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