Head Over to My New Website

If you are an old reader of bgblogging posts, you might be interested in heading over to my new blogsite, attached to my consultancy, Community Expressions, LLC. I hope you will visit me there and put your two cents in about my thoughts and work. While the writing I do there isn’t necessarily directly related to the formal classroom, much of what I experience in my work in community-building efforts around storytelling has clear and interesting applications in formal learning contexts.  Of course, I welcome you as well to Open View Gardens, the blog I keep with my daughter, filled with stories about the earth, the food we grow and the meals we make.

Yes, it’s about learning–lifelong learning!

In case you’re wondering…

I’m moving (mostly) to a new blog, to a new chapter in this post-school journey.  Finally I think I’ve discovered how to weave together the various strands of my interests and abilities as I grapple with the relationship between the local and global: through a new LLC, Open View Gardens, I’ll be combining writing, photography, storytelling,–and my two other creative passions: cooking adventures and gardening.  Please visit me at Open View Gardens–I’d love your feedback, your conversation, your wisdom!

So This Is What It’s Like… Sort Of…

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

remnants

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

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

as if

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alan's Mount Fujiaraby

jenjen2

Tacit and Tangible: Two Sides of the Creative Teacher

“…I think of how much beginnings have to do with freedom, how much disruption has to do with consciousness and the awareness of possibility that has so much to do with teaching other human beings.  And I think that if I and other teachers truly want to provoke our students to break through the limits of the conventional and the taken for granted, we ourselves have to experience breaks with all that has been established in our own lives; we have to keep arousing ourselves to begin again. ”

(Maxine Greene p.109 Releasing the Imagination)


in the belljar

I’ve written here before about struggling for balance between tangible creative output in the form of art: short stories and now photos and multimedia narrative, and tacit outcomes through raising daughters and mentoring young writers in the college writing classroom and now rural-community storytelling projects.  I’ve written about how I firmly believe that teachers must be practitioners of what they teach, and yet for years, the best I could do on that score in my creative writing classes was to keep a writing notebook with bits and pieces of conversations, character sketches and snatches of scenes.  Later on I did the same with image/text and digital-story fragments and shards.  Nothing complete, though.  Nothing finished, very little put out into the world except through the personal space of my blogs. Academic thinking/writing/presenting, on the other hand, was easy to do from inside the walls, and is much more challenging now.  I am sloughing off my academic self for someone who works in the unpredictable, shifting spaces of local community and personal creativity, and some days I’m just plain old nowhere.

last flight2

I envied colleagues who went on publishing creative works through those years of teaching and child-rearing–I just couldn’t sort out how they did it all.  (How do they do it?)  I tried, believe me, but failed.  I’m slow. I wrote a novel during the year I spent on sabbatical in Ireland, but at the end of the year, the demands of full-time teaching and parenting re-focused my creative energies and the novel slipped under.  I felt acutely what an old Irish farmer said to me one time during my daily run past his farm: “We’re putting our energies to different ends.”  Writing a novel felt incredibly self-indulgent, whereas helping students stay connected with their imaginations felt significant and way more than I could ever do on a page. How silly to be running just to run, to stay in shape, but not actually to go anywhere that needed to be got to.  (Sometimes it’s how I feel about hopping on my bike in the middle of the day just to ride–how privileged–versus commuting on it or using it as part of my livelihood.)

And so, I turned my classrooms into disruptive creative studio spaces.  We were going to do something, go somewhere, explore, experiment, create against the grain, to put our ideas into contact zones, to adopt a practice, to commit to that practice.  As my students went on to pursue creative lives that included writing, teaching, mentoring, activism, I told myself that whatever loss I felt at not being in full touch with my own writing was more than made up for by the magic going on in class.

But now, a year out of the classroom, I feel new and shiny in my creative skin, somewhere between tacit and tangible creativity, between searching for form and having to conform to forms already given, between mentoring and practicing.  I’ve had photos accepted in a show and now one (“Heading Home” just above)  in an online annex to another show; I’m deep into short stories again, even experimenting with sharing drafts on bgexperiments–I’d love to have your feedback) while writing a white paper on storytelling and participatory planning, and continuing my work with rural communities and storytelling. I watch Laura working on a book, Jen writing like crazy, Keira dreaming up learning parties–all women who left the higher ed scene; all mothers; all still sharing knowledge, connecting, mentoring, teaching, but just look at them finding deep pleasure in their creativity.

Sure none of us is raking in the dough. And it’s easier for me as I’m a bit older than they are, with children in college and beyond.  I don’t have the same pressures of saving up for tuition, much less paying the rent or mortgage. When I was in that position, I was teaching.  I didn’t have the courage and will that they do.  They are my heroes.

here the morning

So maybe I still don’t have the mix down,  and I’ll continue to struggle with the balance, but being in this disruptive space sure feels good.

Digital Explorations: If you’re looking for me, you’ll find me here

to be a bird here
After months of dreaming, planning and working flat-out with my merry band of advisors, board members and Fellows, and with the encouragement of so many of you, the new nonprofit, Digital Explorations is now officially launched online. What a nine months it has been–the gestation period has seen us immersed in a variety of projects ranging from storytelling in rural communities as a way to engage people in civic life, to helping mentor teachers trying to deepen creative learning experiences for their students in spite of NCLB, to developing our own workshops and taking the first steps towards opening our first Center for Community Digital Exploration.  There’s so much to share about what we’ve learned, to reflect upon, to puzzle over that I hardly know where to begin other than to share our site with you: Digital Explorations.

picture-22

From the website:

We’ve made it–onto our website–after a couple of years of dreaming from inside the walls of higher education about a different model of learning: townspeople coming together online and in person to share their collected expertise, their community-based projects, their processes through connecting, creating, collaborating and conversing–here, in town, online, and all over the country! From talking through the possibilities with The Fab Fearless Five and convincing my fabulous board and staff to join me in this adventure, to securing our first contracts and collaborations, I am thrilled by the response to our vision for bringing storytelling (both old and new), connective strategies (both old and new), and Centers for Community Digital Exploration into the heart of rural downtowns. We’d love to hear your feedback, your ideas, your wisdom. Let us know where you come across like-minded adventurers. We’ll keep you updated as to our news and projects, including our reflections on our work, our discoveries out there in the blogosphere, and our plans for future directions. Please wander about the site, read all about us, and let us know what you think!

Getting Ready for SXSW: Thinking Aloud

disappearing act

This coming Sunday, I will be joining Dave Lester, Gardner Campbell, Stephen Downes and Jim Groom on the Edupunk Panel at SXSW–wow, what a line-up they are–to chime in as one who left formal education to try a different approach to teaching and learning. To prepare, I’m listening to Janis Joplin (childhood), Joni Mitchell and Neil Young (high school) Patti Smith (college years), Ani deFranco (now) –(“i speak without reservation from what i know and who i am. i do so with the understanding that all people should have the right to offer their voice to the chorus whether the result is harmony or dissonance, the worldsong is a colorless dirge without the differences that distinguish us, and it is that difference which should be celebrated not condemned. should any part of my music offend you, please do not close your ears to it. just take what you can use and go on.”)

All offer me lessons in moving across media, across boundaries, across voices while speaking out, while acting.

from inside the barn

In some ways I am an odd duck here as I am no longer edu-anything. I am not working with schools to shift their approaches to teaching and learning–I’m interested in what we can teach-and-learn without schools as we know them now. I’m working with five rural communities to help them design storytelling projects as a way for them to honor and learn from the past, understand the present, and to create actively across community divides, the future. I’m also dreaming up centers for community digital learning as third places where kids, elders, and everyone in-between can offer and take workshops/discussions/seminars–whatever they decide–to explore new media/social media practices and their impact on community life and learning.

winter dream

I spent some 25 years teaching– at the secondary school, community college, and liberal arts college levels. I grew up inside a school. I have children who have journeyed through public and private educational institutions, one who never wants to go back to school now that she has graduated summa cum laude/ phi beta cappa from a prestigious college, and one who attends a progressive college within a five-college consortium and currently taking classes at four colleges. I am passionate about learning. I thought I knew a thing or two about teaching-within-the-confines-of-a-school-as-writing-a-sonnet. Some of the particulars about those years of which I was especially proud:

  • Embracing the creative process as fundamental to deep learning. In creative writing courses, my students would dance or drum their poems, or make play-dough versions of stories, or use color only to plot a narrative, and write image-only stories as well as write multimedia narratives and essays. We talked about writing counter to our well-worn inclinations, as a way to surprise ourselves out of our ruts–clipping bits and pieces of stories to actual clotheslines, for instance, and walking about inside the characters’ lives, for instance. I encouraged students to employ these processes in all of their writing, across the disciplines. I thought of myself as disruptor
  • Believing in less-is-more. To watch my daughter valiantly try to read over 600 pages a week just to fulfill her assignments–and she loves every one of her classes, at least what they purport to be and do–makes me furious. What of all this mass of reading will she think deeply about? Will she retain? She is a docent at one of the college museums, making podcasts of conversations about the works of art, writing the actual catalogues and captions–learning about art through being in art. None of her classes has her engaged in such learning. Not one departs from the read-discuss-test-write cycle. Only one course my other daughter ever took at her college departed from that cycle–the only course she loved. Why do faculty continue to assign ever more reading/tests/writing–now adding blogging, online discussions to the pile instead of ditching this approach altogether
  • Viewing every class group as a community experiment. I put in place the opening strokes of a syllabus and then we built the course together from there–how did I know what they would want and need to learn? How presumptuous and arrogant that sort of teacher-as-sole-course-designer stance is, how infantilizing of our students. In designing the course, they had to think about what it was they didn’t know and wanted to know and how we might go about engaging with those things. Did they like this approach–no way, not at first. Some thought I was out of my mind; others that I was lazy; others that I didn’t know what I was doing. They were placing the responsibility for their education on me. In preparation for them to place responsibility for their towns, states, country and world in the hands of others, yes
  • Grading as an opportunity for the class to come together and decide on how they would succeed in their learning journey–what excellence might look like at their novice level, how they would evaluate their work together and as individuals, and what role I could play to help them
  • All classrooms as having windows wide open. We invited subject-specific experts, casual readers, our families and friends–everyone and anyone– into our courses via blogs. We learned to engage with a range of people on the topics we had set out to explore. We learned to engage with one another intensely yet respectfully under the gaze of the public. Sometimes we failed, and we learned from those glorious failures
  • Indeed, we saw deep learning as willing to take risks, to experience glorious failure. The goal was to try to do things we couldn’t already do.

marvel of nature

Sounds pretty good, yes? I thought so. Ha.

I have never learned so much about teaching and learning; about systems and institutions; about active, deep engagement and participation–about reciprocal apprenticeships and Do-it-Yourself learning ; about the power of less-is-more; about the damaging effects of the cult of the charismatic teacher; about creativity’s role in learning–as I have in the nine months since I left school.

Some early lessons I might offer on Sunday that on surface do not sound edupunkish at all but on closer look are, I believe, profoundly subversive where we’re talking about school:

  • Even less is even more. Slowing down, being playful, laughing, going deep. School has programmed us to expect outcomes, tangible results, blueprints to follow, measurable results. We skim, skate and race across the surfaces. What a waste of time. Effort. Energy. What has happened to common sense, on the one hand, and to a spirit of wandering, on the other. Why do teachers make up syllabi (I do not make up community storytelling project plans)? Why do teachers continue to grade (I do not evaluate the outcomes of the storytelling projects–I evaluate my own work)?
  • Belonging. How essential a concept that is, with its spiral meaning. Belonging to the moment, the group/network/community, the experience; and they belonging to us. Peter Block writes about belonging in his book, Community: The Structure of Belonging: “It is membership, the experience of being at home in the broadest sense of that phrase…To belong to a community is to act as a creator and co-owner of that community. What I consider mine I will build and nurture.” (p. xii) Take responsibility. How can we expect students to do so if we are constantly telling them what to do, what to read, what to think and how?
  • Engage our full creative selves in every learning situation. If we privilege textual expression, we lose fundamental ways of understanding, connecting and bridging. I’ve learned a good deal from watching Nancy White in action, her journey into non-verbal approaches to understanding, communication, and creative thinking
  • Listen. Listen some more. Patience balanced by impatience. Sitting still and moving fast. Daring to try, daring to refuse.

As I deepen my work with communities engaged in the Orton Family Foundation’s Heart and Soul storytelling projects, I see how powerful paths are, and how well-worn paths soon become ruts. And I’m talking about my own approaches here, about moving beyond verbal language to the visual and kinesthetic while refusing to offer easy scaffolds, blueprints, recipes for success.

Here, for example, is the wiki from my most recent four-hour workshop. Note the absolute absence of slides–I never turned on the computer during the workshop–released from computers when we’re together; using them actively when we’re apart.

“What do we know but that we face
One another in this place.”

(from WB Yeats “Man and the Echo” beautifully remembered by Gardner Campbell at the end of the final edupunk-talk video with Jim Groom)

into the snowy curve

Betwitx and Between: Reflections on Northern Voice 2009

forgetfulness
As the months slip between me and my many years within the safe (?) confines of higher ed, it is tempting to forget what it was like to work for change from within the system. Honorable and important, frustrating work. I applaud the brave souls who continue to show deep patience and maintain faith that they can bring sense to the Academy. By sense I mean a spirit of openness, sharing, collaboration, innovation, and creativity (i.e.learning as discovery); a rejection of the territoriality and power struggles and entrenched mediocrity that result from fear and insecure ego and lack of trust & lack of an atmosphere where taking intellectual and creative risks is encouraged. By sense I mean rejecting this reality: “the systemic bias for continuity creates tolerance for the substandard.” —Clay Shirky Here Comes Everybody— By sense I mean taking a long hard long at what Ivan Illich asserted in Deschooling Society: ” The university graduate has been schooled for selective service among the rich of the world.” (p.34)

I should be in solidarity with these colleagues and mentors still within the system. Especially now, a time of enormous possibility if we seize the chances offered by the current chaos–a time for insisting on positive change by creating change wherever we are.

morning figments

I thought I was, in a short presentation created as one of the agent provocateurs enlisted by D’Arcy Norman, Scott Leslie and Brian Lamb to kick things off at WordCampEd, the day before Northern Voice, a conference I have wanted to attend since before it was in existence:

As those days unfolded, I found myself rankled by the thought of these brilliant people doing brilliant work in service of the petty fiefdoms of classroom, department, discipline, university. Actually, I was furious. And shocked at myself. I struggled to be useful with my contributions, to find common ground, but eventually, by the end of conference, I pretty much shut up altogether. Not helpful. Disconcerting. Weird.

Out of sync. Betwixt and between. And remained there.

Loath as I am to admit it, inside the Academy, I was a tyrant of my own petty fiefdom. Even though I embraced collaboration, had the students help me to create syllabus and grades, had them blog not only among themselves but in and with the rest of the world, I still ruled. They listened, not because they did so from true free choice, but because it was all part of the deal to get through college. They were nice, always polite and, yes, obedient. And because of the time limits, we never got beneath the skin of much of anything. And yet I receive email after email from them or contacts on Facebook, once they have graduated, sometimes a decade after graduating, telling me how real that classroom experience had been compared to much of the rest of college, which has now fuzzed out in memory. But I never really had to prove anything, to push past the easy to the really messy, really challenging spaces between things, between people, between cultures. I failed.

Am I experiencing a case of “You can’t go home again?”

into the morning

Slow learner that I am , I also waded into the combustible terrain of the spaces between online/offline during the session I shared with my fabulous co-conspirators, Nancy White and Laura Blankenship.

3303091828_e4f674a587 (Laura, Nancy, & bg by D’Arcy Norman)

Laura and I made short videos, Nancy had people do a co-drawing exercise, and in 40 minutes, all we did was open up Pandora’s box. I struggled to express how feeling more “real” in either off or online space wasn’t the point, but that in the spaces between, the spaces where, off-kilter, we can, as one person said, be conscious of what we’re doing in both, there we can weave together the best of both as we try to work towards better worlds. (See? Still struggling for clear expression.) I came away from our session disappointed, much as I often did after teaching. The debrief with Nancy, Sue and Laura grappled with our shortcomings and the rich terrain we had taken first steps onto–that was a great conversation–and other fine moments threaded through the conference (the keynotes; drawing with Nancy; the short time I had with the incomparable injenuity; seeing cogdog, Leslie, Brian, D’Arcy, Scott, Keira et al.) But I couldn’t wait to get to Idaho and back to work helping rural towns, through storytelling, find within themselves the roots of positive transformation.

not even spring

Then I read Jim Groom’s recent-ish post (He writes so much so often that I don’t even know how to situate recent with him) about “intimate alienation”, in part inspired by a comment Brian Lamb had tweeted during our NV session; “@cogdog said his online life felt more real than physical one, people laughed. But that’s not crazy. ‘Real’ life is often mediated bullshit”, and the conversation it spawned between him and Chris Lott. Yes! Intimate Alienation–that’s it. Reading their back-and-forth, I felt the same unease come over me: I had wanted to argue with Alan when he made that comment, and with Brian after his strong tweet. Precisely because life offline is often “mediated bullshit,” shouldn’t we work against that? Isn’t that what we mean by working towards better worlds? Are we giving up on our neighborhoods, our neighbors, our towns? Do we continue the flight from the broken down physical world–this time,not for the suburbs,but for the cyburbs where we find and build community in our own image, where it is easier, and more natural, often, to have much deeper conversations than when we meet in the grocery store, in the coffeeshop, on the playing field, in the office. (More like meeting at a bar?) I am concerned that we won’t wade right into those physical communities, bringing with us the conversations and innovations from our online interactions to make better worlds in our towns and cities. (One reason slow-blogging Barbara is now slower-blogging Barbara–I’m putting more time and effort into physical communities these days.)

And yet there I was at Northern Voice, during a rare opportunity to connect offline with online friends, and I had little to say. Some irony.

To quote the Reverend:

“This idea of alienation might be understood as increasingly more relevant during our moment based on the growing number of people who seem cut-off from the “real world” given the massive amounts of time spent physically alone in public while communing through a computer. A reality that has been woven into just about every facet of modern life from work and education to even more intimate relationships like family, friends, and one’s love life. They are all increasingly mediated by devices, i.e. a computer, the internet, mobile phones, applications, websites, social networks, etc., and what we have emerging is a kind of invisible, multi-layered constellation of things that bring people into real and intimate relationships, but are at the same time premised upon an irrepressible faith in objects: their perfection, increased performance, speed, mobility, ubiquity, etc.”

And then Chris :

“I find solace in the fact that living and creating at the highest levels, which is what finally most of us are really talking about, has always been a marginalized, sometimes-subversive, niche with a vortex of radical tension between individuals and their networks.”

(I should have known that these two would help me say what I’m trying to say. Next time I think I’ll just save lots of words and link directly to them.)

wintergrip

So, yes, it was a valuable conference, probably the best I’ve been to in a long time because it has made me lose sleep over my inconsistencies and failures as it rekindles my determination to keep pushing at the walls, to find solace in my feeble attempts at moving the conversation past the divides, to dance in the in-between.