Midsummer Preparations for Fall

In the old, pre-blogging days, prepping for a new course meant, primarily, doing a lot of reading and then thinking about sequencing assignments for students to develop their writing and thinking. I used to think in units, weeks—time and length. I used to hang out at the photocopier quite a bit. Pretty straight forward process.

last light

Now, as I dive headlong into prepping a new first-year seminar, “The Extraordinary in the Ordinary: Exploring the Far Reaches of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction” I realize that I go about designing a course by taking it myself during the summer.

fiddleheads

I spend a lot more time considering the opening couple of weeks. If I want my students to learn deeply, one of my most important tasks is figuring out how to create an environment in which they risk making mistakes, looking foolish, reaching out to others while relying on themselves. I frequently blog about the crucial first weeks of a course, how I am convinced that if you want your students to go beyond themselves, you have to focus on the class environment first.

bowling shoes

But I also spend time trying to put myself in their shoes. I spend a lot of time writing, playing, moving along promising threads of ideas and forms and outcomes, backing up, rejecting, flailing, and fumbling. I have to consider elements of visual design, explore a range of media for producing as well as consuming the course, and envision how a group of sixteen students might take the initial sparks I throw out and turn them into something far more interesting than I could possibly anticipate.

I’ve had to get a whole lot more creative.

With that in mind, one reason I have set up the new bgexperiments blog–-a blog far more intimidating for me than this one—is to push myself in ways that aren’t altogether comfortable, just as I will expect my students to do. And so I posted a personal narrative text/image exploration a couple of days ago, and wow, I haven’t felt so exposed and vulnerable in a long long time. I read it several times online, seeing the typo, the ways I would revise certain image-text combos, the ways the piece fails, the ways my skills and gifts fall short. And until some of my most valued cyberspace mentors had read and responded so kindly, well, I just felt completely out of sorts.

finn

How many times do we put ourselves squarely in our students’ shoes? Admit to yearning for feedback? To fearing failure?

sunrise through clouds

It’s harrowing, but as I move into this rainy Sunday morning, I find I can’t wait to get back to my experiments and to my course planning: I am as excited and engaged and nervous and exhilarated as I was the summer before my first teaching job back in the 80s. That’s one of the marvels of teaching in all times, but especially in this time—feeling like an explorer in a new land, remembering that “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” (Sir Edmund Hillary)

Memories of an Art History Class: Inspiration and Perspective

chinesepeony
Chinese Peony

One of my professors in college, I recall, an art history professor, would move into class by dimming the lights, leaning against the back wall behind us and clicking his little slide projector clicker to illuminate the first slide. Then, unlike most other professors, instead of lecturing us about what it was we were seeing and what it meant, etc. etc. in the larger context of our discipline, while we madly scribbled notes about the stuff we thought would be on the next exam, he would ask us to comment on what we saw and what we could glean from our observations based on the reading and looking we had done to prepare for class and what we had seen and discussed during previous class meetings. He’d challenge us to figure out when it was painted, maybe by whom, and why we should spend time looking at and discussing the work. He cautioned us to question our initial responses; he urged us to think as much with our guts as with our intellects. He’d ask questions, add context, push us to come up with more, to come up with better. His comments on our papers were much the same. And he told us the first day that he would grade the non-majors differently because they didn’t have the experience the rest of us had. We majors howled that it was unfair– no one else did that in any other department….

Bloomington Window

Nearly thirty years down the road, every time I see one of the paintings we studied, I am transported back to that classroom–I can still speak quite confidently about the content of that course while most other classrooms experiences have faded to mush.

IWU Theater Sculpture
(Illinois Wesleyan Theater entrance)

Sometimes he would slip in a slide of a fake. Sometimes a painting from a different country. Sometimes a lousy modern approximation. We never knew what was coming. And it was up to us to smoke it out. Once he came in and showed a pair of side-by-side slides which at first glance seemed identical. Only when we looked more closely than we had ever looked before could we begin to detect the differences. Our task that day was to figure out which was the original, which the copy. Our final exam was filled with such moments.

It was a course about discovery. About the joy of discovering something fundamental about painting, about the world at that time and place, about ourselves as art consumers, as critical thinkers, as contributors to the discussion. We didn’t need blogs or wikis or any of the Web 2.0 tools to have that profound experience. But sometimes I find myself thinking …

… it would have been even more interesting, the learning even deeper, the development of our skills even more pronounced if we had had opportunities to talk outside of class via asynchronous slow-blogging, linking out to articles we had found, and pushing each other and ourselves by posting images we had come across in our Web wnaderings, annotating them, publishing our papers–sharing our drafts with one another.

overthetop

But that’s ridiculous. Absurd. Preposterous. Web 2.0 was not for that time; it is for THIS time. My professor taught brilliantly for that time but not for this. (Much as my father had.) The world is different. The generation is different. The skills graduates need include those we were schooled in–but others, too. We cannot compare what we need to do with what our teachers did. It’s that different.

I remember that some of my professor’s colleagues didn’t approve of the way he taught. Or at least that was the buzz. I imagine he’d be really excited about the ways we can connect, link, share and tag. He’d understand that teachers who do not weigh all the tools they have available, all the practices possible are as guilty as doctors who fail their patients because they haven’t kept up with advances in treatment. (I heard Chris Dede use this analogy that in his 2007 ELI keynote) I like to keep that in mind when I face yet another audience, as I struggle to find ways to help faculty understand why they should not feel threatened by new ways of teaching and learning, but delighted, because in one sense we are not abandoning tradition–just remembering it–the best of it, that of Socrates, for instance, and clutches of great thinkers who hung out together through history, either in place or through letters and their responses to one another, artwork by artwork, letter by letter, essay by essay.

I’ve been on the road A LOT this semester, mostly to give talks and workshops to faculty teaching undergraduates. planeWhen I first started doing this a couple of years ago, I was pelted with questions about intellectual property (fear of plagiarism), assessment, and the time commitment taking to the Web would mean for someone thinking about giving blogs or wikis a go in their teaching. And those are still questions I get when I talk blogs, no matter how much I thread a talk with learning theory, progressive pedagogy, and the realities of a world simultaneously moving towards disconnection within local communities (which center on plurality) and greater connection through ME-oriented social networks); no matter how much I show the slide that puts the teacher as part of the learning circle after the slide with the scary desks in a row.

preppingfortalk

At Illinois Wesleyan University and then at University of New Hampshire, I recently gave versions of the kind of talk I’ve been focusing on lately in which I try to help faculty dare move into the 21st century. I try with each talk to convey more clearly the realities of the work world, of social networks moving beyond teens, of GenMe; I show them blogs and wikis, and some really interesting class projects such as ArtMobs and second language blogging such as Barbara Sawhill’sSpanish classes at Oberlin, and Jim Groom’s use of tagging with his UMW summer class.

Faculty seem to like what they see- learning by reflection (through hyperlinked slow-blogging techniques), learning by doing and making (multimedia projects, service learning mentoring through blog connections), and learning by connecting and conversing (asynchronous blog discussions and linking between blogs, referencing one another’s work and scholarship beyond the classroom). They love the idea of bringing experts in the field into the classroom through blogging invitationals, and the students to the world by publishing their work on their blogs, the class blog, wikis, ‘zines. All’s well so far.

Even Twitter has been making sense to people, how it might work to teach the art of concision, to get students to hone an idea, or to share urls, etc. Annotating slides and creating course photo sets on Flickr–you get the drift–it makes sense–to anyone once they see how it works.

cloudmetaphor

At UNH, especially successful was kicking off the talk by asking them to come up with a metaphor for how it feels to be a teacher who trained in the 20th century but is teaching in the 21st.

But then I get to RSS and del.icio.us–both of which I am planning to place at the heart of all my courses in the future–and things get a little unsettled. The questions get interesting; in other words they approach what’s really the heart of the matter: what happens when students are given much of the responsibility for their learning, what happens when risk and failure are seen as good things–fumbling together in the dark as we learn to think and read and write critically and creatively; what it means when even the syllabus can be changed at a moment’s notice as the group discovers a new direction. How Web 2.0 teaching and learning and living practices are butting up against age-old sacred cows: i.e. the dominant value of the expert, the teacher as trained authority, and a sense of order in the classroom.

Why do RSS and tagging, in particular, provide an opening for this kind of essential discussion? Well, I talk about having students not just create feeds to one another’s blogs–that can be done on the Motherblog or with multiuser blogs and is a given when you are using blogs within a community. Yes, it’s essential to have students see and learn from one another’s struggles for meaning. Yes, it’s essential to weave the stories of their blogs together in a larger community tapestry. Yes. But having students–and NOT the teacher or the librarian–go out and find resources in the field and bring them back via feeds for the group–well what an excellent opportunity to gain skill in evaluating sources, for one. I get concerned questions from the audience about quality control–who is responsible for making sure the sources linked to are “appropriate” or “valid”? Ah…that’s the beauty of gathering RSS feeds as a learning and not a teaching practice. What a learning moment to discover a deep bias within a blog in the field (or a journal, for that matter) or factual errors!

And so, we’re making progress, Laura, I agree. It’s slow, yes, and often frustrating. But it’s happening… At UNH a couple of days ago, some forty faculty members showed that they get it. They want to move their teaching. They just need a little help understanding what that means–and how they can do it well, navigating through the sea of options. It will take the kind of inspired and innovative and fearless IT people of the likes of the magnificent crew at University of Mary Washington or Laura Blankenship at Bryn Mawr, Todd Bryant at Dickinson, Barbara Sawhill at Oberlin, the staffs at UNH and VSC and IWU. It will take classroom teachers making their pedagogy transparent on blogs for themelves, their students and their colleagues. It will take leadership from in our institutions, of the kind Lanny Arvan at the University of Illinois repeatedly demonstrates. And the tireless work of the Bryan Alexanders and Alan Levines of this world–showing us, encouraging us. But finally, I think we’re actually making strides in the right direction.

Yeah.

My college professor would be happy, I think, to see me taking risks, pushing my teaching forward into this century as I strive to be for my students the kind of teacher he was for me. And to see that I’m not alone in this. Not by any means.

Here are the slides and notes from the two recent talks over on Flickr. I’ll pull them over here as well in a few days.

UNH Talk Slide1

For the Flickr version (slides and notes) of the University of New Hampshire FITSI talk, click here.

IWU Slide1

For the Flickr version of the Illinois Wesleyan University the Teaching and Technology Workshop keynote, click here.

Heading Home from ELI–Lessons and Leanings

atlanta from the hotel

This is what usually happens when I head home from a conference–a bundle of perhaps disconnected thoughts needing sorting out..so be forewarned that this is one of my slow-blogging kinds of posts.

Highlights of the conference included meeting Gardner Campbell again (and seeing his colleagues’ adventures with Web 2.0 tools in a new program of first-year seminars), catching up with Steve Warburton, Lanny Arvan, Leslie Madsen Brooks, Cyprien Lomas/a>; and meeting Bitch Ph.D. and Scrivener when we took a field trip to Emory to hear The B talk (which Leslie blogged and I captured on my camera). The star autographs the poster

Of course there was also the delightfully provocative and right-on-the-mark talk by Bryan Alexander, the excellent keynote by Chris Dede and a great intro to ambient mobile video as learning tool. But the best part was watching Barbara and our two student co-presenters deliver their powerful stories (In a few days I will post our talk). Lizi Rocks

For all the talk during the conference about the Net Gen’rs, who they are and what they need and want, and how the work world demands a new system of education, I heard little about how to help students apply critical approaches to their use of technology, or about how to set up effective learning communities that really help students engage in real-world-based learning without the professor looming front and center. I heard a lot of excitement around social software and Second Life and all kinds of tools, lots of ideas for how one might use them in the classroom, lots of reasons for WHY we need to use these tools and how to think about goals and objectives for the learning, but I really heard nothing about the absolutely critical piece in the puzzle–setting up the environment for learning –and I don’t mean physical space, I mean the contact zones, the places to engage in the cycles of disruption and repair of learning, the uneasy space of failure–effective, messy ways of working towards real collective intelligence, the ways in which the learning network will engage across class, culture and circumstance, how the syllabus itself and evaluation rubrics must come out of those first conversations.

Okay, this means that I’m still on the fringes. I get it. Someone called me the grandmother of classroom blogging (sheesh, and I’m not even yet 50), someone else likened me to the teacher to the rest, but I don’t feel much like either. I still stumble along in my practice, searching for how to make the learning experience in my classrooms really account for something worthwhile, scaleable, and lasting–something real. So, I come away from the conference with no answers at all, but once again due to some excellent conversations between and around the sessions, I am re-invigorated, re-radicalized and ready to write what I hope are a couple of good keynotes for European conferences this spring.

Although we had a small audience (interesting in itself that we were overlooked by so many when our students really contributed significantly to the greater conversation about 21st century learning…) , people were engaged and asked excellent questions at the end. One question, in particular, dogged me through the rest of the conference. And wouldn’t you know, it would be Lanny who asked the question (he has pushed me on blog and off to clarify, deepen and explain my thinking and pedagogy more than almost anyone over the past year or so). A concluding observation I made was that most students weren’t yet, at least in my experience, bringing the kind of deep, connected, reflective practice they experienced in the blogging classroom out with them beyond the class at semester’s end. Lizi had explained that she was no longer blogging, that there didn’t seem to be anything to blog about during her senior year in the way I had asked her to do in my class or she had discovered on her own in Siberia. In the Q & A and in a follow up email Lanny voiced his concern that students didn’t find their ordinary lives worthy of this kind of reflection.

He’s put his finger on something that has been bothering me, too, something I didn’t hear other speakers touch upon–that we are not yet really having a lasting impact on the relationship our students have with their learning, bridging formal and informal learning, taking the classroom out of the box and letting it stretch and find its new shape in the world. We aren’t paying enough attention to the participatory gap–to who really gets to talk in the classroom, who really feels ownership of an ongoing blogging experience and why. This is not new territory to be sure, but it is essential territory. Yeah, sure, all of my students take to this active engagement in certain kinds of classroom situations and do quite extraordinary things when given a good deal of responsibility for the course design, implementation and evaluation (alongside their prof who makes sure the opening weeks are devoted to questions of learning communities and what we need to learn in this discipline and why). But even so, they return with remarkable ease to the read-lecture-test scenario, snapping right back into their old student-as-recipient-of-knowledge-and-grades personae.

Sure, former students bemoan the fact that one of the only classes that really asked them to drive their own learning or created a lasting bond between learners as well as a sense of confidence and efficacy was this Motherblog-centered course. They belly-ache about lecture classes, about turgid textbooks, about professors who do all the talking in discussions. But they do so quietly or with their friends on their social network spaces. They’re resigned to the realities of our classrooms, and pretty darn docile about it. After all, it takes a lot of energy, commitment and passion to learn the way I’m asking my students to learn. Very few of them take the reins of their learning squarely in their own hands by finding ways to make it real, to make it their own on their own. And that’s not their fault. It is ours.

The students who do move the blogging out into their lives want to do independent studies (with credit) rather than using reflection-connection-observation as a way to connect to others with similar intellectual and artistic interests and to deepen their learning outside of a graded or a study-abroad experience. In other words, are students still just going through the motions of whatever a teacher puts on their plate whether it be lecture-test or blog-create? Are we blogging teachers really rather altogether too smug and self-congratulatory about our results?

I want to start exploring the reasons for this elastic-band behavior (students will return to the “old” ways once out of our “new” classrooms) and ways I can help students to keep pulling down the silos. Here’s my first take on why my students, once out of the classroom, continue to shoebox their classroom experiences –even those that are transparent, connected, out in the world blogging experiences, why they accept plodding through the traditional academic paper and test and report and project in the classroom in a never-the-twain-shall-meet kind of spirit after they have had a taste of something else.

The first and obvious reason is that thinking deeply about the connections between their courses, between their courses and the world and their own lives seems unnatural to them. Why should they do this? Why would they do this? We’ve only ever shown an interest as teachers in what we design and assign to them–that is the world in which we co-exist with our students. Do we ask our students about their other courses? Do we invite them to bring that learning and their learning from the world into our classes? Rarely. Few teachers seem to foreground active, connected, transparent reflection and written conversation across communities as valuable; when everything in a course is designed and assigned for them, of course that is how students view formal learning–of course that is how they view even this kind of wild experience of the open-walled blogging classroom: something to do as long as someone else is telling them it is what they should/need to be doing. The inner motivation isn’t there. They don’t really get it. They have only done classroom work for the grade. What I am asking here is too risky. They are vulnerable because they are building resumes, traditional accomplishment-based resumes.

Blogging the abroad experience makes sense as it is a “Letters Home” thing: the blog broadcasts their experience to friends and family while serving to expand their own thinking and understanding of their experience. It archives the experience and who they were going through it for themselves and whoever wishes to read it. The more personal pieces are reserved, as makes sense, for their social networking spaces. This kind of blogging feels serious, weighty, and needs something driving it that is BIG, INTERESTING, SCHOLARLY i.e. studying abroad.

But when they come home, slow-blogging outside the classroom feels unnatural to them, especially blogging-about-learning when they are doing it in a vacuum (no instant, motivated community)–apart from the one blogging course and the abroad blogging, they have no experience with this kind of writing or community-building, no place to root it in their lives just yet. It feels risky, too, for other reasons. Who will read it down the road and think poorly of them for their thoughts? They’ve been groomed to be correct, to be the best, to be “on.” I am very concerned by this need to occupy performative space, this disturbing trend of future employers being interested in what a college student wrote about the experience of learning (not to be misunderstood for the kinds of dangerous and/or harmful publishing to the Web that some young people insist on doing). It’s absurd. We are losing the ability to learn for the pleasure of it, for the wonder of it.

Also, my students know what it takes to do deep blogging well, or slow-blogging as I like to call it, and in school they just don’t have time for those kinds of extras. (I certainly know how it feels to be overwhelmed with work–trying to find a clear place in my head to think about my teaching and learning is tough during the semester, but it has been invaluable to my teaching, it is a part of my teaching.)

It also has something to do with blogging outside a community–they can’t imagine anyone wanting to read about or respond to what they think about their studies, and they don’t want to blog to themselves alone.

Teachers like us are working right now in ways that are really making no difference in a sense–students been so encultured, the lessons so engrained about doing what they’re told, that not only are they uneasy when enter our fluid classes, they often snap right back into the old mold when they depart…they only bring in their lives outside the classroom when we ask them to… and yet their lives leak into the classroom at every turn. This continued dichotomy between what can happen in such a classroom and what happens beyond and after is something I want to discuss with my students from the past six years as I start to plan new courses for next year. I need their help to make the classroom more relevant and worthwhile than before–much to learn.

And so as I head home to snowy, frigid Vermont, I’ve got much to keep me warmly engaged, and that means it was a useful conference.
Lake Champalin from the sky

Preparing for Educause’s ELI Conference in Atlanta

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

newtitleslide

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

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

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

mildweedsilk
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.

One Resolution: When I Return to the Classroom Next Fall…

“One’s ‘reality’ rather than being fixed and predefined, is a perpetual emergent, becoming increasingly multiplex, as more perspectives are taken, more texts are opened, more friendships are made.” Maxine Greene (quoted in Dawn M. Skorczewski’s Teaching One Moment At a Time, p.27)

dawngull puddlereflectioninthtewoods

One of my (many) goals for my sabbatical is to rethink my teaching by looking at what I’ve been doing, by immersing myself in reading both in and outside education theory and practice, by exploring experiential and informal learning used in formal learning contexts, and by peeking into the classrooms and research of inspired teacher-scholars such as Spencer Schaffner and Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Jill Walker. I want to put pressure on the way I teach, on my contributions to every semester’s unfolding learning dynamic, on the way I design courses–the actual physical space I request for our class meetings, the frequency and duration of our face-to-face time, the blog as vehicle and receptacle of our time together outside of class, the one-on-one conferences, the balance between my selection of texts and assignments and student-directed/generated explorations and assignments, the rhythm of the semester’s unfolding and how much I really allow directions and opportunities to emerge from the learning moments themselves, the use of multimodal forms of expression. Does the interplay between Web spaces and physical spaces really help students to develop their creative and critical thinking, reading and expression skills? Am I helping them to think and read and communicate for their time by contextualizing the new literacies within the old and then letting the students explore together and on their own as much as is possible within the confines of a twelve-week semester? How does what we do in class relate to what students do outside, including their commitment to the pressing issues of our time, to community, to environment, to learning, to art?

My determination to put my teaching through rigorous self-review in part comes out of an ongoing conversation about the gap between what students do with communication and digital technologies outside the classroom and what we’re trying to get them to do inside traditional institutions, and how much that gap matters. I am bothered to no end by the fact that among the few places that really haven’t changed at all in the past century or more are our classrooms–even Time Magazine gets that (thanks for the link, Bryan). A hundred years ago classroom spaces, materials, attitudes, dynamics, experiences were as bad as they are now, privileging the privileged, not to mention deadening the creative spirit. Have I really found my way out of the factory-method of education, or am I just fooling myself?

Students tell me they value my classes, but sometimes I wonder if what they like is the attention I give them, the intensity of my commitment to every one of my students as individual learners, which involves ample one-on-one time. My privileged students may well take this kind of easy access to me for granted, coming as they increasingly do from highly scheduled backgrounds and the instant connection to their parents via their cellphones, as my colleague at Middlebury, Barbara Hofer, is researching with her students. My less privileged students blossom under the attentiveness, the connection to an adult mentor, but I wonder if I am too available, too present offline and on.

I am heartened, though, that people, including–at last–those within mainstream media, are asking some tough questions about our education spaces and traditions, and even more, by how pockets of teachers and students are quietly transforming formal education in their own schools and communities. Of particular note are programs started by teachers and parents who have had enough of wasted time in classrooms, and have found ways to get students out of their home environments not for the typical two-week class whirlwind tourist trip to Spain or Italy or Peru, but for a full semester or year, time enough to taste living in another culture. Take, for example, the following innovative teacher-initiated programs for teenagers– BOTH ORIGINATED OUTSIDE TRADITIONAL SCHOOLS :

travelingschool.jpg The Traveling School, started by teachers who left their traditional schools, is putting backpacks on groups of girls and sending them out on the trail for a semester to learn about the world and themselves (and yes, math and writing) by studying where they are in context and getting out to do community-service projects. vis.jpgAnd Vermont Intercultural Semester, with its innovative program that brings Vermont teens to Ladakh to learn side by side with Ladakhi teens. These programs know that to learn about the world you’ve got to get out into the world, and to get to know yourself and your home, you’ve got to leave home. Both programs are working hard to provide opportunities for all kinds of students–not just the privileged—to get out into the world. And in university? Is the traditional liberal arts tradition of studying abroad little more than the contemporary version of the continental tour of old? Or are our study abroad programs really challenging students to gain a broader world view by immersing students in target languages, having them live with host families, and sending them out on experiential kinds of programs such as Global Learning and SIT? How many colleges are offering the kinds of opportunities John Schott at Carleton has embarked on this semester?

And what about kids who stay at home in our classrooms? Not everyone can actually pick up and leave home. That’s where social software really shines, of course. Over the past five years we’ve seen remarkable uses of blogs, wikis, podcasting and gaming to foster classroom community, creative and critical thinking and expression skills within and across disciplines, and–to a lesser extent–building bridges to people and ideas out beyond our classroom walls, not just by visiting websites, but by participating in conversations, sharing work, and collaborating with others well beyond our own schools.

One of the most powerful and effective uses I’ve seen recently of blogs and online communities to integrate formal and informal learning is the brainchild and passion of the remarkable Geoff Gevalt, former Managaing Editor of The Burlington Free Press: The Young Writers Project.
ywp.jpg Teens from all over Vermont are taking to the site–ALL kinds of teens, not just motivated students– both prompted by teachers and finding their own way there, publishing their writing and connecting to one another through their writing and photography on a site that also involves adult writers and teachers. This kind of interactive site meant for both kids and teachers could well be a model for teaching and learning in the 21st century–check it out.

And so, I want to look closely at my students’ online and multimodal, multimedia work and highlight interesting, compelling uses of social software, multimedia narrative, and mash-ups to stretch students’ critical and creative skills, and see if I can transfer those individual inventions into models and inspirations for future students–and perhaps, more importantly, for other teachers. I also want to think about how throwing open the doors and windows of my classroom to the world can be done even better, even more powerfully, even more safely. I want to explore gaming, and ways to use cellphones (something I’ve been meaning to do since I read Howard Rheingold’s The Virtual Community and then Smart Mobs years ago, and Mimi Ito’s research and The Digital Youth Project coming out of Berkeley, USC and the MacArthur Foundation) to do Murmur-like projects and perhaps Museum of the People kinds of projects that would combine research out into the world with a pedagogy of the local. I want to think abut ways in which we can do some Outside.In or Placeblogger kinds of projects.

And I want to give my students lots and lots of room to bring in their own ways of communicating and creating– After all, what got me thinking about multimedia narrative as viable academic discourse was a student in the fall of 2001 who wanted to turn in a video as her final project, a video that included a voiceover narrative, cited scholarly evidence, images, and music– fortunately for me and the next five years of students in my classes, I said sure, why not, and her ground-breaking project introduced me to a whole new way of writing the academic essay. I’ve got a lot to learn from my students.

I want to learn, too, from Oliver Luker’s dispatx projects, seeing if there’s a way I can tweak their model of collaboration and bring it to my creative writing and arts writing classrooms. I want to learn from Remy’s experiments in travel writing for the 21st century. I want to return to the work of Michael Joyce and Roy Ascott and, of course, Maxine Greene, but also to go well off line to the work of young writers such as my old students, Stacie Cassarino and Stephanie Saldana, who are pushing boundaries of genre and form and discipline.

Gotta get to work–time is a-flying!

A Year Down the Road…the Edublogs Awards, Skyping with Students, And Some New Reading

Collin made a post a week or so ago in which instead of moving forward into new material, he circles back to posts from the past to think about how and if his thinking has changed in the interim. I often link to my past posts to weave the threads of connected stories (and to make my posts even longer–ha!), but I have never gone back to the same time a year past to see what I was thinking. And so when I heard that I had been nominated in two categories for an Edublog Award and felt even more surprised this time out than I had last year, I thought I’d go back to see what I had thought last December and what has happened since then. As many others have observed, the explosion of edublogging has brought new names to our shores, new insights, new energy. In the best individual blog category, last year I felt like an interloper in the big-ideas gang with Stephen, Will and Ulises my co-finalists for the best individual blog. This year, it’s a very different group indeed, diverse, with a couple of slow-bloggers, a couple of post-almost-every-day types and ANOTHER WOMAN in the mix! I am again honored to be a part of such an interesting and excellent group. And the other nominees for the most significant post, all making essential contributions to the ongoing conversation, are collaborative endeavors this time, which makes me feel a little lost, a little insignificant within this magnificent crew. I hardly know who to vote for among this extraordinary group.

field fog at dawnAnd so I plod along in my little thinking box here, reflecting on the changes in my teaching and learning, on what I experience in reading and conversation and writing. And I realize that my blogging quietly evolves post to post, little by little, sometimes circling back, sometimes treading water, sometimes moving forward. What has really changed for me in the last year, I realize, has not been how my own thinking has shifted or how fellow teachers have begun to experiment with blogging and new media or have shifted their sense of effective learning environments, but rather what my students have been doing to craft learning experiences that combine the experiential and the creative, the reflective and the active. And I have have so very little to do with their learning. The learning experiences my students are having seem, finally, to be headed towards Levy’s knowledge spaces or James Gee’s affinity spaces–explained in his wonderfully provocative and illuminating Situated Language and Learning: A critique of traditional schooling(which Jo McLeay blogged about a year ago) The twelve features of an affinity space:

“1. Common Endeavor, not race, class, gender, or disibility is primary
2. Newbies and masters and everyone else share common space
3. Some portals are strong generators
4. Content organization is transformed by interactional organization
5. Both intensive and extensive knowledge are encouraged
6. Both individual and distributed knowledge are encouraged
7. Dispersed knowledge is encouraged
8. Tacit knoweldge is encouraged and honored
9. There are many different forms and routes to participation
10. There are lots of different routes to status
11. Leadership is porous and leaders are resources” (pp. 85-87)

It is very difficult indeed to implement # 9 and #10 in a college classroom, but I’m trying, I’m trying. I am, though, seeing the power of cultural versus instructed processes of learning in my classes. Gee writes,

“In today’s schools many instructed processes, not least those connected to learning to read, involve practicing skills outside any contexts in which they are used by people who are adept at those skills (e.g. good readers). If this is how children had to learn to play a computer or video game–and, remember, these games are often very long and quite challenging–the games industry would go broke.”
….
“…as schools turn reading into an instructed process, today’s children see more and more powerful instances of cultural learning in their everyday lives in things like Pokemom and computer games. Modern high-tech society–thanks to its media, technology, and creative capitalists—gets better and better at creating powerful cultural learning processes. Schools do not.”

Moving away from instruction and thinking of our classroom as a community space and rather as an affinity space makes such sense to me right now because I’ve had to let go of even more of my power in the classroom (power dynamics when teachers evaluate student performance is a topic I’ll return to soon), even though I had thought I had already distributed the power pretty well. I have been rather preoccupied this semester with my father’s rapidly failing health, thinking about what it will mean to lose the person who, in addition to being a beloved parent, has so inspired my work by his example during his forty plus years teaching high school history. A remarkable teacher, my father would seem to disappear as the students took it upon themselves to sort out the motivations and meanings behind piles of primary source documents he would heap on the center of the Harkness table. He asked questions from time to time as a member of a team might. The first time I saw him teach, I understood classroom magic. I have been zooming back and forth across the spine of mountains and down towards the sea since this summer, now every week, splitting my time, almost, between the two places. My students have had to cope. And in the old system of college classrooms, that would have meant canceling class, or screening a film, or assigning an extra project. Without me there, there would be no class. Now it meant really letting the features of this learning environment–offline and on–unfold according to their own rhythms, not mine. Now it meant seeing if the blogs, as vehicles for conversation, for posting images and audio files as well as writing, would serve us no matter where any of us, including the teacher, might be. Now it meant seeing how fluid groupings and re-groupings of students worked as they sought help from each other on their final projects. Now it meant trying out Skype for the final evaluation conference. Online work was no longer what we did because it enhanced or facilitated what we already did pretty well offline or because we knew we had to integrate new, emerging literacies with the old, but because we had to–we had no choice. Because I give no grades (all assessment and evaluation is done collaboratively by the students and me in conferences, but mostly by the students), ongoing reflection, self-assessment, and conversation about progress and outcomes are essential–and in the past conducted in written narratives by the students and by me, and in face-to-face conferences. bgelee.jpg
(Photo by my great blogging colleague, MEB.
Yesterday, because I had to leave town so quickly to race to my parents’ for what might have been the last time, I had one of our fabulous IT guys set up a laptop in my office with Skype–video and all (not all of the students have used Skype before now). We’d do the conferences online, but talking.

And because in my haste I forgot the toggle for my iSight (I have an older model Powerbook), we had to dispense with visuals altogether. I thought it would be disastrous not to see my students, not to read their body language and their facial expressions, not to be able to look them in the eye when we talked about their final grade. But in a way, it worked even better than the regular conference precisely because everything disappeared but our words. And the students heard when their words did not convey their intention, when they were vague or hadn’t yet thought our their point. All we had were the words in our ears coming from our computers. And all I could hear was the confidence, the sense of ownership these young men and women now have in their writing, in their learning. They have all mentioned the power of collaboration, of reaching out to one another for feedback, for expertise, for the enjoyment of sharing. They know how to ask probing questions of their books, their cohorts, themselves. It has been a great lesson for me.

And some of them, some of them might just go on to do the kind of independent, boldly creative and innovative senior work that Remy of remstravels has done with his interactive multimedia installation, both online and in situ, of new forms of travel writing. Remy is, by the way, up for the best undergraduate award this year, so go check out his work–he represents the new student in a traditional school–taking chances, making his education his own, and doing inspiring work in the process. It’s been quite a year!