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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thinking Locally As the Semester Ends

Today opens the last week of classes for me until September, and so as I stand on the cusp of a semester’s leave, many thoughts about my students, my teaching, my family send me to the blog. And it’s a twist I appreciate, for I turn to this global medium to talk about the importance of grounding the Web 2.0 work locally. I continue to grapple with balance, with the relationship between what I do at the computer and what I do away from it, and how to help students understand the importance of going out in the world to learn about its various workings and stories and marvels and tragedies and then to apply that learning, that communicating, that collaborating back here, locally, in the communities in which we live. I want to study the blogging of Laura, Toril and Lanny, for they so seamlessly weave the threads of their home lives into their blogging about the world and their work. They think aloud about how difficult it is to bring these two realities together: the online networking and the in situ groups with whom they work. I would like students to weave more of the personal, of the particular, of the here-and-now into their academic writing; they seem detached, almost clinical in their approach to writing as soon as evaluation, grades, school enter the picture. And no wonder.

But there are lovely exceptions. One student told me last week that writing about her dance practice, trying to tell the world about its role in her life, about the role of art in our lives, has helped her to understand and then to articulate something momentous for her–she wanted to write about how dancing a classical Chinese dance role, which she loves but also finds confining, is something she does in her quest to belong, to find a connection in her life to place and people and culture– how important this sense of belonging somewhere has become for her as she, a Chinese woman growing up in Japan and now studying in the United States, looks ahead to her adult life. It reminds me, too, of my sister-in-law’s wonderful film that she will screen tomorrow in New York, Shalom Ireland, which she made as a way to understand her own heritage as a Jew with roots in Ireland, a seemingly odd convergence of cultures. I want my students to ask the very questions she has asked: Where do we belong? >How do we belong?

How do university students cultivate a sense of rootedness to a place, a local place when places begin to look and feel so much the same in this country and increasingly in other countries with the malling and the sprawling? How do students who travel across states, continents and oceans to go to university keep rooted to place because and in spite of communications technologies? Are my students too tied to home by the phone so that they do not really connect with Vermont as a place instead of Middlebury as a school? Does my having them blog out to the world interfere with their ability to look around them and make ties here? Or does it help them to become more observant, more aware, more caring citizens of their local worlds as they hear stories of other persepctives, of other places? And am I, as a mentor to them, staying as aware as I should of the fact that, as Chip Bruce tells us,

“No two of us live in the same information age”? (Literacy in the Information Age, p.333)

Or what Bill McKibben contends in The Age of Missing Information:

“We believe we live in the ‘age of information,’ that there has been an information ‘explosion,’ an information ‘revolution.’ While in a certain narrow sense this is the case, in many ways just the opposite is true. We live at a moment of deep ignorance, when vital knowledge that humans have always possessed about who we are and where we live seems beyond our reach. An Unenlightenment, An age of missing information.'” (As quoted in Bruce, p. 334)

Every day at my country home begins with some configuration of the family taking Finn for a pre-dawn or edge-of-dawn walk through the fields–ours and those of neighboring farmers. Every day ends with a final walk down our long driveway. When it’s 20 below, or sheeting cold rain, no one volunteers. Finn is always ready to go, especially if we’re in for, what our Irish neighbors called, “a bit of dirty weather.”
morning fog And though we fuss about leaving the warmth of pre-dawn bed, we’re glad to be thus grounded in the quiet, subtle shifts of the seasons in our physical, natural world. milkweed opening Right now early December careens from a bizarre in-between-ness, neither fall nor winter as Finn still picks up ticks, as geese seem to fly north as much as south, as the fields hold their green, as the snow is slow in making a first appearance.
Finn drinking in the field

And then we move into our human community, driving through town on the way to work. Stopping in our bank, our post office, our natural foods cooperative, our local corner grocery store means catching up with the people we know as much as it means running errands. We have no chain stores downtown; we still have a locally-owned bank, independent grocers, a bakery, coffee shops. My husband takes forever on errands because he seems to know everyone from all of his work on local boards; I know everyone of a certain age, people I taught in high school in the late eighties.

It makes me think of Timothy Beatley’s contention that,

“A significant pathway to greater meaning in our lives and greater commitment to place is understanding and knowing the landscapes, creatures and people living here.” And this sobering quotation he includes by Terry Tempest Williams: “‘….if we don’t know the names of things, if we don’t know bighorn antelope, if we don’t know blacktail jackrabbit, if we don’t know sage, pinyon, juniper, then I think we are living a life without specificity, and then our lives become abstractions. Then we enter a place of true desolation.'” (Native to Nowhere: Sustaining Home and Community in a Global Age)

My students don’t know these things about the land or the town here. Until they were assigned to read our local newspaper a couple of weeks ago, it hadn’t occurred to them that we had poverty here or that dairy farms were suffering or that we still have a dairy in my village or that our county has a bevy of artisanal cheesemakers. Their lives are so tethered to campus and to home (and by that I mean their families). But not to the people and places of the town and county in which they will live for the next four years. And when they do finally get out there and take a look around, they are struck by the stories, by the rich complexity of the place.

This is the strange thing about a college town, especially in a rural place–how it’s very strength–the flooding into the area of new ideas and perspectives and cultures– can now in this age of instantaneous, continuous communication links to the world beyond the local, be at once something to embrace and something to be wary of. And it’s linked, I think, to something else I’m noticing about our students. They have a hard time telling stories. True stories that link their intellectual inquiry to their own lives. Why it matters to study history, philosophy, chemistry, geography–to them– What all those things have to do with the here and now. I’ve been working with seniors on essays for the Peace Corps, graduate schools, fellowships; I’ve been working with high school seniors on college essays, suggesting–tell your story in your own voice–what do you want people to know about you? How are you connected to things and people and places you hold important? They often look terrified. What should be the most natural thing in the world to do as an act of human communication–to tell stories–leaves them flustered, for they are out of the habit of it. It feels too risky.

Likewise, as Francine Prose points out in her new book, Reading As a Writer:

I liked my students , who were often so eager, bright, and enthusiastic that it took me years to notice how much trouble they had reading a fairly simple short story. Almost simultaneously I was struck by how little attention they had been taught to pay to the language, to the actual words and sentences that a writer had used. Instead, they had been encouraged to form strong, critical, and often negative opinions of geniuses who had been read with delight for centuries before they were born.” (p. 10)

And it reminds me of things I have been reading lately as I try to get my head around ways in which I can help my students and myself use the Web as a means of communication and expression to root themselves firmly to the local as well as to the global conversation the way Stephen Johnson is doing with Outside.in. HOw well are we doing this in our universities? And that is one reason I’m so looking forward to having Middlebury graduate Sarah Kramer of StoryCorps visit campus on Thursdaysarahkramer.jpgto tell the stories of helping people tell their stories of family and place. I want students to get to know their community so they will not become part of a world of lost connections, that hollow existence that Timothy Beatley describes:

Americans, it seems, work harder and longer, often to support increasingly higher levels of consumption and personal debt, in a kind of overwhelming spiral of stress and anxiety…
The hectic pace of American life reinforces stultifying uniformity in our communities…
With minimal civic involvement, little time or inclination to know one’s neighbors or one’s community, it is perhaps not surprising that there is considerable fear and anxiety about ‘others.’ Both a product of our current culture and considerable obstacle itself to strengthening place and community, this fear often keeps us apart. (p.19)

And so, as this semester ends, and I step out of the classroom for several months, I want to remind myself to think creatively about how and where online and offline meet, how one can complement and deepen the other for our students in residential colleges as they navigate the challenging waters of a 21st-century adulthood.
early morning fog

Slow Blogging: Context, Transitions and Traditions (Back from Illinois, Part Two: Setting Up The Classroom Community)

Lately I have been off blog much more than on, posting a few times a month, not a week, while reading with pleasure and a bit of wonderment about the whirlwind travels and explorations of Bryan, Stephen, Nancy and many others on my Bloglines feeds. At times I’ve thought perhaps I should blog more often–I certainly have many entries swirling about in my head, and I’ve got to post some recent talks–but quick posts just don’t do it for me as a thinker, as a writer.

It was reading Martin Heidegger’s “Discourse on Thinking” this weekend, in which he writes about “calculative thinking” versus “meditative thinking,” and then wandering over to a student blog post about this year’s Slow Food Conference that made me want to call what I do slow-blogging or meditative blogging. At least that’s what I’d like to work towards. It takes time for the many loose strands of thought to converge into a unified post; it takes a lot of effort, a lot of energy, and a lot ( I know, I know sometimes too much) writing. And some posts never quite find their footing; they remain awkward and tangled when I don’t have enough time or courage or energy or ability to go deep.

And since this kind of reflective practice–both a return to thinker-to-thinker letter-writing and a move forward into hypertext and multimedia expression– is what I ask my students to do as a way to develop their creative and critical thinking and writing skills, it’s what I need to do, too. If I’m asking students who sign up to participate in the Blogging the World project to see blogging as a way to ground their experience, to think about it and to enhance it, then I’ve got to do that, too. So, yes, I come down on the side of teachers-who-use-blogs-in-the classrooms-better-use-them-in-their-own-work. And I make sure that the pedagogical underpinnings of my courses are transparent and discussed in class.

In other words, I try to look back as much as forward, to dig deep into the books that call to me from my bookshelves as I think about my teaching and my learning with social software and without. I think about my teachers as much as about my students. I try to stay aware of the context from which this blogging practice springs, and I try to consider the transitional spaces between old practices and new, old literacies and new, old treasures and new. And so right now, right next to this computer sits a bag of books I’ve been carting around with me for the past few days: the Heidegger; Pahl and Rowsell’s Travel Notes from the New Literacy Studies; Paul Muldoon’s new collection of poems, Horse Latitudes; Yehuda Amichai’s last collection of poems, Open Closed Open, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer— such wonderful books all of them. Sometime, somehow, I’ll figure out why this particular group of books happens to slide off the shelves and into my bag at the same time.

Maybe it is November and the onset of hibernation that put me into a period of absorption, of feeling my way between past and present, but I find myself in an oddly balanced place these days. Or maybe it’s because I have children emerging from adolescence and parents moving into old age, and next year I will celebrate one of the BIG birthdays that I feel perched between the disequilibrium of life’s big moments. I want it all–the physical world and the virtual, books and blogs, old ways of communicating and new. I want them all in my classroom. I want the physical classroom, where we sit around big tables together to wrestle with ideas and processes, and I want them augmented by other kinds of “tables” of the virtual sort at which we can come and go at will, learning from experts we discover as we wander. I don’t want to get rid of schools, just to change them. I want to walk through the halls with people, to talk with them in person, to sit around a table day after day after day with the same group in extended inquiry–in slow learning. I want access to the wisdom of someone who has devoted a lifetime to the study, to the processes of thinking in my field.

Visiting last week with graduate students in writing at the University of Illinois was not only a pleasure but an inspiration– to witness how much they enjoyed and felt stimulated and engaged by one another and their program and the place. They feel the dynamic bonds of community. I want my students to feel those ties to an intellectual, physical-based community. Take my mother’s three-year-old-and-going-strong poetry group: every Saturday some dozen residents of her retirement community meet for a couple of hours to read, study, and talk about poems. There’s a kind of special language they’ve developed, a trust and a willingness to speak openly and fiercely about what they read because they’re looking each other in the eye. There’s the caring for one another as neighbors and friends that goes beyond a simple intellectual engagement. I did a guest workshop for them several months ago and came away inspired by their intensity and warmth and commitment and intelligence, collective intelligence. I want that for my classes of twenty-year-olds.



So, what am I saying here? I guess I’m moving more and more to ways in which blogging and tagging and image-sharing and digital storytelling enhance the here-and-now, the communities in which we live and work, and in this particular case, the classes we teach. And to do that, it is essential to spend time at the opening of the semester talking about who we are, what we each bring to the learning adventure, why we’re in this class, and what we hope to get out of it. We talk about building a blueprint together based on our goals and available materials, and then think about how we actually build the course experience together and alone.

But first, I have to think about how the various means of expression might have an impact on the learning and on the community. How and why will we use social software? Will we venture further into online work than blogs? Why blogs at all? Will we really blog or use the blog structure as a vessel to hold traditional assignments? Why, for example, would we blog in a course on Ireland? How might hypertext and digital storytelling enhance the experience? How might we use audio as a tool for expression and for revising and for exploring ideas? Cameras? Images we take, images we find? How might we want to connect with experts out in the world–would we invite them to participate in blogging-invitationals? Would we want them to respond to our work? What is the role of loose dialogue and conversation, of let’s-talk-about-any-thoughts-we-have in the course? Do we want to link to our work in other courses? To our other online worlds? How do we also work in traditional modes? How do they intersect and influence one another? How much time can be devoted to learning how to use the tools, how to become comfortable with the practices? How much time do we devote to meta-practices, to reading and talking about what we’re doing online? How can we capitalize on the fact that we have the luxury of being together in class twice a week–do we devote that time to presentations, to discussion, to lecture, to feedback, to projects?

These are just some of the questions I have to ask before I pull up even the most basic course blog. Based on my answers, the course blog begins to take shape, each course demanding its own look and structure–

The Irish seminar blog really focuses on collaboration and so has more of a group-blog feel to it than others; one of our goals is to think about how our community of mutual apprenticeships works–how to be engaged in a liberal arts college.

A composition class balances between group and individual work, and so the unit plans are posted as we go, as we develop as thinkers and writers and see what next we need to learn and to practice.

An arts writing class takes on a ‘zine-like, real-world look with multiple columns and choices as to what is posted where and why.


We spend two-three weeks moving into the course material by examining our own voices, our learning goals and community, the demands of the discipline, and what it is we need to do and to learn in order for the course to “be a success.” I call this first part of the course Cracking Open the Course and the Imagination, in my creative writing classes; “Exploring the Course” in composition classes, something we do pre-blogging; Knowledge Trees in a first-year seminar on Ireland (the first part of this exploration is done online before the students even set foot on Middlebury’s campus).

I use a variety of techniques to examine the ways in which we’ll each enter this collaborative: personal narratives about our individual cultural contexts and learning histories, including digital storytelling, image-stories exploring personal relationships with the course content, and a deep-learning exercise.

In class we talk about how to participate in discussions and feedback-loops, how to help design the course, how to make it work for us as individuals. We talk about about collaboratives and about the purpose of a liberal arts education and how our course intersects with those goals. We talk about trust. About making mistakes. Asking dumb questions. Daring to ask dumb questions. About playful inquiry. We try to place our semester within a much bigger picture of our life journeys. We reflect on our blogs, we push one another to grow as learners and writers, we push ourselves. We might read Levy. Or Greene. Or Dewey and Wenger. We read each other. We always read each other. And we read deeply in our discipline.

Blogging enhances the undergraduate course experience, I believe, when we spend time laying a careful foundation for our work online and in class, thinking and talking about how and why connecting this way plays a fundamental role during the precious brief twelve weeks we have together. Because we rarely make our pedagogy visible, students are far too accustomed to going through the motions, to taking our word for it that our assignments have value, to completing work without thinking about how it fits into their lives. I can see the difference in the depth and authenticity of student work when I have taken the time to talk about the value of slow blogging, of slow learning compared to when I’ve been all in a rush to get to the facts and processes of the discipline, when I’ve thrown us into the course content without grounding it. Students who have come out of the slow-blogging classes have gone on to do some quite extraordinary, independent work–such as Lizi and Remy and Piya, work that transcends formal learning as they stand on the cusp of senior year, balanced between their school-years and their post-school lives. Just yesterday at a workshop for students thinking about blogging next semester from abroad, four seniors who had blogged their junior year experience abroad spoke eloquently about the benefits of slow-blogging, how it really helped them to make sense of and to deepen their experiences by taking the time to articulate their learning carefully, in writing and image and sometimes sound.

And so, I’ll keep trying to practice slow-blogging here and in my classes, while appreciating, too, the benefits to me of the quick post that my many blogging colleagues do so well and so often! It is the slow blogging, though, that I think our students need to practice with us, for they quite naturally know how to frame a quick post, pointing to what they’ve observed and commenting about it in passing.

Flying into Fall: Productive Anxiety* and Creative Tensions

finneyleaping eveningflyers

The beginning of every school year takes me by surprise–I am invariably charmed by my new students one by one as I hear their stories of home and culture, and connect with their learning journey, and welcome them to our classroom community–but I am also reminded of the previous semester and the learning collectives that grew into examples of Pierre Levy’s collective intelligence, each class distinct in character, in attitude, in outcomes; each semester teaching me something new about how to teach with and without computers; each new online learning experience sending me back into learning theory and media theory and current takes on composition theory so as to ground the work, to question what I am doing, and to assess it. I miss the old semester; I delight in the new. And so it goes.

blurringoftheleaves fall woodpile

And now, a month into the semester, I feel the many tensions a teacher feels just about now if she believes in problem-posing, student-centered learning helped along by social software and digital media:

This class is not like any other I have ever taught.

I have to learn how to teach all over again.

What worked last time out might not work now.

I have to help my students survive in this academic culture while trying to bring about change, and sometimes that means that even in an institution that affords me incredible freedoms as a teacher and encouragement in my explorations, I have to teach forms and approaches rarely used outside the halls of the Academy–why do we, in our undergraduate institutions, insist on preparing all of our students for careers as old-school academics?

I try to remember that, as Stephen Downes put it in the wrap-up to the UK edublogging conference this past June, “To teach: be the person you want your students to become.”

For me that means being alert and responsive to the needs of students, helping them light their own fires of learning. That means staying up with developments in my field. That means playing around with digital media in my own work. That means spending the first two weeks of every semester exploring our educational and cultural backgrounds, our individual goals, ourselves as learners, our roles within the collective. We look hard at our deep learning experiences inside and out of classrooms; then we write personal narrative essays out of those experiences, connecting as we do to the larger conversation about learning. I design assignments and experiences for the collective which the group shapes and revises as they get accustomed to having a real hand in the course design. We read one another’s work and get excited (hopefully) about what it could mean to be a part of this learning collective.

And that means that some of the things that I take for granted, that I have prepared for and with the students, need to be shifted, tweaked, or thrown out altogether.


Blogging, for instance, doesn’t always work out quite as I envision. Or at least, some groups take to it, others do not–at least the kind of blogging that asks for conversation, for deep connecting with the material and one another in lively intellectual interaction. Sometimes a group will want to talk in class but work as solo artists on their own blogs. Other groups–and these are usually the ones who are taking my courses because they have announced themselves as writers–can’t wait to talk to each other through blogging–through this kind of exchange. Because I teach a range of courses, this seems absolutely right to me. The flexibility of the online tools allows us to configure and pool them according to the emergent practices, goals, and chemistry of a learning collective. Sometimes we’ll work more in audio, other times in image…sometimes we’ll write the long solo post, sometimes shorter, conversational bits. It’s impossible to predict exactly what we’ll do until we’re doing it. So my class blogs look and feel quite different one from another. And I find it much easier to describe to people what we’ve done than what we’ll do.

I also get asked about reluctant bloggers, how to “motivate” them. I don’t. It’s up to me to show students how these things work and why–I make the pedagogy transparent, exposing them to learning theory and composition theory and new media theory–to get the intellectual juices flowing and the collective engagement moving, to give them a chance to practice some approaches that can feel antithetical to what their expectations about what the college classroom would be like.

But I can’t make them like it or even do it. That’s their responsibility. Their commitment to make. Yes, I want all my students to have this experience connecting with one another, with themselves, and with the world through social software–but they don’t all have to take to this kind of interaction at all. As long as they gain skill in the use of this medium for this kind of deep learning, they can choose to use it or not as they see fit in the future. I’ve learned not to be disappointed when any one group doesn’t really take to blogging. And so far, this group of first-years are moving into blogging versus posting drafts and assignments to blogs, quite slowly. They love being connected to one another; they crave the feedback, but it takes longer for them to see conversation-in-writing as part of thinking-and-learning.

And so that pushed me last week into getting more creative and to put pressure on my reasons for using blogging with this group. I came up with an exercise in collective intelligence ( a bit like Open Space work with lots of stickies and newsprint stuck to the walls) to demonstrate the power of conversation to find, grow and complicate ideas through connecting, questioning, and finding relationships between their thinking and that of others. They were floored by the difference between the ideas they had come up with on their own the night before and what happened to those ideas once pushed up against those of their peers–they had to clarify, build, and defend their stances. We talked about how doing the same kind of collective, connected work online while they were wrestling with reading and writing could help them deepen and contextualize their ideas, and in turn to get pretty darn excited about what and how they were learning. We’ll see over the next few weeks what this blogging-as-conversation experience will do for them as learners across disciplines and media and how it will help them as writers in traditional modes.

window.jpg fallmilkweed

Meanwhile, last spring’s creative writing class, an avid blogging group during the semester, is finding their way back to one another, to their own blogs and to the group blog. They miss the collective. It’s interesting that when they are away over the summer, they are too busy to blog, but when they are together, back on campus, they want that kind of deep, connected interaction.

And the Blogging the World group is up and running from Cairo, Damascus, Paris, London, Florence. One student now in Cuba, who blogged in class but is NOT from his semester abroad, explained to me, when I commented that his email missives were so compelling that I wished he had a blog so that more people could read about his experiences, that he wants to make sure that people do read him–and so he likes to flood email boxes instead of leaving it up to his readers–the ones he values– to find him on the blogs. These are readers unlikely to use RSS or bookmarks. Interesting. He’s afraid they’ll forget him (out of email box, out of mind…) And because we have filters here that do not allow the email pinging with blogposts, he makes an interesting point.

A few returnees from study abroad are missing the blogging but finding it more difficult to blog reflectively (outside the parameters of any course) about learning here (too self-indulgent, one blogger told me–too isolating, said another, if others aren’t doing it as well, which of course goes to the social part of the software). All this pulls at something I’ve been thinking about (and will lead to a fuller blog entry eventually) about how people don’t read far back into the blogs, or at least my blog–and when I feel I’m repeating myself, others respond as though I’ve covered some brand new ground. Maybe it’s time for a wiki for some of the old posts, pulling them together into something better organized and tagged–something people will find useful….These posts here are about the moment for readers if not for me so much. It’s only when they move back over to their own blogs and pull apart something I’ve said, connecting it to their own growing web of thinking that it becomes anything more than of the moment. The undulations of blogposts across the edublogosphere. Fascinating.

river.jpg tree.jpg

These are productive anxieties indeed.

*I was much taken by the way Edward Ayers uses the term, Productive Anxiety, to describe how his students feel in his classes where they write narrative histories they should imagine were written for the cellphone.

An Old Russian Custom…Or…Stopping for a Moment Before the Journey Begins: Responding to Student Writing


At the end of the recent faculty writing retreat, when asked to share a choice that we had made over the past two days about our fall courses, several people spoke about awe in the classroom, a concept introduced the first day by one of our colleagues in response to a prompt about the role of reading and writing in our own lives. One faculty member, in wanting to establish an environment in which his first-year students could make note of and reflect on their awe at being in such a community engaged in learning, said that to open his course, he would tell a traditional story about Russian emigrants: Just before they set off on the long journey across continents and oceans to whatever new life awaited them, they would gather as a group and sit down upon their bags, look around them in silent awe and reflection. How important this is to stop and make note of the moment, at what has come before, at what it means to be in this moment—it is a lovely story that I, too, plan to tell my students on Tuesday the 12th when I meet them, and we’ll do our own version of sitting on our bags taking in the wonderment of this moment when we are about to begin our journey together.

Then we’ll write.

And we’ll thus have walked though the door of the semester, committed ourselves to this community of learners, of reciprocal apprenticeships (Levy), a moment indeed fraught with awe, a feeling that mixes wonder and fear. When we study together and write together, we open ourselves up to one another; putting our writing out there can leave us feeling exposed and vulnerable (particularly an eighteen-year-old entering college and quite sure that he or she was somehow mistakenly admitted in the first place and will be so woefully behind everyone else in the room) –ah, the delicate moment when there is the potential for response or evaluation from those around us.

After we write for ten minutes or so about this feeling of awe, we will talk about the gremlin sitting on our shoulders laughing derisively at us as we write for an audience, sneering at the very thought of us presuming to be a writer, at having something to say and being able to say it elegantly. We talk about ways to shut that gremlin down, how we can develop ways to write hot and read cold—to balance within ourselves the artist and the critic. We’ll talk about the evaluation process in the course, how they will see no grades until the end of the semester but they will receive a good deal of feedback from themselves, from one another, from me and perhaps even from people beyond our classroom.

Responding to Student Writing
We use three and sometimes four concentric circles of responses to our writing—the writer reading her own work, the writer’s peers reading her work, the teacher reading her work (and as much as I would like to place myself squarely within the circle of learners in all senses of that notion, whether I like it or not, I will always wield power in the classroom due to my position of experience, of expertise, of responsibility for grades and mentoring and crafting the parameters of the course—it is how I invite the students to use that power to their own learning advantage that makes the difference), and the outside world reading her work. We talk about these audiences as we work through a writing project, reflecting as we go on, deciding when we need eyes other than our own to reflect back to us what seems to be written on our pages.

Feedback Circle One: Responding to One’s Own Writing
First off, I think it is crucial to keep the reins firmly in the hands of the writer. We each need to take responsibility for own learning, our own writing. And so we develop an ongoing reflective practice as we write—sometimes we write letters to ourselves and/or to our writing about our own sense of how our ideas are moving from fuzzy shapes to clear articulations; sometimes we write in another genre about what we are working out; for example, I often talk about writing a poem version of an essay, or about writing a poem to our essay. Sometimes we tell someone else in a conference about our piece of writing, the other person asking questions and acting as scribe without offering opinions. Sometimes we record ourselves reflecting aloud on the process, the content, the writing—I am very much a believer in using many ways of expressing and thinking—using our entire creative & critical selves. Sometimes we dance our writing (yes, we do) or color it by using a range of tones—from cool tones where the writing and the ideas are quiet to hot ones where the argument might get heated, the imagery intense, the passion of the writer clear. These are all ways for the writer to respond to her own work and thus to deepen her own understanding of the tender shoots of ideas that need sun and water and tending, sometimes pruning or training, if they are to flower.

Even when we are adding other circles of response to this first one, we are still engaged in our own ongoing review of the work—(we are careful not to judge ourselves as writers in the process—keeping that gremlin at bay). I share my own horrendous early drafting of stories and papers. I show them blog posts that I keep in draft mode because they aren’t ready for the light of day—the ideas aren’t developing, the writing lies flat and uninspired, something just doesn’t feel quite right about it.

Feedback Circle Two: Peers Responding
If from the first day of a course, the community itself has been valued and nurtured through a series of exercises and downright open consideration of what an effective learning community looks like and feels like to us (I’ve written a bit about this topic before, but will perhaps return to it this week as it is foremost on my own mind as I get ready to step back into the classroom), then moving our writing out into the group, no matter how early on in the process, can be of real benefit. We can hear back what our writing means to readers who have only our words as they read and not all of what we meant to write down or that remains snagged on some corner in our mind.

In large classes, we set up feedback loops, groups of five students (I like to rotate these groups every three weeks or so to keep the feedback unexpectedly fresh) per group, who through the blog (RSS feeds and/or blog clusters moving off the Motherblog) have access to everything their peers choose to post. We post anything we want a response to, keeping off-blog that which is either private or not yet ready for the eyes of the world. Then the writer indicates what kind of feedback she is ready for and hopes to receive; she ends her post with her own sense of where she is in the process and what kind of feedback she seeks. Her readers first off read back to her what they think the piece is about. They let her know what they have learned through reading the piece and when it moved them, when it confused them, when it left them wanting more. Students write to one another via blog comments and/or email. They get together one-one-one and all five together during quasi-weekly feedback workshops to talk as a group—face to face discussion is essential during the process because body language and ideas generated through the give-and-take of conversation can provide feedback not picked up in written comments. Responders ask lots of questions, summarize; sometimes they color the piece with markers—red for when it really grabbed them by the jugular or showed the potential to do so. We talk about taking the work seriously but not ourselves—we are responding for the good of the writing and the writer, not because we want to sound smart or glib or talented. We talk a whole lot about honesty and respect. We don’t ever say, “You should do this…”

From time to time, when I see blogged responses that either really seem to do very little for the writer: “Hey, good job—I liked it a lot. Keep everything just as you have it” kinds of responses, I will show this kind of response in class, and we’ll talk about ways to work towards better responding. We talk about how responding well to other people’s writing will serve our own writing, how reading well and writing well are inextricably intertwined skills. We learn how to read as writers and to write as readers. We talk a lot about intended audience and the expectations of different kinds of audiences and how that can affect our choices in terms of content and expression. We look at a range of publications; we pretend near the end of the process to be editors at an appropriate periodical trying to help a writer prepare a manuscript for publication. We talk about what’s essential; we talk about voice. We talk a lot.

Feedback Circle Three: The Teacher Responding
We talk about my role in the feedback circle. I avoid full, teacherly responses for as long as possible, because no matter what we say, as soon as we move in to put in our two cents, the writer forgets to listen to herself or her peers. We become the only audience that matters; we hold the grading pen; we are the experts, the authorities; that’s what we’re paid for. Early in my courses, students crave this kind of feedback from me; they want to hand things in the way they always have and get from me what they need to do to make it an “A” level paper if it isn’t already. I of course resist that role because it jeopardizes what we are really after here—growing learners who see themselves as the experts on their own writing, and as reciprocal apprentices within the learning community. And yet I DO have things to say because I have spent many years reading student writing, my writing, published writing, It is what I do. And of course I am opinionated, too!

I do not write responses to student writing until the project is very near completion—then I choose just a couple of what I see to be the issues most ripe for tackling and write about those. I also write about what works for me—where in the piece I find myself thinking, engaged, enlightened. I write questions.

I meet with my students one-on-one in short (15-minute) conferences during which they are invited to bring something they feel is ready for my feedback. They must prepare for said conference by being ready to talk about their own response to the writing and about that of their peers. Often I find that they already know what works and doesn’t—they may need encouragement and a little help in the HOW—how to pare away the boxcars of overused phrases; how to integrate a particular quotation into their argument; how to find the ending. I never bleed a pen through their essays, copyediting, trying to cover every mistake, every clumsy use of language. Instead I’ll teach a little impromptu lesson in dangling modifiers, say, if the writing is hampered by them and have the writer search for more of them in her draft.

I do not need to read everything they write. I do not need to comment on everything I read. That is not a good use of my teaching time—pointed, timely feedback is crucial for them and reasonable for me.

The Fourth Circle: Readers from the World
I often try to enlist outside readers to take a peek into my classrooms and leave feedback for my students. I also encourage my students to get outside readers—the kind of reader they are thinking of when they write the piece.


I do not grade individual essays, poems or stories.

I find that grading individual pieces detracts from the development of the writers—their early-in-the-semester pieces SHOULD be disasters, yes? If they are ambitious enough and stretching, challenging themselves to the core of their being, they will encounter numerous glorious failures along the way. And that’s as it should be. We talk about the writer’s rule that for every ten pages you keep, you throw away a hundred. That’s what good and messy creative thinking is all about. Often we have to write for a long time to get to our real subject. School is, of course, an unnatural environment. The writing assignments are not often useful in the world—they are exercises. Students write notes to themselves after each writing project about what they learned—the successes and the failures, and what they know they want to work on in the next paper in order to continue their development.

I write the students a short letter at the end of each unit (they collect their work in mini-portfolios—this way they take long hard looks at their learning journey periodically during the semester rather than just at the end) in response to the letter they write to themselves and to me about the work contained in that unit and in response to the goals they set for themselves in the upcoming writing assignments. My letter is based on notes I have taken during our conferences, what I notice about the evolution of their writing, helping them take a step back and see how their writing is working and how it is not.

At the end of the semester, they hand in one last portfolio which pulls in all the work (we do not have time in our semester for another series of revisions—I would rather have them treat each new writing assignment as essentially a revision of the one before and so we rarely do three drafts per essay even though we talk about how when we write outside of classrooms, we write many many drafts) and one last hyperlinked reflection on the entire semester. Even these are read by themselves and their peers –even these have the potential to move and teach those in reciprocal apprenticeship with them. For example, Zamir’s final reflection helped Leah to write hers; Katie’s moved several members of the class by its inventiveness and beauty as well as its spot-on self-understanding.

And grading? I do it at the last possible moment. At the end. Holistically. This way grades reflect where they get to, not where they were when they had no experience at the beginning of the semester.

A couple of helpful sites on responding to and evaluating writing–

U Washington’s “Responding to Student Writing”
An article from University of Michigan’s Sweetland Center –with a helpful bibliography

Michael Kischner “Should Teachers Comment on Drafts of Student Essays?” also with a helpful bibliography

Indiana’s “Articles on Evaluating Student Writing”

WAC Clearinghouse Bibliography

The Tightrope of Blogging: A Week’s Adventure into the Public Nature of Social Software

Colin Brooke’s post today (his is one of my favorite academic blogs, btw) entitled, “Inching, Inching” is a wonderful reminder of the tightrope we walk as we blog (at least those of us inclined towards the long post, the discursive meanderings that are richly linked) between letting out the first inklings of ideas that have started to itch, and the need to write carefully considered, well-supported texts we can hang our EXPERT hat on. He opens his post with:

“It’s easy to come off, and to want to come off, as someone who’s already figured it all out–it’s a particularly academic attitude that’s all but hammered into us, that to “not know” is a sign of weakness. The unfortunately ironic part of it all is that not knowing is always an opportunity, for me at least, and yet I feel like I get caught up in papering over those times where I don’t know.”

It’s something we all blog about from time to time–something Chris Sessums considered a while back when he felt under some pressure NOT to blog or at least to rationalize the time he was spending blogging. I’ve written frequently about related tensions–here, for example in a post on the pull between time on- and offline.

All of these posts touch upon the individual as creator versus the group as creator along the lines of collective intelligence. Confused in Calcutta has a great post this week, called “Musing about Collaboration” in which he sketches a research project he wants to do about the nature of selection within collaborating groups. One line that really stands out is this:

What has entranced me since then is the magic of collaboration, the sheer unadulterated joy of co-creation.

How often do professionals say such things?! (It reminds me of Lanny taking me to task a couple of posts ago for using the term “authentic engagement” and not “falling in love”–it’s another side of the same issue of holding back what we know , this time by cloaking it in jargon vs. sharing it clearly, simply in hopes it will grow beyond us.)

Several moments this week during my whirlwind travels back out to California and back for the Center for Digital Storytelling’s three-day retreat pushed me up against the tensions between choosing to post, choosing to blog, choosing to read blogs at all due to concerns about boundaries of ownership and privacy. First off, it is still quite remarkable to me how many people I met in many venues really don’t get the potential of blogging and blogs even when they say they know a lot about blogs. Even people who spend a heck of a lot of time on the Internet reading blogs.
–I met with a lot of “Oh, right, you’re a blogger…I see…” during my travels as though that just about summed me up–they got the picture, no more info necessary. I also met with some hostility from people using fairly sophisticated digital tools when I talked about Web 2.0 possibilities–about putting stories and ideas out there for everyone to see, to respond to, to connect to, and to potentially build off of–well, there’s certainly the tricky arena of intellectual property–those who love Ourmedia.org and The Creative Commons, for example, and those who really really do not. It’s a vexing, thorny (but fascinating) issue that gets people rather heated.
–I heard a couple of horror stories about meetings being blogged (without anyone in the meeting knowing) the content of said kinds of meetings in the past having stayed safely within the group, or moving mouth to mouth rather than as they did in the stories, blog to blog to newspaper to television and ending up causing harm. As Henry Jenkins notes in the Introduction to his new book, through some astonishing anecdotes and simply-stated realities: Convergence Culture, Where Old and New Media Collide :

“When people take media into their own hands, the results can be wonderfully creative; they can also be bad news for all involved. ” (p. 17)

–I heard blogging being called navel-gazing by definition, soft, inconsequential–and I’m sure that’s true in a lot of cases. But what I find interesting about these criticisms is how they are evaluative according to some sort of scale that doesn’t suit this form. Blogs are being judged as though they are supposed to be printed media–finished, the end, the last word on a subject by an expert. But for me as a teacher, the absolute beauty of blogging is that it’s not that at all–it’s about developing thought, about pushing out tendrils to myself and the world in hopes that through collective intelligence and my own writing them down, the thoughts might both increase my own understanding of the subject at hand and even add something to the greater conversation by raising a question, reframing an idea already out there, contextualizing, adding extended commentary and case studies–we are building a wealth of new research and practice on teaching and learning through all of our reflective blogging chronicling our classroom practices; our reading practices; our conversations about these ideas; and our questions, doubts, concerns and fears about the whole messy business. It is about becoming, not about being there. It is about sharing and connecting and trying stuff out; not about knowing it first or best. It is learning in action. And so that’s why I urged a trio of remarkable teachers at the DS Retreat to take up blogging with their students and for themselves. They had great stories about how they are trying to change the educational system in their state, kid by classroom by school by schoolboard. But they feel isolated. Blogging could offer them a valuable approach: to help their students with a range of essential literacies while making the learning efficacious; to help themselves articulate and thus understand their own budding thoughts and lived experiences about how to keep passion for learning alive in their classrooms in spite of No Child Left Behind; and to connect with a community of other such teachers doing action research and trying to figure out this mess we call our educational system.

–And last night, back in Vermont, I urged our dinner guest who was skeptical about blogs for people in nonprofits wanting to convey ideas, to think of blogging in his world in pretty much the same way I explained to the teachers, instead of as just as another essentially static soapbox or as something potentially harmful because ideas could be co-opted or misconstrued. Don’t stay away, I say, but help us figure out the balancing act between private and public, between mine and ours.

I love the messiness of it–the need to let go of our perfectionist, achievement-oriented structures and mindsets, and play with ideas with other people who come to the work from myriad perspectives. It’s a bit like the Digital Storytelling Retreat, where the richness of the into-the-wee-hours talk with clutches of the fifty incredible people, who all worked with digital storytelling as an agent of change in schools and communities of all kinds, lay in the sheer smorgasabord of responses to the how, what, why, and the future of the work.

Indeed, here are a couple of the wonderful characters I had the pleasure of hanging out with and learning from–
bryan and helen.jpg Bryan Alexander and Helen Barrett.
(We were three of the few bloggers in the group, though I think we’ve made a few converts between us…)

For me, the lessons of the retreat will grow as I pull into posts from time to time some of the things I gleaned from my cohorts, weaving them into other thoughts I’m hatching, and then I’ll probably move some of the ideas worked on here into articles or presentations off-blog as well as on. But here, I feel absolutely free to post half-baked ideas I might even revise as soon as tomorrow once I hear how others respond–and there are many times when I have changed my mind about something I posted. And that’s fantastic. That’s what being passionate about ideas and learning is all about–and it’s okay if I get it wrong. We have to be okay about making mistakes in public, just as we have to struggle to articulate here as clearly and powerfully as we can our tender first stirrings of ideas or our considered responses to the ideas of others so as to use our and others’ time well.

It’s a tightrope I’m delighted to be on …

Books, Books, Books

Thanks to Chris Sessums (and I do thank you, Chris), I find myself returning again and again to my favorite books when really I should be paying attention to all manner of things piling up on my desk. This book meme is really impossible to adhere to in the strictest sense of offering one book per category– which Chris has nicely worked around with his friendly narrative style, moving from book to book, telling us his story while giving us titles to peruse. There’s the problem, too, of sticking to a list– I keep changing my mind. But the wonderful thing is that as with any decent associative exercise, thought of one book leads to thoughts of another, and then memories spill out from around the book, and before I know it, I am reliving the time when I first read the book, and plunge back into books I haven’t thought about for years. Suddenly I am ten, in the field in Maine, a book in hand, sun on my face, and no brothers in sight.
What fun.

But back to the meme.

1. A Book That Changed Your Life

Well, every book I read changes me in some way: characters move in with me and shake things up; ideas push me out of complacency; a writer’s magic with language can take my breath away . But books that have profoundly shifted something in me? When I was nine it was C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe–I thought, wow, you can be a writer and people will pay you to do this? What a marvelous way to spend a life. When I was eleven, it was Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird–I thought, wow, you can be a writer and make people feel like that? Almost every year there was a book that changed everything for me. From reading Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles at age 12 to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude at age 18, my early years were marked by great books. And then in college there were Emerson’s Essays and James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man & Ulysses (huge influences!) , and Virginia Woolf’s To A Lighthouse and Richard Wright’s Native Son.… the usual suspects… And then there was Shakespeare.
More recently bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress taught me about “teaching as the practice of freedom”; Pierre Levy’s Collective Intelligence opened me up to a positive wonderland of possibilities with online communities; and Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking really just blew me away about loving and dying at a time when I lost a dear friend. There are many more…

2. A Book that You’ve Read More than Once

Well, in addition to those books listed above, and restricting myself to contemporary books, I ‘d have to include Seamus Heaney’s Opened Ground: Collected Poems, Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation and Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and Flannery O’Connor’s Collected Stories, Alice Munroe’s The Beggar Maid and Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. These books will all stand up to as many readings as you care to give them. I’ll stop there…

3. A Book You’d Take Onto A Desert Island
My Riverside Shakespeare is first off the tip of my tongue, but if I think about contemporary books, Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy comes to mind. What a fabulously riveting, heart-breaking, wild tale of families in India and Pakistan during partition, and it’s three huge volumes!

4. A Book that Made You Laugh

Gerald Durrell’s My family and Other Animals –because it made me understand that other families were are crazy as mine and that a sense of humor saves many the day!
Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown Trilogy— Hilarious romp through North Dublin life–

5. A Book that Made You Cry

Almost every nineteenth-century novel made me cry (think Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina or DavidCopperfield or Chris’s Wuthering Heights) but contemporary books? Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking She writes as James Baldwin exhorts us to do, stripped of all our disguises, as clean as a bone. Yehuda Amichai’s Selected Poetry and A. B. Yehoshua’s The Liberated Bride, too, for their unadorned truth within poems and novels–I was brought to the complex textures of life in the Middle East.

6. A Book You Wish Had Been Written
I like Chris’s desire to read Sappho’s autobiography: I’d also like to read Shakespeare’s autobiography, to clear up once and for all his story, and I’d like to sink into another volume of John Keats’ poems.

7. A Book You Wish Had Never Been Written
Ah, Chris is a much nicer person than I–Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged makes me angrier than any book I know, that and Anne Morrow Linburgh’s Gift from the Sea. There I said it. I’m not sure I wish they hadn’t been written, but I sure wish they hadn’t sold so many copies and been loved by so many….

8. A Book You Are Currently Reading
I admit, I have a stack and I’m reading several at once: Anthony Shadid’s Night Draws Near to try to understand the nightmare of our involvement in Iraq; Janet Abrams & Peter Hall ‘s Else/where Mapping New Cartographies of Networks and Territories to keep thinking about the ways in which the Web can be used well in my classroom; A. B. Yehshua’s luminous Five Seasons to feed my fiction fix; and Eavan Boland’s collection of poems, Against Love Poetry because no week should go by without the taste of an Irish poem.

9. A Book You Have Been Meaning to Read
This one makes my fingers itch to leave this computer and reach for pages: bell hooks’ Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope is one of the books that arrived in the mail today, and for some reason, it slipped by me when it first came out. I will read it soon. Perhaps on the plane to California on Thursday–or waiting in long lines for said plane… My husband is reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and it’s all I can do not to take it from his hands–yes, I’m greedy… I’ve also been meaning to read the Harry Potter books (I must be the only person on the planet who has yet to read them–but with so many books calling to me, I wonder if I’ll ever get to them…) and Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf.

10. Now Tag Five People You Want To Hear From

1. Barbara Sawhill
2. Bryan Alexander
3. Lanny Arvan
4. Mary Ellen Bertolini
5. Ewan McIntosh

It’s tough to leave this post when there are so many books to consider– Argh–tomorrow I would probably write a completely different list. My students would be amused, I’m sure. So, I’m learning that this is an excellent exercise, not just for memory and affection’s sake, but as a way to remind myself that blogging can really be in the moment, ofthe moment. Tomorrow, I can take it all back….heheheheh….. And see if the five I’ve tagged get equally sidetracked….

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

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

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

Continue reading

International Edublogging Women’s Day 2006

Josie Fraser has put out the call for us, in honor of “International Edublogging Women’s Day 2006,” to point to the women edubloggers who have informed our practice. It’s a great idea, especially since quite a few of us have been observing how inspiring so many women eudbloggers have been over the past couple of years, but how little we hear about them. Blogrolls and RSS feeds abound with the same dozen edubloggers, only a smattering of whom are women.. It’s a shame. Well, I for one, am deeply influenced by a community of women edubloggers–so much so, in fact, that along with my NITLE edublogging cohorts, Laura Blankenship and Barbara Sawhill, I’ve proposed a session on edublogging at Blogher this summer.

I’ve touched upon the topic of the relative quiet of the women edubloggers in a couple of recent posts, teachers who use blogs in the classroom but do not necessarily blog out into the world. Now I want to devote a post to the women out there who have meant so much to my own blogging practice.

First off is Sarah Lohnes, many years my junior, who brought blogs to my door, really, in the fall of 2001, and although not as regular a blogger as others, has taught me a tremendous amount about technology and its place in our classrooms. She is now a graduate student at Columbia, and I’ve been reaping the benefits of her grad education by reading along as she grapples with the theory and practice of technology in education.

Catharine Wright and Mary Ellen Bertolini, my Middlebury blogging colleagues have also taught me a good deal about using technology with students. Mary Ellen is fearless when it comes to technology, and she is blogging away on several fronts on her own, in the classroom, and with Middlebury’s peer writing tutors. Catharine is a writer and a multimedia artist exploring the lines between personal and edublogging, and mentoring/editing one of the best group blogs I have encountered in Higher Ed, Dis.course, a blog to which students and faculty post (through her editorship) on issues of identity.

Moving out from my own shores, I have also felt a special kinship with Laura Blankenship, Barbara Sawhill, and Kathleen Fitzpatrick–all liberal arts edubloggers, whose blogging could not be more different one from the other. Laura, aka Geeky Mom, as I’ve pointed out before, has figured out how to thread in all of her life (or most of it) into her personal blog. She keeps a couple of other blogs as well. Barbara blogs a bit, skypes a great deal, hosts languagelabunleashed on Thursday evenings, and is doing a terrific job blogging with her students in Spanish. I love her understanding of the tensions faculty feel as they move toward technology–she’s smart and funny, energetic and committed–now if she’d only blog more often! 😉

Every day when I check my Bloglines account for new posts, I hope to find something from Josie Fraser in the UK, as she keeps her eye on the full edublogosphere for us; Barbara Dieu in Brazil, on her own blog and dekitawhere she works hard to keep the EFL community up-to-date with developments in educational technology; and the tireless, inspiring Anne Davis in Georgia who points to examples in classrooms, news in the world of education, and her own musings on this work. I don’t know how she does it all.

What I particularly love about their blogging is these bloggers’ ability to post entries that move the conversation–they do not repeat the posts of others; they think through the thorny issues facing us, always giving me something to think about and techniques to take with me. I highlight these women because they are in the trenches–the classroom with students and with teachers, and they are making quite a difference for blogging educators trying to open up education on both sides of the Atlantic, both sides of the Pacific, both sides of the equator.

There are others, of course, bloggers from libraries (Joyce Valenza and Jenny Levine, The Shifted Librarian, for starters) the researchers such as Jill Walker, Jean Burgess, danah boyd (and there are many others I read), and those bloggers from the wider world of educational practice, such as Nancy White who blogs about distance learning and communities of practice and really gets it about creativity in the workplace and about connectivism in the classroom. Lovely blog.

Kudos and thanks to all of you!

Moving back into classroom blogging means finding a blogging reading and writing practice for myself

As I run pellmell into a new semester, I find myself needing to look outward to the conversations going on in the edublogosphere in concert with my focus on the day-to-day goings on in the classroom. I cruise through the stories and observations of the week, from Ewan McIntosh losing his blog (argh!), to Will Richardson contemplating his future (There’s a whole new level of energy in his blogging–if that’s even possible– even with his grueling travel and work schedule during these last months in his current job), to the reflections coming out of ELI (especially about Bryan’s presentation–I feel honored that his instructional technologist character includes bgblogging in his blogroll–now I KNOW I’ve arrived if my real world blogging has hit the rolls of the virtual character bloggers!) and Northern Voices recaps here and in an Edtechtalk skypecast with Doug Symington, to the planning going on over at the 2006 BlogHer Conference. It is a busy blogging season indeed out there and not so easy to stay up with when I’m also immersed in a fulltime job as teacher that only has to do with social software and digital storytelling because I choose to teach writing and literature classes this way, not because I teach technology or new media studies.

But read blogs regularly I must, yes, to stay up with the developments in the software–and more importantly– with the thinking about how the new connnectedness changes our educational landscapes, but also, and crucially for me as a teacher, to keep myself thinking clearly about what I am trying to accomplish in my classroom, how and why. It’s what I do before thinking about the week ahead in the classroom. Reading about the new world of EFL teaching through Barbara Dieu, Aaron Campbell and Marco Polo, although not at all my field, informs my teaching through their inventive ways of connecting learners, connecting with one another, and thinking creatively about teaching in second languages. The same goes for Barbara Sawhill’s language lab unleashed. Closer to my teaching home are the essays of Chris Sessums or the classroom stories of James Matthew in Vancouver–always thought-provoking.

And then there’s the inimitable Geeky Mom who somehow manages to weave personal entries about home and family life with what’s going on in her dissertation and in her teaching life. She has two recent posts that really speak to me–“In which I describe my own misbehaving, a post that has me thinking about the ways in which we must, even on the college level, keep guiding our students towards media literacy–the ethics and etiquette of posting to the web, something I’ve blogged about before, and want to return to soon, and which I must keep ever present in my thinking as I walk into the blogging classroom; and a post from a couple of days ago–“Finding Balance: Parenting and Working which touches upon gender issues still nagging us. I’m really noticing how women seem to be blogging the quiet details of life, the classroom experiences, or attending to thier classroom blogs rather than also bursting out into the larger edublogosphere with the big picture. There are plenty of important women theorists: (Jill Walker, danah boyd, Liz Lawley, Lilia Efimova or Kathy Sierra, to name just a few) and plenty of classroom users of technology, but relatively few Anne Davises or <a href=”Laura Blankenships who are writing from within the teaching classroom about the larger issues of education. Interesting. And I hope to do more looking into this phenomenon soon to see if I’m even right about this observation.

And so I no longer sleep in on Saturday mornings–I get up at dawn to read the week’s blogs, to mull them over, to mull over the book reading (right now W J. T. Mitchell’s What Images Want)and the digital storytelling work and classroom explorations and revelations of the week and the web artists (to whom, I think, edubloggers should be paying much more attention for the way they are thinking about collaboration and creativity on the Web–more next post). And if I’m lucky, I bring the lessons gleaned from that reading right back into my teaching and thinking about learning ecologies. Today it means I’ve got two posts brewing–but I’m trying out a new shorter post kind of writing to see if I can actually write less-than-extended essays which, I am sure, bore most blog-readers silly, so I’ll leave this musing here, and return soon to write about the actual impact my reading and writing and conference-going practice are having on this semester’s classroom experience.