The Firestarter

That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse. — Walt Whitman, “Oh Me, Oh Life”

Author sits around fire with students in the Bookhenge in Second Life

Author Marc Aronson sits around the fire with students in the Bookhenge, virtual world where my classes meet.

You get the fire started (using Dave’s metaphor that Marianne and Miranda have built on). Students gather around. If things go well, there is conversation, community, collaboration, and transformation. If they don’t, it’s just another 3 credit hours.

. . . the ways in which we run our communities in the real world; the ways that sometimes conflicting ideas come together. I think of it as a messier place; a complex place. And I also think of community learning as a place where we really care about what other people learn. And there’s a contradiction between those two meanings but for some reason I’m comfortable being right there in the middle of it. — Dave in Week 4 Hangout for Rhizomatic Learning 2014

I really care what my students learn. I passionately believe that they can reach students through literature in ways that can be life-changing, even life-saving. But I also believe that community learning is the best way for them to not only learn to teach literature but to learn to unlearn and relearn as Toffler suggests we must accomplish to be successful. When I put my faith and my curriculum in community learning, it is messy and complex but also hopeful and creative.

I feel this tremendous tension to design a course so my students both experience learning and unlearning in a community while they develop some knowledge of the ongoing conversation and evolving content that is learning through literature with young adults. I’m not comfortable but I think that means my rhizomes are growing. I’m stretching. I’m feeling the burn.

So community learning becomes part a huge part of the curriculum, in fact, the foundation. Which is absolutely as it should be for the study of literature for any age student. Somehow I must get the fire started so that my students experience community learning and explore how they can best build their own fires in their current or future classrooms.

Speaking of future classrooms, Olivia, one of my teen writing group members, a college freshman and potential future teacher, just shared an article on our listserv about the value of feedback. The teacher-writer, Tom Williams (see citation below), describes his writing circle of teachers as a “gift community” after Lewis Hyde’s 1983 The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World. The gift community and accompanying gift culture with its reciprocal gift-giving that inspires gratitude and generosity seems a perfect way to describe community learning.

But in addition to sharing gifts in the gift community, Hyde says that the community must do something, make something — that they must be about contributing to the greater good. This resonates with me for I’ve always attempted to design my courses so the individual projects, group projects, and, full class projects consist of real work that can make a contribution to the world outside the course. For the past ten years (could it be that long???) our class has produced the Melinda Awards, sort of the Oscars of Young Adult Literature that features our local teen book club, the award-winning Eva Perry Mock Printz Book Club. When the class is taught in the spring, the graduate students join the teens in “standing up” for the books they believe best reflect high literary quality and presenting both serious and hilarious awards like “Best Male Character in a Starring Role,” “Best Literary Boyfriend,” “Best Cover,” “Most Promising New YA Author.” Though the event is streamed live, we usually have many more people watch it later, and we’ve had many YA authors as well as teachers and librarians tell us how much they value the teen perspectives of these serious young readers. We’re planning our 2014 program for February 28th now, but you can check out the 2013 event.

Eva Perry Mock Printz Club poses for group shot after the Melinda Awards

Eva Perry Mock Printz Club poses for group shot after the 2013 Melinda Awards -- shot by Cris

I knew from lurking on “Surprise Endings: Literature and Social Science,” a course taught by Cathy Davidson and Dan Ariely of Duke, that the students were assigned a real world project — to design components of a MOOC for the course. When Cathy Davidson described this practice in a Future of Ed MOOC, Week 3 video (sorry, somewhat ironically the resources are available only through Coursera), she called it crowdsourcing and added that “students enjoy contributing if they know that their work is going to make a difference — what they’re learning can make a difference in the world.”

That’s how I like to think that community can work best in a formal course — that the students can design and contribute to a project that makes a difference — a difference now in their learning and potentially for others whose lives the work touches and a difference later as they design their own classrooms that support community learning.

All I have to do is get the fire started.

Williams, Tom. “The Gift of Writing Groups,” The English Journal, Vol. 79, No. 4 (Apr., 1990), pp. 58-60. National Council of Teachers of English. Stable URL:

Special thanks to Olivia for this reference — another invaluable gift to our writers’ group.

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3 Responses to The Firestarter

  1. Olivia says:

    I’m flattered that you still think of me as a potential future teacher…the ship of me graduating with licensure sailed long ago. :)

    …now I kind of really want to find a way to work this post into my paper just so I can cite a Legitimate Article by a Real Scholar of Collaborative Learning that references myself so I can feel special and cool.

  2. Cris says:

    Like you’ve said, Olivia, education is the family business. You’ve got the teaching gene, and it will serve you and everyone else well whether or not you become an “official” teacher.

    I’m sure you’ll figure out a way to cite my post though “legitimate” and “scholar” are stretching it a bit ;-)

    Thanks again for sharing Williams’s truly excellent article.

    • Olivia says:

      There’s a PhD next to your name. You count. :)
      My paper’s due in a week, so I should have it to you guys sometime around then.
      Totally writing about all of you–no names, though, I promise.

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