Playing in the Dakota Digital Writing Sandbox (or, the future of Modest Open Online Communities….)

I’ve been spending a significant part of this summer in conversation with educators in places ranging from Watsonville, California to Livonia, Michigan to Belle Fourche, South Dakota to Springdale, Arkansas, courtesy of the Dakota Digital Writing Sandbox, what I’m thinking of as a Modest Open Online Community (in contradistinction to the much-ballyhooed Massive Open Online Courses)  that is bringing together 67 teachers and tech specialists who are exploring the challenges and opportunities of working with new media forms and new technologies in classrooms.

The connective tissue of this community is the National Writing Project, and I found my point of entry into the Dakota Digital Writing Sandbox through an invitation circulated through the Bay Area Writing Project (BAWP), a community of teachers of writing in Northern California to whom I’m eternally indebted for being an extraordinary source of support and inspiration as I was building my practice as a teacher. The BAWP spirit and ethos can be found in the Bi-Co community in the Teaching and Learning Institute, about which you can learn more here: www.brynmawr.edu/tli/)

In the first two weeks of class, I’ve been learning about how teachers in under-resourced elementary students are working to ensure that their students can get the tech access that gives them the tools that can support their processes of inquiry; I’ve been privy to in-depth discussions about the utility and the drawbacks of different virtual platforms for course work that takes place outside of the classroom; I’ve benefited from hearing experienced educators speak frankly about the successes and failures they’ve experienced in their own practice when using new media forms —  all of which is feeding into the work that I’m putting into the creation of the syllabus for the course that I’ll be teaching this fall in tandem with Ken Koltun-Fromm, a professor in the Religion department at Haverford in which we are thinking about how the generative tension between image and text that we find in graphic narratives can be explored and animated in new media forms.

As the title suggest, the Dakota Digital Writing Sandbox is affording participants the opportunity to try out new technological tools in a context that encourages experimentation and play, where you have folks around you offering suggestions, cheering you on, and helping you dust yourself off when you fall face first. Many of the people taking part in the course know one another from Dakota Writing Project workshops, or from other sites such as BAWP, so there is an already-constituted collegiality into which new folks are being invited, and the organizers have created a structure in which smaller groups of about a dozen convene in weekly on-line chats in which we are able to respond to one another’s ideas and questions in real time.

Thus while most of the educational press is focused on the future of Massive Open Online Courses, methinks that it would be well worth to shine some light on what I’m thinking of as Modest Open Online Communities which show the radical potential inherent in building an intellectual community focused on a circle of 60 or a dozen — reminded here of Margaret Mead’s quotation “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

From Arts of the Possible to Graphic Narratives (or, new uses for old gym lockers)

The Norristown High Speed Line runs roughly parallel to the R5, the SEPTA regional rail route that gave rise to the area’s classification as “The Main Line.” As the story has been told to me, the High Speed Line was the primary carrier of the people from working class neighborhoods who would commute out to Haverford, Bryn Mawr, and Gladwyne to cook, clean, and chauffer for the denizens of the many Main Line mansions that dot the landscape, while

the masters of the house would take the Main Line into the Center City headquarters of the Pennsylvania Railroad or the Pennsylvania Savings Fund Society (fondly known as PSFS before being acquired by Mellon which then was bought by Citizens) .  John Andries, the Head of Special Collections at Magill, recently curated an exhibit of documents from Haverford’s collection that illuminated the economic, political, and social histories that shaped the development of the region,  as manifest in designs for transportation.

The image on the poster shows a now-vanished section of track on what is now known as Railroad Avenue: the Didot type, as well as the neatly demarcated lots remind me of the Sunday funnies pages from the turn of the last century, a formal framework that is on my mind as I’ve been working with Ken Koltun-Fromm, a professor in the Religion department, on plans for a fall writing seminar that will be focused on graphic narratives.  On Monday, I hopped the High Speed Line at the Ardmore Junction (the trip costs roughly half of the R5 fare, and the demographic skews younger and browner than the R5 clientele) to connect to the Market/Frankford line to get to 30th Street Station, where I met Ken and Tom Bonner, the  Coordinator for the Mellon Tri-College Creative Residencies, to take the Northeast Regional up to New York City to meet with Pato Hebert, who is teaching and making art at the Tisch School’s Program in Art and Public Policy at NYU.

I had the opportunity to collaborate with Pato on a course entitled “Arts of the Possible” thanks to  the support of Haverford’s Tuttle Fund for the Visual Arts.  In the course, we focused on the ways in which creative forms such as the spiritual, the elegy, and the documentary were recast and rearticulated in movements such as West Virginia miners’ strikes in the 1930s and the Freedom Rides of the 1960s. Over the course of the semester, Pato worked with students in their imagination and refining of their semester-long projects, which took the shape of podcasts documenting censorship in Malaysia and prison rights activists in West Chester, a photographic installation that illustrated students’ takes on the state of feminism, and, in one case, a ravaged box of chocolates that gave a statistical overview of the (mis)distribution of federal funds in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

At the time of that collaboration, Pato was overseeing educational initiatives at the AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA), where he was editing an extraordinary arts journal for APLA entitled Corpus — a context in which writers and artists explored the negotiation of risk through first-person accounts, critical essays, documentations of performance pieces, poetry, and, yes, comics.

One of the projects that Pato shepherded during his time at APLA, in collaboration with the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, was the publication of Jaime Cortez’ Sexile, a graphic narrative that conveys the voice, experiences, and general fabulousness of Adela Vasquez, a trans Cuban exile whose first years in the United States coincided with the onset of the AIDS crisis;  more recently, he’s been exploring the generative tension between image and text in projects such as an ongoing collaboration with Plasencia Elementary School in Los Angeles that is sponsored by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) that recently generated pieces such as “A Passing Thought,” an installation in a stairwell in the school:  the thought bubble, iconography familiar to anyone who knows the vernacular of comic strips forms, is cut from a dark blue vinyl sheet that is affixed to the windows;  as one ascends or descends the stairs, the image framed by the thought bubble shifts.

In another Plasencia project, Pato created a process in which students responded to a writing prompt:  of 1,000 responses, 400 were selected and printed on vinyl strips that were affixed to the fronts and backs of folding chairs used for assemblies, so that each time the chairs are unfolded and arranged, they create impromptu poems out of phrases such as “I need a favor” and “yesterday was one day ago” and even “I am confused by these questions.”

As Tom, Ken, Pato, I and I sat knee to knee in Pato’s office floating six floors above Broadway, we traded ideas about the ways in which our course’s focus on autobiography through the form of the graphic narrative could be a point of orientation and a point of departure for creative interventions on campus as well as for class assignments.  Pato spoke about the ease with which students can learn the program Comic Life to create their own comics:  wondering how this could be a medium in which students might frame their responses to the prompt “a moment at which my world turned upside down” or to reflect on a point at which their vision of the world shifted.

As we were thinking out loud about different ways in which students could think openly and actively about the ways in which the forms and frames of comics can be understood in relationship to architectural spaces — part of an ongoing conversation about the ways in which we articulate, animate, and document our lives and the life of a community  – Ken noted that Ryan Gym is a space on campus that is a site of extraordinary possibility/ongoing consternation, depending on how one looks at it (see Robert Homan‘s take on Ryan Gym as “the last of  our wild spaces” on campus: http://haverfordclerk.com/2012/04/where-the-wild-things-are/) which opened up a lively conversation about all the different ways in which that space could be animated.

I, for one, would love to see a project in which members of the campus community would be invited to do installations in the gym lockers in the crypts underneath Ryan Gym — thinking of the vernacular of middle school gym locker decoration, of Dia de los Muertos altars, and of shoe box dioramas as ways of marking memory and of mapping culture.  To be continued…..