December Arrives: A (Quasi) Hypertext Musing on Storytelling and Stories

the end of november

I’m ready for December. November unsettles me with its wild swings set beneath a heavy-lidded sky, even during years without presidential elections and collapsing dogs and intensifying troubles around the world. I spend the first half of autumn missing summer and the second half seeking winter. Fall and spring swell with their neighbors, never completely themselves, in palpable transition, leaving me fidgety, restive–so much to do on the land and on the computer. I waste a lot of time in November.

But December, now there’s a month, the seed of great poems about winter coming on, ends of things, light returning. Winter solstice and our yearly bonfire. Snow.

December opens to stillness. The gardens quiet (the birds have stripped what’s edible); outside chores have stilled for the moment. We turn inwards; even when we venture out to ski across the land, to skate on the pond, to walk with Finn through the cold wet season, we think about getting home. We read the papers more carefully, finish magazine articles, delve into novels, poetry. We talk and talk. Swap stories.

November Interior

I work and live in story–here in my reflective/connective practice, in my creative work and in the work I do with communities, and so every month is about stories and storytelling, then. But it is this month that especially embodies storytelling for me, for the stories come home as I slow down and focus, as I think about the long take, about technique versus craft. As I try to grow as a thinker, as a writer, as a storyteller, as a catcher of stories.

Today, listening to the recording I made on Friday, during the National Day of Listening of my family spinning childhood memories, I notice how the stories themselves, as told, are not especially memorable, nothing anyone outside the family would find interesting. If I decided to blog them, for instance, I would have to cut, add, tinker a bit. But I also notice how we soon forgot the recorder and in the pulling out of those old stories, we recaptured the past for a moment through someone else’s words and found one another around the table, listeners and co-tellers. It was about the telling, not the stories. No, that’s not it exactly–it was about the sharing, not the art or the thing being shared.

We go on and on about the power of storytelling, its role in human culture, but how are we using the telling, the sharing and the art itself within classrooms and communities? As a classroom teacher and now in my work in rural communities, only rarely do I see sustained, connected use of both stories and storytelling to build healthy bonds and bridges, to synthesize thought and experience, or to imagine a better future. Certainly not in higher ed. Not in community work either. At least not enough. I encounter stories and storytelling to promote a brand or to perpetuate a particular point of view (see Miller again–indeed, if you have not read Writing at the End of the World, you really should).

Which brings me to December as end-of-term season. Over Thanksgiving break, I watched my younger daughter wade into the four term papers she has to write, the three presentations to prepare and several final examinations to study for. And she attends a college that on paper, at least, understands the foolishness of grades and short-term-memory learning and the disconnect that comes from single-discipline-based majors. I also see on Twitter that people across the world are grading papers and preparing exams. Every course in every institution seems to follow the same pattern, the same kinds of assignments over and over and over. Where is the creativity? The larger view? Do we think students are that dull that they need to repeat the same exercise scores of times?

radio

What about communal, connected storytelling in person, orally, and through ongoing blogs and wikis and creative projects dreamed up by the group that grow, build, adjust, evolve, reach out, connect, revise and give life to the stories by making them about something beyond the classroom? Making the stories transparent and enduring? For years many of us have talked about this kind of learning narrative. Some embrace narrative portfolios–but those mostly seem to trace a single perspective through learning. What about exploring multivocality, which George Landow ascribes to hypertext and thus to the ways in which we read and write now everywhere but in the university? Perhaps UMW’s grand experiment in blogging across the institution comes close to multivocality. I’m eager to watch how much movement grows associatively, across course/subject/discipline through the blogs. Do professors assign one another’s courseblogs? Do students from one course interact with students in another? Are course lines blurring? Course participants? How much storytelling goes on there in the face-to-face meeting spaces as a result of the blogging? Are students finding their voices while exploring what has come before them? How about the community outside the university? How much informal, ongoing storysharing; practiced storytelling, and storycatching goes on in and between schools and towns?

I am invariably struck by how unusual it is to tell stories outside our closest circles of family and friends beyond the anecdote sort, the you-gotta-hear-what-I-saw variety. When I open a workshop or a course with a simple storytelling exercise–the participants telling stories about themselves and their link to the work at hand, be it Irish literature or land-use planning, people find themselves simultaneously uneasy in the moment of “telling a story”–“I’m no good with words” many protest–and amazed by the impact of listening intently and sharing with a group. Participants feel closer to one another, trust builds, and differences are honored. People laugh. But it is a tender, fragile trust, one that can easily fade out once the “workshop” or the course ends.

When this storytelling extends, however, through sustained practice, and stories are caught here, commented on, revised, and extended on blogs, on wikis, on sites such as Orton Family Foundation’s newly unveiled Community Almanac, where they become threads woven together of a complex story, the moment of person-to-person connection has the potential to deepen, to open up through contact with other stories, and to move others–if the story is told well. Hence the need for practice, for developing a practice where storytelling is used.

inthefalls

I see evidence of this kind of practice in blogs that have made their way to me recently as a result of the NYT article: Beth Kephart’s Blog, a deft, melodious threading together of image and word; and the remarkable work of Jeff Gates (how did I not know of him?) whose In Our Path project epitomizes the kind of storytelling that can happen, first as a single voice whose idea triggers responses from others, institutions even, to share and extend the story, in his case about the Los Angeles Freeway Corridor. It is incredible. And then there’s his own blog, Life Outtacontext, and Eye Level, the blog he started for the Smithsonian where he now works as a new media specialist. These are three very different examples of what blogs can do and be, and how they wrap the tendrils of story around whomever happens upon them and takes the time to read.

And so this month, this December, I will immerse myself in stories, storysharing, storytelling and storycatching, hoping to help those I work with understand how “Storytelling is central to the well-being, the confidence and sustainability of communities. It allows communities to generate and sustain a sense of belonging and cohesion and purpose even through periods of tumultuous change–especially through periods of tumultuous change. It allows them to constantly define who they are and who they want to be.” (K. Longley, 2002, Stories for Sustainability, Sustainability Forum, Perth)

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From Academy to Community and Back Again: On Being a Visitor

deep in the woods

Three times this past month I have traveled back to school all while steadily journeying far far from that world. What a strange feeling to have so much I want to say and explore with people still on the inside while rejecting the structures of formal education. My closest colleagues, even in the Centers for Community Digital Exploration, and many of my mentors work on the inside. I am deeply influenced by the Academy even as I resist it. And that gets my fiercely independent, passionately fiery hackles up.

So while prepping workshops and talks (at Middlebury, University of British Columbia and St. Michael’s), I found myself tempted to confront and confound expectations of what talks and workshops are and do, to stretch my own understanding and experience. Brian urged me to do just that for my UBC long session (3 hours). And goodness knows he embodies that tack, brilliantly so, even when he writes for formal periodicals. I wanted people to explore the free-fall of searching for form and meaning–but together and have them experience, even in an hour or two, the benefits and joys of working in reciprocal apprenticeships, of having to think creatively and collaboratively, of moving past what is already known. I wanted them to be learners as though for the first time, working from disruption to repair. Meta but even more than that.

I spent a ridiculous number of hours coming up with some wild stuff from mash-ups to out-there exercises, rejecting each in turn. I needed to go through that process, to be recklessly creative, wildly irreverent in my drafts, but fortunately, the years and years of teaching & presenting at least taught me to remember my audience for the short talks. And so for Middlebury & St.Mike’s, and a classroom presentation and meetings at UBC I held back and listened, felt my way into the moments and pulled from collections of Flickr slides when I needed to show something. Presentation as conversation, meeting as mash-up.

barn view

But for the UBC three-hour session, I couldn’t help myself. It was a rare chance to push beyond what even I felt was safe, and so I plunged this brave group into learning chaos. I threw out the mash-up movie, the pirate images, the sixteen other plans, and worked from a blog I had created for the occasion and moved the group through an (exhausting, I’m sure, and often mystifying and frustrating) afternoon of thinking about learning within community, remembering to contextualize the experience within the personal and the local and the global, engaging with questions of what really needs to go on in classrooms and workplaces.

salmon leaping

I came away from that experience delighted and surprised and disoriented and not sure what people walked away with that they could use. They asked excellent questions. They articulated their wonder, their frustration, even their anger. One group hugged one another at the end of a particularly trying collaborative exercise. Another group wanted to know why on earth we were doing these things. I am certain that they were worn out–I gave them no quarter at all during three hours. I was unremitting. Yikes.

after a storm

The other talks and meetings were more easily satisfying and comprehensible, and the time with Brian, kele, Cyprien and Keira was absolutely fabulous. To spend an afternoon at the UBC farm with folks trying to save it from the wrecking ball, to be among people who are championing viral, emergent learning that will benefit the lived-in community, to hang out with mentors far more imaginative and wise and smart than I am gave me renewed incentive to keep traveling down this path. How lucky to be taught far more than I teach, to have the time for conversations. How incredible to shift from several days in the university to the stunning wilds of the west coast of Vancouver Island.

where's that salmon

It was only on the beach and in the woods that I saw what I had done, trying to bring the wild winds into a place that might not want or need them. But how freeing to know that it was okay to throw myself against those rocks from time to time. How valuable to have this time before the centers have become full-fledged reality (soon soon, that) to risk glorious failure, to learn through experimentation and improvisation, to move back–for a moment–inside to test my theories and practices. If conferences included a track for experimentation–not to describe experiments but TO experiment right there with peers–I’d be more inclined to attend them. Perhaps Northern Voice this winter? NMC next summer?

wave against rock

I’ll promise (sort of) to tame the hurricane winds that whip up when I think of the Academy…
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at dawn west vancouver island

There’s No Doctor in This House, Just Someone Who Asks a lot of Questions: Where I’m Headed, Part One

“…for most [people], the right to learn is curtailed by the obligation to attend school.” (Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society, 1970 p.xix)

I’m an unabashed generalist. A near novice in any field. Now that I’ve left my teaching position, I’m no longer qualified for it–I couldn’t even apply, wouldn’t make the interview round. No joke. A bona fide outsider. After all, the theory goes, you wouldn’t want a non-degreed, non-licensed doctor to operate on you. So if you are shelling out $50,000 a year on college, you don’t want anything but a certified expert in the classroom. And I’m no Doctor.

conversation

Don’t get me wrong. I know many spectacularly gifted PhDs who do fabulous teaching and research, who push my own thinking every time I encounter their work, who are incredible, imaginative learners. We need specialists. But not only specialists.

I could never imagine myself studying any one thing exclusively–I majored in art history, did a Masters in English, am deeply interested in creative expression, Irish Studies, multimedia narrative, 21st-century learning, gardens, architecture, digital art, food in culture, sustainable communities, the history and theory of education, photography–all kinds of subjects. I wanted it all, fluidly, simultaneously. I never wanted to teach the same course semester upon semester (in spite of agreeing with Gardner Campbell that every semester opens as a tabula rasa). Increasingly, I didn’t want to teach with a syllabus at all but to wander about a subject as a group of learners needed and wanted, exploring from as many angles, histories, perspectives as possible, veering off topic altogether when that was what we needed to do.

I even proposed to the college that I would be happy to continue teaching from the new center I was designing, as long as students could be released from the semesterized, campus-ized model, coming down instead to the center in intensive bursts when relevant collaborations, mini-courses, projects presented themselves there; when not at the center, they would graze freely on the myriad open-course opportunities on the Web, pulling together a mosaic of study: reading, conversing and reflecting online, creating, working in tutorial and/or in small groups, taking whatever time (within reason–deadlines have their use) made sense to complete that “course.” Some students could get the credit fast, in a few weeks; others might take a year or grow a single course into multiple credits. That idea went over…well...not so much.

Which makes sense because whereas the ability to work and learn and live this way has once again become possible (in a newly rich, global-as-well-as-purely-local way), the fear of the miscellaneous and anarchy and chaos–loss of control–has led to our time out of school looking more and more like school and our neighborhoods no longer about neighbors at all.

trainview

I was quite aware of breaking the rules of the Academy, and that I was a puzzlement to my students–who was this odd duck with neither PhD nor string of important books? No books? How did someone like me get to a place like this? (Well, I was only sort of in “a place like this”–a lecturer, never a professor, I inhabited the margins of this place.) I’d explain that I was lucky, an anomaly. Couldn’t be pigeon-holed. Couldn’t be known. And for a long time, I couldn’t see how it could get any better: I could be in school but not of school. I could hang onto my rebel cred WHILE reaping the benefits of a life in college.

So, why ever would I leave if I’d never be able to return?

Hypocrite hypocrite.

Reading Illich, hooks, Rose, Greene, Arendt, Gomez-Pena, Sontag, Freire, and more recently Gee, Wellman, Levy, Hawisher & Selfe, Tuan, and Weinberger and, well, so many others, and right now some fantastic bloggers engaged in continuous, dynamic conversation of the now in the now, made me uneasy about staying. I was troubled when I read what string theorist Brian Greene wrote in an op-ed piece for The International Herald Tribune:
“We rob science education of life when we focus solely on results and seek to train students to solve problems and recite facts without a commensurate emphasis on transporting them out beyond the stars.”

crowsatdawn
And when he said that “America’s educational system fails to teach science in a way that allows students to integrate it into their lives.” Integration and imagination take time and opportunities to speculate, to dream, to play with what-ifs.

Of course in 1970, Ivan Illich wrote (once again in Deschooling Society): “…the deep fear which school has implanted within us, a fear which makes us censorious.” (p.18 ) How can learners dare reach beyond themselves, beyond the stars if they are blocked, bounded by fear?

Michael Pollan gets at the same dilemma of over-specialization and fear–in his case, as it pertains to how and what we eat–in his new book, In Defense of Food, (you can read the introduction on his website). He shows us the promise of this particular moment: “We are entering a postindustrial era of food; for the first time in a generation it is possible to leave behind the Western diet without having also to leave behind civilization. And the more eaters who vote with their forks for a different kind of food, the more commonplace and accessible such food will become. Among other things, this book is an eater’s manifesto, an invitation to join the movement that is renovating our food system in the name of health—health in the very broadest sense of that word.”

But is the answer to go back? Or to go forward in a new way?

In spite of my growing unease I stayed. For years. I complained a lot, sometimes loudly, mumbling something about the importance of working from within the system, about influencing the next generation of leaders. To ask them thee questions. To point at these dilemmas.

And anyway, go where?

Everywhere. Anywhere. Both back to very old ways of doing things and forward into cyberspace. Post-industrial?

Into town. Downtown. Back into town. AND wherever in the world we need to go.

Solving the World's Problems

Now that we can harness the creative and connective powers of the Web and the open education resources of some of our great universities, why ever stay within the confines of a single school? Why shell out up to $50,000 a year for fancy digs when for no money at all we can reap the full benefits (sans credit) of such courses as the one George Siemens and Stephen Downes are offering? How long will the cachet of a degree from elite institutions and the attendant uber-important connections be enough to trump the limits of single-school-in-place-with-limited number-of-course-offerings-and-departments-and-majors? It was time to make the leap.

thecall

The community digital learning centers I am planning (slowly) are being conceived in the spirit of the miscellaneous, of emergence, of collective intelligence, of de-schooling, of edupunk, of slow-food (slow communities now too). Yup. All of those.

after rain

With my merry band of cohorts I’m exploring how to marry collaborative Web practices to the lived-in, traditional community to open our notions of learning–when and what and how. Right now we’re thinking about four-five pilot sites across the country, ranging from small rural communities, to suburbs to small cities. These physical centers will be places where people from across a community’s spectrum gather in person to discuss and learn and explore and share the connected and expressive practices of the Web. Within this neutral non-school people can shuck their fear of trying out these tools and practices within the workplace. People with no computer or internet access at home can hang out in the lab. Kids and the elderly can swap stories as they teach one another invaluable lessons about life. Nonprofits and agencies can gather to learn from one another and help one another both online and in person. Individuals can avail themselves of the computers, the space, the mentors to engage in hybrid learning.

Is it possible that these Web practices, instead of potentially polarizing us into affinity groups and spaces as some contend, can be used to ease community divides? To help solve community problems? To engage children and adults together in deep learning that is contextualized, shared, and personally relevant? To give people a chance to experience the power and joy and fun of the creativity and storytelling and feelings of belonging unleashed by some of these practices? What does the new digitized community learning center look like? Who is there? Why? How is it sustained? How do the practices of de-schooling, online learning, and informal f2f learning inform one another?

These aren’t new ideas. Hardly. But there are so few initiatives in rural places, at least, that are fusing the online and off, bringing people together into contact zones within a center and then moving out into the world online. We have few community computing centers, few internet cafes, even, and fewer centers seeking simultaneously a return to the slow while rejoicing in the fast. Rather, we have roaming workshops and consultants blasting in and out–a great, bonding time online or off, and then you’re on your own. Is that sustainable? Does it actually work? I’d rather work from inside communities to ease the participatory gap, one along the lines of what 826 Valencia or The Sunset Neighborhood Beacon Center or The Purple Thistle Center are modeling (funny that these are all in intensely urban areas) but in smaller communities, and with a decidedly Web bent and with an open, generalist’s slate of offerings–each center will be of that community for that community and so will, I imagine, function quite differently from other centers.

I’d love to hear about initiatives/centers from which I could learn–I am in the gathering information, writing vision statements & strategic plans (and grants) stage.

Even from you doctors out there. 😉

When the teacher travels…

…she doesn’t need to cancel class. Why should she cancel class in order to attend a conference or to give a talk?

If she does cancel her classes when she is unable to attend, then she probably believes that students cannot learn without her, cannot benefit from engaging with one another out of her presence. Or she has a research assignment or the like coincide with her absence, which seems like a valid reason for canceling class–but is it? Why give up one precious opportunity for the group to come together to puzzle out something, and to continue to build the bonds of reciprocal apprenticeships?

If she does cancel class, then she must be making herself mighty indispensible.

If she does cancel class, then her students potentially lose a precious opportunity to explore the course together, richly, without her (whether she likes it or not) dominant perspective and voice and persona.

vermont elixir

So, with these thoughts in mind, I did not cancel class when I went out to NITLE’s Conference on Teaching Writing in the Digital Age (I will, btw, post the text version of my talk within the next week–after one more talk). Instead, I worked with my senior tutors to design a class they felt comfortable leading, and that provided opportunities for learning in that moment of the course as we moved from fiction to poetry.

winter leaves the pond

I’ve written before about how bringing seniors who have taken intro courses with me back into those courses a couple of years later, as tutors, to mentor the younger writers, and to have their own intro work showcased in the syllabus as models, examples of the kind of writing we will practice, is one of the best things about my teaching. The seniors act as go-betweens, as translators in a way, as they understand the method to my madness, and they understand the freefall of the students who are thrown into a classroom that values failure, that insists on risk, and aims to travel deeply into the world of reading and writing. They lead the Wednesday evening workshops during which they dream up inventive writing exercises and help model effective workshopping practices (I teach two days a week in a comfortable, computer-free lounge, and then hold a two-hour evening workshop once a week during which we look at things online and/or students workshop their writing in small groups).
april full moonrise

And so, I’m delighted to say that from all reports, workshop Wednesday evening and class on Thursday went very well. The students were engaged, lively, interested and probably pleased to have me out of the room for a moment. Does this mean that I think I should absent myself from class more often? Probably not. I don’t think any member of the learning community should be absent unless absolutely necessary. The shared language thins and the collaborative experience cracks if the members come and go too much during a 12-week course. We need to commit to this shared course, to our reciprocal apprenticeships if we are to reap the benefits from the 21 minds, imaginations, lives we represent. But having the person who, until we change our educational system altogether, holds the power of course design and evaluation abssent herself once during the semester, is a healthy thing indeed.

On Shaking Things Up: Art and the Role of Surprise

“Imagination, more than any other capacity, breaks through ‘the inertia of habit.'” (Maxine Greene, Releasing the Imagination, p.2 quoting John Dewey)

“The chief enemy of creativity is ‘good’ sense.” Pablo Picasso

“I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one.” Flannery O’Connor

liz in holzer

A few years after college–after following the temple route through India and a stint running a gallery in pre-cool Seattle–I turned from the visual arts back to writing. As a viewer outside the creative process, I had grown uneasy, even in galleries, even in the gallery I ran. Few people outside the art and collecting world ever stepped off of First Avenue and into our small space, and those who did enter, often seemed not deeply interested in the art at all but in being near it or being near people who liked being near it. I saw little conscious, active participation, just a drifting through.

I began to dislike museums intensely–the formality, the lack of questioning, the spectacle–in spite of my hunger for a creative world. I preferred religious art and public art because at least in Europe and Asia, you could find it on the street and in places people actually went. Art could become something new, different every time you encountered it. Of course that’s not to say that we’re awake to art as we pass it by or that there is no place for the museum and concert hall (as Joshua-Bell-busking-in-the-subway showed), –that’s ridiculous–but are we increasingly immune to the disruptiveness of art because we are not encouraged to develop our creative selves? Indeed, I would argue that we have the creative schooled right out of us. If we, as Maxine Greene argues, release our imagination, we might be ready to have our doors blown open when we encounter art. And perhaps we’ll work towards a better world.

I suppose that’s what I’m doing now as I prepare to leave formal education. I’m heading out of the museum and onto the street. I’m releasing my imagination.

Of course my discomfort hasn’t kept me from going to museums–you’ll find me seeking them out wherever I go. But I still don’t much like them. I just keep hoping I will–I like a lot of the people who work in them– and I need art to startle me and make me question what I know. So it is with interest that I watch Leslie Madsen Brooks and her cohorts trying to transform museums into relevant, inspiring places for people–all people.

jenny holzer installation

But mostly, over the years, I turned to literature, to theater, to film, to music. And I wrote. To make sense of the world, to participate fully in the world, I felt compelled to create stories, and words seemed easier to access than other materials (ha!). I turned to teaching as art–the classroom the canvas, the subject the paint, the students the collaborators, channeling experience and intelligence and imagination towards one another into creating. Classroom narratives. It was deeply satisfying.

But for the past couple of years, as classroom stories have grown pinched by curricular demands and limited by a lack of institutional imagination and the thin expectations of formal learning, I despair of this museum context. I am moving back to creative learning spaces of everyday life. I am as eager to take out my camera as I am my pen. To press the results up against one another. And okay about failing as I learn. To open a center where anyone can come to explore digital expression and connection practices–a place where creativity, imagination and connection are the focus, the raison d’etre, as people struggle to make sense of the world and “to bring better worlds into being.” (Richard Miller, Writing at the End of the World, p.x)

Yesterday I spent the afternoon with my daughter and husband at what I’d almost call an unmuseum, MASS MoCA, with its mix of conventional-looking galleries and raw former-mill spaces, meandering around the exhibitions-finding ourselves offended, amused, moved in turns, arguing, discussing, animated. Then we arrived at the huge former mill building turned gallery occupied by Jenny Holzer’s “Projections,” a work that silences you as you enter, that you become a part of: enormous lines of poetry immersing you, a work that flows words over the floor, the walls the ceiling, bending and distorting as they encounter disruptions–including the viewer–to flat surfaces. We stayed a long time, experiencing it, thinking, talking, being quiet, taking photos–she actually welcomes people playing around with her art this way.

museum

All day yesterday and today I can’t shake the feeling of being inside the artwork, part of the experience for anyone else who was there, and they part of the experience for me. Words, light, space, shapes, people, stories. Fascinating. Jarring. I kept thinking about Nabokov’s words, “Curiosity is the first step to insubordination.”

I came home inspired, surprised, eager, yes, to step out of the traditional walled-off museum once and for all, where as Garrison and Anderson (p.5) contend,”There is far more rhetoric than reality in the assertion that communities of inquiry in higher education today encourage students to approach learning in a critical manner and process information in a deep and meaningful way.” I’m ready to move into the un-museum creative spaces in the world where active participation is a given, imagination is encouraged and creativity at the center of the learning experience.

Free flow: watching & learning from my students

waiting for spring

While I’m sorting out my problems with archived posts’ broken links (argh), wrestling with upcoming talks, and complaining about Vermont’s never-ending winter, I thought it would do me and you good to move to a more positive outlook and point to some extraordinary work my students are doing with Web-based practices. 😉 (This is what I will miss next year.)

IMG_2277
Even though Alex has taken three classes with me, I cannot say that I have taught him much of anything. He’s just plain old inventive, daring, creative, talented and willing to find the rules for himself, for each experience, rather than conform to some static set delivered to him. As has been true with a long line of students, I’ve been learning a good deal from him, as are my current crop of creative writers, for they have the good fortune to have him as one of their senior writing tutors. He was blogging well before he met me, and has continued blogging, folding into his own brand of link-blogging his creative and reflective writing on all manner of topics, currently on Mongolia (where he spent last semester) and heavy metal. He receives comments from people all over the world who share his particular interests, as well as from former teachers, family members, classmates and friends. His is truly a dispersed, loosely-knit, ever-fluid network. He is also a truly amazing photographer and one of my favorite Flickr commenters and cohorts (just look at this image, for instance), and so I am glad, also, to point to his new photoblog.

Some of this output is connected to his coursework (the more formal pieces on Mongolia and metal are part of the independent study he’s doing with me right now) but most of it is not. There’s no place in our courses for this kind of expressive work (he’s had to resort to an independent study), and that’s sad. But he perseveres, and makes the connections between his courses, his interests and the world on his own, because he’s that kind of learner.

My intro-creative writers are also exploring online expression in interesting ways, using a range of tools and practices to find form and meaning, moving away the now-traditional CDS-style digital-story. A few examples: Lois moves her own paintings, music and video into her story. In a quick in-class exercise Kyle creates a Flickr poem, which changes the entire experience of engaging with the text. Clare makes a hypertext creative nonfiction using only image and sound and requiring the involvement of the viewer. All of these projects underscore the students’ understanding of a degree of reader choice and involvement in the writing of the piece. They are writing for more than themselves, actively immersing their reader into the making of the work. And none of them had ever done any of this kind of writing before.

When students have opportunities to find their own forms while contextualizing them within their own lives, their own means of solving the problems we set out for them in our assignments instead of having them adhere to well-oiled formulaic structures and expected outcomes of our disciplines, what might they teach us and themselves? What might they break through to in making connections? In his ELI talk last month, George Seimens quoted historian William Cronon: “More than anything else, being an educated person means being able to see connections so as to be able to make sense of the world and act within it in creative ways.” This, this is what my students are trying to do, and in spite of some hefty impediments in their path, in their hypertext reflections on writing creative nonfiction, they show that they get it. They are connecting, and learning to connect, and learning to make connections. I see it in how they see the importance of learning to read as a writer–from the inside–instead of as a scholar only–from the outside. They are trying to connect to their readers as well as to their subject matter, to themselves as well as to some abstract notion of academic excellence. And playing around in this connected medium really helps them to do just that.

How many teachers can say that a first stop on their online daily tour is their students’ blogs, not to check up on them, but to learn from them?

Grading Partnerships in the Classroom, Conversation #3

I know that I have been hammering away about grading in the new classroom, student responsibility, and faculty resisting substantive change to the way they teach and therefore use grades, but I’m doing it again here, because of an amazing class yesterday during which I watched my students connect with one another in authentic, deep-learning ways.

Lanny Arvan’s excellent post on personal responsibility in the face of our full-on financial crisis, and what it should mean to us and our students, reminds me of something Harry Matthews said in his “Excellence without a Soul” speech here a couple of months ago (and in his book): academic institutions have basically abdicated the responsibility to teach integrity, to teach values, to talk about the pressing questions of being human right now right here as we mentor our students along their way to responsible citizenship. We are distracted by our own research. By the lack of time. We complain that here isno time for anything, not as things stand now with our major requirements for graduation, our singular focus on only whatare doing in our own classrooms. We’re afraid to change. We’re afraid of change.

One of my students in a recent post wrote,

I enjoyed this unit tremendously. I think much of it had to do with the exploration of self and the reflective aspect and nature of the genre. Writing some of the exercises during this unit and doing the longer pieces gave me assigned time to think about myself, which I thought quite uplifting, in a way, because we, as students, are so busy these days that we hardly ever have time to contemplate—really contemplate—things such as our childhoods or moments that have shaped us. Writing about these moments gave me an opportunity to get in touch with myself, and I think I needed this.

Indeed. If we do not give our students time and space to contextualize their learning, time to contemplate who they are and what they are doing, then how do we expect them to do anything but find the quickest avenues to “success” ?

Lanny writes:

Somehow we need to create a grades-don’t-matter environment where the decisions that students make have clear consequences on others and where the students can readily see those consequences, then reflect on them and on their own choices. This would let them learn the lesson for themselves, not to please others. All I can conclude is that it seems more likely to happen in a co-curricular setting than in actual courses. Yet even then it seems more likely that students will learn the opposite lesson to what we want – everyone else is cheating so why shouldn’t I? This is a tough one to crack.

It takes time and a concerted effort to help students to slow down, as Mark Edmundson also urges, though I do not agree with his top-down approach. I want them to come to these conclusions themselves, together, looking at one another across the circle, listening, and entering the contact zones, wrestling for themselves with the questions of whether to have laptops in class, for instance, or how grades are going to figure into the learning experience. Have we forgotten the whole student?

I have written a bit about my current creative writing class, about the fabulous work they have done in multimedia expression, and just now in creative nonfiction, and some, too, about how long it has taken them to come together as a group, to trust one another, to open up to one another–to trust me and this process of participating in a learning community where learning to read one another’s work-in-progress and commenting on it is an important part of the course. I’ve blogged about the shift I have seen lately, how they are now coming together. They are beginning to care about each other as writers, and as complex people, not just fellow students who happen to be taking the same class.

Our three-part conversation about grading has played a role in this shift, I believe. During the initial discussion we decided upon the areas that should be assessed: risk, effort, improvement and quality.
Opening the Evaluation Conversation

During the second conversation, we discussed percentages to be given each of those areas, as well as how to consider the individual’s writing, and the individual’s contributions to the group, and the balance of self-assessment and outside assessment.
grading percentages

Yesterday we voted on the percentages to be given to each area.
grading3
The discussion explored the relationship between the various parts of the course to the whole–what does quality mean exactly, how can effort and risk be separated–doesn’t effort lead to improvement automatically? And questions about the individual’s responsibility to the self and to the group. I wish I had recorded the discussion–they wrestled with the urge to do their own work, to focus on their own writing projects versus the urge to spend time helping each other out, reading and responding, commenting and discussing, and participating in the group conversation. This is what happens, I believe, when we take grades out as much as possible–meaning, stop grading individual assignments, and yet discuss assessment to push their thinking about why they are here in the first place, and what it is they can get out of this course, and how. And what it means to balance self-interest and group-interest, and how serving the group is to serve the self, ultimately. Now, when they walk into class, the chatter subsides, and they move with excitement into a world where their contributions count and are counted on, where they have a say in the process and the outcome. This is not me being a magician, a guru, a cult figure. This isn’t about me at all–and that’s been the hardest piece of the puzzle to fall into place for them. For the most part, they know only classrooms dominated by the teacher.

Every year, it gets a little harder, I think, to pry the kids out of themselves (their in-the-moment needs and desires) and out of the rut of the way they have been conditioned to experience a formal learning environment while getting them to take their own work seriously (deeply, over time). Another student wrote recently,

“While some early discussions and workshops felt akin to having teeth pulled, by this time in the semester I feel that our class has laid down a solid foundation and begun to grow from it. This developing bond is encouraging to me as a writer, reader, critic, and classmate, and that dark bleak hour between 3 and 4 am has recently become much less intimidating on account of the obligation I feel towards the class’ creative, academic, and group health.”

Now we’re getting somewhere.