So This Is What It’s Like… Sort Of…

With a less than a week left of the Motley Group reading of Joyce’s Dubliners, I am lingering a bit too long, I realize, mid-collection, thinking about what I’ve read, how the stories talk to one another, undercut or intensify each another. I get pulled out of the book altogether for a few days at a stretch by the other calls on my time.  I have to get going here…onward into “Clay” and “A Painful Case” today. I might even have to set a reading schedule to make sure I have enough time to hang out in “The Dead.”  I can’t remember when I have ever read a collection this slowly, with breaks, and rereads, and trips out to my fellow readers’ blogs and to this site.  And I know I have not walked down the long driveway in search of the mail with such anticipation in a long long time.

remnants

This is as close as I have ever come to what I asked of my students and their blogging back in my teaching days. Yes I blogged with them, but never on equal terms, at best as guide. In fact I stayed off our class blogs for the most part, posting on my own blog in meta-reflection so as to keep their conversation open, playful and free between peers instead of performance for the teacher, something I’ve written about many times over the years here, including the final paragraph of one of those long-long posts of mine from 2005 (with lots of broken links):

“And it is the Motherblog that keeps them linked within a community–they venture back and forth onto one another’s blogs, taking comfort in their peers’ experiences, pushing one another, and learning from one another. And I’m rarely on the blog at all. Isn’t this what we’re after in a liberal arts education?  The students naturally, on their own, gravitate towards the learning ecology.  I’m keeping these second-wave bloggers in mind as my young first-years wonder aloud why we’re doing this public blogging thing.  I want them to read the Blogging-the-World blog, and I want them to look down the road at where they might be in two years.  If I teach them the grammar of the blog well, and they take to it, they can use the medium (or whatever other tool will be in play by then) to make their learning real, active, and worth crowing about.”

as if

I’m realizing that this Motley reading experience is as close as I’ve ever come to being absolutely inside classroom blogging–as a reciprocal apprentice.  I see the personalities come into play–who likes posterous, who their own blog, Flickr, postcards.  Who dropped out, never started, is still thinking about starting, is on the fence about continuing, is doing her own thing with responses.  Absolutely fascinating.  I’m learning more about my own inclinations as a reader as I hear Lanny’s puzzlement over the postcard I sent him, and how the image is linked in any way to the reading experience. In learning about how the others are approaching and responding to the stories, I think more deeply about my own readings, my own way of reading.  I really don’t think I did that enough as a teacher.  I see now how much I continued to dominate my classes even when I tried my best not to, even though I believed that students would learn how to think and communicate if they had to rely on one another as  much as on me. This experience almost has me hankering over another go in the classroom.  Almost.

Something else has me stumbling over my departure from the classroom. My old student, now my good friend and teacher, Stephanie Saldana, has been visiting for the past couple of days as she tears about the country on her first book tour.  Yesterday she gave a splendid, moving reading at the college. Four former students were in the audience: three still at the college and another, Stephanie’s best friend here fifteen years ago, another gifted writer, who drove over from Maine.  Stephanie read to an audience made up of townspeople, students and her former professors–a reading that showed her big heart as well as her considerable intellect, a reading that allowed us to glimpse her struggle with a broken world from the vantage point of living in the Middle East.  I thought, how brave, to come back here where you were a star poet/scholar and read from a book so human, so real, so true.  Later, a young Palestinian remarked to me that this was the first lecture/reading about the Middle East he’d been to here that hadn’t been dissecting, theorizing, and/or intellectualizing the trauma.  There was no sense of the personal, the lived in those other lectures and readings as though problems could be understood and solved purely from knowing enough. Stephanie’s reading and discussion gave him the space for his own story.  There it was again, the heart, the heart.  Later that evening, my two old students and another grad from that time sat on the floor of my livingroom and shared how they felt that their undergraduate classes had been far too much about the intellect.  Where was life in the classroom?  How did community outside the school have anything at all to do with what was going on in the classroom?  Where were the hearts of their teachers?

If I could do it all over…I would have been a more radical teacher than I was, and isn’t it too bad that I have to say that teaching from the heart in a liberal arts college is radical?  For a moment, I wanted another chance…but no, I am getting another chance…this way: with Motley readers, with my students turned teachers, with my messy work with storytelling in communities (ALL about heart), with my fumblings with camera.

It’s funny how I’m coming across this reminder repeatedly this week.  This morning,  I opened T.S. Eliot’s essay on Dante to find:

“In my own experience of the appreciation of poetry I have always found that the less I knew about a poet and his work, before I began to read it, the better.  A quotation, a critical remark, an enthusiastic essay may well be the accident that sets one to reading a particular author; but an elaborate preparation of historical and biographical knowledge has always been to me a barrier.  I am not defending poor scholarship…At least, it is better to be spurred to acquire scholarship because you enjoy the poetry, than to suppose that you enjoy the poetry because you have acquired the scholarship.”  (“Dante” 1929 Essay p. 205 in Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot)

That’s what I so like about writing and receiving postcards as well as posts–they feel like little bursts of felt response–by readers who love to read and love to feel the pen on a card, having to move within the confines of that small white square, and caring enough to take the time to find a postcard, a stamp, go to the post office after engaging with the text.  Bound together by a love of reading, the freedom to come and go as we wish, the playfulness of responding however we like, and, for me, a commitment to speaking from the heart as well as head and to stick with it even if I don’t have time, love all the stories, or feel I have anything useful to say.  You just never know when you’ll stumble upon the new, or touch someone, or learn something you thought you already knew.

Alan's Mount Fujiaraby

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

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

beneath the facade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Heartbreaker: Joyce’s “Araby” (More Motley Reading)

I can’t help it–this story gets to me every time.  It’s not my favorite story in Dubliners; in fact, I avoid it in the gazillion anthologies it graces (mostly because I don’t want to read it to death).  But then when I do read it,  every ten years or so, the narrator sends his story right back around my heart and squeezes.  I love the boy–his questing, his longing, his normalness, his imagination, his possibility.

Araby

I love how each of these first three stories builds, one to the next. (Another reason I don’t like it to be anthologized, for it belongs with the other two, grows out of them, revising my sense of what was going on in the one before, and the one before preparing me for the one I’m reading and the one to come.  “Eveline” changes things up big time..but more on that story after I read it again.)  The images from one story call to the next as though they are houses themselves along North Richmond Street. I’m thinking here, again, about Alan’s observation that reading these three stories is like “peeking into a musty window of these people’s lives.”  The shuttered world of “The Sisters” becomes the full city in “The Encounter” becomes the wild swing between inside & outside, imagination & reality, domestic and other in  “Araby.” The rhythms and sounds of the first two–those remarkable cadences– prepare us for the astonishments of this story:  “…shook music from the buckled harness” or “Her dress swung as she moved her body and the soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side.”   So simple those soft syllables. The boy has slowed down enough from the “career of [their] play” to notice, to sense, to feel.

Chris mentioned in his post the indebtedness of so many twentieth-century writers to Joyce.  I think here in “Araby” of Flannery O’Connor’s use of sentence rhythm and sound–the way Joyce breaks up a sentence– in  the magnificent opening of her “Parker’s Back”: “Parker’s wife sat on the front porch floor, snapping beans. Parker was sitting on the step, some distance away, watching her sullenly.  She was plain, plain.”  I love to reorder Joyce’s sentences to learn from him, to see how the meaning comes out of his grammar, his syntax. The opening sentence, for example–What if it read, “Being blind, North Richmond Street was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ school set the boys free?”  Or even worse, “Except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ school set the boys free, being blind, North Richmond Street was a quiet street.”  What he does with word order and punctuation.  (Watch out–wait until we get to “The Dead” and that opening sentence!)  There are many, many sentences in this story that just knock me down.

I love the language of “Araby” and how it, too, grows out of “The Sisters” and “The Encounter.” We’re ready for the mix of peculiarly childish perspective and adult use of language–the child’s fresh hearing of “Swaddlers! Swaddlers!” from “The Encounter” becomes the more nuanced language of longing when he describes her hand on the railing .  Something has intensified in “Araby,” sharpened and matured–the gauzy confusion felt by the boys in the opening stories lifts in the presence of longing.  Where in “The Encounter” the streets are “noisy”, in “Araby it is “flaring.”  “Araby” ends in “anguish and anger,” a stressed declaration of feeling that the other stories do not find, one just ending mid-sentence, the other penitent. (Going back to my earlier point about the sounds and rhythms carrying so much of the power: imagine if Joyce had ended the story in “anguish and rage”…)

I love that this story (the other two, as well) are narrated in the first person, but using the past tense, and thereby keeping us–and the narrator– at a distance from the events.  This is told through the scrim of memory, and that the narrator is telling the stories must mean that he keeps returning to these memories, catches on them like a wool sweater on a nail.   In fact–and this is in response to something Chris said in a discussion with Nancy about the language–I do not think at all that Joyce missteps a bit with the swings between elevated and simple language.  I think he offers us another divide here between adult and child, a deeper angst, sadness, and impossibility precisely because the stories are told by the older self re-entering the younger self.

Araby, II

So much to respond to in this story, so fun to read it slowly aloud, but I’ll leave it here for now.  I’m rather enjoying this motley reading:  writing a bit here, responding a bit there, sending off another bit in a postcard, messing around with photos I took on my last trip to Ireland. What a gift to be on this journey with such a motley crew.

It Takes Reading A Favorite Book…

…to get me back in a bloggy frame of mind.  Thanks to Chris Lott, I have, for the moment, put aside the many books piled up waiting (just finished Alexandra Fuller’s truly beautiful The Legend of Colton H. Bryant), to return to James Joyce’s Dubliners, a book I first read in ninth grade, and that didn’t do much for me then–I was a confirmed Hardy Girl (Thomas, that is–having read all of his books once and some of them twice by then) but found its way to my heart in college and several times since.

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I’ve never joined in a loosely-connected reading group, and I’ve always hated book groups though I have cherished some classroom/discussion rooms around books.  Since leaving teaching I’ve become a bit of a solo reader, ravenous, making my way through books I never seemed to have the time to read.  I’m ready for company.  I miss fellow readers embarked on the same adventure.  What I love about this reading experiment is that it’s bringing people together from all over the reading map, people I know, people I don’t, and we can respond however and wherever we like.  Already people are talking about some creative approaches to responding.  Who knows where we all will post/respond/connect.  Postcards are going to wing through the air.  Blogposts, Twitter, Posterous–who knows what else, where else, how else we will discuss and respond.  How different from a book group or most formal settings.  How intriguing…

I’m only one story into my reading, but already I have been struck by how much there is to get out of reading aloud (and committing to heart).  Perhaps especially the work of Joyce who struggled with poor eyesight and thus felt the world acutely through his ears?  Some think so.  Some think his musicality has to do with his being Irish (the Irish English being a sort of music, the Irish language resonating through accent and phrasing), leaving Ireland and moving about so much, country to country, languagescape to languagescape.  I think he just understood how language and storytelling, the world of place and people, are so much about meter and sound.

Nancy White’s post about finding an Italian copy of the book, and then links to audio recordings of the collection got me to thinking about how important it is to me to read aloud and to listen to others reading.  And how sound creates such a problem in translation, especially for a writer so sensitive to the soundscape.  I just read the first story aloud to myself, and wish I could hear my fellow readers’ voices on the stories–not someone hired to read–but those trying to understand the text alongside me as part of this exploration.  It would bring me closer to them as they respond and it would, I am sure, bring me ever closer to the stories and make them live again.

To that end, I’ve recorded the first paragraph of the opening story, “The Sisters”, and in so doing slowed down enough to feel with the narrator that night, the power of the words in their sounds–paralysis, gnomon, simony, to notice the “darkened blind” and feel the flicker of the candles through the staccato notes of the phrase’s syllables.

dreams before dawn

I had no idea that when I joined this group for the month of February that I would be recording myself reading the opening paragraph, dusting off the dormant blog, and searching about for stamps for postcards…

Come join us–see what crazy things you’ll do!

Memories of My Ancestors, Thoughts of the Land

July 4

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

down to the lake

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

marshhawk ballet

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

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

Vermont portrait

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

early potato harvest

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

riding with style

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

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

irishstones

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

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

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

sunsetonclare

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

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

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

And for sheer fun, watch a snatch of The Commitments

Slainte!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

184628089_22fb58b702_m.jpgImage by Sondra Stewart

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

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

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

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

chelseagallery chelseastreetart

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

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

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

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

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

*Thin Place defined

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is this why I’ve been taking so many photos of the ordinary details glimpsed through windows, to steady myself within a moment without end, to try to understand it?
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Such unexpected discoveries in someone else’s magazines and moving about a world filled with old people brings me to thoughts of my students so young and intoxicated with possibility. In the fall I want my students to explore and experience a visual and aural understanding of their world as they write about it. I want them to have the pleasure of observing people and place, of diving into the writings of the Berrys and Bergers and Glucks of the world in a leisurely way, as I am now. For years I have been guilty, I believe, of what David T. Hansen describes in his introduction to the outstanding John Dewey and Our Educational Prospect:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!