Learning from Writers, Learning from Readers: Hearts and Minds in Balance

What an interesting time.   As I continue to shed my classroom-teacher identity, I am learning more and more about the imposter syndrome and semantic gaps in our culture between professional expert and layperson, and about the power of reciprocal apprenticeships.  And the delights of mixing heart and mind.  I am learning from young writers I know, and all over again from writers long gone, and from readers engaged in this fascinating un-book group, Motley Readers of Joyce’s Dubliners.  I’m learning ever more about myself as a writer and thinker as I finish a position paper for Orton Family Foundation (on why community storytelling is essential for the health of rural towns), in which I must balance knowledge and passion.

beneath the facade

Hearing from some of my fellow Motley readers about how they feel vulnerable posting their “unschooled” thoughts about Joyce’s stories bothers me.  Not because I wonder why they feel this way, but because I know all too well that they feel this way for good reason. It is similar to what I hear in communities about ordinary people participating in planning processes:  they often don’t feel welcome because the gap in language between professional and nonprofessional is so difficult to straddle.  It’s something that storytelling works at bridging in rural communities.  And here, in social media spaces, we must work at those bridges as well, even in a reading group.

Literature should grab us by both the heart and the mind, I think, and not let us go–to help us to articulate why it does so, sure, we want to learn more about how it is that language and narrative work.  Some of us want to know about the context in which the writer was working–and certainly what was going on in Ireland and in Europe and in Joyce at the time of his writing has quite a profound impact on our understanding of the collection.  This is all good.  Great books should, I think, lead us to other books, to other learning, to other thoughts.  And then we should have our own.   My father used to urge us to read from across the political spectrum before we entered the daily dinner-table debate over current events.  It makes sense that we need to hear a variety of views from across the spectrum of experience and knowledge. That’s one of the beauties of a diverse physical community–coming into contact with all sorts of life views, understanding, knowledge, expertise, taste.

One of the beauties of great writing is that it can also move us and speak to us without all that knowledge of theory or history.   I love reading Joyce, 100 years after he wrote those stories, for what they tell me about beauty and life now.  They’re timeless.  I don’t think we should close ourselves to expertise, but it shouldn’t be our only guide. It isn’t heart or mind, feeling or learning, but both.  And unfortunately, school is really trying to educate the heart right out of us.

In a postcard I just received from Chris Lott (more about the Motley reading postcard experience in another post soon), I love how comfortable he is in both the poet’s skin and the scholar’s (and believe me, he’s one of the most learned, brilliant guys out there)  as he expresses the heart-rending beauty of reading Joyce:
He weaves his learning in, his passion–without feeling bad about it.  Balance. I’m learning about balance from all of these Motley Readers, the ones who have a background in literary studies and those who do not.

I’m also learning about heart and mind from one of my former students.  As her first book hits the bookstores, I am bursting with excitement.  She did it.  Anyone who knew Stephanie Saldana during her college years knew she would publish, but in those days we thought it would be poetry.  Her nonfiction book, The Bread of Angels, brings her poet’s heart and eye, and her scholar’s training and knowledge into unusual balance.  A bit like how Chris does in his Motley posts and postcard.  It’s a beautiful book, a book that takes us through layers of life in the Middle East as it brings us along on the journey of one young woman on a Fulbright in Syria.  I learned a great deal about the common ground between Christianity and Islam, the beauty of daily life, Stephanie herself (and I thought I knew her and this story well), and about the power of mixing poetry and scholarship.  Wow.  What a teacher.

I’m also learning more these days about weaving together the parts of oneself from my daughters.  Talk about reciprocal apprenticeships. My daughters teach me all kinds of powerful lessons about life, about art. The one who lives in New York writes gorgeous songs. When we talk about them, I learn ever more about the ways rhythms and sound intersect with words, about how silences work with sounds.  My other daughter has long had one foot in the writing world, with several articles published about her travels. Now she is pulling together her love of food, photography and writing on her new blog and in an internship with an Italian food magazine (real incentive for me to stop pretending I speak and read Italian and learn).  I’m learning from watching her thread her various passions together.

This is one heck of a classroom.  The further away from school I get, the more convinced I am that this is the most powerful kind of classroom of all: the messy one engaging in learning relationships across group, network and diverse community.


Memories of My Ancestors, Thoughts of the Land

July 4

Being the daughter of a historian who spent his life researching, writing, and teaching about the early days of this country, I’m naturally thinking back today as I look out over the fields I call home…to the rich history of Vermont and its role in the country’s story, its public figures from Ethan Allen to Patrick Leahy, its deep land ethic, its commitment to social justice, its hardscrabble farmers then and now. I’m thinking about the Champlain Valley where I live, celebrating this month the quadricentennenial of Samuel de Champlain’s voyage and our connection to New France and Quebec.

down to the lake

This little nirvana, as friends call our home, could make it easy to be willfully ignorant of the pains shaking the human world, even locally. And there are days when I have little contact with that world. But even my relationship with the land keeps American history and its legacies from wandering too far from view. The early-Vermont-settler remnants in our house: the beams and floorboards from abandoned and torn-down houses and barns, the stones around our walls pulled from the piles generations of farmers heaved into the copses; and out in the woods, the signs of old foundations and pasture walls, the march of succession in the treescape, all serve as reminders that Vermont, now 80% forest and 20% cleared, was, in the nineteenth century, 80% cleared and 20% forested. And there is the very real drama playing out just beyond my windows: field birds struggling to survive in spite of the heavy haying schedule farmers adhere to if they want to survive as farmers; songbirds trying to bring their broods to maturity in spite of (what seem to be the increasingly) large numbers of hungry squirrels, crows, jays, ravens and hawks scouring the place for nestlings; the bats vanishing this year–not a single one has graced our skies this summer–due to a bacterial infection that has wiped out most of Vermont’s bat population; the smaller numbers of honey bees in the garden; the swelling numbers of wild turkeys. So much shifting in such a short time. The past few evenings as I turn away from the fields and gardens, I’ve headed intoAmy Seidl’s Early Spring, an alarming (and beautifully written) book that corroborates page by page what I am witnessing play out in my own surroundings.

marshhawk ballet

The garden, too, is behaving a bit strangely– all this rain, this relentless cloud cover to blame for greens (and slugs) outgrowing beans. Honestly, though, I’ve been more concerned about post-dog incursions by rabbits, deer and turkeys as my raised beds counter most weather vagaries. The rain has bothered my cycling far more than my gardening; I have worried, though, for my neighbors, farmers unable to get their corn in much less have it knee-high by today. I know all this, I see it, I feel it.

But the local paper has shaken some deep part of me, pulling me full circle back to this day and my family’s journey to this country. Ordinarily, reading the paper is about connecting with my town, not being surprised by what I read, for I usually hear most of the important news on the street or in the natural foods cooperative before the paper comes out on Mondays and Thursdays. I love the fact that my old student, Katie Flagg, now writes for the paper and has started their multimedia site. I am always eager to read her reporting on the goings-on in our county. The editor/publisher is one of my husband’s good friends, a wonderful writer and incisive editorialist.

Vermont portrait

But yesterday, Katie’s front-page article threw me back from the immediate changes and into my own family’s past. The same Late Blight as sent my people from their homes is apparently creeping to Vermont because “tomato plants sold at some large garden centers in neighboring states may have been infected with the late blight.” (Is this the garden world’s version of the salmonella outbreaks?) I grow both potatoes and tomatoes, almost all my own plants from organic seed, and the rest I buy from friends who have been in the small organic-garden business for thirty years. But as happened in Ireland 160 years ago, the winds blow the spores field to field, and so it might not matter a bit how careful I’ve been with my own gardening practices. Even if all the tomatoes and potatoes are wiped out in Vermont, my life will not be gravely affected. I do not earn my living growing vegetables; my family’s table does not depend on what we grow. I can drive or cycle down to our natural foods cooperative for vegetables or whatever else I need. I worry for friends and neighbors who do rely on vegetable sales. And I remember the famine that sent my own people unwillingly from their doors, and the famines, displacement and destruction we continue to cause through our poor Earth practices (pollution, war, over-population, greed and consumerism, etc. etc.) l think, too, about the recent Orion Magazine article, “Forget Shorter Showers” by Derrick Jensen, which scolds us for thinking that individual efforts will make a difference in the climate change crisis. We have to do more than find pleasure and worth in scaling back, in digging into the earth, and connecting with one another. We have to work for change at every level of society.

early potato harvest

And so with one foot in my garden’s lush world–where I will pick early potatoes and delight in their tenderness–and the other out in rural communities exploring the balance between the fast and the slow, and online, learning about how others are engaging with the pressing problems of our times, I’m spending this July 4 celebrating the Earth’s wonders, my family’s history, and I’m contemplating the future, how to tread lightly in spirit with the ecosystem I share with countless species, and also working for sweeping change as though all life depends on it. I’m celebrating the razor edge between taking time to dig potatoes and pinch back tomato suckers and getting out there in the human fray to learn, to participate, to embrace mindful connectivity. And finding joy in the struggle.

riding with style

Saying Goodbye


It is a wobbly dawn. Fog on snow shifts the fields into otherworldly realms. Most appropriate for this morning. Last evening we said goodbye to Finn-dog, encircled him in our love as he died. He was all lightness and grace.

He was one of my most important teachers. Every day this exuberant spirit reminded me to lighten up. To enjoy the infinite pleasures of daily rambles on the land. To follow my nose. To be in the moment and stop thinking so much about everything all the time. To show my joy and express my love.

finn ready for the snow

I will miss him sorely.

Walking the Land with Hard Thoughts

woodland floor One of the greatest gifts I’ve received from leaving the Academy is a clearer perspective on what matters. As layer after layer of those years slip from my shoulders, I can see, breathe, think more fully than I have in a long time. I often feel delighted by the promise of what is possible.

And I walk. Every day. In a slow-blogging kind of way. Usually without human companion because my communing on those walks is with nature, and people can be, well, so distracting. And so much of my life is about people, so the walks are for other connections and reflections.
water silence leaf
Right now, though, I struggle for perspective. I am scared. I am torn up by thoughts of friends who have recently been diagnosed with cancer–so many, so young–I have already lost one of my dearest life friends to the plague and sense the planet’s sickness in this. Here on the land, though, things seem so whole and beautiful; walking helps me move back to a more positive space. I am wracked, too, by the clatter and jitter of this crazy presidential race and find that I have to walk fast and hard before anger and fear subside. Voter suppression. Sickening robo calls and leafleting. Distortions of fact, even downright lies pouring forth from McCain’s and Palin’s mouths, and people cheering them on. Political pollution. Obama should win in a landslide. Should. Walk walk. I am so lucky to live in this place.

Over the next two days two different photographers are coming to accompany me on my walk to take photos of me in my fields (for articles about slow blogging, communities, and/or the new nonprofit). Today in a Skype call, Bud Hunt asked me about my deep ties to place and to community and how those two are connected for me. It’s funny. I write and think about these connections, but I never figured other people were interested in this part of my blogging. I roam, camera in hand, dog at my side, looking looking closely for the subtle shifts from the day before. And now someone will capture me in them. Strange. Meta-perspective, I suppose. I’m pulled out of the being to observe myself there.

Some days I leave the camera behind on purpose so that I miss it and so that I pay attention in a different way. I think that’s important, to keep things moving around, to stay a little off-kilter, surprised, ever developing my sensory awareness.

last wild apples winter stole

And almost always, when I walk camera-less, I come upon something I really want a picture of; sooner or later that image will burn so intensely in my head that it will spill out into words on this blog. Somehow. Yesterday was one of those days. One walk with camera. One without. And sure enough, Finn-dog and I came upon two perfectly pressed impressions of deer bodies–hoof-embossed snow all around two green patches in the shape of sleeping deer. Their warmth melted the snow as they rested. Snow angels into the grass. Now I keep seeing those two forms there, and feel glad that there are simple moments of incredible beauty in mad times.

And mad times they are. Throughout the world. But so shockingly here, playing out across our screens in full color, the smear campaign, the robo calls and leaflets–how corrupt, how vile, how cynical and deeply frightening. I can hardly speak to people who continue to support McCain in the face of the lies, the distortions, and the transformation of this man into a crazed, desperate figure who will go to any lengths to win. And what does that say about me?


My California sister-in-law is in North Carolina volunteering for the Obama campaign. My California brother is in Nevada doing the same. I have friends who drove from Vermont to Ohio, another who has gone to Virginia. I make phone calls, link to articles and videos on the Smalltown Mamas (and Papas) for Obama blog, will help out in New Hampshire on Sunday and Tuesday, but mostly I walk the land and fret, send out links on Twitter to the Voter Suppression wiki, freak out when Chris Lott’s tweets articulate my own fears. My 75-year-old mother, who has been volunteering for Obama in her retirement community, has said she will take to the streets if the election is stolen from Obama. If McCain wins, it will be a moment of intense disgrace for the United States. Unconscionable. Unspeakable. As another of my sisters-in-law said to me today, we like to condemn corrupt politicians in developing countries for their abuses and evil, and here we’re seeing in bold relief our own corruption.

arcadia lake late fall

Walk walk. These next five days. Hope hope.

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.

bowling shoes

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.

windows reflecting fall

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.


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.


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.

Some Irish Writers You Really Ought to Read…or… How I Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day

In spite of my heritage, I don’t really celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Green beer is a bit much– they also dye the Liffey green, I know (my brothers and friends once dyed the milk of the school we grew up in, yup, green…). The funniest run-up to St. Paddy’s I ever experienced was flying back to the States from Ireland for my father’s 80th (I lived in Ireland that year); the plane to Boston was loaded, absolutely to the gills with bands heading to the U.S. because THAT’s where the St. Patrick’s Day action was, not in Ireland. Tin whistles, bodhrans, fiddles, button accordions were played up and down the aisles, and the Guinness vanished before we had left Irish airspace. It was, well, hmmmm, wild.


My dad loved St. Patrick’s Day. So in his honor, I’m marking this day with a list of Irish fiction from the past ten years or so that people on this side of the Atlantic might not have read (but should). I am an avid student of Irish literature, film and music, and though it is challenging from so far away to keep up with emerging writers, I do what I can. I’m not including Edna O’Brien, John Banville, Julia O’Faolain, Patrick McCabe, Roddy Doyle, John McGahern, or the late Clare Boylan, not because I do not love their writing, but because I figure their books have made their way into many collections on this side of the Atlantic.

In no particular order and certainly not an exhaustive list by any means, but some real treasures:

Seamus Deane Reading in the Dark
Anne Enright The Wig My Father Wore (you probably know her new, Man Booker Prize winning The Gathering–simply wonderful)
Colm Toibin The Blackwater Lightship
Clare Keegan Antarctica
Joseph O’Connor The Salesman
Colum McCann Everything in This Country Must
Robert McLiam Wilson Eureka Street
Eoin McNamee The Last of Deeds
Sean O’Reilly Curfew and Other Stories
Sebastien Barry A Long, Long Way
Dermot Healy A Goat’s Song
David Park Stone Kingdoms
Deirdre Madden The Birds of the Innocent Wood
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne The inland Ice


That’s a start, and who first comes to mind this Oirishy morning.

My daughter, Nora, playing the accordion with her school band, in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, in Westport, Ireland, 1998.

Oh right, and the poets. Listen to Seamus Heaney and Eavan Boland and okay, Yeats growling his way through his poems–and Joyce reading from Finnegan’s Wake–all stunning!

And for sheer fun, watch a snatch of The Commitments


March 14 2008: The Day My Father Would Have Turned 90

walking home
Heart and mind swell with memories of my father. He’d be ninety today and pretty pleased about that. (Of course he was aiming for 100.) I always loved that our birthdays were exactly a week apart, separated appropriately by St. Patrick’s Day. This week right now feels unbalanced, shifted, torn open. Precisely the edge on which I should write, continuing to explore my reasons for leaving formal education while lauding the good teachers who find ways to work from the inside. I will celebrate his life, then, today by exploring this new space through writing a coda of sorts to my talks at University of Mary Washington’s Faculty Academy and at Exeter, both talks inspired by him. I write, too, with a nod, of course, to Rilke and to Kozol and to all of my students, past and present.

Blogpost to a Young Teacher

Dear M-,

Thanks for your recent email–how lovely to hear from you a good dozen years or so since you found your way into one of my courses. I do remember you well, and am glad to have played some small part in your journey to teaching though I know it is an unnerving, difficult time to be in this field. That you have reached back into your learning past to call out touches me.

I know you are surprised by my decision to leave teaching. I have received emails from teachers across the world in response to my announcement about leaving my teaching position. The solidarity of the response, the support for my move shows me that yes, we have reached a dark time indeed inside our schools. So many are feeling discouraged if not downright distraught by the lack of vision, courage and commitment to deep learning in their colleagues, their institutions and communities. But do not let my decision lead you out of your classroom. We need teachers like you. Right where you are, calling out for better, insisting on change.

From your letter, and with your permission, I excerpt the following paragraphs, for they bring home the reality of imaginative, talented, committed teachers throughout this country, and of the students they teach.


“I googled your name, with the intention of dropping you a quick e-mail, and have blissfully spent the last hour perusing your blog (while simultaneously proctoring a study hall and avoiding piles of mediocre Jane Eyre essays!). I found the experience just as compelling as I remember your classes were. Your photography is gorgeous; each image tells a story (of course), while also making me long for New England and all of its subdued, lyrical beauty. More importantly, I felt your writing, about teaching, about grading, about blogging, all spoke so clearly to me. I had at least 5 major epiphanies as I read your comments about grading, about the classroom as a collaborative space, about helping students find the time and space to think creatively, etc. etc.

“I teach 9th and 11th grade English at a prestigious, ridiculously expensive school. While I really enjoy my students and my time in the classroom with them, I find myself growing more and more frustrated by this secondary private school world and all of its constraints. As Mel Levine puts it, we, as an institution, are so concerned with college prep that we seem to have missed the boat on life prep. These [kids] are so over-programmed/over-scheduled that much of what they do is done in a rush, thus preventing much sense of depth, care, or ownership. I worry that, as part of this institution, I am part of that problem, despite all my small efforts to the contrary.

“I was also really intrigued by your discussion of the grading process. The fact that your classes create their own “rubrics” is so exciting; I immediately started thinking about how much I would love to put a similar plan into place, but how impossible that would probably be in this particular environment. Though I’ve been teaching for 9 years now, I am finding it more and more difficult to grade my students’ work, not only because it can be such a daunting (and seemingly arbitrary) task, but also because the process has become so fraught with danger. Things are so litigious that you have to document everything; when students plagiarize (which happens much more than I ever imagined the onus is on the teacher to resolve the situation. Parents have no problem e-mailing, or showing up, to question a particular grade (often because they themselves have had a large part in the paper’s construction). It’s difficult to see the forest for the trees when laden down with progress reports, maintaining websites, infinite faculty meetings, college recommendations, etc.”

M-, what a time, what a time. What madness. I worry for these kids. But before talking about shifts of the 21st century, I have to ask, has deep learning ever been found regularly in school settings? Even in elite private schools? If we’re honest? We’ve all had those remarkable teachers who managed to pull us out of the mist of mind-numbing repetitive drill and lecture and into active discussion and collaboration. We remember the great lecturers. The teachers who listened. The inspired teachers. But mostly, they were the exceptions. Mostly I remember dully competent teachers. And in my evil moments I love to remember the worst teachers– my senile third-grade teacher who would teach the same drill lessons, hand out the same worksheets repeatedly for days on end while we snickered nervously and passed notes and sank into boredom and, some of us, into rebelliousness and trouble; and the eighth-grade English teacher who kept a flask of whiskey in his top drawer, to our wonder–it helped us make sense of his absence from class when he sat right there in front of us. I’m sure you can recall the ill-placed teachers in your life, too. They’re terrific story-writing material, and that’s at least something. Many say that all it takes is one great teacher, but I find that sentiment a condemnation of our schools’ general mediocrity. Why does so much depend on a teacher’s ability to transcend the inertia, the territoriality, the fear the fear the fear embedded in our schools?

Recently I read an article in the Chronicle by Mark Edmundson that at once seemed so right on the mark–so much like my father, in fact– and so out of touch–also like my father– that it embodies for me this uneasy time and my reasons for leaving formal higher education at this juncture. He writes: “It’s this kind of dialogue, deliberate, gradual, thoughtful, that immersion in the manic culture of the Internet and Adderall conditions students not to have. The first step for the professor now is to slow his classroom down. The common phrase for what he wants to do is telling: We “stop and think.” Stop. Our students rarely get a chance to stop. They’re always in motion, always spitting out what comes first to mind, never challenging, checking, revising.”


Yes, we’re caught on the barbed wire of confusion, of unsettled, unsettling times. We blame students and their IM-ing, texting ways for their inability to focus, and yet, look at us. We have fossilized learning–taking quick impressions of the works we’re studying, rather than digging down into them to see what they’re trying to tell us. We careen through novels, plow speedily through dense texts, through labs, through lessons, taking snapshots along the way, as we prepare students not for active, thoughtful citizenship but for performance, as you point out, a mad dash to acquire higher scores, better grades, resumes, jobs, more more more. And don’t we do that with publishing, racing to conferences, getting noticed, on committees? How much attention do we really pay to our students? Deep learning strategies?

You might be surprised to learn that bgblogging, the passionate blog-based teacher, still teaches two of three class days a week in a lounge with no computer access at all, just a small portable blackboard and a circle of comfy chairs, so all we have is one another and the materials we have explored. We have to talk, to turn over and over and over again the concerns of the writer. Sometimes class discussion is quite awkward, stiff, stuttery–this is hard hard stuff. Students do not want to feel exposed. No one has asked them to talk about what they have read as writers–I’m not looking for “smart” responses; I’m looking for discovery.

I worry that Mark Edmonson’s article will be used as fodder by teachers and others who out of fear, or ignorance, dismiss the computer in learning, holding it solely responsible for the way students live “to multiply possibilities. They’re enemies of closure. For as much as they want to do and actually manage to do, they always strive to keep their options open, never to shut possibilities down before they have to.” (Edmundson) Come on. Weren’t you like that? After college I felt free to wander about Asia, move to a surfer town and then an island, get to know myself outside of school before I settled down into anything. Everything was possible. Anything. But I was not pressured by my schools, by my parents to be something I was not. Vietnam had ended years before–things were pretty easy really.

They are not now. And to turn from computers as though that will solve our classroom problems is downright reductive. We know that computers used well in education, deepen and extend and slow down the thinking, the reflecting, the connecting and the communicating–students come to see that in addition to the delights of grazing the possible, we can use the connective, collaborative practices of the Web to dig far more deeply into subject matter by moving laterally and associatively across it instead of just chronologically and hierarchically. We can say things we couldn’t before when we can use image and sound as well as text; when we can shift between screens, use hyperlinks; when our viewers participate in the writing by deciding order, elements, options and responding. Why don’t we help students harness the power of connectivity and collaborative creativity to “stop and think.” In writing blog-letters, we can learn to engage in sustained, ongoing, unfolding, emergent dialogue with one another about our subject matter. We can slow down the chatter.

Chris Dede in a recent essay, writes, “…the primary barriers to altering curricular, pedagogical, and assessment practices towards any ICT-based transformative vision are not conceptual, technical, or economic, but instead psychological, political and cultural. The largest challenges in changing schooling are people’s emotions and their almost unconscious beliefs, assumptions and values.” p. 11-12 in “Reinventing the Role of Information and Communications Technologies in Education” You’re feeling that right now.

For me, it’s time to try a different approach, one anchored in the community instead of a school, a place where I can help the people of my lived community access the new ways of connecting and creating, across all the divides that separate us from one another, and from deep creative expression and learning. You are young. You have time to work from within to help your fellow faculty, parents, administrators and students come to their senses.

I’m optimistic when I hear that students such as you have become teachers, or students such as Piya and Remy are willing to teach into a school using new ways of expression. I am optimistic when I have students over from a J-term class and I watch seven of them plan out a new online magazine that they hope will engage their peers in creative expression. It is worth it. You’ll see when you receive an email a few years down the road from one of those Jane Eyre essayists.

Be brave. Speak your mind. Model great teaching and learning. Show them how computers are not the enemy. Laugh a lot. And breathe.


Stay in touch.


Your old teacher

On the Cusp of Summer

Tonight, the eve before the summer solstice, the last day of spring, gives me pause, and I feel moved to write a kind of post I almost never do (short and not about social software and/or formal learning).


I turned 50 on the spring equinox, a season that draws to a close tonight, and I see it go with mixed feelings. I love the edges of things, the cusps, the beginnings, the openings. Perhaps that explains my near obsession with taking photos of and through windows, to catch the merest whiff of story, of possibility.

It was a season of so many edges, so much time off-kilter, right in the eye of learning’s cycles of disruption and repair. I like being there. It was a season of travel– to Europe and the USA meeting fellow travelers on this journey into 21st-century teaching and learning.


But this spring also marked intense loss for me: it was the season that took my father. Endings.

And now a new opening–summer. And it is a new season for me. Fifty no longer shocks me. My father’s death is no longer news to me every morning. I’ve wrapped up my talk-and-workshop season and am moving into my writing-and-family-traveling season. It is fitting that I am spending this summer solstice in Maine, my father’s soul place, with my mother, airing the house, planting the garden, seeing what has changed about the place since last we were here, remembering the past as we move into this new future.
Tomorrow morning I will get up with the sun (here that means before 4:00 a.m. tomorrow) and see it through the day, ready for summer.


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

*Thin Place defined

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

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

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

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

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

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

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