign of tough-mindedness. The Web’s movement is towards human authenticity.

And I know he’s right about this and why I am not giving up on trying online conferences–and of course this is counter to what many people think, those who associate the Web only with the avalanche of information giving us “information-nausea” (Baxter). And it does do that–which is why I turn from online conferences, and say, enough–this goes beyond what I can or want to absorb on screen. Charles Baxter sees the deadening, not the “movement towards human authenticity”:

Remembering data and remembering an experience are two very different activities. It is possible that the quantity of data we are supposed to remember has reduced our capacity to remember or even to have experiences; this turn of events was predicted by Walter Benjamin in the 1930s.
What meaning does forgetfulness have in an information age?…The signs of anxiety over forgetfulness have been turning up everywhere lately…The phobia about forgetting has entered the run of daily conversation….Time and again, I have seen friends and colleagues lose their trains of thought in meetings and then blush and stammer and apologize, as if their professional standing had suddenly been endangered.
Many people seem to believe that remembering is simply a matter of willpower.

Do we bloggers sit around a stove and tell the stories of our lives and our ancestors’ lives? Is it helping us to have experiences and to remember? Blogging has made me not want to give up blogging, but to combine it with even more in-person talk. I want both. As Guy Merchant writes in “Barbie Meets Bob the Builder” in the Marsh-edited volume, the computer and the Web have transformed writing into “a rapidly changing social practice, in which a wider range of technologies are now at hand.” (p.186) Blogging is a kind of swapping-stories around the virtual campfire–but I can’t see the faces. Victoria Carrington, in “New Textual Landscapes, Information and Early Literacy” from the same volume, writes:

…the textual landscapes in which children are learning the practices, skills and knowledge that determine the kinds of literates and citizens they become are no longer confined to the parameters of family and school, nor are they print-based. However, a more fundamental shift is taking place. While the passive, unworldly child was expected to merely inhabit the textual landscapes created by others, children developing literate habits around new communications technologies, popular culture and expanding access to de-segregated information are already active participants. . . The next generation of instruction and theoretical models for early literacy education must take account of the pivotal nature of information. Each child’s role as analyst of information from multiple sources must be focal, as well as serious attention paid to ensuring that s/he is scaffolded towards effective and ethical production and dissemination of infomation. . .Where more traditional models of literacy prepare children for somewhat distant future at which time they will participate in meaningful ways in the ‘real’ world, a model of literacy matching the needs of contemporary children must take as a first principle that children are already active participants and risk takers. (pp. 23-25)

This is much what edubloggers are saying across the blogosphere as they chonicle their efforts within their local institutions to put pressure on our entire educational system, pushing and pulling it towards the realities of a twenty-first century world.

Beach and Bruce in “Using Digital Tools to Foster Critical Inquiry” in Adolescents and Literacies in a Digital World, point out that

While adolescents may continue to use media to construct themselves according to the values of a consumerist, narcissistic world, we would argue that their emerging participation in digital technologies portends the possibilities of alternative ways of constructing identities. Many adolescents are turning away from the represented worlds of broadcast media…to participate in shared communal experiences mediated by digital tools.

We teachers can’t turn away from the online world–not even, as Stuart Selber argues persuasively in Multiliteracies for a Digital Age, in Higher Ed English departments:

Humanists often have stranged or uncomfortable relationships with technology, yet neither indifference nor paralysis are acceptable options nowadays. In fact, an important role for English departments is to help postion human-computer interaction as essentially a social problem, one that involves values, interpretation, contingency, persuasion, communication, deliberation, and more.

I want students to see me puzzling this out, in class and on the blog, feeling a tension between the worlds. Sharing, participating, narrating–experiencing a new world. Hmmm….sounds like what we want to do in English classrooms. We need not lose the in-person when we move online, just as we do not put away our books when we take up blogs. I see this in my own students on our course blogs. They honor writing traditions as they themselves move beyond them. We have moved in closer to one another as we have moved out into the blogosphere. We want the comfort of one another’s body language, facial expressions, and talk. But not apart from the blogs, perhaps because of the blogs. This social-software and digital-storytelling-in the classroom adventure I’ve been on for five years keeps shouting out lessons of balance. I am delighted by the irony, once again, that blogging and storytelling have compelled me to use the classtime ever more meaningfully. We are glad to be together, and we know one another better than classes in my pre-blog teaching days. We run to the blogs and to the class.

I couldn’t have predicted quite this when I first pulled blogs into my courses in the fall of 2001; I did so then because I sensed students were feeling the parts of themselves being spilled into separate boxes: the person in class, and the person outside of class. The two didn’t have all that much to do with one another. I thought that to bring the world to my students and my students to one another would erase those lines. It made absolute sense in a seminar on contemporary Irish literature (The original blog is now offline due to an abrupt switch from Manila to MT) to seize opportunities to invite into a virtual classroom space experts I could not afford to bring into our rural Vermont physical space. It made sense to have all of the work of the course on view, connected, in process–a working laboratory of developing skills in critical and creative thinking and, hence, writing. Students should learn from one another as well as from whatever I had to tell them. It worked. Even better than I had anticipated. Along the way, the visual transparency of the medium–how it allowed students to examine, follow, appreciate and understand their process and growth– became just as important and led me to make adjustments in the syllabus and in the way I conducted class. Assignments grew to include online workshopping and knowledge trees–the more we knew each other as thinkers and writers and community members, the stronger our learning collaborative would grow, and the richer the learning experience. I pulled in a wiki from time to time–though I could certainly do more with them–and podcasting, multimedia writing and hypertext essays. This was a natural learning curve, a developing use of social software in the writing and literature classrooms. But I didn’t anticipate that I would add another class meeting every week, more one-on-one conferences with me–I had no idea that we would move from blog to class to blog to class to blog as we did, pretty seamlessly.

And here on bgblogging I’ve been writing about those outcomes, those experiences as they unfold on my class blogs, and as I wrote in my previous post, I have found my own blogging informed by my teaching but also by the experience of participating in a blogging community. No longer was I working in relative isolation with my students–not only was my students’ work an open laboratory for them and the rest of the world, but my teaching was and is for me and others. Blogging has sent me back to writing letter-like essays, but it has sent me out into the woods with my camera, and across oceans to meet people face-to-face.

Yes, the experiences online are valid, rich experiences, but they make the in-person ones all that sweeter. And so just as the more I move outside my classroom into the world of community applications of social software and digital storytelling, the more I move back into my classroom, the more I blog, the more I want my conferences in person and not online. It’s a fascinating balance, and one that’s sure to shift as I continue to explore it.

International Edublogging Women’s Day 2006

Josie Fraser has put out the call for us, in honor of “International Edublogging Women’s Day 2006,” to point to the women edubloggers who have informed our practice. It’s a great idea, especially since quite a few of us have been observing how inspiring so many women eudbloggers have been over the past couple of years, but how little we hear about them. Blogrolls and RSS feeds abound with the same dozen edubloggers, only a smattering of whom are women.. It’s a shame. Well, I for one, am deeply influenced by a community of women edubloggers–so much so, in fact, that along with my NITLE edublogging cohorts, Laura Blankenship and Barbara Sawhill, I’ve proposed a session on edublogging at Blogher this summer.

I’ve touched upon the topic of the relative quiet of the women edubloggers in a couple of recent posts, teachers who use blogs in the classroom but do not necessarily blog out into the world. Now I want to devote a post to the women out there who have meant so much to my own blogging practice.

First off is Sarah Lohnes, many years my junior, who brought blogs to my door, really, in the fall of 2001, and although not as regular a blogger as others, has taught me a tremendous amount about technology and its place in our classrooms. She is now a graduate student at Columbia, and I’ve been reaping the benefits of her grad education by reading along as she grapples with the theory and practice of technology in education.

Catharine Wright and Mary Ellen Bertolini, my Middlebury blogging colleagues have also taught me a good deal about using technology with students. Mary Ellen is fearless when it comes to technology, and she is blogging away on several fronts on her own, in the classroom, and with Middlebury’s peer writing tutors. Catharine is a writer and a multimedia artist exploring the lines between personal and edublogging, and mentoring/editing one of the best group blogs I have encountered in Higher Ed, Dis.course, a blog to which students and faculty post (through her editorship) on issues of identity.

Moving out from my own shores, I have also felt a special kinship with Laura Blankenship, Barbara Sawhill, and Kathleen Fitzpatrick–all liberal arts edubloggers, whose blogging could not be more different one from the other. Laura, aka Geeky Mom, as I’ve pointed out before, has figured out how to thread in all of her life (or most of it) into her personal blog. She keeps a couple of other blogs as well. Barbara blogs a bit, skypes a great deal, hosts languagelabunleashed on Thursday evenings, and is doing a terrific job blogging with her students in Spanish. I love her understanding of the tensions faculty feel as they move toward technology–she’s smart and funny, energetic and committed–now if she’d only blog more often! 😉

Every day when I check my Bloglines account for new posts, I hope to find something from Josie Fraser in the UK, as she keeps her eye on the full edublogosphere for us; Barbara Dieu in Brazil, on her own blog and dekitawhere she works hard to keep the EFL community up-to-date with developments in educational technology; and the tireless, inspiring Anne Davis in Georgia who points to examples in classrooms, news in the world of education, and her own musings on this work. I don’t know how she does it all.

What I particularly love about their blogging is these bloggers’ ability to post entries that move the conversation–they do not repeat the posts of others; they think through the thorny issues facing us, always giving me something to think about and techniques to take with me. I highlight these women because they are in the trenches–the classroom with students and with teachers, and they are making quite a difference for blogging educators trying to open up education on both sides of the Atlantic, both sides of the Pacific, both sides of the equator.

There are others, of course, bloggers from libraries (Joyce Valenza and Jenny Levine, The Shifted Librarian, for starters) the researchers such as Jill Walker, Jean Burgess, danah boyd (and there are many others I read), and those bloggers from the wider world of educational practice, such as Nancy White who blogs about distance learning and communities of practice and really gets it about creativity in the workplace and about connectivism in the classroom. Lovely blog.

Kudos and thanks to all of you!

A Topic Worth Returning To: Teachers and Fear


Over the past year I’ve posted several entries on what student blogging means for the teacher: the actual practice versus the theory of using social software in the classroom and fear’s crippling effect– I’m not talking about the fear factor Will’s been covering (schools shutting blogs down for fear of students abusing one another or being abused by the outside world via the internet) but the fear of change–the fear of free-falling, of moving away from the known, of relinquishing control and of the impact on our time and the resulting pressure on how we train our teachers. It’s one thing to talk about subject-centered, collaborative-centered, connected learning (via blogs or not); it’s another thing altogether to make it truly a reality in classrooms employing blogs in ways many edubloggers write about, including me. And if a teacher/researcher as insightful and open-minded and influential as Jill Walker is pulling away from having her students blog (also see her response to my previous post here) because blogging seems unscalable to large classes when she’s trying to balance the demands on her time (personal life, teaching, research and administrative responsibilities), it makes me stop a moment and wrestle with the topic once again.

First off, the time issue. No teacher ever has enough time. We are asked to cram whole lifetimes of learning into ten-twelve-fifteen weeks, and we wonder why we feel like zombies and our students are increasingly stressed out. Taking on one more thing, one more approach, tool, pedagogy seems like madness when we’re already teetering on the brink of losing any time to ourselves much less time to make it through the course requirements. And on first view, collaborative learning approaches that focus on each student’s ability to contribute to group according to his/her learning style and learning interests seem to demand more time on our part managing, overseeing, leading, planning, and modelling. And that’s the problem–if we only kinda sorta adopt the tools and the approaches, while hanging onto our need to be in control of the learning situation and outcomes, then we’ll surely dive headfirst into the sinkhole of the teacher-as-everything model. I do not believe that classroom blogs are more time-consuming than any other effective teaching approach–once you know what you’re doing with them. And that’s the problem–new approaches take more time initially, and are risky because we’ll make mistakes along the way. We have to look closely at the FEAR factor and find ways to help our co-horts and ourselves dare to move into teaching & learning as a collective intelligence activity.
An interesting article on the terrific Tomorrow’s Professor Blog, a collaboration between MIT and Stanford, Preparing Faculty for Pedagogical Change: Helping Faculty Deal with Fear by Linda Hodges, outlines underlying fears that make shifting to new pedagogies, including collaborative and problem-solving learning, so overwhelming to many teachers. If we want to bring about widespread reform —really do it instead of thinking we are doing it, we must address these teacher fears and help with concrete, non-threatening steps. Dave Cormier’s one-day virtual conference next weekend to fire up “a mass curriculum plan” on “how to use Social Media that uses Social Media as a core part of the teaching.” seems to me a brilliant step in the right direction. Teachers need help! Instead of adopting an attitude of, well, good teachers will get it just as they have always gotten it, and bad teachers will not or can not, I’m determined to take a page from Anne’s blog, and focus as much on ways to move into this work as on the outcomes as experienced by the learning collaboratives in my classrooms.
Conrad’s recent posting about how he has learned to comment on student writing rather than mark it because he has learned to include the student in a conversation (versus the teacher monologue), is a brave post: his transparent reflective practice gives us all a view into the impact a blogging practice can have on the teacher, even away from computers altogether. And there’s Tom Wright’s post on “Blogs and Learning Communities, that points out the difference between commenting and marking. Any teacher who has read Lucy Calkins or Donald Graves or Peter Elbow or Mina Shaunnessey, etc. knows about the conversations that must occur in writing classrooms, that the most important aspect of teaching is, perhaps, listening. The research tells as much: “The Instructional Conversation: Teaching and Learning in Social Activity, by Tharp and Gallimore, in 1991, for example. We talk about Dewey’s “learning as a social activity” but are we really doing more than holding classroom discussions that often look a whole lot like the teacher talking and the students listening, or the teacher asking pointed questions that have the students jumping over one another to deliver THE RIGHT answer? Most teachers believe they give the students a part of the conversation. And yet doing so means giving up control of the conversation and re-envisioning the way time is spent in a course. Giving up control, some believe, means time is being wasted, material isn’t being covered, we are shirking our teacherly responsibilities. And, furthermore, in a classroom that values emergent learning, you never know exactly where you’re going until you get there. With standards to meet and tests to pass, how is it that any teacher would dare bring blogs into the classroom if they mean that students might digress or even meander down the wrong road altogether? Blogs do NOT take more time; they do, however, demand a new view of how we spend our time in the classroom and out. Ah so, we teachers must reorient ourselves to the entire learning process, to our relationship with our teaching, much the way my students have, through writing with images and sound as well as text, recently shaken up their whole sense of who they are as writers and what discoveries lie just below the first outpourings of language onto a page. And that’s scary.

Here are more questions related to the topic of teachers and fear that have surfaced in my blog/email/phone and in-person conversations this week:

What does it take for a teacher to bring blogging into the course in the first place?

What keeps a teacher blogging with her students?

Is blogging scalable to a large class (versus the 15-18 students classes I teach)?

I’ll tackle these questions over the next few posts, but for now I want to point to Francois Lachance’s response to Jill, and how he reminds us that it is NOT blogging per se that is the key, but having our students “network and discuss” and taking responsibility for tracking their own development in whatever form it makes sense to do so according to the learning situation and the learner:

“I wonder if “It’s helping them use their blogs to discuss and network that’s the challenge.”
could not be restated to “help them network and discuss” _tout court_ and thus evidence of blogging experience is but one of the criteria for students to demonstrate that they have indeed networked and discussed. i.e. with a larger number of students, stand back from the process and assess a selection of products that they have submitted in portfolio form to you as prof. The spin off value from such an approach is that students become responsible for their own personal archive (i.e. documenting their own interactions blog and otherwise) and such personal archives are vital for networking and discussion. It might be worth investing a little time in creating a portfolio of examples that students can review as they build their own.

Such an approach doesn’t replace a sense of being there when they actually take those steps in their evolution as social and intellectual beings. But from a phenomenological perspective that was all it was, a sense of being there.

And this is what Dave’s idea for the mass-generated curriculum is, I think, and what I hope we all do on our blogs–begin to compile the resources and to articulate clearly the reasons for time-stressed, anxious teachers to step into this work fostering strong learning collaboratives within their classrooms.