Image Stories and Essays

My students have just completed image-only responses to Bill McKibben’s Wandering Home, a book chronicling his walk from his home in Ripton, Vermont to his other home across Lake Champlain in New York’s Adirondacks. Last week I asked the class to take their own photos, if possible, and assemble them as a response to something in the book, some point McKibben makes about Middlebury, that they felt they had something to say about. The process was, as I expected, fun, frustrating, challenging, and enlightening. I wanted them to think about the arc of an argument, about making a point moment by moment, element by element. I wanted them to think about visual arguments and about how images work, and about transitions and ordering and structure–all by playing around with between 5 and 15 images. I wanted them to start thinking about how they might use images when we turn to multimedia writing in a couple of weeks. And I wanted them to learn from one another. None of them had ever done anything quite like this before. Some of them are still struggling to get their results embedded on their blogs. Soon we’ll talk about ways to evaluate multimedia writing and so we have to start looking at more than text. (I have a post brewing all about the unfolding of our class-built grading rubrics, so more on assessment soon.)

I find these early attempts interesting as responses and revealing about how they are reading the book and how they work with images before we have discussed the grammar of an image in class. You are welcome to look at their stories on their blogs linked from the Motherblog.

In the spirit of learning alongside them, I took my camera out on a walk this weekend and then made my own little image story-essay (thanks to cogdog (Alan Levine) and his magnificent resource, 50 Ways to Tell a Web 2.0 Story, for the link to FlickrSlide):

FALLING RIVER

A Return from the City Moves Me into a New Blogging Space

Lately we’ve had a slew of those listless pre-storm afternoons when even the dog doesn’t want to go out and the cats can’t be bothered to mess with no-brainer prey.
storm settling in
And I wrestled–for days– with a chapter I promised for a worthy book project. My mind wandered.
intothewoods

This kind of weather brings some of the languid ease of the South across our fields, I imagine, because the storm never materializes, just teases with its barking tantrums well to the South (how a Northern New England girl of Irish ancestry can set her imagination on overdrive).
I worried a bit about the state of this blog, that I was running out of gas, my brain too sticky, too taffy-ed, too, well, too distracted.
vermontsummersky

How can you live in a place of such intense physical beauty and have something to say that isn’t charged with poetry, bad poetry at that?
harlequin hollyhocks

You can find yourself slinking slowly into a somnolent bog. (See?)

But then we went to New York. That place always slaps sense back into me. A weekend spent wandering the streets and galleries and eateries of Lower Manhattan picks me out of my nature-addled daze. eastvillageshift
The stunning range of human story and culture and reality are an antidote to my lush woods and big skies and green mountains and small villages of Vermont. It’s good to be thrown into something different. And it’s good not to overplan those visits, to take them slow in a New York buzzy sort of way (if that makes any sense), to look around and let the city’s odd magic do its thing.
westvillagefacade

The only plan we had was NOT to go to any Apple store during the iPhone madness and to see the astonishing Soledad Barrio dance with her flamenco company at Theater 80 (take a look at the flow of stories about the theater in the comments linked off the post), and dinner with some friends.

184628089_22fb58b702_m.jpgImage by Sondra Stewart

The rest of the two days, my daughter, my husband and I moved where our feet took us. Camera in hand of course. With changes of plan welcome.

And this time, that included more of the East Village, the West Village, Chelsea and the Meatpacking District. We found open-air markets, cupcakes and graffitti and the single-most unbelievable draping of tye-dye attire on one person I have seen anywhere (and that includes Haight-Ashbury).
shoppinginny inthemirror

In Chelsea, as we feasted our way down the windows of the galleries on West 24th Street, we stumbled on an exhibit that has jarred me out of my blogging complacency. Got me thinking about a new blog, a blogger’s sketchbook of sorts. About getting more serious about not being so serious. Silverstein Photography’s current exhibition, “First Contact: A Photographer’s Sketchbook” placed photographers’ contact sheets next to the image pulled to print (and in some cases these were iconic images, taken by Diane Arbus, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Man Ray and many others. What a great learning moment for anyone taking pictures, or for anyone looking at pictures, for anyone blogging as a way to capture and hang onto fleeting thoughts, glimpses of ideas, memories, connections, conversation with reading and viewing and listening online and off– to see the creative process –the contact sheet filled with failed images, many in succession. How much richer, then, the experience of seeing the selected, fully realized image printed. How we all need contact sheets. Blogs are such, most of what we write on them being disposable…forgettable.

I came away from that show thinking about how I have been slowing moving towards writing with images and text but how so many times I leave those posts undone, in draft form or sketched out on paper, or in my head because they didn’t seem to fit bgblogging as it has evolved. bgblogging explores formal learning in, sometimes, informal ways, certainly in informal spaces, but it almost always has its eyes directly on changing our educational system. Yet Twitterhas opened to me a new interest in micro-texts. Sharing photos on Flickr has pushed me to pay more attention to my images, both taken with camera and taken with words. I’m ready to keep pushing the kinds of posts I’ve been exploring. PLAYING. Making mistakes. Having fun. And sharing these with my students.

chelseagallery chelseastreetart

I’ll still read and write blogposts. Edublogposts. But experimentposts too.

Perhaps about the mysteries of place and light and childhood.
yellowroom

During summer, then, this blog will see fallow spells as I shift into a new blogging realm, one more creative and experimental, one that engages more of my playful side than my critical, hungry-for-change side.

I want to play with Henri Bresson-Cartier’s notion of “the decisive moment” defined as “the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression.” (from the Silverstein Photography Gallery Press Release). I’m tired of the repetition in my feeds and in my books; I’m going to be more selective in my reading while more open in the territory from which I learn. Otherwise, just as I find happening when I stay in Vermont for too long at a stretch, I get lazy, complacent, and dull.

I’m in search in the summers for the poetry of blogging, the poetry in blogging, and will do so over on bgexperiments, that will kick into gear this week. I’ll move between the blogs, hoping the tension between them will prove useful.
fuschiaintherain

We’ll see how it goes…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Cusp: Learning to Pay Attention to the Extraordinary in the Ordinary

dawncloud

Appearances welcome and unwelcome: In northern Vermont lynx have returned for the first time in forty years; in our central Vermont town Starbucks is reportedly about to make an entrance for the first time ever. Even here. Is this a faint echo of the strange careenings in this country, between the hopeful: the beaver in the Bronx, and the disastrous: the government’s anti-earth policies and actions? What does this have to do with thoughts about my teaching and learning?

carwindowblur
Since fall I’ve been in an unfamiliar, sometimes unsettling space and time, on the road a lot, in between, and it’s not been easy finding my bearings, or balance. But it is precisely those moments of disequilibrium that carry the promise of deep learning, of pulling me out of my complacency, of sharpening my sight. It’s so easy not to pay attention, to settle into the blur and selfishness of routine. Being out of my element has been good for me. I have missed some momentous local events altogether: the Vermont blizzard, for one,
snowdrift hearing or reading, instead of living, the stories of my daughter snowshowing the third of a mile length of our driveway in deeply drifting snow to get a ride to town for her job, or of our large flat-coated retriever getting stuck in the snow and needing to be fished out. I’ve had to learn how to listen instead of speaking.

bethelmountainroad Nearly every week for months I’ve been driving the three hours over two mountain passes to New Hampshire and then down the interstate to the town I grew up in to stay with my parents in their retirement community, and two or three or four days later, I turn around and drive home again.

flyer

My father is dying. And in spite of his being just shy of 89, it’s still a stunning fact to face, a difficult sentence to utter. He has been a tremendous force in my life, my role model as a teacher, a touchstone in many ways. Traveling with him and my mother and my brothers through these challenging, touching days has pulled me out of my own orbit, far from the details of daily home life and my students and the computer and their thrall.

It has taken slowing down, going deep, having some time for thoughts to bubble up and rise slowly–to look around, to feel the power of the ordinary instead of just talking about it. I’m also reading differently: picking up the magazines strewn about the laundry room at the retirement community: reading several times the poems in the torn issue of New Yorker (a lovely one by Louise Gluck, “Noon,” for instance) or the articles in a pristine looking Preservation –a powerful, short piece, for instance, by Wendell Berry, adapted from his foreword to James Achambeault’s Historic Kentucky and think about what he has to say about photographs:

Photography is surely the most temporal of the arts…The picture that results is the realization of a unique instant. Looking at it, we are aware of an implied insistence: This picture could not be made again. The light that made it is past. The photographer cannot return even tomorrow, even later today, and make the same picture. Because it is so insistently temporal, photography is also insistently historical.”

and as I watch the elderly gentleman next to me fold his laundry slowly, perfectly, to the side of his walker, I put down the Berry and my thoughts journey from the article and the man’s flannel shirts and his bent hands to John Berger and what he writes recently in Orion Magazine:

“It’s a commonplace to say that photographs interrupt or arrest the flow of time. They do it, however, in thousands of different ways. Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’ is different from Atget’s slowing-down to a standstill, or from Thomas Struth’s ceremonial stopping of time. What is strange about Jitka’s forest photos…is that they appear to have stopped nothing! In a space without gravity there is no weight, and these pictures of hers are weightless in terms of time. It is as if they have been taken between times, where there is none.” (“Inside Forests” November/December 2006)

Is this why I’ve been taking so many photos of the ordinary details glimpsed through windows, to steady myself within a moment without end, to try to understand it?
singlecrow

Such unexpected discoveries in someone else’s magazines and moving about a world filled with old people brings me to thoughts of my students so young and intoxicated with possibility. In the fall I want my students to explore and experience a visual and aural understanding of their world as they write about it. I want them to have the pleasure of observing people and place, of diving into the writings of the Berrys and Bergers and Glucks of the world in a leisurely way, as I am now. For years I have been guilty, I believe, of what David T. Hansen describes in his introduction to the outstanding John Dewey and Our Educational Prospect:

“The explosion of information in the world today, the rapidity of interaction via contemporary modes of communication, the continued blurring of the lines between providing education and offering marketable degrees and diplomas: these and other forces conspire to push educators into a mode of incessant busyness, with increasingly scarce time for solitude and the conversation so indispensable for thoughtful study and reflection.”

Even with this reflective blog and my posts about blogging as letter-writing and slow-blogging, I know I moved too fast, glancing at the books piled high, at the road, at the world around me, at the colossal problems in my community and the world. Now I observe the nuances of my father’s expressions, reading his face and his body for signs of pain. I do jigsaw puzzles with him, slow piece by slow piece, noticing the subtle spill of colors and contours of the picture. I go to the community’s library and pick out a wondrous array of books in the discard box–I wonder which of the men and women I pass in the halls donated the Lawrence Durrell, which the books on Ancient Greece, the pulpy thrillers, the self-help volumes, the Ogden Nash, the Pico Iyer. Some of them look well-read, others untouched. I look inside the front covers, think about writing a post of found inscriptions, remember how as a child I collected antique spectacles and old photos of people until someone (a brother? a friend? a teacher?) told me it was kind of creepy. I wonder where those spectacles went.

I read slowly as I sit with my parents, slow-moving books, deep-observing books such as Bill McKibben’s Wandering Home, about his long walk from his home in Vermont to his home in the Adirondacks, a book I will use in my new class in the fall, a book that combines close observation, personal narrative and an urgent call to action. This I want my students to read, especially as we move into a year of presidential campaigns, of critical questions about Iraq, about who we should be in the world. I want them to have time to slow down and turn over in their hands the urgent questions of our time and I want them to think about time and place. I want them to remember their own collections of spectacles and connect them to the world.

How do we help our students, these Milennials who, Marilee Jones, Dean of Admissions at M.I.T., described during her keynote (at the Tufts University’s conference: Educating the Ne(x)t Generation), as the least healthy (most anxious, sleep-deprived, poorly nourished) generation ever: “The collective pressure is making kids sick.” As she pointed out, we have only ourselves to blame for this debilitating pressure: parents and most of their teachers are Boomers, the self-involved generation all about happiness and self-actualization and choices, our identities caught up in careers, caught up in our kids’ identities– we’re over-involved with them, we live vicariously through them, and have high expectations of them. How are they expected to slow down if we don’t? How are they supposed to have time to think creatively or mess around outside if even the playgrounds we build are managed?

groveoutthecarwindow

The new rituals of traveling back and forth to New Hampshire, of hanging out with retirees instead of college students during my semester leave, of being with my father as he slowly moves towards the end of life and then with my seventeen-year-old daughter at home as she moves towards the beginning of life away from home have me wanting to take a class on a trail–the same one week after week, sometimes with notebooks or cameras or recorders, sometimes without, silently, sometimes as a group, sometimes solo and see what happens. It has plunged me back into the pleasures and significance of unexpected informal learning, the importance of paying attention to the local, of learning to look at the road every week and see it, really see it for the first time in twenty-five years, instead of listening to music or zoning out into thoughts of my teaching, of my blogging, of my parenting, of all the things I have left undone.

The road is one I’ve been driving for over twenty-five years but never every week. At first, this fall, the shifting light and color of the natural landscape (fall melting into winter) and the shifting rhythms of the human travel week (quiet Tuesdays, busy Fridays) kept me occupied. At first I played around with my camera:
carmirrors

Then gradually I started taking note of the particulars of the humanscape I had never noticed along the way:

weybridgebarn rochestercemetery

And now back home I think about how lucky I am to be on this journey right now: how next week I’ll be giving a workshop in Denver to independent-school teachers with Barbara Sawhill who has written a beautiful post about informal learning with her students through Skype and talkand then back to my Vermont-New Hampshire commute before heading to the U.K. to give a talk to educators in the post-16 sector. Thinking about K-12 learning, about post-16 learning, about teaching, about what social software has to do with any of this, all while tracing this quiet, intense passage with my family has been remarkable. I am acutely aware of the importance of examining how and why we privilege certain kinds of learning and learners in our classrooms and to thinking about the value and context of everyday informal learning as Peter Sawchuk does in his excellent book: Adult Learning and Technology in Working-Class Life. In those talks I want to explore ways in which moving out into the connected spaces of the internet can bring huge gifts to the classroom–any classroom– if we ground our learning communities in the very real and present local. Even in traditional learning institutions teachers and students will benefit from considering and sharing their own learning histories, then noticing and experiencing the contact zones within this learning community, noticing and experiencing the landscape and peoplescape around them, thinking about why and how such things as blogging might help to deepen the learning or inhibit us as Laura wonders in a recent post, as we connect to one another so publicly as my student Katie explores in a wonderful post that in part answers, I believe, Jill’s question about whether students are tiring of blogging.

In our classrooms we have for so long woven pretty pale, stiff excuses for richly hued, complex, textured tapestries of a group’s time together thinking, listening, talking and creating. We can do better. I can do better, by honoring the personal and informal and ordinary within the confines of formal learning, by slowing down, by messing around, by looking for signs of the lynx and beaver all while asking why people crave the sameness of a Starbucks, while as BBC Washington correspondent Matt Frei says about recent stories in the news: “We have been captivated because each one of these escapades featured an unscripted moment of hilarity, insanity or frailty in our otherwise so scripted world.”

I’d like to explore other kinds of unscripted moments in my classes–slowly– the personal and ordinary, turning them over and over in our hands, connecting them to our formal learning experience and to each other in our pursuit of deep learning about ourselves and the world and how we want to live within take our participatory culture .

Ganleymen1939.jpg My grandfather, my uncle, my father ( the older brother) in 1939, Upstate New York

Fertile Learning Grounds: “Network Ecology Stories” and “Creative Vernacular”

decembertree sunrisedecmber
Bryan Alexander raises some really interesting questions in his latest post, “Web 2.0 Network Ecology Stories“, a post extended by Alan Levine this morning.

Bryan comments on how –in his example– digital photos posted to his blog become “microcontent connecting people along lines of shared interest, based on what Ton Zylstra calls ‘social objects.’ Very easy, fluid, direct.” And then at the end of his post he asks:

How are we acculturating these practices? Is this sort of social object networking part of information literacy, media literacy? How often does popular culture represent this practice in tv news, search scenes in movies? And academia, from scholarly bibliography practices to general pedagogy, from The Chronicle to advising grad students, how are we making, sharing, digesting such stories?

These questions, looked at from a slightly different perspective (that of a teacher designing a new first-year seminar for the fall about reading and writing contemporary creative nonfiction), open all kinds of promising avenues for my teaching. I want to think about how my students might examine and experiment with these new, truly dispersed yet interconnected narratives assembled bit by bit, one creator not necessarily even aware of the movement of his/her expression as it is connected to asynchronously, digested, reworked, and remixed.

Are Bryan’s and Alan’s stories pointing to emerging forms I can use, a new kind of renga, perhaps, Exquisite Corpseor Web 2.0 freestyling? Or do we take what we find and create new stories simply by isolating them within a new context, like Spencer’s “Found Fridays,” one of my favorite weekly blog-stops. The potential problems of “found” are raised by the recent article in Slate (Thanks, Hector) by David Segal: “Can photographers be plagiarists?” And this morning’s NPR’s Scott Simon piece about presidential hopefuls brings up tensions arising from stories popping up when least expected–politician stories have shifted due to cellphones and real-time citizen reporting (the two senators interviewed remarked on the disappearance of humor in speeches, the lack of substance as hopefuls grow ever more wary of how their words might come back to bite them). Incredibly interesting and important things for our undergraduates to be considering as they get ready to leave school.

I can see the class thinking about what someone like Sophie Calle might do with these new kinds of overheard and found stories. Or they might try out an Oliver Luker-esque use of ” the socialised internet for the development and presentation of contemporary art and literature” aiming “to establish a new curatorial discourse based on artistic working practices.”

Indeed, I’d like students to explore the role of what Jean Burgess calls vernacular creativity in their own lives and locales, and in their own creations. Why do spend so much time worrying about the evils of wikipedia et al and so little time thinking about the rich potential of discoveries online, of unanticipated learning that is as likely to be postiive as negative?

Perhaps, in mulling over Bryan’s questions and the creative possibilities offered us by our transparent connectedness to the world, we’ll try out some community collaborative storytelling such as compiled by a group in Northern Ireland, including my favorite, murmur.

Little did Bryan know that his post would help me in this work of considering the broad outlines of a learning experience for new undergraduates. Lovely.
amaryllis

Moving into a Semester’s Leave…

Due to some major spam cleaning by our IT guys, I have lost all the comments left since mid-November, and though I’m sorry not to have the questions, the pushing, the insights of my blogging colleagues as part of the ongoing archive of bgblogging, I’ve resigned myself to the ephemeral quality of some of this work. My relaxed attitude also must have something to do with the fact that I am moving into a semester’s leave–I’ll be able to think more about this work, to write, to take pictures, to plan future courses, to give workshops and talks in the U.S., Sweden and England–and already I feel how important it is to move out, from time to time, of the repeated cycles of my teaching year. How lucky I am to have this opportunity!

I’m not sure yet how often I will post here until next September, but when I do, I’m thinking my range of subjects might well include more than my concerns as a classroom teacher. And for those of you who might want to read about some of my thinking on teaching this generation in the liberal arts classroom, Sarah Lohnes has captured a bit of my experience (and that of two remarkable teachers, Doug Davis from Haverford and John Schott from Carleton) in an excellent recent article, “What Do Net Gen Students Have To Teach Us? Stories from the Connected Classroom ” for the NITLE publication, Transformations.

To kick off my time away from the classroom, I am taking a couple of weeks of vacation with my family, time to explore the lights–both natural and surreal–associated with this time of year:

sunonchristmas dawnsand
justatdawn christmasdawn

snowman santa grinch

How strange that cars, bumper to bumper, night after night, snake around this display in Ipswich, Massachusetts, where my brother lives, and not a single person outside my family walked glorious Crane’s Beach at dawn on Christmas…how strange…

A Draft of the Short Chapter I’m Writing about Stories-without-Words for Terry Freedman’s Second Edition of Coming of Age

Terry has worked tirelessly at assembling a group of Web 2.0 educators to contribute chapters to the revised version of the book, and he’s moved us along nicely to today’s due date– now, until I start revising, I can work on other things, such as a response to Terry about his post responding to my last one.

Stories Without Words: A Simple Strategy to Teach Big Lessons with the Web

“It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.
The mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”
Oscar Wilde

“We must accept the fact that learning to communicate with graphics,
with music, with cinema, is just as important as communicating with words.”
George Lucas

“The Western memory museum is now largely visual. Photographs have an insuperable power to determine what we recall of events…”
“Regarding the Torture of Others” Susan Sontag

drivingalong.jpg earlymorning.jpg birds.jpg birdlooking.jpg glasswave.jpg grosbeak.jpg milkweed.jpg drivingalong.jpg

Abstract
Telling stories in pictures but not words, by accessing, manipulating and storing the images through Web 2.0 tools, and then embedding the stories on blogs or wikis, gives students the opportunity to learn important visual and cultural literacy lessons while developing their writing and creative-thinking skills.

We live in an era that privileges image over word, a time when photographs are “less objects to be saved than messages to be disseminated, circulated” (Susan Sontag), yet in school, we continue to train our students almost exclusively in the use of written and spoken language as though images don’t factor into how we make sense of the world. When we do employ photos and films in our classrooms, we rarely teach our students how to read the grammar of images; outside the art room, we rarely show them how to use images as an important means of expression; and many of us miss opportunities to have students use images to explore cultural and traditional language literacies. Somehow, manipulating images in a school day already stretched for time feels too much like play, like a waste of precious minutes better spent preparing for the next onslaught of examinations. But in a world where images engulf us, flashing incessantly across newspapers, televisions and computer screens–often taken not by professionals but by amateurs snapping, posting and sending their shots–it is critical for teachers to bring images right into the center of the classroom where we can examine how and why it is they work, and what they have to tell us about written and spoken language, and about our world.

Furthermore, we must respond to what Sir Ken Robinson observes in his 2001 book, Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative “Graduates can’t communicate well, they can’t work in teams, and they can’t think creatively” (p.4). Indeed, over the years I have found that as students are increasingly groomed to perform on standardized tests, they correspondingly lose their delight in playing with words, or messing around with ideas and group projects; they look for the right answers, those that will please the teacher and examiner, those that will get them the best grades. Or they lose interest altogether. As they wrestle with textbooks filled with jargon and convoluted stylistic devices, they quite rightfully come to equate schoolroom language with something stiff, fossilized, irrelevant. In a world that Daniel Pink reminds us in his book, A Whole New Mind, is demanding creative, flexible thinkers, we hold tight to what Paolo Freire has called “the banking concept of education” (see Pedagogy of the Oppressed: Chapter Two, reprinted here. To prepare our students for a work world that demands collaboration, often across distances, we insist our students not look at one another’s thinking, and we miss opportunities to connect them virtually through their projects. In a world that requires excellent communication skills, we focus on academic writing for academic audiences. And so, quite naturally, our students’ words grow tired, their phrases plucked from the jargon-cliché handbook; their sentences strings of boxcars clanking along down the page or out into the air. Even when students are excited by their ideas and genuinely wish to express them to others, they often lack an intense relationship with language, a lively engagement with style and a real audience.

This is where we teachers can turn to the poets or very young children for help, for they both make language fresh by keeping it strange, marveling at the sounds, the textures, and looks of words, thinking about the odd things words do to one another when pushed together. If we are to help our students communicate well, collaborate effectively, and think creatively, we must help them to use language precisely and inventively and persuasively in all kinds of contexts. We must help them to use the language of sound and image as well as word.

Taking Away Words, Handing Students Images
And so in my undergraduate writing and literature classes, I take written and spoken language away from students. I open courses with exercises involving music and image as a way to disorient these would-be writers by turning up with the unexpected. They expect to work with words; I give them images. They want to tell stories or write essays, which we do, but with no words at all before moving into language. By having to write without language, they have to examine both the ways in which images can and can’t express meaning, and how and when words work.

Gifted teachers, such as Josh Schachter in Arizona , hand cameras to kids and say, take twenty photos of a lamp, each one expressing a different emotion. Or take twenty pictures expressing time. The students compare their results, talk about complex abstractions, talk about the elements of a photograph. At MIT, first-year students explore their new home, the campus, through the visual, with “photography as a method of seeing and a tool for better understanding new surroundings.” I do a similar exercise with my first-semester students, asking them to gather and share images that represent something about their reactions to Vermont, as shown here.

Adding the Web to the Equation

Enter the Web 2.0.

Suddenly and luckily, with the explosion of online options for accessing, gathering, generating, manipulating and sharing images, we have a rich array of easy-to-use, free tools to use in the classroom, and these new literacies and skills need not seem so challenging to introduce to our students. Even in classrooms without access to cameras, using images from any number of imaging-sharing sites, such as Flickror Bubbleshare or Zoomr can provide students experience in image selection and ordering, and thus in understanding how images gain their power. Students can use Frappr to attach images to points on a map, say, choosing a single image to represent their nation’s capitol, or their own street corner; on a Mac they can use Image Tricksto alter photos so as to be unrecognizable or to bring out certain features; with Typgenerator they can even turn text into random, abstract images. They can navigate image-only projects on the Web, and comment through image responses—an image for an image. They can consult Pomona College’s Online Visual Literacy Project with its excellent set of definitions and examples of the elements of visual communications or Amateur Illustrator for tips on creating effective illustrations. Almost every week more options arrive on our Web-step.

In math class, kids can tell explain mathematical facts by taking pictures of natural and human-made phenomena illustrating the concept. Put kids into teams and give each a camera and have them work together to create collaborative image stories to interpret literature, or explain chemistry processes, or explore the causes of a historical event. Have them create photo timelines of historical events or their own lives with tools like Dandelife . Mandarin Design offers lots of tips on ways to use images inventively on a blog.

They can share their results on a blog or wiki with the rest of the class as a way to prepare for a presentation, or to get their peers to think deeply about their topic. Words can be re-introduced—slowly–through titles or tags before introducing full-blown written or spoken explanations. Indeed, students can become more critical consumers of visual media by becoming inventive users and creators of visual content. They can become teachers, explorers, artists, deep learners with these tools. What a break from manipulating the same old numbers repeatedly in the same ways and writing five-paragraph essays!

Because of the Web and its emerging toolset, my students have interacted with an art gallery owner halfway across the country, often communicating with images. Via our course blog (now, unfortunately, defunct), he sent images to the students, one a day, without a word. The students at first didn’t know what to make of these missives, what they should do, how they should respond. Then the gallery owner left them a post asking them to create their own gallery show with any four paintings they found on the Web—what four artworks would they put together in a show and why. They shared their “shows” with him, and he sent them more images, and in turn he shared, virtually, the shows being held at his Chicago gallery.

I want students to play around with using photos to respond to texts and to think about their world, and to think about the role of the written image in comparison. In a creative writing class, students visited via the Web an international virtual artist collaborative, Dispatx, that makes their process transparent online as projects are being developed, visual artists posting images or fragments, or conceptual ideas to blogs; my students then visited their blogs, toured around, “read” the image stories as well as the language-based ones, and left the artists comments. We have created John-Berger like essays ( see Ways of Seeing: ), using images from popular media and then from our own cameras. We sometimes write with photographs about a theme in a short story, for example, here, as well as story-without-words versions of literary analysis.

As students become more comfortable thinking visually, and thinking critically about the visual, they begin to see how stepping away from language for a moment to think about their ideas in image can help the preciseness of their diction, the development of their points, and the depth of their ideas. Occasionally I will hold class in the computer lab and have the group find an image from a repository I have set up, an image they think connects somehow to whatever book or poem we are studying. I’ll have them write for ten minutes about those connections as a way to have them return to written language while considering visual metaphors.

Stories Without Words
A particularly effective and rewarding exercise easily adaptable to any grade level is to have students post stories-without-words on their blogs. We are, after all, naturally drawn to stories from the moment we understand language. Creating compelling narratives with clear beginnings, middles and endings solely with images teaches visual literacy skills while revealing the arc of a narrative, transitions, the structure of an argument, and the importance of the carefully chosen word. Learners explore the act of reading text versus navigating images, the relationships between writer and reader, of form to meaning. Sharing their image-stories via blogs also offers lessons about audience-writer relationships, allows peer-to-peer learning, and enhances learning-community bonding, by promoting an unfolding discussion and feedback loop about the process and outcomes of the exercise. They want to share, analyze and enjoy these stories.

Sites such as Tabblo invite us to make collages and poster-type stories; with Mac’s iMovie or the PC’s Moviemaker we can choose seamless transitions between the frames; or we can take the same images and spread them out on the blog page, or link them in a diagram using Gliffy. Students can create and read other Flickr 5-frame stories. They can moblog picture stories from field trips for science labs. Every discipline, every classroom can potentially enhance the learning experience by incorporating powerful lessons in image creation and use.

Once students return to words by telling the same story, now in words only, they find that their use of language is reinvigorated, every word made fresh and strange, challenging their notions of what makes a powerful statement, an effective metaphor, a moving flow of words within sentences and paragraphs. For college students, the lessons can be quite profound, as I wrote in a 2005 blog post about Julina: “Indeed, publishing this story on the blog has a significant impact on the work and on the writer. As she receives feedback from her peers–some show interest in her story, some in her use of images, others in what she might do next–she can read their telling of the story; they in turn become part of the story and the writing of it. One reader suggests a possible next exercise based on work she has done in a dance class (yes–finally–we see here the integration of the student’s full education, bringing lessons from one class into another, the apprentice becomes the expert becomes the apprentice).”

Even twenty-year-old students, if given half a chance will reconnect with their childlike, playful side, as one student did in his image-story, “The Shave,” that opens his travel blog. They experiment with the effect of weaving images into their posts as Piya does, quite poetically here and here; some even try their hand at photojournalism, as Zoey does on her blog from Berlin.

As one student, blogging with his camera and ipod from Southeast Asia, remarked upon his return to the college classroom, “Cameras and computers have become the tools that have allowed me to blend my life, academics, and adventures together…They have granted me access to an innovative education that is all my own…I am using cameras and computers to relate my own experiences to the books I read and the lectures I listen to…Furthermore, I am able to share these experiences…”

If these tools and approaches can help twenty-year-olds find their way back to their creative, thoughtful, collaborative selves, then imagine what they would be capable of, if as K-12 learners, they had had opportunities to become skilled readers and producers of visual media.