Metawriting posts from the new blog location

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Writing Networks or Creating a Community of Writers

I have spent a lot of this month thinking about community. Of course, as those who read my blog know, I have written a lot about community over the past year, but I’m teaching summer classes and preparing my discussion notes prompted me to think about what I have learned about community this summer.

Writing within a community of writers has always been important to me as a writer and so I have always worked to provide that same sense of community for my writing students, but recently I have become very interested in what makes a community and how a community is formed. I know that communities don’t form by accident and simply assembling a group of people does not a community make. Last summer I wrote “What is a community?” and “Creating a Classroom Community;” however it is when I began learning more about social capital theory that I was able better understand how community works. Social capital is essentially the investment of your time, energy, and knowledge in a specific community and the benefits you derive from that investment. A sense of community is important to your willingness to invest and your level of involvement and commitment plays an important role in what and how much you will give to the community.

So what makes someone more likely to invest in a community? Community members have to want to join. Possessing both power and agency are also important for the members of a community to develop the trust essential to social capital. This trust must encompass social controls as well as reciprocity. Building a community requires willing members, trust, social norms, and reciprocity. This summer as a National Writing Project Site Director I’ve had the privilege to observe the formation of four communities of writers (read more in “Transformations, Magic, and the Power of Writing and Writing Teachers”). While I agree that those qualities are essential to creating social capital in a community, I also believe there is an essential ingredient missing from that list. I believe the group members must share a common goal in order for a true community to form from a group of individuals and for social capital to develop within that community.

It seems as if I’m stating the obvious. Clearly the group formed for a particular reason. What I mean is an actionable goal that they are ready, willing, and able to do something about. It is more than believing or caring about the same thing – it is working on something together. I think this is the reason why some classroom communities thrive and others wither on the vine. I’ve long known that we can make community work in an National Writing Project Summer Institute – especially if we take care with recruitment and selection – but this summer the Morehead Writing Project tried an online Summer Institute for the first time and we were more than a bit worried about our ability to create community without the opportunity to bond over parking woes, shared meals, and all the side jokes that come with sharing space for an extended period of time.

What we have found is that we can create an online writing and learning community. Our online group is working together, supporting each other, and bonding. I feel it and see it but more important so do they – and most important of all (to me anyway) is that they see the importance of this sense of community to the growth and development of their own students. In their own words, they have noted that what has made the difference for them in their sense of community is the level of trust and sense of equality in the group as well as the open and available communication streams. We use Twitter (#ENG608) as well as sharing documents that we create together and comment upon those individually written. Trust has been established because we have shared extensively and increasingly openly our fears and failures. We also know that we can trust that help, encouragement, and interest are there from the other members of the group. My less-successful classroom communities did not have this level of trust and reciprocity so this is something I will need to work on. However, a key part, according to the online group, is the sense of equality. The students are taking on leadership roles and with the use of contract grading I am really able to steer clear of center stage and dominating the conversation. Of course, this is easier to achieve at the graduate level so I remain uncertain about how to make it work in an undergraduate class. All this is supported by social capital theory, but I remain intrigued by my idea of a common cause in terms of its impact on community.

Teachers come to a National Writing Project Summer Institute because they want to become better teachers of writing. NWP believes that teachers who write are better teachers of writing and so a great deal of time and energy at an SI is focused on transforming teachers into writers. Once they have experienced the magical transformation and begin to grow in confidence, teachers then embrace this foundational idea. I believe it is at this point that the true community forms. They now have a common purpose and understand how the other teachers in the room can help them learn and grow as writers as well as teachers, but perhaps most important they understand how community can help other groups learn and grow as well.

Similarly, I visited two different writing camps offered by the Morehead Writing Project this summer. Both developed writing communities and the kids had a lot of fun writing, but the second camp focused very closely on “writing for change” and even though the kids involved in that second camp had fewer previous relationships I think they bonded more tightly as a group because they had the mission in common. The first group grew as writers, but I think the second group grew as writers and as people and as a community.

Ronfeldt writes “In Search of How Societies Work” that there are four major forms of organization: Tribes, Institutions, Markets, and Networks. He posits that all other forms are hybrids of these. His theory is that these forms have existed since ancient times, but each “embodies a distinctive set of structures, believes, and dynamics (with bright and dark sides) about how a society should be organized” and each “involves different standards about how people should treat each other.” I really want to think a lot more about his idea of networks and their development as I think those ideas work in interesting ways with my own ideas of community and social capital. I’ve taken a step forward in my understanding of community and network formation as both a teacher and a leader as a result of my teaching experience this summer and it has given me a lot to ponder (and I expect write about) in the future. I'm already starting to ponder these lessons and ideas in terms of my professional writing students and my work as a technical communicator.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Transformations, Magic, and the Power of Writing and Writing Teachers

This week has been a rough week. My first week back on campus and truly on the job since my health crisis and every day I have left campus exhausted and every night I am beyond done. However, as much as I can’t be everywhere and do everything that I would like, I have remembered why I love my job and why I have the most magical job on earth!

I am a National Writing Project site director and if that isn’t a magical job I don’t know what is!

This week I had the privilege to work with and get to know teachers who work with students from kindergarten through college. We read, wrote, talked, teased, cried, laughed, reflected, and grew – oh my, did we grow -- as writers, teachers, and people. Pure magic! And if you don’t believe it then you can follow us on Twitter (#MWPSI & #ENG608). Add to that the pleasure of watching the young writers at our writing camp find the joy and magic in writing without the fetters of school/curriculum constraints and become published writers in the process.

I love watching a group of writers become a community. I have really loved that Twitter has made it possible to watch the magic for our traditional SI even when I’m not in the room and made it possible to happen at all for our online SI.

I love watching people become writers. The transformation is nothing short of breath-taking and awe-inspiring and I do not think I will ever tire of watching it happen. Writing teachers are masters of magic!

I love watching writers discover the power and magic of words and I further love watching those words transport others to new places and new ideas as well as to raise us to great heights of inspiration and joy or plunge us to the depths of despair and sadness. This week has been filled with laughter and tears and we have reveled in this. It brings tears to my eyes just thinking and writing about it. Magic.

I love watching teachers explore ways that they can become better teachers especially how they can use their own transformation to writer to enable their students’ transformations. Teachers are the masters of magic!

 As a writing teacher as well as teacher of writing teachers, I struggle to combat the sort of magical thinking that writing is something easily taught and writing problems have easy solutions, but this week has reminded me once again that the opposite of easy does not necessarily mean difficult. We have all worked hard this week but our growth and development has not been difficult. While perhaps not as easy a waving a magic wand (or magic pen), it is also a lot fun. Being a writer is hard work but it is also magical work and what price can we put on magic?

And so, despite the constant and ongoing aggravation of administrivia, I know I have the most magical of jobs and if you want to argue that your job is better you better slap on your wizard hat and grab your magic wand!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Have you got balance?

A few weeks ago my body sent me a billboard-sized message that I need to achieve more balance in my life. Work especially was a huge problem but family, home, and life of course all contributed to stress-filled morass that was my life because no one is an island (nod to John Dunne, I actually wanted to use no woman but opted for political correctness instead).

Balance has always been a problem for me in every sense of the word. I am a total klutz and always have been. My first real injury was when I jumped from my uncle’s barn loft and completely missed the pile of hay that was my target (and it was a pretty big pile!). My cousins still laugh about that incident but then it wasn’t their ankle that was sprained. Of course, I still laugh at their attempts to hide my injury from my father so I suppose that makes us even.

However, the real problem is that I want it all. I want to spend time with my family and friends doing fun stuff while still having time to read, write, and relax as I choose and of course succeed professionally and have a spotless home and garden. Stop laughing, a girl can dream.

I now understand that I can have it all but that doesn’t mean I have to do it all, so for a few weeks I stepped off the treadmill. I did very little work at all and focused on getting my house and life in order. I delegated like never before. Thankfully I work with some pretty awesome people so despite my doctor/husband/mother-enforced sabbatical no projects were harmed by this experiment and I was feeling pretty great. Then came Monday…

Monday marked the start of three summer programs (the Morehead Writing Project Summer Institute and Global Graffiti Writing Camp as well as an Online Summer Institute that I am leading) so I headed to campus for the first time in three weeks. After a whirlwind day at camp and on campus I then headed home for an afternoon and evening of playing catch-up online. I then repeated the process on Tuesday but I was so tired by the time I left campus I started the drive home without my 11-year-old son and had to turn around to pick him up from camp. Clearly I had, once again, taken on too much. It was just too soon to do all this.

But I am learning from my mistakes. I took the day off from a trip to campus to stay home and catch up on contacts and prep for my online class – and to do a little writing.  Tomorrow I will try again and make sure to take time out during the day so I won’t wear down/out before the clock runs out – I hope.

I am still working out priorities and pacing and just plain turning off and walking away (for a break and for the day). What are your strategies? How do you manage your life balance?