Preparing for Educause’s ELI Conference in Atlanta

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

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

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

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

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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)

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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.”
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“…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!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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And no, I didn’t get to take in the Kimball or the Dallas Museum of Art or the Sixth Floor Museum–just the sprawling Dallas Convention Center and the historic Adolphus Hotel and the shuttle between the two. That’s what happens when you attend only the first couple of days of a huge conference. But in that convention center I met some great people and learned about some impressive projects going on in classrooms in Virginia, Nebraska, North Carolina, Minnesota and Michigan.

It was a real pleasure to spend Monday with the marvelous Bryan Alexander and the nearly 50 participants in our EDUCAUSE workshop on Social Software in Teaching and Learning.

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Bryan telling stories…

The biggest challenge for me was the range of experience with and exposure to social software among the participants. While a few attendees had very little knowledge of blogs and wikis–though you wouldn’t think so from this shot I snapped after Bryan asked, “Who has ever edited a wiki?”
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–we also had a Dutch team teaching social bookmarking to seven-year-olds and embedding video of us into the wiki almost in real time. Knowing that we only had a day, and being a believer in student-centered learning, I felt the pressure of getting everyone talking and thinking deeply about their learning and that of the students in their schools. Bryan’s wonderful session wiki helped immensely as it gave our most advanced participants an opportunity to contribute, and contribute they did, adding content to the wiki as we spoke. Inspired by the incomparable Nancy White and her use of Flickr in presentations, I used a Flickr slide show as part of the introduction to my teaching and learning. From now on I plan to use the combination of the two–and invite attendees to contribute to both as I’m presenting–this approach creates an interesting relationship between presenter/facilitator and attendee/contributor, closing in on the kind of interactive conference session I’m after that includes collective knowledge building through the wiki and Flickr as well as discussion following brief presentations. Keeping the presenting part to a minimum is tough, though… And of course, the network connections have to be reliable… The workshop went well, I think, combining Bryan’s looking ahead and deeply with my looking into the classroom. Not surprising at all were the many questions about privacy, assessment, and motivating faculty. Yes.

Other highlights of my brief stay in Dallas included two excellent conference sessions–one so inspiring that I haven’t stopped talking about it all week. In “Time, Space and History” prominent historians Edward Ayers of The University of Virginia and WIll Thomas of The University of Nebraska showcased their Aurora Project (watch their presentation here). Daring to consider historical scholarship in four dimensions through digital means (GIS, xml, coding, visual patterning, ect.), and inspired by the work of weather visualization and analysis, these two noted scholars are portraying the individual and community stories of Reconstruction and the expansion of the railroads against the larger sweeps of history, showing time as well as space as they “weave together the patterns of a multidimensional history” instead of continuing solely with monograph-based historical scholarship.

Students in Ed Ayers’ classes contribute to the project in real ways, including examining historical primary source documents, county by county, and writing brief historical narratives from the documents. Each student writes ten of these page-and-a-half narratives–“Imagine writing history for a cellphone,” Ayers explained–which are reviewed by grad student TAs before being published on the project site linked to the GIS maps, graphs, visuals of all sorts. They spoke of the “productive anxiety” students feel when asked to do something that they have never done before, that no one has done before. The professors tell their students that they are making it up as they go–how many teachers say such things in class? These students are learning the discipline as they are doing it. They are developing the discipline as they learn it. Fantastic! This is how we can weave together the best traditions of classroom learning and the new opportunities afforded by emerging technologies. It was a riveting talk exemplifying authentic learning.

The second session of note, “Gaming as Pedagogy: Teaching College Economics via a Video Game” showcased a visually enticing computer game created for a mid-level economics course at the University of North Carolina- Greensboro as a way for students to apply what they learn while being engaged by the stimulating environment of a computer game. I can see its appeal and its usefulness to assess understanding in a choose-your-own-adventure kind of setting, but I don’t much like the fact that the only options available are set out for the students–they have to choose one route over another, one decision over another, but are not able or asked to give their own reasoning. They click and move on, click and watch, read or mull over, click again. They are applying their learning, sure, and it’s fun, absolutely, but they are not contributing here; there’s no asking the students to articulate for themselves what they have learned. They aren’t doing the discipline I guess, but playing it. The students sure love it, signing up in droves for the section that offers the game. To see a sneak preview, check out their site–they definitely win the award for coolest hand-outs (creature mask, demo disk, and beautiful promotional booklet).

I also found myself at a poster session on Media MATRIX which is “an online application that allows users to isolate, segment, and annotate digital media”–very interesting examples from political science and history classes. I plan to spend some time trying it out and perhaps inviting my students to use it in their research papers later this semester. Promising.

Hearing at the NITLE reception more about some of the extraordinary online work going on at Carleton College, including a full-semester multimedia and blogging course on the road that I had learned about earlier from Sarah Lohnes has me absolutely green with envy. This is how I want to teach!

It was quite extraordinary to see the kind of creative, powerful work being done across the country, and so I returned to Middlebury both inspired and refreshed, ready to keep pushing forward with these ideas, ready to get back to my own classroom, ready to get back to Vermont. geese adirondacks

A Recent Conversation on Blogging for The Vermont State Colleges

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Ah, I’ve been away from the blog too long.

I have several posts waiting for me, posts stirred by comments from the likes of Terry Freedman and Lanny Arvan, on topics ranging from a clearer articulation of what I mean by teaching in a syllabus-less classroom to a clearer articulation of how, exactly, I see images in my classes. I am afraid that the frantic pace at which I am moving these days between teaching, talking and family have made my posts a little thin, a little less carefully developed than I would like them to be. Oh well–at least I’ve been able to show my last few posts and the resulting comments to my students as models of useful blogging conversation and feedback.

So, no, today I am not going to blog back to Terry or Lanny; I’m not going to talk about Chris Sessum’s wonderful new post on “relationships of knowledge, teacher learning, and practice”, or the interesting Skype show I participated in two nights ago about assessment of student blogging over at languagelabunleashed, or even the fascinating group of students I am lucky to be teaching this semester or the new group of world bloggers embarking on their study abroad ventures. Soon, I hope, I’ll get to those posts. For today, I’ll share the slides and text version of the talk that kicked off an afternoon-long conversation a couple of days ago with a spirited group of teachers and administrators from the Vermont State College System on the other side of the splendidly autumnal Green Mountains. And if I can get the audio sounding okay, I’ll post that, too.

I’m not covering new ground here–it is a talk introducing my classroom work with blogs and urging the group gathered to think first of the goals they and their students have for their learning, and how the new literacies affect how and what we teach.
The text served as a guideline, but in the actual talk, I departed from it frequently, pulling in additional examples both from theory and practice.

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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

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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.

Pulling Up A New Course Blog and Other Semester Openers

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This is the sixth fall semester I’ll have my students blog, write hypertext essays, write with images, create digital stories–the original blogging crew entered my classroom for the first time on September 11, 2001. Imagine. And how the world has changed since then… not to mention my classroom and my syllabus and my professional interests and even expertise. What a five years it has been…

And so as I pull up a new motherblog, I’m also pulled over to my own blog here to post about the new way I’m intending to open my class thanks to Jane Love from Furman University, my wonderful new online collaborating colleague whom I met at the digital storytelling gathering in California three weeks ago; and to the new Blogging the World elgg platform that my online collaborating colleague,Todd Bryant from Dickinson College has set up (not ready for reading yet, but it promises to be a real improvement over the old one); and to the many projects brewing with my frequent collaborator and co-presenter, Barbara Sawhill from Oberlin including the blogging pilot project I’m doing with Vermont and NH teacher ed programs as a way to provide support and connection for new teachers who can feel isolated and alone; and to the workshops/talks/presentations from Dallas to Illinois to Vermont punctuating my semester; and to the digital storytelling initiatives and collaborations I am immersed in with online collaborating colleagues from The Center for Digital Storytelling and Creative Narrations among others. To think that the only thing on my mind when I first introduced blogs into that Irish lit and film seminar was how to bring my students to Ireland and Ireland to my students. Wow.

I am also looking ahead to my spring semester leave when I will go offline and out of the country (at least that’s the plan) for three months (April-June) to read, to think, to write, to take stock of this work. Instead of going on leave to write a novel set in Ireland (my last leave), I’ll be working on Web and digital storytelling projects internationally and writing about my teaching and learning journey on the Web. And six years ago I didn’t even LIKE computers.

Now because of the Web and what it has brought me, I sit on the brink of the semester (on my baggage as it were) in awe of where I’ve been, of where I am right now, of where my students are, and where we’re going. I have a new set of exercises to try out with my students as a way to think about who we are as we move into this learning experience together and what we want to get out of it. This makes me think about Gardner Campbell’s recent post, “The One, the Many, and the Other” about the dangers of thinking about community rather than the people in it. His quotation from Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one to mull over as I start this semester: “He who loves community, destroys community. He who loves the brethren, builds community.” One of the ways to focus on the people within the learning community is to help them develop skills of conversation, the give and take of listening and expressing within a group. Dave Pollard (who always has something thought-provoking to read on his blog) has a terrific post, “Ten Steps to Great Conversations” which could be entitled, “Ten Steps to Setting Up A Great Classroom.” Both of these posts I want to share with a young teacher, one of my former students, who has just started teaching at a local secondary school. A couple of days ago she was expressing some confusion about the school community as a whole–its culture– but as soon as we started talking about her students, her passion and enthusiasm took over. Our talk quickly got productive and interesting: swapping ideas about exercises and approaches that would help her students fill the room with themselves, and listen to one another, and value each other’s contributions to the learning journey, while challenging themselves to grow as thinkers and writers.

I suppose I am writing this post in part to reassure myself that walking into a writing workshop with only the broadest strokes of a syllabus and only the backbone of a motherblog on Tuesday makes sense pedagogically rather than being a sign of me getting lazy after all these years. It’s quite harrowing when I really think about what I am about to do –construct the syllabus with the students as we go and remove grades as much as possible –because it runs counter to what everyone around me does. I am about to pitch the teacher’s safety net–a tight syllabus–out the window. I am about to pitch fifteen students into freefall, into discovering with me what it is they need to learn and not what I, without having met them, think they need to know about writing for the college classroom. That involves my asking them challenging questions, and helping them to be deep readers of all kinds of texts. I’ve been moving towards this class for five years now, and it will take all my skill as listener and facilitator, as teacher, to pull it off. And that’s as is should be. If I’m not growing and challenging myself every semester to be a better teacher, then how can I ask my students to challenge themselves?

Fortunately, I am getting a little help from my friends… across the country … in this case, Jane Love, who also invites her students into the course design process (in a very different course) and has shared with me a deep-learning exercise she learned from Rita Pougiales at Evergreen State in Washington. Jane has kindly agreed to let me share the exercise, and I’d be interested in hearing whether anyone else does something similar or plans to try it out. I’m adapting it to suit the first day of my writing class; then Jane and I will share with one another our experiences with our classes as they move out from that exercise over the semester. We’ll have access to one another’s discoveries, both the successes and failures, as we go, and learn from one another. My new safety net, then, is not my syllabus, but the sharing of ideas and feedback with colleagues spread across the planet. And that’s very exciting indeed.

“Let the wild rumpus begin”!

Creativity and Community in a Web 2.0 Classroom–Not As Easy As It Sounds?

This has been a busy week back from BlogHer –the many meetings, phone conferences, workshops filling my days have revolved around incorporating Web 2.0 tools effectively into different sorts of learning contexts, a conversation I’ve been having for the past five years, but more urgently now. And it has been an unsettling, disturbing week with the tragedies of our policies in the Middle East bearing their explosive fruit, and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth reminding me of our horrendous domestic policies, too, making the calm of this Vermont summer surreal in its beauty and saneness.

And so in the spirit of James Martin, whose work inspires me to remain optimistic that we still have time to save this beleagured planet, and alongside so many committed colleagues online and off, I throw myself into trying to push ahead educational reforms classroom by teacher by conversation by blogpost by workshop. During this one week of conversations alone I have been asked again and again and again to talk about what brought me to blogging in the first place and how it is I know that blogging has directly affected my students’ learning experience. Especially now that social software is under threat, people want to hear about my journey to blogs, about how I was looking for a way to bring the world to my students and my students to the world through links to conversations beyond those in the classroom, and how I was desperately searching for ways to enliven the classroom dynamic and student written expression–to add authenticity and context to classes focussed primarily on something very few of my students had any real interest in–formal writing. Over the years I had noted an increasing rigidness in my students’ engagement with their learning–it seemed to me that they sought easy-to-follow rubrics, clearly defined processes that would help them arrive at the “correct” answer , the “well-written essay,” the high grade as painlessly as possible. I turned to blogging in part because I suspected it might help me shake things up. I had noticed that these same students were engaging in some really pretty creative work outside of class–online–making movies, chattering away on IM, writing ‘zines, playing around with music clips and multimedia expression, just for fun and as a way to communicate to the world. I was also alarmed by how in class students stayed almost indifferent to one another as members of a group experience unless I the teacher asked them to engage with one another-class discussion, even when lively and heated, seemed just another hoop to jump through with little resemblance or relevance to the discussions they had outside of class. School was just something you did on the way to real life. Sometimes students didn’t even know each other’s names even though they sat next to each twice a week for twelve weeks. When I asked them why, they’d shrug. It seemed like too much trouble to get to know people’s names just for a class. Something was going very wrong even though they were learning to write academic prose quite competently.

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