Moving Past Cynicism: Inspired by a Former Student

I’ve recently received several emails from non-blogging friends with links to Paul Boutin’s Wired Magazine article announcing the death of blogs. I, of course, send them right to Alan Levine’s response and then shrug and also point to some of the blogging my former students are doing now that they are out in the world. Since my earliest posts, I have pointed to student blogging and commenting for the window into their perspectives, their learning journeys, their creativity. And here I am, out of the classroom, still reading their posts, still learning from them.

through the barn at sunset

Lizi, for instance, blogs from Russia, comparing the post-college working life there to her experience as an undergraduate on a Study Abroad year in Siberia–longtime readers of bgblogging might remember her Siberia blog and her part in an ELI presentation (liveblogged by Leslie Madsen-Brooks) we made with Barbara Sawhill and her student Evie a couple of years ago); Kyle (whose creative work I have pointed to repeatedly–his multimedia explorations figure prominently at the end of my NITLE talk from this past spring: scroll all the way to the right to see them side by side or just click to his Flickr poem, his Voicethread response to Kerouac, his digital story on memory, his vuvox collage poem) is blogging from his year off in India; Astri has an entire Web world in play with her blogging and website; Tyler has resurrected his dormant blog as he prepares to head back to China. Another has been a frequent commenter on The Smalltown Mamas (and Papas) for Obama blog, a local newspaper reporter and now member of my writing group. There are many more I follow, learn from and converse with as they wend their way into the post-college world.

One who is not blogging on her own is Julia. She chooses instead to take part in blog conversations from time to time, and when she does, watch out! A fabulous writer and thinker, her comments are posts of the slow-blogging variety (though she does not link out). Whenever she comments, I wish she had a blog. Yesterday she left me a comment on my post reflecting on the Obama victory, and in it she describes the roots of her cynicism and how she, too, is turning towards hope. It is a must-read piece, and so, I am pulling it from the unread-depths of commentland and posting it here. Enjoy.

cardinal in november

From Julia:

I’m turning towards the good, too. I’m choosing to ignore, for the moment, the fact that Californians just voted to constitutionally ban gay marriage, and that my father’s democratic candidate in Oregon is fighting for his life in what should be a no-brainer election, and that Sarah Palin is still out there, waiting, reloading. And here is why:

There were many times during this campaign I almost posted to this blog. Almost, but not quite. Firstly, when Palin was seeming to gain ground with a certain section of the American electorate. For someone who found the choice an even split between laughable and insulting, I was shocked to see not everyone agreed with me. I began a draft of a post about how someone can be created from thin air (I began again months later with Joe the Plumber), but something held me back. And soon, America became less and less enchanted with Caribou Barbie every time she opened her mouth, so the point seemed moot.

I almost posted when I saw a news report that Polar Bears are resorting to cannibalism. What did this have to do with the election? Besides the obvious ties to failed environmental policies (or lack thereof), it also seemed an apt metaphor. Again, however, I could not write.
I nearly posted an end-of-days suggestion to the readers of this blog before McCain began to slip in the polls. What if every Obama supporter – should McCain win – purchase a one-way ticket out of the country the day after the election? Would the message be clear then?
I wanted to post after the four debates, pointing out the difference in the candidates’ “performances.” As an actor, this happens to be my specialty, telling when someone is not selling a character: they blink a lot (McCain), they seem to physically seize when the script won’t come to them (McCain), they forget the power of their voice, resorting to monotonic incantations resembling a parrot (McCain), and, finally, they break the one cardinal rule of good acting: listening (Palin). Yet, even here, where I truly felt I had something to contribute, I did not. Could not. And this bothered me.

But all throughout yesterday, I began to understand why. I was too cynical. I awoke yesterday morning excited in ways I had not been in a very long time. I filled out my voter booklet, and walked to my polling station, enjoying the warm California morning. I didn’t begrudge a minute of the twenty I spent in line, and I made sure to punch my ballot extra hard, even making the table quiver each time I pressed down. I handed my ballot to the black female volunteer, thanked her for her service, and walked back home, smiling and nodding to everyone I passed. Then, the strangest thing happened: I fell back asleep. For an hour and a half. My excitement had exhausted me. When I awoke, I began preparing for an election party I was hosting. I printed out Obama quotes and passages from “The Audacity of Hope” and hung them up around the house. I copied electoral maps and had my friends guess which states would go red or blue respectively. I made hot dogs and put out the leftover American Halloween candy. Yet, even with all my excitement, I still did not believe he could win.
Then, almost immediately after 8PM PST, the news came in: it was over. And it was just beginning.
We were not prepared for this. I mean, we’d started the party at 7, convinced we’d be up until 4 or 5 in the morning. And McCain conceded and Obama spoke and the faces of the people in the Chicago crowd said it all. And then, a good friend of ours came to our door, running late from a night class for his masters in Academic Counseling. He is sixty years old; he is from Norristown, PA; and he is black. His look of surreal disbelief, of a lifetime of promises come due, jolted me. On the couch he joined his wife, an Argentinean by birth who just became a citizen this year. This was her first election, not only in the US but anywhere, as she left Argentina before she was legally allowed to vote. For so many people, this was personally a watermark election; for our country, it was a victory over cynicism.

I know this because I am cynical. I come from a long line of Irish politicians, and my cynicism is a result of both nature and nurture. In short, I’m the cynic people like Oprah and Rick Warren just walk away from. Sure I donated money and time to the election, but the cold hard truth is I never donated my heart. Because I was sure we were going to get kicked in the head again and I didn’t think I could survive it. Many people don’t understand this sentiment from young people. “What could you possibly know about cynicism, about disappointment?” Well, eight years of Bush – our most formative years, mind you – will do that. And before him? There was Clinton, who was a president to be proud of, who was simultaneously accessible and inspiring; but Clinton’s “betrayal” (as pointless and irrelevant as it may seem now) came at a time when people my age were just learning about moral matters and the insidiousness of lies. To be disappointed at fourteen, and then have that followed up by eight years of frustration is essentially the recipe for cynicism. But this election has proved something to me. And now I’m blogging because I have something to say that needs to be immortalized in print. I am blogging, selfishly, because I want a record of this moment, a standard to hold myself to in the future when Obama does something to disappoint me, and the Republicans win another election, no matter when that may be: I am done with cynicism.

I’m all about realism, and pragmatism, and a healthy dose of skepticism every now and then, but cynicism and me, we’re through. Cynicism is an insidious mistress because it cannot be contained. One cannot simply be cynical about politics, or, I don’t know, vegetarianism exclusively. If one is cynical, one is cynical about politics, AND vegetarianism, AND humanism, AND, most regrettably, love. This is what I feel Obama’s victory has restored in me, a sense that all is possible, whether it happens or not. That’s the mistake of cynicism: it confuses probability with inevitability.
And my newfound faith is not based on intangibles or abstract self-delusion, but on facts: the tears of pride last night in the eyes of Jesse Jackson and my friend who never thought they’d see this day; in the celebrations around the globe among people who still see America as the city on the hill, even if we no longer saw ourselves that way; in the cries and horn honks that filled the streets of LA and other cities sometime after 8PM last night; in – as ridiculous as this may sound – the facebook statuses of friends who are just as disbelieving and proud as I; and especially in the way my 83 year-old grandfather’s voice broke when he joked to me last night that he can finally pull his American flag out of storage and fly it – and his admission that he never thought he’d live to see it wave outside his house again.

Well, it IS waving again, and proudly. And last night, with the Santa Ana’s blowing winds of change across the Southland, I fell asleep to the faint sound of the flagpole down the street clanking. A sound that used to annoy me now ushered me into a dreamscape; one that I wasn’t sorry to wake up from this morning.

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Walking the Land with Hard Thoughts

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

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

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

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

last wild apples winter stole

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

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

caught

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

arcadia lake late fall

Walk walk. These next five days. Hope hope.

The Depths of Fall: Planting Garlic, Meeting Old Students & Slow Blogging


Time moves inexorably towards November. An enormous flock of robins clusters in the near copse, resting and feeding; the yearling deer have separated from their mothers and are hanging about together as hunting season approaches. The turkeys gorge on wild apples. What leaves remain, deep gold or rust, rustle noisily, catch and hold the clear afternoon light.

We humans careen about inside the steady tick of days and seasons as though they don’t exist. The very real threat hanging over the UBC farm–condos as invasive species–(go read Keira’s post!) shows how hard it is to hear sense, to make sense. We’re at the brink of madness. Especially this fall. Panic fills the air. Trouble. War.

And yet there’s also hope. Next week we’ll all know whether the U.S. can transcend the deep and closet racism; the fear of difference; the insular, selfish, wasteful individualism and greed that characterize so much of who we are and how we behave. We’ll see if we can be better than ourselves.

As I plant garlic today, clove after clove in the cooling soil of my raised beds, I ponder what the winter will bring. I think about where the world will be when the green tips push up in the wet, even snowy late spring. Will my daughter, recent college graduate, still have her job? Will my neighbors have suffered through a long, lean winter, scrimping on food in order to heat their homes? Will we hear specifics, glad tidings, like good news from UBC that the farm has been saved? Will I find funding for the Centers for Community Digital Exploration and start helping communities explore social and creative digital media practices as a means of coming together, sharing, collaborating, solving problems? Will conserving become as natural as expending? Will more bikes fill our roads? Will schools be moving away from NCLB and towards modeling deep creativity, connectivity, collaboration? Will we start acting as connected and inter-dependent with the rest of the world? That troops are being brought home while clinics and community centers for learning are being built? Will the crashing economy shake us from our consumerism?
Will spring bring the first shades of new growth?barn details

I’m thinking about the future today not only because I am all a-jitter about the election next week but because something is going on with my former students. Malaise. Over the past week my mailbox, my email box, Facebook, phone have been awash in contacts from my old students. They’re nervous, uneasy, confused. The ones still in school are restless, missing the wild cycles of disruption and repair we experienced together in class. Why aren’t their courses electrifying, they ask. Why isn’t there the sense of community they now crave? Creativity? Risk-taking in the classroom? What do traditional disciplines taught in traditional ways have to do with the world exploding around them? The ones outside of school are reporting back with examples of digital creativity, and with questions about how to find or create spaces for creativity, for connection, for collaboration that will help change the world.

I’ve been telling (retelling) them my favorite James Martin story, the one in which his daughter poses one of the great what-if questions: If you could live at any time in any place during human history, when and where would that be? And he shocks her by saying, “Right here, right now, because we stand at the door of the most crucial time in human history. Your generation has 50 years to solve the problems my generation and the one before it have created. Fifty years to save the earth or there will be no earth to save. You can either move humanity forward, to become better than it has ever been, or that’s it.” I say to them, “If he’s right; if that’s true that we have fifty years to reverse the environmental degradation and related political and social turmoil we have caused, what role are you preparing to play? How are you using these four college years to equip you to participate actively?” I also like to remind them of the Richard Miller quotation about how we have mastered the art of teaching about how worlds come to an end, but we do little to help our students bring better worlds into being. How to connect, how to collaborate, how to be intensely creative, how to take risks, how to fail. How to be inclusive, to get off the hill and into town. Meaningfully.

the woods dance before winter

I’m also thinking about the future because there’s new interest in slow blogging, thanks to a recent post by Chris Lott, a wonderful post in which he explains slow blogging better than I ever have:
“Slow blogging is mindful wandering is meditative reflection is an attempt to face the fear, to take a stab at the heart, take responsibility and risk, and in the process create a gift of immense value to others, a manifestation of our particular truth.”

This blog has never attracted a great deal of traffic or attention. Indeed, the Small Town Mama (and Papas) for Obama Blog I started just a few months ago routinely pulls in many more readers, many many more readers, yet the posts I do there take me maybe five minutes, and that’s when I’m adding a few lines of commentary to the links I’m posting. Don’t get me wrong—I like that blog and I like blogging there with my six fellow active posters. It gives me a positive outlet for my deep concern about this country, my perspective on this being a watershed moment. But it is a blog for the moment, not the one I have returned to through the years, seasons, job changes, idea shifts. It is a blog to spur immediate action rather than more thought. Perhaps that is something missing from the slow blog, from this slow blog.

Chris’ s post brought new readers here for the moment; my blog stats spiked, incoming links, too. I’ve been asked for interviews, even, by journalists wondering if the new interest in slow-blogging comes in response to the convulsions occurring on the world stage. A yearning for the local, the meaningful, the dependable–contact that is enduring, deeply connective, both serious and not. Balance. Interesting question. I am hopeful that next spring when I am watching the the garlic break through the earth, I can honestly say that we have become more actively thoughtful, more thoughtfully active, combining action and reflection and connection as a response to the world in crisis. Moving beyond fear. At the polls next week. And after Tuesday.

venerable resident of the woods

Voting Today in A Vermont Village After Teaching

IMG_2285
As much as I love my students, I scolded them soundly today. I don’t know why I was so shocked when over half said they weren’t voting in the primary, and some weren’t intending to vote in the general election either. They couldn’t understand my dismay. They didn’t see the big deal–their feeling of disconnection from the political process was stunning. Perhaps because I have recently pushed myself out of my higher ed torpor to take a stand about how I intend to participate in a more inclusive, cross-cultural, community-intensive educational process, I am taking pretty hard their rejection of any stand about their country’s future.

It’s unimaginable to me to be 18, 19 or 20 and NOT vote. It was what turning 18 was all about! Even when I have been unhappy with the choices, I have worked hard to participate in campaigns, conversations, and always always always to vote. I’ve written in candidates from time to time when the choices were too grim to consider, but I’ve been there in the booth, pencil in hand.

I urged my students at least–if they couldn’t bring themselves to vote for a presidential candidate, if they really could see no difference between the lot of them–to make sure they voted for local, state and national legislators as well as all those school board members trying to make a difference. And to think about running for office themselves if they didn’t like the state of things.

As I drove through town past the stream of Obama and Clinton campaign signs listing in rapidly melting snowbanks, I thought some more about my students’ response. What would get them to get excited about participating in their democracy, these students at a school of considerable influence and privilege? By the time I finally arrived at our town clerk’s office at around 4:00, I had missed the famous pie sale—probably a good thing– but overheard the town clerk say that over 300 of our 630 registered voters had preceded me into our small booths. I thought of my students, too, in that moment as my eye fell on my daughter’s name on the Voter List along with the check and note, Absentee Ballot, next to it.

In the wee booth I saved the democratic primary ballot for last, moving through the green, blue and yellow local ballots first–the names of those running representing people I know, my neighbors and friends. Those votes were easy to make. Then I turned to the final sheet. The names, “Hillary Clinton” and “Barak Obama,” on the white ballot hit me in a way that even all the talk, the reading, the campaigning had not–these two names signify such a shift, such a promise: that a woman–a woman!– could be a serious contender for the White House, finally; that a black man with a name that conjures up visions of an open, multicultural society could be surging to the head of the pack–well, I was just about overwhelmed right in that tiny booth behind the red-white-and-blue curtain. And I voted. With relish.

winterwater

Thursday I’ll go into class and talk again about voting–I’ll show them my little “I voted” sticker, and tease them a bit. Then we’ll explore ways that the deep, compelling creativity they are unveiling in this course can push them beyond our walls and into the community, and even how it can can help them envision participating in the political processes of their times. Just imagine what kinds of names might be on ballot by the time they’re my age–I’d like to know that they had a hand in it.

BlogHer 2006: Mixed Feelings

I’m still in California, so the unsettled feeling I am experiencing can’t be attributed to jetlag; rather, I am feeling quite uneasy about some of what I observed and heard at BlogHer this weekend. On the one hand, it was a kick to be one of some 700 women bloggers for two days–the energy, humor and good will were palpable among the attendees–and some of the conference was very interesting and thought-provoking–facilitating the edublogging session with Laura and Barbara, for instance, was great; as was running into Stephanie Hendrik whom I had met at Blogtalk; hearing Dina Mehta, Grace Davis and Sarah Fordtalk about their blogging relief efforts; meeting the incomparable Nancy White and hearing her talk about how to set up and nurture online collaborative community sites; having J D Lasica of all people videotape our session.

But rumbling through the two days was, as Laura points out, a strong whiff of the almighty dollar. People were looking for hints on increasing traffic to their blogs, making money blogging, encouraging advertisers. In sessions I attended, and in the buzz around the pool, there was a whole lot of attention paid to getting people to your blogs. Fascinating.

Okay, so I learned that my world is indeed what I expected to find out–a bit out of touch. But I expected there to be a huge outcry against DOPA–after all, Danah Boyd spoke on Day Two. But no–NOTHING within my earshot. And in fact, as I went around talking about it, I found out that many, many bloggers, including those in academic circles, hadn’t even heard of it. How can that be? I was shocked and not a little bothered–we were surrounded by the sponsors giving us everything from zipdrives to condoms, fake flowers to souped up water; but no talk about legislation that will deepen the digital divide by making blogs and other social networking sites out of reach for kids without computers in the home, and force those who do use the sites underground to form their communities. Read Danah Boyd’s inspired research on MySpace and adolescents if you don’t believe me.

And so while I was pleasantly surprised to see how many people showed up for the edublogging session, and how they really wanted to talk about all kinds of Web 2.0 and learning topics (and how challenging so many of them felt sifting through the Web to find helpful sites on pedagogy and technology integration, on places for teachers to gather) I was dismayed by the lack of substantive talk about what’s going on with the Internet and kids. And in fact there were very very very few teens in attendance. And teens of color?

Maybe I just felt uneasy in a crowd of women who were basically having a ball blogging and meeting other women who blog and whose lives have changed through finding this means of expression. Maybe I’m too wrapped up in the future, on trying to reform education. Maybe I should have sat down with a couple of Yahootinis and stopped thinking about DOPA. But I can’t…it’s too big…

I threw this idea out there a while back, but now, now I’m convinced we’ve really got to figure out how to have an edubloggers gathering (K-16, and teacher-training programs), a face-to-face one where we sit down for two-three days and hammer out better ways for us to collaborate, to get materials and ideas to those who need them, and to talk about keeping the internet open to all.

And so, I’m gad, really glad, that I went to BlogHer, for it illuminated for me the current state of blogging, both the good and the bad. And it’s making me ever more determined to get out there and do what I can to get people talking about teaching and learning.

Lessons Taken from the Gathering of Digital Storytellers

Spending two days with a group of digital storytelling facilitators working largely outside of the world of formal education but squarely within the world of social activism was not only refreshing but useful. I learned a lot about how people outside formal ed are thinking about technology, and how they are promoting informal learning and personal empowerment. I found myself really trying to sit back and listen, to learn, to take in more than trying to push the conversation in any particular direction. Ha–Ms. Passionate staying on the quiet side!

I found it very interesting how the stories’ dependence on technology didn’t provoke particularly interesting discussions about technology or pedagogy. The facilitators were interested in learning about software and shortcuts, ways to make the work-with-technology easier and ways to keep up with developments about hosting sites and such–but really, they wanted to talk about their projects and the communities they were serving, showcasing the impact digital storytelling was having on their communities. There were lots of questions about next-steps–how to grow the movement, how to convince their own organizations or funders to support the work, and how to share the work. There was some tension between the process and the product, between the creator and the audience.

Of course I jumped into informal between-sessions conversations to talk about ways in which social software might ease that tension, and might well deepen the experience for the storytellers, and extend the reach of the work’s impact. Initially I met with some resistance to social software–blogs were seen as a waste, a distractor, or a isolating factor by some. I heard young people in the group apologize for using MySpace. This morning, an article on the front page of the Boston Globe made me think of that reluctance to think about how perhaps online tools might well help them solve the very problems expressed. Entitled It’s lonely out there: Connections fray in wired America, study finds, the article by Scott Allen opens with the following:

Americans don’t have as many close friends as they used to.
We’re networking on myspace.com, sharing photos and text messaging on our cellphones, and blogging at all hours. But a major national survey being released today shows that the average number of people with whom Americans discuss important matters has dropped from three to two in just two decades, a steep falloff in confidants that startled the researchers.

The study by sociologists at Duke University and the University of Arizona provides powerful evidence for the argument that the country is becoming increasingly socially isolated even as cellphones, the Internet, and other technology make people more interconnected.

Hmmm… Even though he doesn’t come right out and say it, the writer sure is implying that it is because we are on blogs and MySpace and wikis that we do not have strong connections with the people in our lives. This is, of course, nothing new. Book after book after article after article take this position. And indeed, if people are aimlessly wandering around about on the Web or on the streets, bored, restless, they aren’t going to be connecting with others in ways that build strong bonds and a feeling of belonging and wellness. On the heels of the conference, it helped me see why social activists hesitate to try out the Web’s connectivity through their own practice , even when they use the same words–bonding and bridging—that I do, and even when they are actively using digital media technology in their work. Blogs are getting slammed out there in the media–

So when I got up to talk with my student, Remy, I hoped to convey a sense of how blogs, for one, by giving people a place to establish a linked reflective practice (linked to one’s earlier posts by referencing them and by literally being a scroll or click away) help weave a powerful narrative of a person’s relationship with the work and the community of practice. Blogging as a meta-practice can deepen the experience for the community members by grounding it in their own lives, their own experience, their own reasons for coming to the community of practice using digital storytelling. Blogging as a meta-practice for facilitators can help clarify, chronicle, contextualize, situate the experience of facilitating for themselves and their organization.

Again (or as usual) I’ll quote from E. M. Forster: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” So, why, some might ask, does this expression have to be on a public blog? Yes, the linking aspect makes sense–but why not keep one only to be read by oneself? Well, that’s certainly a possibility, and when the context is extremely sensitive or vulnerable, that’s understandable. But with a public blog–and what I’d advocate (again as usual), is linking individual blogs from the community off of a group blog or something like drupal, where other kinds of interactions and publishing can go on– sharing the reflection means that you are reaching out to others–your community of practice directly by and the world beyond, to learn from them if they swing by and converse with you via comments, or to teach them through your own stories, experience and reaching-out. And that kind of sharing in an age-old letter-writing manner can help grow ideas for the organization through collective intelligence, deepen the bonds between the members, reach out to other communities. Informal learning can take place, developing of a strong personal and group voice, and a sense of looking out into the world and trying to make a difference. Community engagement can be positively affected. And blogs are great ways to link to digital stories–stories that can be embedded within text, or coupled with images, or open to comments.

And then I handed things over to my student Remy, who did a splendid job being a case study, in essence, talking about how he started by reading blogs, and then tried out blogging in fits and starts until the practice really informed his digital storytelling–the writing and using images and working ouut his ideas and getting feedback from his readers. And then he showed his stunning digital story (which he should have up and running on his blog soon)–he learned a tremendous amount being at the conference as a presenter as well as a participant.

After our talk many people joined us to discuss how a Web community might enhance their own experience, give their constituents more opportunities to develop a voice, and be an important tool in strengthening their communities while reaching out to other groups and individuals. But there wasn’t enough time–we were last up during at long two days. There simply wasn’t time. And so we’ll continue that conversation here and on the blog from the conference (interesting that there’s a blog but it really isn’t being used by the community except to access information) and in other venues that we’re developing.

A couple of highlights from the gathering–presentations by:
Shira Golding, Director of Education & Outreach, <a href=”http://www.artsengine.net/index.php”target=”_blank”<Arts Engine Here are my notes blogged from her session:

Arts Engine was founded by documentary filmmakers working on social issues; they wanted to make an impact with their films and realized there needed to be a much broader network for the makers and the users of film. They house MediaRights.org–a powerful resource and tool for filmmakers for social change and people who want access to films. The films here include digital stories. It is community driven for the most part. Arts Engine doesn’t curate the films. To do so, they started the Media that Matters Festival, a festival working year-round and through as many platforms as possible; it streams online (you can see photos through Flickr or the films on Google Video) On the website you can view the films, learn about them, and be linked to context of the specific film–places to learn more about the issue and to take action. They also realized that online interaction can only take you so far–they also have a traveling film festival and a DVD and tools available for people who want to use the films to make an impact (including posters, press releases, programs, etc., evaluation forms)–to watch within a community.

Concepts needing to be discussed by this movement–
Process versus Product: You can get swept up with the product when you’re talking about distibution and outreach. We can’t forget process. Taking a moment at the beginning, during the process to talk about audience–who will view it and why?
Marginalization vs. Integration: We have to think about digital storytelling as part of a larger form, independent media, instead of a wee, lesser form. They do this with Youth Media as well.
DIY vs DIWP: There is an attitude in independent media that you can do it all yourself; you have to open up to making it with partners–community groups, etc to reach your audience with the most impact.

The Story Development Process Josh Schachter of StoriesMatter and Cheryl Crow of Bridges to Understanding–Josh really gets the media literacy aspect and how to listen to the those doing the storytelling, letting them take the lead at every turn. Inspiring work. My notes:

Josh: Has been working with teenagers and their community stories in image and text; the Tuscon newspaper carries the stories. He’s worked on US/Mexico border to teach photography–what’s it like to live by the fence, etc.

Cheryl: Bridges to Understanding in Seattle –giving children who didn’t have a voice a voice, linked kids in the Amazon with kids in Seattle. The focus now is middle school and elementary students posting their digital stories to share with others around the world. It’s moving towards being an issue-driven model rather than sharing of personal stories.

Josh: He focuses on visual storytelling. He showed a story by a student on a reservation–the process took three weeks. Josh had to learn a whole new form of communication and teaching–the community didn’t want to talk about the issues.
“Why do we even take pictures? How are they used in society? Are they the truth?” These are the basic questions he starts out every class with. The essentialness of teaching image literacy. Every photograph is a self-portrait.
Taking metaphor and turning it into matter–hope, sorrow, confusion, for example. He gives students an image scavenger hunt–he gives them abstractions, and the kids have to go out and take photographs of time, memory, etc.

Then he goes into composition and lighting. And the moment in time captured (he uses film clips and has kids take a freeze frame that expresses it and talks about how the meaning would be changed if they had shifted the frame by a second) .

He talks with them about assumptions they have about people and subject matter.

Visual Variety: (Life Magazine’s formula for taking photo stories, too)

Strategies for getting students to the stories
–Take into account individual differences
–If fixated on text–force them to tell it in 5 pics or just spoken word
–Do interview exercises
–Find what excites them
–Have them tell story without looking at the script, poetry slam
–Screen clips
–Get peers to help
–Go take twenty pictures of the same thing
–Found objects within the community

Cheryl: How much do you prepare before you gather your visual data? What’s the balance between letting unexpected things arise and having a plan?
A worldwide project on the theme of water in their lives and communities– shows a short clip of a piece from Peru and one from New Mexico; the kids in New Mexico didn’t want to talk about water. On the photoshoot, the stories opened up and the kids got to talk about what they wanted to talk about.

So much potential here for social software. I’m looking forward to BlogHer where I hope to listen to bloggers such as Nancy White and Dina Mehta and many others working with activist groups and other nonprofits outside the formal education realm. Can’t wait.

Time to Act…


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